Learning to Fly

My heart pounded as I swerved into the parking space. “Is there a fire?!” I shouted running up to the front window of the fire truck.

“We got a call about condo 108.”

“My dad?!”  I flew up the steps, my mind suddenly racing. Everything’s fine over here, Debbie, Dad had just said an hour earlier. We had been to the doctor that day. He was okay, his doctor had said. His cough had mysteriously vanished for the hour and a half we were in her office—no crackling in his lungs, she had said. It came back as soon as we were in the car but we took a drive to look at our old church. We did too much; he was still weak from his trip to Arizona.

Faith Church on 78th and Hope

Faith Church on 78th and Hope

We had lunch at Solly’s. He shouldn’t  eat butter burgers and fries!

Dad! I heard myself yell.

“She’s got a key.” Someone said from the crew of firemen standing outside his door.  “We can hear him in there and we heard your voicemail on his phone so we knew you were on your way. We were just ready to break his door down.”

Break his door down?! That would not have gone over well with the man who still uses throw rugs so he doesn’t wear out his carpeting. I tried to steady my hand on the key as I turned the knob and opened the door. There he was, lying on his back, across the red runner. He couldn’t get up but his eyes were as bright as the rug. “Hi, sweetheart.”

“Oh, Dad.”  His legs had given out, again. Dehydrated. No need to go to the hospital, he convinced the firemen, since he’d been to the doctor that day. After sitting up and drinking some water, the guys helped me get him to bed. His doctor started him on an antibiotic and I stayed with him for the next ten days.

“I do feel I’ve done a good job taking care of myself up to this point.” Dad told me just a few days later. “I can’t do no mo’.” He said then. “I’m done.”

“Oh come on, Dad. I think I’m going to give you a couple sips of wine tonight. That might help your appetite.”

“Or my attitude.”

“You’re like a cat. You’ve got nine lives.”

“Which one am I on?”

“I don’t know, the fifth or sixth.” I’ve worried at least that many times that Dad wasn’t going to make it. We didn’t think he was going to recover from his heart valve surgery in 2007. His valves were better but his lungs took a beating. He fought his way back. Then they told him if he ever got pneumonia that would be it for him. He got pneumonia and proved them wrong. (Whenever he’s in the hospital, he finds people to share his faith with. That always gets him back on track. He inspires and ticks people off equally.) Mom died not long after that—that hit him really hard. And then he got pneumonia again, and then again. Now he has fluid in his lungs that they can’t do much about but on he goes. I think that puts him on his sixth.

He wasn’t as fortunate as us with his own father who died at sixty-seven. The last time he saw him alive was in 1967.

“When Wenzler Architects was selected by the state to design the Fine Arts Center at Steven’s Point, I thought it might be a good time to learn to fly. That would turn a three-and-a-half hour drive each way into less than an hour.

“By this time in my career, I had developed a pattern for “programming” a new project. For academic projects, I would spend a number of days on the campus, in the classrooms with faculty and students. In addition to this effort to understand the project, there were many meetings with the client.

“I had completed this stretch with Steven’s Point—living in the dorm and staying on campus—and felt I had a very good grasp of the project. I was ready to find a concept for the design. This usually included spending nights alone in the office where I could think and sketch and try out ideas. This particular time, it was a Saturday afternoon when—bang—the Lord had given me the solution. I had the sketch and was sure it was the right one. The complicated part of the project was the theatre, so I called the chair of the theatre department, told him where I was at and asked if I could come up and show it to him. He said, ‘Come up. I can’t wait.’

“My Dad had recently had a stroke and was in the hospital at Milwaukee Lutheran. I stopped there on the way to the airport to show him my sketches. He wasn’t talking anymore by that point but he sure could see and respond. I showed him the sketches and explained the ideas and he smiled his approval.

Steven's Point sketch

“I had arranged to rent a Bonanza at the Waukesha County Airport to fly up and was checked out for night flying but was still only flying VFR (Visual Flight Rules). I got to the airport and took off. I met the chair and committee when I arrived at the University, went over my plans and they were excited.

“I flew back to Waukesha after my meeting and drove home. It was a wonderful day and on the way, I was thinking about my visit with my dad and how grateful I was for our time together. I never got to see him alive again, but I was thankful I got to see him and for all the encouragement he always gave me. That was the last time I saw him alive.”

Steven's Point Exterior

Steven’s Point Center for the Arts

*******

 “I figured it out.” Dad said as he was beginning to get his strength back last week.

“What’s that?’ I asked.

“I’ll give my key to three neighbors. And, I’ll get one of those call things that you can wear on your belt. I saw it advertised in the AARP Magazine. Then I won’t have to move.”

“Okay, Dad, that sounds good to me. You’re ‘flying’ IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) now.”

Steven's Point interior

Steven’s Point Art Center interior

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Unidentified Flying Object

My Dad and brother were both pilots. When my nephew got his pilot’s license at fourteen, I watched him land a plane and it brought tears to my eyes. We heard a lot of talk about Cessna 150s in our house growing up. I didn’t understand the fascination at first. It wasn’t that I didn’t like the idea of flying. I just wanted to be able to roll down the window.

Dad had me co-pilot once. With his instruction I took hold of the yoke, carefully turning it a little to the right and a little to the left to get the hang of it. He told me that you pull it out to go up and push in to go down. I yanked it out too fast then immediately pushed it back in to correct my error and made the plane into roller coaster ride. That was fun…

cessna-172-interior

“Your Mom had worked at the Institute of Aviation in the Engineering building at school. She liked it, it was a good job and it was connected to the airport which was the part I liked. Around 1948, the Bonanza came out with its V-tail. I think it still is the best single engine plane you can get, at least it was for many years.The Institute of Aviation bought one—a brand new Beechcraft Bonanza—and they took your Mom along for a ride. Would you believe she got airsick and threw up all over the inside of that brand new airplane?

“My fascination with planes continued and years later I got my pilot’s license so I could fly to jobs easily around the country. To start out, I flew a Cessna 150 two-seater.  When I was properly licensed I flew a Cessna 172 which is a four-seater. My first cross country flight was to St. Louis. Because of the length of the trip I got checked out for night flying.

Cessna 172

Cessna 172

“Several trips later, I was flying back from St. Louis in a Cessna 172. One of the guys from the office, Jim McClintock, was co-pilot and both your brothers were in the rear seat. All of a sudden there was this disc like light out in front of us. So I woke up my co-pilot and told him to turn off his flashlight because I thought it was the reflection of the light in the window.

“The image in the windshield was about the size of a softball. I banked in different directions but it was always in the same location. So I called flight service in Milwaukee to report it and the operator said, maybe I was looking at fireworks from Summerfest. I said, this is not fireworks. The image was very crisp initially then gradually increased in size and got fuzzy on the edges. We all saw it.

“Fifteen years later, the Journal Sentinel did a story on UFOs. I wrote a letter to the newspaper reporting what I had seen. Shortly after that, the author of the article called me. I still had the report from my sighting. It had been sent to me by the US Air Force following my initial report.

“The Journal Sentinel writer asked me many questions and wanted a copy of the report. I sent it to him and he called me back in a week or so to say he had followed up on it. The incident had happened on August 15 but I don’t remember the year exactly—around ’67. Anyway, what the reporter had found out was that the Canadian government had been experimenting with night illumination. So that explained everything we had seen.”

“So, no UFO…”

“No UFO.”