By Herb Moore
Special to the Chronicle
The big moment, the culmination of hours of work, Johnny Roberts was so excited at what he was about to witness he couldn’t speak, only nod his head.
Billy Jones was his usual quiet self, standing by to help in any way he could. And myself, as I squeezed into the aircraft I tried not to show how scared I felt as it was my first flight.
It all started with finally getting in the mail the long-awaited, learn-to-fly with Capt. Sparks instruction manual. Included with the manual was a cardboard instrument panel, likewise a joy stick and two rudder pedals.
I had been collecting coupons from breakfast cereal boxes for what seemed like forever until I had enough to send away for this prize.
The weeks following found me sitting in a large pine tree every minute I could to get away from my chores.
The tree was ideal as two large limbs substituted for wings. A fork in the tree gave me a place to sit and brace the instrument panel on my lap. With the rudder pedals tied on to my shoes, the joystick firmly held in my left hand, and the manual close by for reference, I was flying, keeping careful watch on the altimeter and the turn and bank bubble all the while.
When I felt I’d learned to fly the next step was to build an airplane. I had never seen a real plane only read about them and seen pictures. On the property where we were living there were several old buildings including the ideal launching platform; a large chicken house situated on a steep hill overlooking a creek. Enlisting the aid of my friends Johnny and Billy, we started assembly using pieces of old weather-beaten shiplap held together with nails we salvaged and straightened out.
Our plane took shape. Looking back, it resembled a coffin designed for a tall, skinny man.
The important part by our standards were the wings, again made of shiplap. They extended out from the main body probably six feet; the tail held on by an old gate hinge and controlled by haywire leading into the rudder pedals made of more old hinges. There was no joystick as the wings were fixed and it was my plan to glide to a smooth landing.
With my friends helping, me pulling on a rope and them lifting, we got our plane up on the roof of the chicken house. All that remained was the test flight.
“You really gonna fly it?” Johnny exclaimed. “Yep,” I replied, full of bravado.
“Your folks know what you’re planning?” Billy asked.
“Dad’s working outta town and Mom doesn’t take much notice of me long as I do my chores.”
The moment had arrived. I looked down from the roof at the steep hill and the creek near the bottom.
I felt the sun on my face and watched as swallows flew from holes in the bank down and over the creek. I looked at my friends; they were staring back at me as my stomach was a mass of knots.
“Hold ’er steady while I climb in, and when I say push, give er everything ya got.”
And they did. Suddenly, I was sliding off the roof, landing on the steep hillside with a hard crash. Then I slid down the bank, and there in front of me was the creek. Next came the “splash.”
Laying in the creek, my plane came apart all around me. I struggled to get out of what I was sure would be my coffin and then realized I was attached to it. Not just by clothes but I was impaled by a nail we hadn’t bent over and it was dug into my right butt cheek. Oh, it hurt.
I struggled to clear myself and at last, with a loud yelp, broke free, leaving a chunk of my pants and skin behind.
I never did learn to fly and have a scar to remind me of that failure.