A Ten-Year Old’s Epiphany

30 Aug

If I had access to my Dad's pictures more easily, I could have a real picture of his helicopter, but this will have to do! At least you get the idea.

In all the years that my father flew either airplanes or helicopters, I only flew with him as pilot once. He was flying a medi-vac helicopter at the time, and I went with him when he had to re-fuel. It’s the only time I’ve been in a helicopter and it was amazing. I felt like I was in a Vietnam War movie as we took off from the hospital’s helipad. I began to hum the theme music to M.A.S.H. – even though it’s neither Vietnam, nor a movie – and gazed, transfixed, at the city dropping around me.

A Pan Am plane that I never flew on with my Dad! Circa 1985...so at least the era is correct, though he was in 727's at the time...


I don’t know why that’s the only time I flew with Dad. It seems kind of silly now, that in his Pan Am years I never did. Somehow it just never worked out. For 14 years of my growing-up life, his job was located 8 hours away from home, which made accompanying him rather difficult…not to mention the fact that the Air Force tends to frown on pilot’s taking their kids out on rescue missions. We would see him, occasionally though, flying over our house. He’d let Mom know if they were flying to Alaska for training exercises, and the approximate time of their passing overhead, and we’d hang around all day, just waiting for the magic hour when he’d fly over.

It's a Huey...my appologies if it's not exactly the correct one!


You could hear them coming before you saw them, the great-big Hueys with their green paint jobs, their flight-patterns taking them straight over our cliff on the north of Orcas Island. We’d run out to the deck and wave like mad, unable to talk over the noise, our hearts beating in time to the whump of the engines. And then, so quickly, they’d be gone – heading over Matia and Sucia islands, over tiny Puffin, over Vancouver, B.C. – and we were left with our ears ringing, our hearts slowing, the blessing of his wave from the window still reflected in our shining eyes.

I hear it...and I come running!


And that’s why, here in farmland, I love the crop-dusters. I’ll be washing dishes, or folding laundry, and I’ll hear them coming. At first – every time, without fail – I think it’s a maniacal driver on our dirt road, going about 100, and then, when it’s almost too late, I realize what it is and I yell for the kids to come, making a dash for the door as I do so.

Out on the deck we laugh and wave and delight in the noise, the proximity, the sheer overwhelming power. Inevitably, at some point, I run for the camera, though I’ve never been able to get a shot of it directly over my head. The good thing is, I usually have several tries, as the planes come back and forth, back and forth in their job of spraying the corn, the soybeans, the bugs that threaten the crops.

Not all of my friends understand the joy I find in the yellow crop duster, though a few of them understand a little. My husband, bless his heart, gets it, and he runs to the deck with us, shading his eyes against the sun as he admires the dangerous flying. Nevermind the possible philosophical issues with chemicals vs. organic farming, to me these planes are my youth – my wonderful childhood of tidepools and forts and parents who loved me – all rolled up in that airplane sound – fixed wing or not – flying over my house, over the years. The pilot has no idea, I’m sure, why this crazy family comes running to wave. Maybe he doesn’t even see us, focused as he is on the field before him. And then he’s gone, only to return, time and again, rising like the sun on the horizon, like a ship on a sea of grain.

Again, not the actual plane I flew in, but still a cool shot!


My dad had a friend who owned a bi-plane and he came up to Orcas Island one time and gave us rides. I remember putting on the goggles and climbing in behind my sister. I remember my hair flying behind me, the feel of the wind against my cheeks. I remember seeing the town I knew so well unrolling beneath me, the beaches and boulders I had conquered, now tiny and toy-like below. I’m the king of the mountain!

And then we were flying over our house, our trees, our garden. “This is what Dad sees!” I thought. “This is his view. This is his world.” And for a moment, for a brief instant in my ten-year old, self-centered heart, I understood.

