A tale of two very dif­fer­ent Bobs


Flying - - Contents - By Peter Garrison

I grad­u­ated from col­lege in 1965. The Viet­nam War was in full swing, and any able-bod­ied male who was not be­ing ed­u­cated was be­ing drafted. I could have gone to grad­u­ate school, but in­stead de­cided to take my chances. I moved in with a cou­ple of old friends in Palo Alto, Cal­i­for­nia. Hav­ing a fancy B.A. in English, I went to an un­pre­pos­sess­ing flight school at the Oak­land Air­port and got work as a lineboy in ex­change for com­mer­cial­li­cense in­struc­tion and a pit­tance suit­able only for a breathar­ian.

The school was run by a fel­low named Bob Short. I re­call him as a tall, lanky guy with a mus­tache. But that isn’t how he re­ally looked. The rea­son I know that’s not how he looked is there’s a tiny picture of him on­line, play­ing the tuba with the San Fran­cisco jazz band of Turk Mur­phy.

Short seems to have been a pretty ter­rific mu­si­cian. Dur­ing the 1930s he mas­tered a num­ber of in­stru­ments, in­clud­ing cor­net, trom­bone, banjo and string bass, and he played with sev­eral bands in Port­land be­fore com­ing to San Fran­cisco in the 1950s. At some point, he started fly­ing — maybe he was look­ing for a dif­fer­ent way to get rich — and by the time I got to him, he was no longer a reg­u­lar with Mur­phy, though he still did gigs with other bands from time to time. Ac­cord­ing to a 1998 ar­ti­cle in the Frisco Cricket, he “was prob­a­bly the most in­flu­en­tial tubaist of the re­vival, with dis­ci­ples still play­ing his ideas in the ’90s.”

I didn’t know any of this. To me, he was just the guy who ran the flight school and checked me out in its Citabria, N11097, and Champ, N9986Y. I had never flown tail­drag­gers be­fore, and Short taught me that the key to a good land­ing is to feel for the ground with the tail­wheel. To this day, I still land tri-gear air­planes that way, hold­ing them off as the nose goes higher and higher, eclips­ing the run­way, the stall horn blar­ing. If the air­plane is not on the verge of stalling when the wheels touch, I am un­happy with the land­ing. Short, who died in 1976 at the age of 65, lives on in the hearts of cer­tain jazz afi­ciona­dos, and in my land­ings.

I flew ev­ery day. At the end of my

se­cond week, Short told me to de­liver 86Y to a me­chanic at No­vato, at the north end of the San Fran­cisco Bay. Al­though I had 370 hours and had al­ready made trips back and forth across the coun­try in the Co­manche 250 in which I learned to fly, I was sur­prised and moved to be en­trusted with the lit­tle Champ for a trip away from its home field. Three days later, I was drafted. Ten years af­ter­ward, my air­plane was hangared with an­other Bob, whom I will call, out of re­spect for his pri­vacy, Bob Long. This Bob was a kind of wild man who min­gled out­bursts of raunchy hu­mor with mo­ments of dis­arm­ing sin­cer­ity. His two fa­vorite things in the world were sex and guns. Be­liev­ing as firmly as any­one could in a well-reg­u­lated mili­tia, even if it con­sisted only of him­self, Long would pass a slow af­ter­noon by punch­ing .45-cal­iber holes in a dis­carded oil drum be­hind the hangar.

Years later, af­ter he had given up his avi­a­tion busi­ness and gone into an­other line of work al­to­gether, he re­lated to me how he had once pur­sued an armed bank rob­ber in the streets of the sea­side town in which he lived. When the fel­low turned and took a shot at him, he re­turned fire, to the ex­treme dis­ad­van­tage of the flee­ing felon. He told me that the po­lice rep­re­hended his tac­tics but con­grat­u­lated him on his good aim — and then he ex­ploded in his char­ac­ter­is­tic long, arc­ing laugh.

When I was about to leave for Alaska to col­lect ma­te­rial for an ar­ti­cle, a bunch of peo­ple were stand­ing around in front of the hangar, get­ting ready to say good­bye — some of them, I sus­pect, won­der­ing if they would ever see me again, since I in­tended, af­ter fin­ish­ing with Alaska, to fly my home­made plane across the Pa­cific to Ja­pan. Bob sud­denly had an idea. He went to his of­fice and brought me back a .22-cal­iber re­volver and a box of am­mu­ni­tion. Its os­ten­si­ble pur­pose was to scare off bears and, per­haps, to bag small game should I be forced to land in the wilder­ness.

I day­dreamed a good deal about the .22-ver­sus-griz­zly sce­nario while cross­ing the vast tract of vir­gin land be­tween An­chor­age and Nome, but the en­gine never ceased to run smoothly and my puny ar­ma­ment re­mained stashed in an un­der­floor com­part­ment be­hind the seats. It was des­tined, how­ever, to cause me a good deal of trou­ble.

My com­pan­ion Nancy joined me in An­chor­age on July 3, and we im­me­di­ately set out. Leav­ing Cold Bay, at the tip of the Alaska Penin­sula, at 9:30 in the evening, we flew for 15 hours and ar­rived at Chi­tose, on the north­ern Ja­panese is­land of Hokkaido, at 6:30 a.m. on July 5. We had crossed the in­ter­na­tional date line around mid­night, and so had in­ad­ver­tently ex­cised July 4, 1976, the bi­cen­ten­nial, from our lives. We made up for it later by do­ing July 27 twice.

Nancy had slept dur­ing the flight, but I had now been up for 30 hours or so and was ready for a good day’s sleep. It was not to be.

When the gen­eral dec­la­ra­tion form re­quired by cus­toms asked whether we were car­ry­ing any firearms, I naively checked yes. The bu­reau­cratic con­ster­na­tion was com­plete. It was il­le­gal to bring a gun into Ja­pan with­out all sorts of prior ar­range­ments and au­tho­riza­tions. Once its ex­is­tence was known, it could not sim­ply be left in the plane, nor could it be handed over to the air­port author­i­ties for safe­keep­ing. There seemed to be a rule against ev­ery­thing, but no rule for solv­ing the prob­lem. I sug­gested that as far as I was con­cerned, they could con­fis­cate and de­stroy it — I fig­ured Bob had plenty of other guns and wouldn’t miss this one — but there was a rule against that too.

The puz­zle­ment con­tin­ued for hours. I would fall asleep while talk­ing to peo­ple. At noon, one of the su­per­vi­sors, who spoke no English, took us to lunch. We had sushi. It was prob­a­bly a grim ex­pe­ri­ence for him, con­ver­sa­tion­ally; for my­self, I re­mem­ber a few dis­agree­able tex­tures.

Fi­nally, per­haps be­cause it was al­most time to go home, they came to a so­lu­tion that would have oc­curred to an Amer­i­can im­me­di­ately: Break a rule. The chief of po­lice ar­rived and took cus­tody of the gun. We re­paired to an inn. Three weeks later, as we pre­pared to depart, the chief cer­e­mo­ni­ally re­turned the gun to me while a group of gig­gling Air Nip­pon stew­ardesses lined up for a pho­to­graph with Nancy.

When we re-en­tered the United States, no one even thought to ask if we were pack­ing heat.

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