My '4F' Childhood: Farm, Family, Flying, and Fiddle Music

by Dual Writer

Copyright© 2011 by Dual Writer

: A fun, insightful story of the "Real" Chuck Johnson's youth. Read why his stories often include airplanes and music.

Tags: True Story   Historical   Humor  

Once upon a time, a thousand years ago (or so it seems), I was a farm boy whose father had an unusual hobby. Dad was a World War II fighter pilot with enough kills to be an ace, but it didn't make any difference to him; he just liked to fly. He had flown with some kind of barnstorming group before the war. While barnstorming, he was inspired to sign up and he was sent to learn how to fly fighters. He met my mom about that time, immediately married her, and started creating my sister. In the war, he flew P-47s in Europe, and P-51s later in the Pacific. He said he trained in P-38s, but never flew them in combat. Between Europe and the Pacific, while Dad was on a short leave, they created me. My other sis and brother were created at the same time the war ended; yuk, double trouble twins.

After the war, dad took over his parents' farm, moving his wife and war babies to the country. I really don't remember that time, but my sister said the first few months were busy because another house had to be built. Dad, with the help of gramps, was as good a farmer as he had been a pilot. He raised a lot of beef stock, although we had a couple of cows always fresh for milk for his and the neighbors' kids. (Fresh means the cow was still giving milk, not dried up when they are in their last trimester before giving birth to a calf and are able to give you milk again.) Some of the farm money came from sugar cane, some from the extra hay we cut, and a lot of money came from fresh vegetables, such as sweet corn, green beans, tomatoes, squash, pumpkin, watermelon, and so on. We grew a lot of vegetables. We also had a good sized orchard of oranges, grapefruit, and lemon trees. Dad's sweet corn was often bid on by big companies that would bring their own people in to pick it for canning. That was a good deal, because dad didn't have to use any of his workers to harvest that crop, just to plant and cultivate it. We did have to put up with one of the canning company people, who for a couple of weeks spent all day in the corn fields, tearing ears of corn open to make sure the corn was picked at the exact right time.

Dad's unusual hobby was airplanes. Most people would possibly be content to own an airplane, but not dad, he liked to have work airplanes and play airplanes. We had a biplane that was used for crop dusting. It had a powerful engine that would let you make a fast pass over a long field and pull up sharply just before a tree line. Fast was good, as the fertilizer and insecticide would spread farther and more evenly. In my early childhood, we had a Stearman biplane that was the duster. Dad had a war buddy that did a lot of the dusting for a chance to fly. We later had a Grumman Ag Cat that was a hell of an aircraft. The first big airplane that could take all of us along for a trip was a Beechcraft 35. There were four of us kids, but mom held the baby. This was a great airplane as it was all metal and you didn't have to recover the wings. (I'll tell you more about that.) Somewhere in the early sixties, dad bought a six passenger Cessna 205, so as the baby grew, we could all go somewhere at the same time. But by the time he bought the 205, I had gone away to school.

According to dad, all of us kids should learn how to fly. My sister was the oldest, so between twelve and thirteen, she began learning in a Cessna 140 dad picked up at an auction.

Before you could learn to fly, according to dad, you had to learn how to keep an aircraft airworthy. You had to learn how to do most everything. In addition to a simple refueling (done from a fifty-five gallon drum with a hand crank pump) or a simple oil change, you had to learn how to take things, such as the cowling, off to work on the engine, and most importantly, how to put the cowling back on, with "ALL" the screws and lock-washers in place. Our 140 had fabric wings that had to be recovered about every four to six years because of the hot sun where we lived. Dad later finally built big steel buildings for hangars, and put the all metal aircraft in them. Go figure.

Anyway, when you recover an aircraft, you take all of the skin off first. You are left with a skeleton of what an airplane really looks like. Of course, it's time to wire-brush, sand, and paint the frame, and to check the now easy to get at control cables that dad always replaced. The new fabric is a pain in the ass and fingers. You have to be careful with the needle and not make a big hole or tear the fabric. Picture a twelve year old pulling canvas fabric with one hand and trying the push a curved needle through four layers of that fabric, then tying each stitch with a special knot called a "modified seine knot". Tough! My sis and I worked out a deal whereby I would hold the two pieces of folded fabric together while she pushed the needle through, using a big thimble. What a way to bond with your sister. Dad inspected every stitch and we surprisingly never had to re-stitch any of it. The next process is doping, and I don't mean smoking some weed. It involves putting multiple coatings of something that sort of smells like strong shellac, called aircraft dope, over the fabric, with some sanding on the rough spots, and finally painting with a similarly aromatic enamel. If you worked with it in an unventilated area for very long, you would probably pass out. We did the work in an open sided tent. Recovering an airplane is not a one or two day job. For a couple of kids working on the project for an hour or two after school and chores, it took over a month. Doing our original biplane took something like six weeks.

Dad had a toy. He loved his little Mooney Mite. This was a tiny single seat airplane that was fairly fast – two miles per hour per horsepower, but not a lot of horsepower – and very maneuverable. The little 65 horse power engine could fly all day at 120 knots. You couldn't do any aerobatics in it as it had gravity fed fuel. It had retractable landing gear, so dad felt like he was in a fighter again. He flew that thing every chance he had, using it to go for farm parts whenever he could. There wasn't a lot of room behind the seat, but it was enough for a box of miscellaneous equipment parts. From the time dad brought the Mooney Mite home, he teased me and my sister, "I'll let you both let us fly it when you get older and become better pilots."