14 Responses to “A Ten-Year Old’s Epiphany”

  1. Jenny August 30, 2011 at 10:39 am #

    I totally understand! I also go out, or look out, when I hear a helicopter go by. Sometimes with my head on the window sill looking up to catch a glimpse. The other day it was one of the big military troop transport ones. The kind where you hear of one crashing and killing 30 people and you think, how can a helicopter carry so many people. I still get that same feeling when I see helicopters go by in formation on their way up to Canada. And, I have to admit, it’s always a bit of a let down when what I’ve just tried so hard to see through the trees, is just a small private one or a news one! Though the police ones in the middle of the night looking for the bare foot bandit, with their lights flashing and all night long, were starting to get annoying! Though we did open up the bedroom shutters so we could see them from bed! I have passed on to my family the same need to see that thing in the sky which makes a noise unlike any other. I still remember that sign, that is no longer there, in Oak Harbor at Naval Air Station Whidbey, that said “The Sound of Freedom”. I love that. Even though it’s not the Air Force! :)

    • Gretchen O'Donnell August 30, 2011 at 12:04 pm #

      Yes, the sound of freedom! Do you remember that bi-plane ride?!!

      I don’t think I’d have appreciated the police helicopters, either. Did you know that he’s apparently having a movie made of his escapades…with all the proceeds supposedly going to his victims?!

  2. ceciliag August 30, 2011 at 11:25 am #

    Lovely, .. such a special sound those planes over head.. c

    • Gretchen O'Donnell August 30, 2011 at 12:04 pm #

      It’s amazing how you can love something that makes you think of a happy childhood! Even though normally such noises aren’t my favorite things!

  3. Rose August 30, 2011 at 1:03 pm #

    Lovely, G!

  4. Jo Bryant August 31, 2011 at 1:32 pm #

    What a great story. I have always wanted to learn to fly. I had a choice when i was young – learn to fly/go to Africa. Africa won – but the feeling of flying a plane (I had a couple of lessons) has always called to me. So it is on my bucket list.What an experience – the bi-plane. WOW

    • Gretchen O'Donnell August 31, 2011 at 4:22 pm #

      Yeah, the bi-plane was rather amazing! I’ve never been in a hot-air balloon, but I imagine that it must feel similar…only slower!

      It’s hard to know if we’re making the right choices when we’re young, isn’t it? Heck, it can be hard to know even now…at the ripe of age of 41! I’ve been to Africa…Tunisia…so not exactly the “Africa” of people’s minds…but it was quite the experience…as I’m sure yours was, too. I’ve always kind of wanted to learn to fly as well…but I think that I probably never will and I’m okay with that. My bucket list is short: only three things and I can’t remember the third one. :-)

  5. Left on Walnut September 2, 2011 at 9:04 pm #

    What a magical childhood memory. I’m lucky to have stumbled your blog!

  6. Tarisa Smith September 6, 2011 at 7:37 pm #

    I so GET this. My dad has piloted Cessnas my whole life, so slightly smaller, and I’ve flown with him more times than I can count. Every day on the mission field, when he’d been out flying, we’d hear him come on over the radio in our house, all static-y, “Charlie Mike Lima coming home.” And then, if the wind was right, he’d buzz our house. And we’d put the tea water on, knowing he’d soon be home and ready for his evening cup. Now, when I hear the crop dusters buzzing over the fields near town, I smile. It feels so nostalgic. So home-y. So comfortable. And it never fails to make me ready for a cup of tea.

    • Gretchen O'Donnell September 6, 2011 at 7:56 pm #

      LOVE it! You get it, don’t you?!! I love that you want tea when you hear the planes – that’s so Pavlovian, but wonderful, too!

  7. Gian Banchero November 20, 2011 at 9:14 pm #

    Back in 1956 we had a neighbor who as a member of one of the branches of the military flew mammoth blimps, he was a wonderfully devoted dad to his ten year old daughter Charmain. One night the neighborhood heard the loud put-put-put of a low flying blimp, so loud that all the neighbors came outside to figure out what was happening… Then the blimp stopped and silently hoovered over Charmain’s house, Suddenly from speakers on the blimp loudly the song Charmain started playing, it was her dad showing how much he loved her… I still remember vividly the girl happily crying and the magnificent smile on her mom’s face. Daddy’s and daughters!!!

    • Gretchen O'Donnell November 21, 2011 at 6:56 am #

      What a fun story! We actually had a blimp fly directly over our house once, too – therre was a kid on the island whose dad worked for Good Year as a blimp pilot, and he flew to the island to visit him. It was AMAZING to be standing right under that massive thing as it passed by. AMAZING. I considered mentioning it in this post but it just didn’t fit in…

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