Return Trip

Late last night I received a call from my son. He was still in the design lab, working on a project. He said he had an appointment at Wright-Patterson AFB today, but, knocked low with a cold, didn’t want to make a 3 1/2 hr drive by himself. What he wanted, he implied, was a chauffeur, so that he could sleep for a few hours. I didn’t have anything on my agenda that needed to be done today, so I told him that I would be glad to drive him the 2 hours from my house.

When he arrived this morning, he told me that my movement on the base would be limited, so I needed to find a place where I could hang out for a few hours. Since I couldn’t get on the base without him, he had to drop me off someplace; I couldn’t drop him, unless he was going to walk some distance from the main gate. Since it was a dreary, rainy day, that didn’t make a lot of sense, although, as we drove in, he did point out several of the places where he has run previously in the Air Force Marathon. Had he not been sniffling today and if it had not been raining, I might have teased him that those very sights certainly meant that he could meet me and that I could have my car for the duration of his business on base.

While I considered a coffee shop and even contemplated the high-caloric snacks at one of them, I decided that I would wander around the Air Museum located adjacent to the Base. If I grew tired of the museum, I could wait in the cafe until he was done. He promised that he would be done before the museum closed at 5 and would not leave me stranded in the rain.

Heading to the museum, I thought about the first time that I had visited. It was in the early 70’s and we had, with a lot of help from my mother, convinced my father to go to King’s Island Amusement Park. But, a concession was needed: Dad said that there needed to be an educational component to the trip. Of course, we were not allowed to choose what that would be; he did: the Air Force Museum. “It’s on the way. We don’t have to stay there for long.” Somehow, I think that we all knew that would not be the case since planes were involved.

Some basic facts: Indianapolis to Cincinnati is a 2 hour trip. Indianapolis to the museum, located near Dayton is approximately a 2 hr 20 minute trip. Dayton to Cincinnati is about 40 minutes. There are now, as there were in the early 70’s, interstate highways leading directly to both locales. The museum — even to the most geographically challenged, which would never have described my father in any circumstances — is not “on the way” to King’s Island. You wouldn’t even end up there by missing an exit on the highway. One requires traveling due east on I-70. The other requires a drive southeasterly on I-74. The entrances to each interstate are located 7 miles apart.

This is the only “long cut” that I’m aware of my father ever taking. He must have really wanted to go if he put up for an extra hour in a car on a hot August day with four young girls, restless to ride roller coasters and not a bit interested in air planes. He warned us, as the car pulled into the parking lot, that every time we asked “How much longer?” he would extend the amount of time that we stayed. My sisters and I looked at each other as we surveyed the seemingly small airplane hangar. We knew we could last without that question. “That’s it? “Let’s go!”

I don’t remember much about that building, but I vaguely recall that there wasn’t much in it, other than a few displays. We tried to push on quickly, encouraging Dad to not read every placard. We acted interested, urging him towards the next display by asking “Tell us about this one!” Soon, we were at the end of the hangar. Even my mother looked anxious to get back on the road.

“But we have to go out back”, my father said. We tried to act enthusiastic, although we hoped that there wouldn’t be another hangar. Instead there was a very large field — filled with air planes. A few months earlier I had flown for the first time from Chicago. I had been allowed to fly by myself and I was convinced I was a savvy air traveler. “There’s more planes than at O’Hare” I complained “and they aren’t even going anywhere!”

I’m sure it wasn’t true, but that field that day — as we walked by every plane listening to Dad, posing for pictures at several of them — seemed at least twice the size of the amusement park. It was well after lunch when we left Dayton. I remember my sister lecturing me to not be grumpy or Dad would head back home. Eventually, hot, hungry and exhausted, we arrived at the park and were awarded by Dad telling us that we could stay until the end of the fireworks show at 11pm. I think that might have received some grumbling from my mother, but we were off to ride the tilt-a-whirl and it didn’t matter.

I don’t know if my father ever returned to the museum, but he had a lifelong love of flying machines. Sometime in the mid 70’s he earned his glider pilot’s license. Several years ago, for his 15th birthday, I took my son for a sailplane ride. In the middle of a corn field not unlike the ones near Dayton, he hitched a tow with someone from the Soaring Society. That day, there was an older gentleman who had known my father. He no longer flew, but he would come out to the airstrip to watch the takeoffs. A few weeks later, I received in the mail a copy of a photograph taken the day my dad had his first solo flight.

The museum, now named The National Museum of the US Air Force, still has a few planes outside, but most of them are now housed inside the sprawling museum. I didn’t have time to go through the entire museum, but it was fun to roam as I did. I didn’t remember the interactive displays from my last visit, when my son was about 12, but I thought they were cool this time. Like a child, I played with all of them. It is apparently a good thing that I don’t have to stop a spinning helicopter rotor, or capture a drifting space telescope. I think I walked just as far, though, as I did on that hot summer day 40 years ago when all I really wanted to do was ride a roller coaster.

My son, after his appointment today, is one step closer to AF flight school. I still have some reservations about his decision to join the military, though he is an adult and it is his path to choose. One thing I’m sure of though: flying must be in his blood.


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