Friday, November 17, 2006

The Piper Cub That Wasn't

It was olive drab with a big white star on the fuselage and looked like a Piper Cub but wasn’t. I had all the trading cards from Wings cigaret packs and the aircraft recognition silhouette cards they’d passed out at school and I could tell a Mustang from a Messerschmidtt quicker than anybody and a Betty from a Boston better than most but my dad called the Cub an ‘Elfor’ so that’s what it had to be because he was a Veteran and a pilot and a wizard aircraft mechanic and if he said a hummingbird was a B-29 I would of agreed with him.

They brought them home from the Surplus place down near Atwater, one at a time on the hay trailer, towed behind the ‘36 Plymouth because it had two transmissions. This was something of a logistical nightmare because we didn’t have enough 6.00-16 tires to go around and if the hay trailer was on the road, someone’s car wasn’t. But they had to use a rubber tired trailer towed by a car because steel wagon wheels would break up the blacktop and after the war, the CHP disapproved of horses on Highway 99.

My uncle Don had lots of Veteran’s Points because he stepped on a land mine in Italy. If you stepped on a land mine and lived to tell about it the VA would fix up your face so you looked like something out of a horror movie then give you a glass eye to go with your wooden leg. You also get a lot of Veteran’s Points which were good for going to school and buying a house but aren’t worth a bucket of warm spit if you were a farmer and already had a degree in Animal Husbandry from Davis and almost a DVM, which was why he ended up in Italy in the first place, showing guys how to throw a diamond hitch and shoe a mule. I didn’t believe they had mules in the ETO until my dad told me that’s exactly what happened..

Two hundred and fifty dollars and a bunch of Veteran’s Points allowed Uncle Don to buy the lot of five Cubs that weren’t. The funny part is that Uncle Don didn’t want five airplanes, he wanted to raise pigs and for that he needed lumber but just then you couldn’t buy lumber to save your soul. So he greased up his wooden leg and hiked all over the War Surplus Administration yards at Tracy and Stockton and Atwater, measuring crates and checking weights and asking what the minimum bid would be for a Veteran with lots of fruit salad, a wooden leg and glass eyeball.

It just so happened that Piper Cubs came packed in a BIG box, were dirt cheap and not too heavy to haul home on the hay trailer. Except they weren’t Piper Cubs. But the really crazy part of all this is those pigs, because he wanted to raise them near Hilmar, California where the summer-time temperature will make a coal stove sweat.

So they hauled those crates out to the farm one at a time and opened them up and got all us kids and the women too, to help carry out the wings. The wings were covered with fabric, the way all good wings were built back then but these wings had been sprayed with a powerful anti-fungal compound. Everyone who handled the wings started wheezing and coughing and broke out in a rash. Then they fiddled with the crates, which were very well built with lots of strap iron and bolts and stuff, and rigged some shear legs and used the tractor to take the crates apart without busting up the wood.

Uncle Don was happier than I’d ever seen him. With the new face the VA built for him his version of a smile came out as a sneer because that part of his face used to be his armpit. When he first came home from the hospital the only way to know if he was happy or mad was to watch my aunt Muriel. When he’d sneer she’d would smile so we’d all smile too and pretty soon we didn’t need her to interpret. He was sneering all over the place, gimping around and getting in the way as we took the crates apart and pumped up the tires and rolled the Cubs over by the barn where the wings were stacked.

My grandfather, my dad and my Uncle Don worked all though that summer, pouring cement, threading pipe and tearing up those crates. My job was to straighten nails and tamp the concrete after it was placed, making sure there were no voids. Other members of the family came to visit and helped out some and other Veterans too, including a few who looked even worse than Uncle Don. It was a little bit like one of those science fiction stories I was just starting to read where everyone is working just as normal as can be except they looked a little strange and had their own language and were actually building a rocket to the moon, which wasn’t any crazier an idea than raising pigs in that climate. Pigs and chickens don’t sweat but we sure did. Most days it was over a hundred; once it got up to a hundred and twelve and the thermometer is in the shade on the back porch.

They ended up with four long open-sided sheds facing each other two-by-two, far enough apart so you could run the tractor between them on the one side to distribute the feed and go down the other side with the fresno to clear away the muck, which ended up there because the pens had concrete floors sloping that way, shaded by the sheds, with a dished out place that caught the water spray and acted like a pig swimming pool. Nobody had ever seen pig pens like that before. My dad said Uncle Don got the idea in the VA hospital, which gave me quite a scare until I understood what he meant.

After supper my dad would wander over to the airplanes and tinker with them. It took me a while to figure out that he was using pieces off all five to put one of them together. Dad had been in the service longer than Uncle Don but spent most of the war at the Douglas plant accepting airplanes for the Navy and didn’t have as many Veterans Points. He was waiting for the new quota to come out so he could go to college under the GI Bill, which he eventually did.

I’d heard Uncle Don talking to him about how to get rid of the airplanes but they never mentioned putting them together. The airplanes had been in those crates something like six years and when they packed them up they’d used too much of something and not enough of something else and my dad had already declared them ‘not much good.’ Coming from him, that meant kindling wood and scrap iron. Yet there he was, putting one of the airplanes together.

