I’ve just returned from a beautiful morning chat on my friend Ben’s front porch. Ben’s 87 years old. As a solid member of that group known as the greatest generation, he fills the bill well.
A southern boy born into hard work and low expectations, he went off to war as a young man in his teens. He found himself in the Pacific where he did things and saw things most of us would rather not know about.
But he soldiered on, did his duty, came home, went to college, and made quite a success of himself. In fact, he’s something of an institution in my neck of the woods.
Among Ben’s great contributions to the world is the love of flight a handful of middle-aged men share. They were young, barefoot, Florida kids when Ben met them. Friends of his own kids, mostly. Some were just locals who happened to catch Ben’s eye. But in each case he found a way to put those kids into the SuperCub on floats he kept tied up in his back yard. They’d motor out into the lake, take to the skies, and let dreams become reality for an hour or so.
At least one of those kids is now a captain flying a widebody airliner for one of the majors. All of them benefitted from the experience, whether they went on to earn a living as a pilot or not.
Good old Ben opened the door to a bigger life for each of them. He gave their dreams a kick in the pants, provided some much needed motivation and inspiration, and changed the world for a small collection of southern boys who might have otherwise made a life out of picking oranges, drilling irrigation wells, or mining phosphate.
While on his porch this morning I asked Ben what lit his fire for flight. He was born only a few months after Charles Lindberg broached the Atlantic, departing Long Island as a wannabe and landing in Paris as the most celebrated man on earth.
It turns out there was “an old boy named Kelly” in Deland, Florida, back when Ben was young. He owned a biplane that was fitted out for crop dusting. He also had a hangar that was used to dry a tobacco-like product that was used in cigarettes of the day. Ben and his peers turned those leaves over every two days so they’d dry just right. In return, ol’ Kelly would take them flying in his biplane.
So that’s two generations of aviation enthusiasts. Ben learned to love it by taking rides. He passed on that gift by giving rides and setting up a flight training program for the kids he hoped to inspire.
Those options are gone for most of us today. The number of pilots who seek out kids to take on introductory flights is slimmer than it was, and the litigious nature of the populace these days makes the re-introduction of that practice seem less than likely.
So what to do? What to do?
Perhaps a book would be helpful. It’s a pale imitation of actually taking flight, but the idea has merit. Especially if the right books are introduced to the right group of kids at the right time.
I read one the other night that fills the bill perfectly. Although it’s brand new, just having arrived in a FedEx envelope at my home, it looks beaten up, old, and weathered. The cover has a distressed look and the pages inside have a steampunk quality that is both old fashioned and tremendously appealing at the same time. It’s called “Lindbergh – the Tale of a Flying Mouse,” and it comes to us from the fertile mind and pen of a young German named Torben Kuhlmann.
Through beautiful illustrations and crisp text it tells the tale of a mouse who finds itself in a terrible predicament. Surrounded by traps and predators in an old European city where his peers are disappearing in droves, the little mouse decides the new world offers greater promise.
Unfortunately, passage by ship is out of the question. Just getting to the docks is too dangerous. So he opts for a less traditional method of passage. He decides to fly. Just because no man or mouse has ever flown such a distance before is no obstacle to the brave and industrious little fellow. He tinkers and experiments and refines his designs and his powerplants – all in an effort to fly from where he is to where he wants to be. To safety. To a better life.
Ahh, it’s a timeless tale. It’s a familiar story in many ways. The mouse’s designs bring to mind early experiments by Otto Lilienthal and Louis Bleriot. His drive to succeed is reminiscent of Charles Lindbergh himself, and later the Apollo astronauts who flew missions every bit as ambitious.
But best of all this is a book that can excite the mind of a young boy or girl who can put themselves in the position of the mouse. They can imagine a real use, a practical use for aviation to get them out of danger, or to put them smack dab in the middle of an adventure. They can see themselves doing something rather than just watching from the sidelines.
There will always be a small number of pilots in the world who are ready and willing to share the awe of being airborne with those who have not experienced it first hand yet. And there will always be young boys and girls who want to push their boundaries to experience something new, different, and truly exciting.
This book won’t change that. But it might help expand the number of boys and girls who are introduced to the idea of designing an aircraft, or building one, or taking flight themselves. It wouldn’t hurt us to have a few more little noses pressed up against the glass at the FBO door, hoping to one day step out onto the ramp and stride over to an airplane with the intention of flying it.
It’s a start. And sometimes, a good start is all you need. It worked for Ben, and the kids he helped to dream about being airborne.