Back Where I Belong
It is almost a requirement in the Stinson family that everyone keeps a journal— always called a “journal,” and never under any circumstances a “diary”— but I have never been one to do much of that, in spite of the urgings of my parents, and the advice of my grandmother. She always says that there will be a day that you will wish you had kept up, because things get blurred with time, sometimes so twisted and convoluted that you don’t know what is true and what is embellishment, and some things are completely forgotten, which is the worst. And if you are a Stinson, you also know that Grandmother is always right.
Being born on January 10, 1898, I am now twenty one years old. Today, I gave my Grandmother her first airplane ride for her sixtieth birthday. I got back to Idaho two days ago, and waited until Grandmother’s birthday to fly my own Curtiss JN-4 up to Idaho City. Grandfather and the rest of the family drove out to the rough strip of land that sufficed for a runway just outside of town, without telling Grandmother that she was going for a ride in an airplane. I thought it was funny that Grandfather and my mother and father actually thought they could bring Grandmother to an airplane runway and not have her figure out what was about to happen, but the three of them had said that at least the surprise would be when she figured it out and not when she was told of it. That would give her less time to make up an excuse not to go.
I saw the cars coming from a distance away. Grandmother was of course driving the lead car, as she does all of the driving for the two of them, and the back seat was filled to overflowing with younger members of the family. The other two cars were likewise filled up with well-wishers for her grand day.
They all drove up to me, standing next to the plane. I had on my best flying outfit, which consisted of my leather jacket, a yellow wool scarf, a newer leather helmet, and of course, my goggles sitting perched on my head. If anyone has ever looked the part of a pilot, it was I. As soon as she saw me, I noticed a huge smile appear on her face, and the car sped up for the last few yards before skidding to a stop about twenty yards away. Grandmother was the first one out of the car, and literally scurried over to me at the plane.
“Are you going to do a demonstration for all of us?” she asked.
I spent a second or two trying to figure out if she was really thinking that that was what was going to happen, or if she was merely trying to be polite and not assume something which she did not know.
“Yes, I am,” I said. The disappointment on her face was there, although it was only visible to me, and so slight I would have missed it had I not been looking for it. I quickly added, “With you in the front seat.”
Her smile got even wider than before. She asked what she needed to put on, and where she was going to sit, and a dozen other questions. I gave her one of her own coats, the warmest one I could find, as even though it is only September, the skies above Idaho City were already cold. Always proper, she did not really want to put a helmet on over her perfectly set hair, but I insisted, and she capitulated.
Once we were in the plane, I started it, and we quickly rolled to the end of the runway. It was not ideal, as the wind was blowing from the uphill end of it, which meant we would have to take off toward the mountains looming directly in front of us. I much would have preferred to take off toward the downhill direction, which is where the wind usually comes from here, but takeoffs going with the wind instead of against it often do not turn out well.
I honestly intended to take her for a leisurely ride, up and around the area, pointing out the town, and her home at the northern edge of it, the making some altitude above the mountains directly to our east so she could see all of the grandeur of the Sawtooth Range for as far as there was visibility. Then, the Stinson urge to show off took over, and I took the plane into a dive to gain some speed. When I had enough, I pulled back the stick, and we did a complete loop the loop, all the way over. I then took us a mile or so away from the airport, and we came across it as fast as the plane would fly, within a mere few feet of the treetops. She did not wave as we passed the others, even though they were all waving to us. I could see that her hands were gripped to tightly on the plane to let go for such a formality.
I flew her for nearly half an hour. After the antics at the beginning, I flew smoothly and comfortably. When we got out over the forest, her head never stopped moving from one side to the other, as she did not wish to miss a single thing. She even loosened her grip and held her hands out to the side, feeling the wind against them, and how she could make them go up and down by merely changing the tilt of her hands the slightest bit.
As we were circling for landing, the urge to show off one more time took hold of me, and we did a double barrel roll at about two hundred feet. I had that done to me once when I was training, and with no warning, there is no stopping the feeling that you are about to die. I came out of the last roll, banked hard to the right, and made a perfect landing. When we rolled up to where everyone else was waiting, they were all clapping, and most were yelling things to her which we could not hear until the plane was shut off.
She was slightly unsteady for her first few steps out of the plane, but recovered well enough. She turned to me, gave me a big hug, and said that you shouldn’t do things like that to an old woman. Her face told me she had loved it.
The first person to her was Grandfather, (who does not talk, and who communicates with pencil and paper) and he handed her a note. She read it, laughed, and handed it to me. It said, “Change name to Laura Greenface?”
I then spent the rest of the day giving short flights to as many family members as I could, allowing that I also needed to have enough gasoline to make it back to Boise. They were fine, and all of them will probably write about it in their journals, and will tell their own grand children about it some day. The one person who did not go was my own mother, who offered no excuse other than she preferred to let others have the opportunity. Had it been anyone other than my mother, I would have given her the chicken cluck insult, which always has and probably always will, convince members of the Stinson family to accept any dare.
My cousin Joshua was the last to fly. We took off just before sunset, and as we climbed, the sun stayed where it was, resting peacefully on the edge of the earth what we always guessed was at least a hundred miles into Oregon. The plane stayed in the sun as the ground beneath us turned to light shadows, and eventually to near darkness. I let Joshua fly some, and he showed an intuitive understanding about how the plane works, what makes it fly, and what would cause it to become out of control. He turned around often, to get my confirmations that he was doing an acceptable job, and I would give him a big smile and a thumbs up— except for once, when I closed my eyes and acted like I had fallen asleep, which caused him quite a stir in his already overloaded mind. We will laugh about that for years to come.