He did it mostly by himself except for us kids to hand him things. I like to think I helped him more than the other kids but the truth is he did most of it alone and in a manner that made you think he had special powers because he never seemed to do anything. But the next time you looked, the plane had grown a tail or a added a wing. I watched him pretty close, trying to figure out how he did it but he’d say, “Hand me that five-eights box,” and when you turned around the wing would be neatly propped in place when it had been leaning on the ground just an instant before.

I was just starting to read real books and had quite a few heroes like Dr. Doolittle or Tarzan. Not the movie Tarzan but the real one; Lord Whats-his-name. That summer I realized my dad was a kind of hero too, not like Uncle Don with his medals or those guys in the books but a more subtle kind of hero who didn’t want people to know that he had these secret powers. It worried me. I wondered if he’d get mad at me for discovering his secret.

After getting it together, the first time he started the engine we expected him to go flying. Instead, he ran it for a while then shut it off and started taking the engine to pieces, rigging a tarp for some shade and using an old door as a table, working on it while everyone else went to church. It seems there was something wrong with the gaskets, or the way they’d preserved it had done something to the gaskets; something like that. After Sunday School I went out to help him. The engine had the same funny smell as the rest of the plane and you’d break out in a rash from handling the canvas bags. He let me scrub the seats with Stryker’s soap and polish the plastic windows although it didn’t help, being so yellow and all.

The alfalfa field next to the house was ten acres laid out two by five. It ran from the road to the irrigation ditch. A dirt road ran alongside the field from our mail box on the county road to a little bridge over the irrigation ditch, giving access to the fields on the other side. The corner of the house was 128 feet from the mailbox, which is something every boy knows because that’s pretty close to the distance between second base and home plate. Back of the house came the yard then the barn and the corral for the cows, taking up about one football field-worth of distance. After that it was clear sailing all the way to the irrigation ditch, about two football fields plus a little more, without any trees or fence posts or powerlines. That became our runway.

The first time my dad flew the Elfor was both a thrill and a disappointment. The thing actually flew which was the thrilling part but he just went straight off towards Turlock, made a big, wide circle toward the east, back down across the river and then back to the farm and landed. I expected him to loop the loop or buzz the house. In fact, I may have gone so far as to tell the other kids that he would. But he just took off straight ahead and flew a big, fat circle and came back, which was the disappointing part. Didn’t even waggle his wings. Some of the other kids sniggered until I looked at them. I was pretty big even then, able to load a bale of hay by myself and even lift a bag of Portland cement although not very high. A bag of cement is 94 pounds; sez so right there on the bag. My cousin David was older than me but he couldn’t lift a sack of cement. Still, I was expecting more from that first flight than just flying in a circle.

When he was putting the thing together he said he would take me for a ride. After he made that first flight I was ready to jump in and go but he taxi’d it over behind the barn and started fooling with the tail then the wheels and after it had cooled off some he began taking the engine apart again. My dad wasn’t a talker but you always knew when he was dissatisfied and he was really unhappy with that airplane, especially with the magnetos. I began to wonder how we managed to win the war.

About two days later he took it up again and this time he took Uncle Don with him. That was a surprise, especially to my aunt Muriel, who started running around like a biddy hen and even crying some.

This time was more like it! He didn’t do any loops but he took it up a lot higher than before and pulled it up until it stopped flying and fell over and the wing flipped around and they dived toward the ground. He did that several times and my aunt got so upset my grandmother had to take her in the house. A couple of times he shut the engine down. Not off; you could hear it was still running, but not fast enough for the thing to keep flying. Then he’d pour on the coal and they’d climb back up and he’d do it again.

Coming back to land, they flew circles over grandpa’s house, which is where we lived back then, and did the same thing over Uncle Don’s house and dived down and flew past us about as high as the roof of the barn. You’d think we’d never seen an airplane the way we were all jumping around and waving like it was VJ Day all over again. After they landed Uncle Don had a sneer that ran from ear to ear and my dad had that look in his eye that said he was pretty well pleased with things in general.

We all went for Elfor rides that summer after the war, all of us kids and all of the grown ups except aunt Muriel and the baby. Some kids didn’t like it but my cousin David and I thought it was prime.

When the people came to drill the new well for the pigs one of the drillers was a Veteran and seemed to know all about Elfors. My dad took him up for a ride and they cut a deal for one of the planes that included using the driller’s truck to haul all the airplane parts out to the airport on East Avenue where my dad put one together for the driller and re-covered it with new cloth and replaced the crazed plastic with clear stuff and painted it yellow with a black lightning bolt down the side. I’d helped my dad sew the skin on an another airplane but I’d never seen one naked before. I thought it was pretty interesting, especially the tools. Fixing all those windows, we’d get to some part of the job that was crazier than a Chinese puzzle and he’d go over to one of his tool boxes and pull out a tool and it would be the absolute custom-made perfect thing for doing that particular job. Then he’d wink at me, fellow members of a secret club. That’s when I knew that he knew I knew about his secret powers. So I stopped worrying about it.

