In my experience, airports fall into two categories. There are those that are all business, a sterile environment where pilots and passengers pass through for a time, leaving none of themselves or their experiences behind. These are efficient patches of asphalt that are necessary in modern times, and it is not the function or responsibility of these facilities to inspire.
Then there are the other places, those half-forgotten patches of grass or concrete where a middle-aged housewife with gray hair or a gangly teenaged boy whose arms have not quite come to terms with his legs are encouraged to follow a desire to become one with the sky.
If the patch is long enough, jets are welcome and come mostly during the weekdays and during business hours, and on weekends the ultralights, Cherokee 140s, and old taildraggers are pulled out of hangars for the weekly breakfast or burger run.
These airports are not only facilities for the operation of general aviation aircraft. They are destinations for local characters, both aviators and non-aviators. Many times there are pilot associations or various organizational chapters that help promote the airport, flying, maybe homebuilding, or just good old plain camaraderie.
These characters sit around government issue tables (circa 1945) or on dusty couches of unknown vintage and comment on local politics, the ruination of the young people, and the questionable skills of the local hotshot pilot. There are meetings, gatherings and potluck dinners. And through the process of going and coming, sharing and flying, they leave a little bit of themselves behind. A memory, a sound, a voice often heard on the Unicom, a photograph on the wall, what they were and what they knew, has now become woven into the essence of a place. The intangible becomes tangible.
The presence of Helen Erline Epps at Pickens County Airport (JZP), in Jasper, Ga., was tangible, and the memory of her will long be felt and seen. Helen was not a pilot. She was married to one for a very long time, and while she may not have understood all that made Russell Epps tick, she did understand his passion to be involved in all things aviation. It was a guiding force in their lives and it provided their living. It also provided their joy.
You couldn’t think of Russ or their 7HC Champ without thinking of Helen. Russ and Helen were like cookies and milk. They were a good fit and they were always together. Russ did not go to the airport to get away from his bride. He went to the airport to share that camaraderie and love of flying with her, and Helen was such an integral part of the Front Porch Gang. If there was painting to be done, she was there, brush in hand. If food was needed, she was there, yummy goodie in hand. If someone was sick, she was concerned, phone in hand. She mothered us all and she was loved.
So many times I have seen her wipe down the Champ or polish Russ’s tools and place them neatly back in place so he could find them the next time. While her memory will always be part of the foundation of Pickens County Airport, her work on this earth is done.
Marilyn Theetge’s is not. I always thought both Helen and Marilyn had the patience of Job — Helen for listening to Russ’s goofball jokes for nearly 50 years and Marilyn for tolerating Rogers’ inventing tendencies. You just never knew what contraption would emerge from their hangar. Over the years, while not a pilot like her husband Rogers, Marilyn has been so active in airport doings. She is known for her cooking and any event is greatly anticipated by all for that reason. For years, she and Rogers took their annual sabbatical to Sun’n Fun to volunteer to prepare for the fly-in. Many times she cooked from their RV for JZP pilots who flew down and were desperately in need of some TLC and home cooking.
As one Front Porch Ganger passed away, the other was being treated in our local hospital for colon cancer. Marilyn faces a tough battle, one that can easily wear a strong body down. Perhaps selfish, the Front Porch Gang needs her. We are not yet ready to give up another of our own. These are the characters that make life at our airport so rich, and unfortunately, they are not being replaced.
Marilyn, there are still potluck dinners to be shared, new pilots to be encouraged, and airport promotions to be done. I don’t want see sorrow in another old aviator’s eyes.
I thought about how it seemed that our loss of Helen and Marilyn’s illness has affected us so deeply, and then I realized. Pilots come to the airport for the love of flying. Helen and Marilyn came to the airport for the love of pilots.
If you would like to encourage Marilyn Theetge in her battle with cancer, cards and letters can be sent to her in care of Pickens County Airport, 193 Airport Rd., Jasper, Ga., 30143.
Deb McFarland is the proud owner of Lester, a 1948 Luscombe 8E, and part of the “Front Porch Gang” at Pickens County Airport in Georgia. Deb can be reached at ShortFinal@generalaviationnews.com.
People who read this article also read articles on airparks, airshow, airshows, avgas, aviation fuel, aviation news, aircraft owner, avionics, buy a plane, FAA, fly-in, flying, general aviation, learn to fly, pilots, Light-Sport Aircraft, LSA, and Sport Pilot.