Up in the air

"Now, Bets, I don't want you going up in one of those flying orange crates," said my father upon hearing that my boyfriend had just gotten his civilian pilot's license at the little flight school in Santa Paula, Calif. Daddy and Mama were afraid of the very idea of flying, and didn't like to think of all those things up there in the air that might fall out of the sky any minute.

The year was 1940. The possibility of war loomed. Joe was a senior in college and I was in the last part of my junior year. We were hoping to get engaged soon and to marry before the United States got into the war that was already raging in Europe. Joe had enrolled in the civilian pilot training program, offered at UCLA, under the Office of Civilian Defense. Many of these new pilots would probably go on to become military pilots.

It was a beautiful Saturday in April. Joe had come over to my house in Los Angeles early, and we were almost ready to drive to my folks' apricot ranch in Moorpark, in Ventura County, to fly kites from the ridge just above our property. We had made our kites the night before, of newspaper and balsa wood. We were now sitting around the breakfast table with my parents. I was tearing up a tattered sheet to make a kite tail, and Joe was winding fine string around a stick. Mama and Dad were having cups of tea and worrying.

"You kids just remember what I said," said my father.

"We will, Daddy. And I won't go up in any flying orange crates."

I kissed my parents, and said we'd be back before evening. Then we got in Joe's car and headed for Moorpark.

Once there, we hiked to the top of the hill. The air was fragrant with wildflowers, new grasses, weeds, and sun-kissed earth. There was just enough breeze to launch our kites. We ran along the pebbly flat crest, letting out the strings, and laughing as the kites soared higher and higher. Once they were floating calmly aloft in warm updrafts, we sat down on the path, back to back, and rested. We talked lazily about flying. Joe said that the aerodynamics of flying a Piper Cub, the little plane in which he had learned to fly, were similar to those of kite flying.

Finally sated with sunshine and fresh air, and hungry, we reeled in our kites and drove down into the little center of Moorpark for lunch.

"As long as we're here, so close to Santa Paula," said Joe, "why don't we drive on over and look at the planes at the airfield there? Then you can see what I've been flying."

"I'd love to," I said. We drove up the winding hill and through lovely farming country to Santa Paula. There on the landing field, behind a metal hangar, were five small aircraft, looking much like yellow grasshoppers, with black stripes along their sides.

"They're adorable!" I said. We parked our car and sauntered over to examine the planes. I was surprised to see that they were made of stiffened cloth. They were as shiny as lemons and glistened in the sun.

"The frames are wooden, so they're very light," said Joe.

A young man approached us from the hangar. "You a pilot?" he asked.

Joe nodded. "I learned to fly right here. I soloed last week." He produced his pilot's license from his pocket.

"Want to take your girlfriend up?"

Joe and I looked at each other. "I told my parents I wouldn't go up in any flying orange crates," I said reluctantly.

"They certainly weren't thinking about these fine little planes," said our new friend. "Safe as a mom's arms."

That's all it took. Soon I was sitting beside him in the Piper Cub, and a mechanic was spinning the propeller. Joe explained the functions of the control stick, something about ailerons, elevators, and rudders. But I was so excited that none of it registered. Almost before I realized it we were bouncing lightly across the tarmac.

"I'm taking her up!" Joe shouted, and we rose smoothly over a row of trees at the end of the field. We circled the airport. I looked over and down to see the mechanic waving to us.

April air flowed into the open cockpit, soft with spring's sweet promise. Soon we were over Santa Paula. I saw rows of dollhouses; and, on the streets, cars like Tootsie Toys moved slowly along. Trees were green lollipops and feather dusters. We went higher, slowly circling over the countryside. Around us were the rocky, oak-strewn Santa Susanna Mountains. I felt as free as a bird, and yet somehow tethered to Earth by an invisible cord, just like our kites. Engine noise made conversation difficult, but I turned to Joe and yelled, "How beautiful everything is from up here! I never want to go down!"

But of course, we had to.

I didn't tell my folks that I had gone up in a plane. I felt guilty for quite a while afterward.

But a month after my first flight, Dad approached Joe with a surprising request. "Joe, would you take me up in one of those planes you think so highly of? I'd like to experience flight once in my lifetime."

Joe was amazed. "Of course," he said. "I'd be honored."

"But we'll have to arrange it so that my wife won't know," he added. "She'd be scared to death at the thought of it."

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