My folks got divorced soon after that. And Uncle Don and his pigs turned out to be not quite as crazy as we thought. The pigs were a Canadian hybrid with a couple of extra ribs, meaning they produced more bacon than other pigs. They were also skinny pigs, if you can imagine such a thing; they weren’t fat at all. That’s because they converted most of their feed into meat instead of fat and because of it, reached a marketable size very quickly. All this just as the nation was coming off rationing when some folks hadn’t sat down to bacon, eggs and an honest cup of coffee in years.

The Elfor sat out behind Uncle Don’s barn with a tarp over the engine. The next fall he built a tin shed to keep the sun off the wings. He would fly it now and then, when aunt Muriel was in town, always with my cousin David or me as his copilot to help him with his landings because of his glass eye. When none of the grown-ups were home David and I would take it out and get the tail up and race it up and down, pretending we were fighter pilots being scrambled for a mission. It was great fun. Until the day we hit a bump and a gust of wind at the same time and found ourselves too high to get it down and stopped before hitting the canal bank.

David and I argued for years over what happened next. It seems we both gave it full power then we both chopped it back. The Elfor banged down like a big bass drum and we got it stopped just before we hit the barbed wire fence. Only trouble was, we banged down in the field across the canal, an awkward triangle of a field that was far too small to fly out of. The cat was very definitely out of the bag because we couldn’t taxi the thing back across the bridge without tearing the wings off.

This isn’t quite the adventure it may seem because the summer before when I visited my dad he’d taken me out to the flying club at El Segundo and signed me up for the primary glider course. He’d drop me off in the morning and I’d spend the whole day waxing wings and playing work-up and getting shot off the sand dunes at Playa del Rey, along which I learned to fly until I could stay up so long that the Flight Master would start blowing his whistle and waving his flag to make me come in. My dad would pick me up when he got out of school and listen patiently as I showed him my log book and described every second of every flight. It must have bored him to tears because I had more than a hundred landings in my log when me & David went dual/solo in the Elfor. (If that sounds crazy, go here: )

My dad flew up from LA in a borrowed Cub and took the wings off the Elfor along with most of the tail and used the tractor to tow it back to the barn. Then he wailed the tar out of me. When I stopped bawling he strapped me into the back of his airplane and made me show him what we’d done in the Elfor. Then he took me up and showed me how you were supposed to do it. After I did it right about three times in a row he climbed out, reminded me to adjust the trim and walked away. I expected him to look back or to wave or something but he just went on into the house. So I did two touch & goes and a full stop and was kind of surprised to see him standing there, watching me. He helped me tie it down then he cut the tail off my T-shirt and told me to never fool around with the Elfor again. Unless I absolutely had to.

All things considered, I think he was a pretty good dad.

‘Elfor’ of course meant ‘L-4' but I didn’t figure that out until later when I happened across the stacks of manuals that had come in the crates. They still smelled of whatever it was they’d used to preserve the airplanes. The next day I got a further reminder of that summer when my hands broke out with the same rash. Truth is, the penny would have dropped sooner if someone had called it an Oh-Fifty-Eight because I think I had a recognition card for that designation.

Exactly how well Uncle Don did with his pigs depends on who tells the tale but most agree the story begins best with those Piper Cubs that weren’t Cubs at all but Elfors in big wooden boxes.

-Bob Hoover

1 comment:

flybynightkarmarepair said...

Readers without any experience with rural life may miss a few subtleties in Bob's lovely story.

"They ended up with four long open-sided sheds facing each other two-by-two, far enough apart so you could run the tractor between them on the one side to distribute the feed and go down the other side with the fresno to clear away the muck..."

Fresno Scraper The Bechtel empire got it's start bossing around horse drawn Fresno Scrapers in California's Central Valley, building rail yards and highways.

And perhaps in the mid- to late-40's, nobody had ever seen pig pens like this, but over the next 15-20 years, ALL pig pens came to look like this, the starting point for modern "confinement" or "battery" livestock rearing. Nowadays they are completely enclosed, heated and cooled, generate so much waste they stink for miles (assuming the waste lagoons don't overflow or bust, killing fish and everything else in the riparian zone for dozens of miles), and are so good at concentrating disease that the hogs get fed antibiotics from birth just to keep routine pulmonary and intestinal infections from decreasing their "feed efficiency".

Uncle Don's setup still had the benefit of some fresh air and sunshine to keep disease partly at bay. But modern hog production is a good example of a Good Idea Gone Too Far. And it's driven small operators out of business completely - Uncle Don nowadays would not even be able to get his pigs to market - the local auction houses and slaughter houses are gone, and the big packers only deal in lots of at least 100 pigs at a time, at their price, probably contracted a year ago, based on the corn futures market.

Small operators are still making a go of it, but in niche markets. The Governor of Montana grows mint on his small spread. Minh families in the Central Valley are making it growing Bitter Melon, Long Beans and Bird Peppers. Other hard working small operators grow organic produce for farmers market.

But market forces, land grant colleges, and a host of other factors have made the pig, historically the most profitable animal for young/small farmers to raise, the province of Big Ag. Uncle Don's story of innovation and hard work would not involve pork if played out today.