73 Bravo: My Very Own Cessna 172

73 Bravo

In the summer of 1975, while working at the job of State Court Administrator in Lansing, Michigan, the bank and I bought a 1957 Cessna 172 – N8273B; “73 Bravo” when transmitting to airfields and other aircraft.  The job is contained in the Michigan Constitution and described as the administrative arm of the Michigan Supreme Court, the office through which the Court exercised its constitutional superintending authority over all of the state courts, including the Court of Appeals, the circuit courts, the district courts and the probate/juvenile courts.

The work often required travel to judicial and other conferences and to inspect court operations.  At that time the court rules read that any Michigan citizen could lodge a complaint about any judge and the Judicial Tenure Commission, the group that recommended disciplinary action to the Supreme Court, “…may investigate…” the complaint.  The rule also read that if the State Court Administrator submitted a complaint, the Tenure Commission “…shall investigate…,” the word “shall” replacing “may” making a huge difference, a huge difference that vested the State Court Administrator with a significant amount of authority.  To be sure, that authority was used rarely, but the possibility of a Tenure Commission investigation was often more than enough to encourage the energetic cooperation of judges who were experiencing problems ranging from failure to stay on top of their caseloads to judges who were experiencing even more serious problems; e.g., substance abuse, alcohol addiction, prolonged inattention and/or absence from work, etc.

And so 73 Bravo became a useful tool for me when I had to visit a judge for a conversation the judge did not look forward to.  Several times I would call a judge to say that I was coming to see them about a problem.  Typically the judge would ask when I planned to visit, and with 73 Bravo and good weather I could ask them to please meet me at the local airport in an hour or two.

Michigan is a large state.  If I could drive to the court in an hour or less, driving was the more efficient method of travel.  Longer than an hour’s drive – I’d climb in 73 Bravo.  I can not offer empirical evidence for the following assertion, but I’m fairly certain that once word got around that the big bad wolf could show up rather quickly resulted in fewer problems that required in person visits and trips to the local airports.

During those years I had to make presentations about court management to various groups two or three times a month, and having 73 Bravo meant I could handle those chores and the required travel when the meetings were more than an hour from Lansing much more efficiently – spend much less time travelling.

Having my own aircraft was, of course, also great fun.  I flew on personal trips as well, often with my children and friends.  On several occasions I flew to Chicago to visit family, and even got to land at Miegs Field once, an airport hard by Grant Park in downtown Chicago.  Miegs Field is now gone, but it was a blast to be on final approach a few blocks from so many buildings that were much higher in the sky than I was, and to park my old Cessna alongside the much newer and much more expensive aircraft of the rich and famous.

I experienced the higher buildings sensation many times to and from Detroit City Airport and a few others around Michigan, but never as many or as tall as in downtown Chicago.

My most memorable flight was from Detroit City to Lansing Capitol with all four kids.  73 Bravo had just had its tires changed along with its annual inspection, the weather was CAVU (ceiling and visibility unlimited), no turbulence, beautiful Michigan sunshine, and four sleeping kids fifteen minutes after takeoff.  I’ve always wondered how they could sleep with all the great scenery rolling past the windows.

Approaching Lansing, I was advised of medium to strong crosswind for my active runway.  On approach, the crosswind was coming from my right, and I did what pilots do for crosswind landings.  As I leveled and touched down, 73 Bravo tried very hard to take a much too soon and too fast turn to the left.  With full right aileron, right rudder, and a stomped-on hard right brake, I kept her straight and got her slowed down enough to hear the sound a flat tire makes.  The left tire was nearly on the rim.

The kids didn’t wake up until the sirens and flashing lights of the emergency vehicles came with the towing truck that would get 73 Bravo to where the tire could be changed.

Much to the kids’ delight, we rode in one of the emergency trucks.  I, however, was much less than thrilled with the experience.  A few calls to the tire manufacturer and two newer and better tires later I was still running hot.  I calmed down in and hour or two.  For several weeks I had calls and even a few invitations to pilots’ groups to talk about landings with a flat tire.

Just another lucky day in a life replete with answered prayers and good fortune.




But Only As A Tourist

Back then, the one who believed in me lived thirty square blocks west.

Most Chicago streets are squares or rectangles, called “blocks” by the natives. The main streets are fastened to the ground by taverns, currency exchanges, liquor stores, Walgreen’s drugstores, storefront restaurants, and all manner of other enterprises. The city was laid out that way, in straight blocks that seldom let you see a sliver of sky touch the street where it ends on the horizon, and mostly straight streets that keep the same names from one side of the city to the other, often for miles. Mom’s house was where I could indulge in lofty expectations for both my future and my self.

1948 – Eight years old.

We came out the side exit. Mom always wanted to arrive early when we went to the Southtown Theater to feed the swans and ducks at the pond in the lobby and watch a movie. It was a scene I would never see again in the multiplexes years later: a huge pond with ferns, rocks, water lilies, live swans and ducks swimming and walking around and begging popcorn and staring at me. All this in the lobby of a movie theater. And although she always wanted to arrive early, she always took the quickest way out when the movie was over.

