Normally I write this column in my office in central Florida. I’ve got one at Gilbert Field in Winter Haven, and another in my home where I do a considerable amount of my writing. It’s just more comfortable there. Let’s face it, there’s no place as inviting or as comfortable as home — except perhaps for our memories.
Thanks to the human brain’s almost staggering capacity to correct for errors, upsets, and ugliness, life is never more beautiful or satisfying than it is when viewed through the prism of our memory.
I mention this because I’m writing this column from a first floor room in a Courtyard Hotel in Tempe, Arizona. I’m on Ash Avenue, just off University Drive. It’s beautiful, comfortable, and staffed by some of the friendliest people you can imagine.
Barely half a mile from here is a parking lot where a little apartment complex for married Arizona State University students used to stand. It was called Victory Village and that hot, dry, dusty little row of humble dwellings was my first home.
Last night I called my parents to chuckle with them a bit about the fact that I was back home, sort of. My older brother happened to be visiting them when I called, so my mom, in an uncharacteristic feat of technological prowess, managed to shift to speakerphone mode so we could all chat together.
In 1959 the four of us lived here in Tempe. My mother was one of those modern women who managed to juggle two kids, an ambitious husband, a full course load, and all the household duties that come with living with a young family in tight quarters. She might have won the Superwoman Award for 1959, except there were teeming hordes of women just like her spread out from coast to coast. They believed they could do anything under any circumstances. And they were very nearly right, too.
My dad wasn’t exactly a slacker, either. He held down a full course load at ASU, then motored out to Williams Air Force Base to fly F-86s on what he and his peers referred to in those less politically correct times as “Mexican Border Patrol.” There was no animosity in their description of what they did. In fact, it was oddly accurate.
There was very little in the way of infrastructure out in this part of the world then, and it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to realize that if you cut a 22-year-old kid loose in a jet-powered fighter you might end up with a bunch of hot-shots flying very low and very fast over some inhospitable, unpopulated terrain. Which they did. Frequently.
It’s hard to imagine that world today — before satellite television, inexpensive long-distance telephone service, or ubiquitous air-conditioning. They were different times. In fact, my birth certificate lists my mother’s occupation as “student,” and my father’s as “jet pilot.” And to make me feel truly old and anachronistic, my birth certificate is hand-written.
In those days Phoenix, Tempe, and Scottsdale were three distinctly different cities. Today, they are one big sprawling urban area with dividing lines that can only be seen on maps. Williams Air Force Base is open to the public now, and is devoid of the young men in hot fighters who used to terrorize jackrabbits in the desert. Victory Village, my old home, no longer exists.
Of course my story is no different than anyone else’s. Wherever you came from, whenever that might have been, the place where you grew up is gone now. Sure, the geographic spot still exists on the map. But it’s different today than it was when you were there. It might be better and it might be worse, but it’s different. We have to adapt to that.
Aviation is not a place, it’s an activity. But it has changed, too, over the years.
While airline service out of Phoenix consisted of propeller-driven aircraft made by Convair and Douglas in my youth, they’re turbine-powered machines today carrying considerably larger loads for much longer distances. They depart a lot more frequently, too. Although Cessna is still making single-engine piston-powered airplanes today, as they were then, those machines now come with glass panels and navigational gear that was unimaginable when my dad and his buddies were strapping into their Sabre jets.
In fact, by almost any measure, aviation is better today than it was when I was a kid. Except for the transition from youthful stewardesses to career flight attendants. There. I’ll give you that much political incorrectness to wrestle with.
I will admit that I keep one thing with me that is still the same today as it was back then. It’s a scorpion encased in plastic. To be specific, it is a bolo tie clasp that features a scorpion.
My parents made it way back when I was a little boy scampering around in the yard outside our Victory Village apartment. They killed the scorpion themselves, by the way. I think there were dreams of creating a business out of making nature-oriented jewelry and accessories, but nothing ever came of it. Not for them anyway.
But I still keep it as a memento of a time gone by. It’s with me now, as a matter of fact. So I am very aware as I roll through Tempe the only thing that’s still the same as it was 50 years ago is my dead, lifeless, plastic-encased scorpion. Everything else has changed — including me.
I can live with that.