My sis had learned to fly at fourteen or fifteen, and had begun learning to fly the old biplane, as she was going to be doing the dusting the next season. I was just getting to learn how to fly in the Cessna 140, a two seat (side by side) tail-wheel airplane with, like the others, fabric-covered wooden wings.

You know how kids are; they feel like it's no big deal to do anything. Boys have no fear of anything from riding a strange horse, driving a tractor up a steep hill, jumping out of the door of the barn onto a pile of hay, or flying an airplane. Dad was exacting though, and for him to consider you airworthy, you had to land literally hundreds of times. He always told us, "Any fool can get an airplane up, but only a practiced pilot can land one." You had to set the wheels down softly, with no bounce for him to be happy. No fast landings, no fancy turn into a landing, always line up and glide in. He made me practice touching down and slowly lowering the tail. Any bounce there and you would be landing another five or six times.

We had some very modern instruments to use for flying. One was a thermometer cabinet with a powered psychrometer for wet and dry bulb (thermometer) readings. (You used a chart to get a dew point calculation for relative humidity) Our mini-weather station also had a barometer that we used to set our altimeter. We had a windsock that was originally on a tall pole, but was later put on a pole on top of the metal buildings housing airplanes. We were lucky as the field we used was very large, level, and very smooth, so we could land and take off in any direction, wherever the windsock pointed. There was some drag on takeoff when the alfalfa was high, but we cut and baled it often enough that there were few problems.

Years ago, there was a large Canadian goose flyway past and over our farm. The big sweet corn field was usually still unplowed at that time of year after the first crop had just been picked. Because there was always leftover corn in the field, geese enjoyed stopping by and often spent the night there. There were several large lakes nearby that geese would go to during the day, but since gators and geese don't mix well, the field was a better place to spend the night.

One morning when I was seventeen, my dad asked me, "How about flying to a little field up near Jacksonville to pick up some equipment parts. The big Case tractor had a cog break off a gear in the transmission, so I need you to go get the parts."

It wasn't a big deal for either my sister or me to be sent somewhere for something, but usually not by airplane. This was my dad's first time to send me on a flying errand. By this time, I was flying the crop duster along with my sister, but I had never been sent across country to pick up something. I think this was a test, since my sister was usually the person to go for stuff, and I was excited to be chosen for this errand.

It was early in the day, after the usual morning farm chores and breakfast. Dad figured it would be a couple of hours up, eat a snack, refuel, and a couple of hours back. He gave me ten bucks for fuel and a snack, and told me, "You should only need twelve or thirteen gallons and only buy the good gas." The good gas back then was 100-110 octane Gulf gas that cost an amazing high of thirty cents a gallon. I was really excited about the responsibility of being sent for something in the airplane.

I checked the temperature and tapped the barometer before reaching into the 140's cockpit to set the altimeter. After my dad and I went over the aircraft, I got in, belted up, and went through startup. We did have a radio (tube type) that worked fairly well off batteries from the water pump motor, but most little fields didn't have communications. You could announce your location before landing, but it was just blind luck if you didn't run into anyone. That was one of the reasons my dad insisted on a long approach.

Anyway, that morning the windsock had me taking off and climbing over the corn field. The little plane lifted its tail and soon rotated off the grass a good ways from the corn field. I guess the sound of the engine startled the big Canadian geese, as they all began taking off all at once. You can only climb so fast in a little aircraft and the best thing to do is to keep on a straight path while climbing, as quick lateral movements could cause a small aircraft to stall.


The plane suddenly wanted to twist to the right, almost crabbing, but it also wanted to pull right in a downward pull. I checked the throttle to make sure it was all the way in and continued to climb, fighting the stick and rudder pedals. I banked slowly, trying to stay level and headed straight back to the field, disregarding the direction of the wind. This was a wholly different brand of excitement than I had started the flight with. Thank goodness there wasn't much wind and I was able to land smoothly. When I got back to where my dad was standing watching the takeoff, I could tell he was apprehensive for me. I was apprehensive for me too. Sometime in all of that, I had leaked a little (peed in my pants).

My dad and sis did some joking about my goose hunting technique. My sis said, "I guess you were goosed good out there. Even made you pee in your pants." How embarrassing is that?

We inspected the damage and found the right elevator (the little flap on the tail of an airplane) had hit a goose and pushed it upward, breaking the control cable. It had torn the fabric on the elevator and the tail. While I went inside to change pants and wash, dad sent my little brother out to find the goose that committed suicide by hitting the little 140. It was going to be dinner.

When I came back out of the house, my dad gave me the biggest surprise ever. He told me, "Pull the Mooney Mite out of the building and get it ready to fly." This was dad's personal toy. My sister and I had flown it under his watchful eyes and were both proficient landing on the tricycle gear. You just had to remember to set the nose down instead of the tail. The problem for us to fly the plane is that it is a single place machine. Dad couldn't sit next to you and tell you what and what not to do. With this little aircraft he instructed, you followed instructions, and the plane flew.

I remember being extremely nervous as I knew my dad watched every step I took prepping the little aircraft. You need to know a little about the airplane. It did not have a starter. You had to pull the prop through to start it. So you first set the fuel mixture to 'rich, ' pushed the throttle in a little, while sitting on the wood wing and reaching into the small cockpit. You would first pull the propeller through a couple of times to prime the engine, reach in the cockpit, turn on both magnetos (ignition), then pull the prop through again. But you sometimes had to pull it through again and again and again. Other times, you had to wind the little toy up by turning the prop backwards a couple of turns. This supposedly cleared and re-primed the cylinders again. After that, the engine usually started with one pull through.

You could sit on the wing and reach in to reset the throttle and mixture to let the engine warm up.

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