On the way out Mom would open the door a little and peer out behind a shiny hand that she held up to shield her eyes from the transition to bright sunlight, her other hand closed around mine, tugging me along. She moved at a slow trot, with quick little steps. In the winter she’d pull at my arm and tell me how moving quickly over the packed snow and ice was the only way she could keep her balance. Leaving the movie theater she’d sigh: “Back to reality. Didn’t you just love it when that little boy tried to save the dog from the clutches of that nasty old crone? That was a brave thing to do for such a little boy, now wasn’t it?” I was too young to be embarrassed by the Irish in Mom’s speech, but not too young to hope none of my friends saw me being steered down 63rd Street by my grandmother.

All the days of her life her children and grandchildren called her Mom. Fifty years after she changed her first child’s diaper she still wouldn’t abide Grandma, Grandmother, Gram, or anything other than Mom. “I’m just not up to that now, am I?” she’d say, more statement than question. And who would argue? For me, Mom could do no wrong.

1956 – Sixteen years old.

My room had been at Mom’s off and on for the better part of a year. At Mom’s I thought I had begun to win the struggle to keep my balance. My life was school, work in Sol’s Wachovsky’s jewelry store, a chore list, sports that changed with the seasons, and dreams of escape. In the house ruled by my mother and stepfather, I choked on shouting, slammed doors, discouragement. “Believe in yourself,” Mom would command. “If you can read you can do anything, and you’re a good reader.”

1957 – Seventeen years old.

My last full summer in South Chicago was beer truck deliveries and bar clean-ups, mowing lawns and clipping hedges, delivering pizzas and shooting baskets, running errands and running bases.

On a sticky July night I climbed the porch steps late, Mom’s television set providing the only light from its eerie glow through the living room window. I could see her through the window as I reached for the front door with my key. She was asleep in her chair, her legs on the footrest, her hands clutching the Chicago Tribune in her lap. I slid my key in the lock, opened the door, and stepped into the small entrance hall, closing the door as quietly as a thief. I opened the inside door to the living room just as quietly but was greeted by wide open eyes and a big grin. “What a lovely program I was lookin’ at just now,” Mom said, stifling a yawn. “You look ready for some Jell-O and ice cream.”

“It’s a test pattern on the screen, Mom. You shouldn’t wait up for me,” I said.

“I’m not so old and daft I can’t decide for my own self what time to go to bed. Besides, I want to tell you about a movie we’re off to see tomorrow. If you can spare your old Mom the time.”

Over strawberry Jell-O and vanilla ice cream she read the paper to me. “Says right here the Russians might have more bombs than we do. Here’s a movie for us: A Thousand Clowns, with Jason Robards and Martin Balsam.” She put the paper down and sipped her tea. With her free hand she wiped at the table with a dishrag.

I wondered how many movies the Air Force would let me see the next four years. “My plane isn’t until eight,” I said, “enough time for three movies.”

“Three movies indeed,” she said. “You’re doin’ the right thing. Choosin’ your path instead of just lettin’ yourself be blown like a leaf in the wind.”

How did she always know when I needed her encouragement?

The next day we caught the bus and the movie. I suspected Mom had snuck off by herself to see it before, because when his nephew told Jason Robards that he had to get back to reality Mom whispered the retort right along with Robards: “I’ll only go as a tourist.” She nudged me with her elbow. “Back to reality, but only as a tourist,” she said. “What a lovely thought.”

1965 – Twenty-five years old.

Mom had cruised through her sixties and into her seventies. I held on to life like a water skier; moving ahead until the boat slowed down, a big wave came by, or the rope broke.

I’d call and stop by to fix a leaky faucet, a sagging storm door, or a ceiling that needed paint – if Mom didn’t beat me to it. Sometimes I’d see her at my stepdad’s tavern, where I cleaned up and where my mother still tended bar in the afternoon. Once in a while Mom would bring some friends for what she called “Nips and Grins.”

“Seen any good ones lately?” I asked her one evening at the tavern. We sat at the end of the bar, near the back door, and spoke while occasionally turning toward each other but mostly looking at reflections in the mirror behind the bar.

“Not a one,” she said. “And what about you? I expect you can’t afford the time or the money what with the wife and the two wee ones lookin’ to you, now can you?”

“I could still go see a film with my Mom now and then.”

“Film is it? Film’s what I put in my camera. If it was a movie you’d be up to, I might have an interest to take it in.”

I insisted on a plan and on the day I left my downtown cubicle early and took her to see Sean Connery in Goldfinger.” She came up with a new line as we exited the theater: “No tellin’ what reality might be after that.”

1966 – Twenty-six years old.

A few weeks after my birthday I received a call at work from one of my sisters. “Mom’s broken her hip. She had a few beers with her pals and when she got home she couldn’t find her keys and decided to climb up a ladder and go through the pantry window. She almost made it, but stumbled on something in the pantry and fell.”

I left work to go straight to the hospital. Soon as I saw her I felt a stir in the air, an angel passing by. On my third visit she gave me a look I never thought I’d see in those eyes that had saved me so many times, a look that made me realize hope was a visitor that didn’t stay long before offering an excuse to leave early.

