Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Place

“Hey, how about riding with me in the back seat and helping me polish my barrel rolls? I have a tendency to dish out.”

...a tendency to dish out.

...a tendency to dish...

...a tendency...to....

Never ending echoes in the dark and dim hangar of my memory.

Pity the person who spends his or her entire life without feeling at least one stunning revelation; one jaw-dropping, eye-bulging, head turning tap on the shoulder, like a profound whisper echoing through the strands of the soul. My propeller had hardly stopped when I heard the whisper.

This is the place.

I slid the canopy back and took off my headset, feeling a fresh, woodsy breeze on my face, along with a growing smile. I looked aside at Ellie, seeing her taking her headset off and attempting to restore the smooth flow of her now tangled hair. She hated headsets.

She saw the smile. I nodded to her, my eyebrows arched. “This is the place!”

“It is?” she asked with a wrinkled brow beaming with subtle cynicism.

“Oh yeah.”

Before we even got out of the plane, a tall aged man appeared near the left wing, ball cap perched atop his head, hands thrust into khaki pockets, eyes sweeping across the Grumman's sleek profile, then settling on me. His smile reassured me. I wasn't sure what kind of reception we would get at this rural aviation outpost.

“Welcome to Moontown,” he said.

I got out and shook his hand. “Jay Hargrove. I look after things around here,” he said, his eyes still studying the Grumman. “Never seen one of these in here.” He nodded to Ellie, then looked back at me.

“What brings you in?”

I told him how we were thinking of moving to the Huntsville area and were flying around checking out the city and the lay of the land. If we decided to move here we would need a new home airport to base the Grumman.

We had seen the main airport—the “Jetplex” as it was called. With its pair of 10,000 foot runways, construction projects and its vying to become an airline mecca, it had no time for sport aviation. It was definitely not the place.

We had also checked out the smaller airport at Meridianville, just north of Huntsville. It too aspired to grow and cater to the money-making side of aviation—servicing and pandering to airplanes that burn kerosene. Still, a lot of small planes resided there. It was a potential base, but it had no character. No culture.

Our Grumman-American AA-5 would be needing a home. But not one of those. It had been based at airports like those. Never again, I hoped.

“Home base? Well, you've found it!” Jay said.

We took leave of Jay and strolled, looking around. A vast expanse of burning blue sky swept overhead and dropped toward the green rolling ridges. Moontown's flight pattern was on the north side of its east-west runway. And for good reason. The terrain to the south rose hundreds of feet above the field. The grass strip, bounded by forest on the north and the hangars to the south—and oh, so soft to the touch of the Grumman's wheels—lay alongside our path as we walked.

“Isn't it beautiful?” I asked El, expecting an affirmation.

“Well, I like the grass and the hills, but—” Her voice trailed off, knowing she was about to cloud up my dreamy skies.

“But?” I asked, turning to her. “But what?”

“It looks like a shanty town.”

I looked askance at her.

We walked past a long row of open hangar ports composed of rusty tin roofs supported by old timbers. Tired, aged, paint-flecked planes lurked back in the dark, musty recesses, ropes tethering them to a red clay floor. Birds chirped and fluttered through the overhead areas of the hangars, pausing to deposit creamy white calling cards on the sleeping aluminum and fabric machines below. Here and there, weeds grew, uncut, near the front of the hangars where the sun could get in. An unsightly assortment of items shared the spaces with the planes—dilapidated cars, a tractor, junk lawn mowers, and an old lathe that must have weighted a ton.

“You sure you want to keep the plane here?” she asked.

I looked out at the idyllic grass strip. “Oh yeah!” I said, undaunted by the shabby structures. She shrugged.

Jay invited us into the airport office. Over the door sat a sign that said “Moontown Airport (3M5), elevation 639.” I knew 3M5 was the three-letter identifier the FAA had assigned the airport, but I had no inkling of how embedded in my being that letter, flanked by those two numbers would become.

We sat with cold drinks and looked around at walls studded with pictures of planes and pilots, and the ragged, scissor-cut-off shirt tails of those who made their first solo flight from the airfield's grassy runway.

Jay proceeded to educate us. It was a privately owned airport, he said. One of the few left. But it was open to public use. No, not his airport, he chuckled. He just looked after it. Didn't even get paid. Retired now, he needed something to keep him out of trouble and let him stay close by the planes and pilots. He didn't fly much anymore, though.

I marveled at that name: Moontown.

Huntsville, Alabama was the birthplace of America's space program. The Apollo moon missions began here in the minds of some profound thinkers. So fitting, I thought. Then Jay poured coffee, sat and shattered my lofty expectations. “No,” he said, shaking his head. He, himself, had worked for NASA. “The airport was named after that road out yonder that runs back toward that mountain and just ends up there by a farm—Moontown Road.”

But, surely the road was named after the space program, I pressed. He chuckled again, shaking his head. “Nobody knows.”

We bade him goodbye, fired up the Grumman and took off. I circled the field, still smiling. Ellie was right. The rusted, ragged multi-colored tops of the hangars and buildings did indeed look like a shanty town. Yet it was the place. I knew it. After two decades of pushing jet fighters, transports, and airliners, I was about to find an abundant table to nourish my flying crave.

But the discovery would be a bitter-sweet one that would bring me unexpected and unbounded joy, salted with rancid servings of sorrow—and one gut-wrenching, tearful ration of anguish. The “Place” at the table would have its price.

 “I have a tendency to...”

“I have a...”

“I have...”

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