After Grandmother’s birthday party had dispersed, which for a Stinson birthday that ends in zero can be late into an evening, I retired to my old room in our family home. It looked as it did the day I left for the War a seemingly impossible four years earlier. Nothing was out of place, and not a speck of dust was in the room. Mother has always been like that, and I would have worried about her if it were any different.
I sit here, on the only bed I had ever called mine, tired and ready for a good night’s sleep, but can not shake the thoughts and memories of the day. I think about Grandmother’s smile, and her excitement of being the first in the family besides me to fly in an airplane. I think about my own mother deferring, acting polite so that she would not have to get into the plane. I think about Joshua, and what must have been the panic of thinking he was flying alone. I do not want to lose those thoughts, or any of a dozen others from the day. I wonder how many things in my life I have completely forgotten, perhaps only existing in someone else’s notebook, hidden away for some future time and place. I wonder what Grandmother is going to write about today. When she is eighty, will she go back in her journal and be able to recall the events of her sixtieth birthday?
For the first time, I understand all of her urgings over the years, to me and to all of the Stinsons. It will be good to look back with a much more certain degree of reliability than the mind alone, or even someone else’s memories from long ago.
I determine that I will write of my life, and that it will be only for myself. I will dredge up as many memories as I can, and write of them as accurately as I can. There would be no reason to exaggerate, or even any reason to worry about getting events in exact order. That would be impossible. As Grandmother says, I will make my life exist.
It is my hope that when I am sixty, I can turn back the pages and see what it was like when I was but twenty three, that I can capture again this day, and all of those which I have not already lost.
Who can recall their life in the order that it happened? Who can recall every event, every person, every time they got a whipping for running off or breaking something? Who could even put them in order if they started with a list of everything? Not me, that’s for sure.
I find that when I ponder on something, especially where it is and how I got there, it inevitably leads me to some event in the past, and when I ponder on that, it takes me back even further.
Would it be possible to write a list of perhaps one hundred events in your life, events that had an effect on you, and shaped who you are, and then rank them in the order of their importance or effect? Was I more affected by my father’s stories of the Klondike, or by my grandmother’s insistence that if I did not do a chore to my best ability, I would have to do it over?
I cannot say. Grandmother’s requirement for our best efforts, every time, every where, were one of the solid constants in my life. It was never any different. Where the school teacher, or a friend, or even my own parents might occasionally allow me to slide by with much less effort than that of which I was capable, Grandmother did not. In fairness, she was not like that only with me. She was like that with everyone, whether family or not. She did not care so much what the outcome was, as long as the effort was honest and full, and she never came off as anything other than encouraging rather than criticizing. That, and that she expected the same honesty of effort from herself even more than from anyone else.
For Grandmother, the size or importance of the task had no effect on the matter. It was the honesty of the effort. A hundred times, or perhaps a thousand, I listened to her thinking on the subject. If you are going to live your life anyway, then why not see how good you can really become? No answer was satisfactory to her other than that is exactly what you were going to do.
She would ask, “When you are on your deathbed, do you want to look back and be consumed with disappointment of what you could have accomplished if you had used up all of your efforts, to the last drop, with all of the tools and abilities with which you have been graced by God Almighty? Do you wish to stand in front of Him and tell Him that you wasted His gifts on your own selfish pursuits?”
How do you answer that? More so, how do you not make a great effort to that end?
As for my father, he told me that he did not discuss his experiences in the Klondike with anyone, even mother. He said it was too painful, and that there was nothing to be gained from such a discussion. After years of me peppering him with repeated questions about it, he allowed that he would tell me a few things, on the condition that I did not under any circumstances repeat them to others, especially Mother, who was still trying to wipe the lost years from her mind.
In his stories, I was struck by the fact that the actual events, as good and bad as they were, were all driven by a single characteristic of his: wanderlust. He would continually go back and tell me about Grandfather and Grandmother, and their trip to Idaho when they were but children, about how they were orphaned in Colorado, then befriended by a young couple, and then made it to Idaho City on their own. Even when they settled here, Grandfather still wanted to see what was over the next hill, down in the next valley, on top of that mountain. He could out walk any man in the county, for the single purpose of finding out what is there.
Father admits that it was his time with Grandfather that drove him to head off to the Klondike, only a few months after he and Mother were married. “It was the wonder of the wander,” he would say. He is not absolutely certain, but he honestly believes that had he not gone off and gotten defeated so badly at such a young age that he might have harbored the need for the adventure until sometime later in his life, and then would be in a constant battle with himself over whether to attend to his current responsibilities or to his spiritual unrest.
I still do not know which was more important to me. Those stories, or the stories of Aunt Winnie Mae, or making my first horse shoe, or having my father tell me once that he was proud of me. I think that once something becomes part of you, it can no longer be separated. What might seem small and inconsequential may lead to something which is large and very consequential, and the end good that comes out of it may not happen for years and years.
So, I will not try to put things in the order of when they happened. I will record them in the order of when they come to mind.
And, in the tradition of the Stinson family regarding any effort of any level of importance, I will do my best.
The seventh book in the Stinson Family Saga follows James William Longley III into World War I. The death of his Aunt, Winnie Mae Stinson nearly twenty years earlier in the Spanish American War is both a motivation and a hindrance to him.
Originally interested in being in the infantry, he is moved into airplane maintenance while still in Basic Training in Washington. In Texas, he becomes more and more interested in how the whole airplane works. By the time he gets to France, which was not soon enough for him, he wants to be a pilot. However. there is an education requirement for pilots which he cannot fulfill. Stilll, by twists and turns of fate, he finds himself at the controls of a plane in which the pilot has been shot over German lines. He manages to get the airplane back to base safely.
When the war ends, he knows he still wants to fly, and finds out that the Curtiss Jenny airplanes have a great surplus. He manages to purchase one, and with his friend Abraham Nass, they barnstorm their way back to Idaho, where he discovers again is where he belongs.