“Why the long face?” I said. “Surely you’re busy telling all the doctors and nurses how things should be done around here?”

She looked through me. “You’ll need to be helpin’ your mother sort things out, now won’t you?”

I wondered what else; had the sinking feeling there was more than a broken hip. On the way down the hall to Mom’s room I’d passed my mother and her brothers and sister, my uncles and aunt. They said they were going back down to care for my children and their cousins, all too young to visit a hospital room in 1974. Mom’s children taking charge.

Two weeks later I stood on the steps at St. Rita’s Church listening to an older cousin tell me I should start thinking about dressing more warmly as we both stood shivering in light coats. My tears held off right through the services at the church and cemetery but came in such a flood on the drive home I had to pull off the road and get out of the car.

That night, my family safe with their dreams, I pulled my jacket tight against my pajama top and closed my eyes against the chill wind in my back yard. I looked at the stars but in my mind pictured Mom sipping tea with one hand and cleaning the table with the other, using leftover wash water to scrub the basement floor, checking on pans of bread and rolls rising on the kitchen radiator, stopping at the Baptist Church because she like their music better than the Catholic music at St. Rita, dishing up Jell-O and ice cream at midnight, inviting the scissors sharpener from his cart in the alley to a place at her lunch table. I heard her voice whispering to me like a conspiring bandit about life breaking an Irishman’s heart before he was thirty-five and how I was “the marryin’ kind,” the kind who won’t be happy without lots of family around. I saw her kneeling by the side of her bed for evening prayers and heard her reminder that God helps those who help themselves.

I wanted, not for the first time, to go back in time. To burrow down in a cave of sleep in my aunt’s fur coat in Mom’s back bedroom while I listened one more time to the laughter and the shuffle of cards; see Mom one more time at Halloween, wrapped in an old blanket, with makeup applied in ways the manufacturer never intended, curlers and floppy bows in her hair – she called it her “wool” – trekking along Chicago sidewalks with gangs of pirates, princesses, cowboys. sailors, and monsters of all kinds. She would look around to make certain only children could see, then take out her teeth and wiggle her mouth around and look like a photo of a toothless old Indian woman in a National Geographic. I still have that blanket; use it for Sunday naps, the scent of it transporting me back in time.

I wanted once more to be awakened by a scratching sound from the edge of my bed. Then a breathing sound. Then a lift of the covers to reveal a long snout resting a few inches from my head. Lady, a German Shepherd, wearing a pair of spectacles and one of Mom’s frilly nightcaps. A contest to produce the bigger ham, Lady or Mom, her peeking around the doorframe to judge the effects of her dog’s disguise.

I once read that grandparents and grandchildren are close because they have common enemies. I let my eyelids lift slowly and looked up through the crisp winter air and wondered if my grin was the same as hers.

I saw my daughter staring at me from a corner of her bedroom window, one hand clutching the satin at the end of her blanket and the other rubbing her earlobe between thumb and forefinger. I waved and she turned away.

I wondered again at the love that Mom had poured out to me, and the optimism she displayed about my chances in life. It took me a long time to understand that she was teasing about only going back to reality as a tourist. At the end of A Thousand Clowns, even Murray Byrnes, the character Jason Robards plays, goes back to work. He sees that his nephew will be put in a foster home if he, Byrnes, doesn’t get back to reality.

Mom taught me that reality is not simply to be toured, looked at but not participated in. Reality demands attention, perseverance, the ability to get on with doing whatever is needed to be a decent human being, spouse, parent, friend – even when no one is looking.

As I made my way to our back door to return to bed, I said a prayer about being a special someone to my wife, my children, and my children’s children. Thank you, Mom, for all your gifts, large and small.

Having Hot Water; Chicago, 1953

Talking things over the other day with other geezers about things we’ve taken for granted for many years, I offered a case in point: hot showers any time we want one.
In 1953 my house in south Chicago, across 61st Place from Englewood High School, had no hot water heater. None of my schoolmates lived in houses that had hot water heaters.
In the winter, we got hot water as a by-product of the heating system; that is, the coal-fired furnace that heated the house by circulating hot water through radiators. How the coal got into the furnace is another story for another time.
In warm weather – yes, there is warm weather in Chicago – hot water was obtained by starting and maintaining a fire in a much smaller furnace designed only for the purpose of providing hot water. I earned a great deal of motherly affection by my willingness to build fires in that little furnace when she wanted hot water without having to put a huge pot on the stove.
It came to pass that I discovered the Southtown YMCA, where I learned eight-ball, boxing, swimming, and basketball. To my everlasting surprise and delight, I also learned that there was an everlasting supply of hot water in the Y’s showers, hot water I could use by simply turning on and adjusting the faucets. It was somebody else’s water, it wasn’t in a tub, it hadn’t already been used at least once by another member of my family, and it didn’t need to be warmed up with a huge pot of steaming hot water from the stove.
This has made me go enjoy another hot shower.
Two or three a day whether I need them or not.