Recently, the world–and most particularly, my tiny little family–lost a Very Interesting Person, and we’re poorer for it, though richer for having known him.
Godspeed to my maternal grandfather, my Grampie, Ken Woodard, who at age 95 has continued onward in his journey, leaving behind his daughter, his granddaughter, and (though he and my mom were probably close to giving up on me) his great-grandson, who has ‘Woodard’ as his middle name.
A few years ago, wanting to do something special for a very special man, I had an idea that turned into more of an adventure than I would have imagined. I’d like to share it with you, as my way of remembering the very best of the two of us together. The following is a slightly shortened version of a series of blog posts I wrote during the adventure. I hope you enjoy it as much as he and I did. It’s a memory I will have forever.
You know how sometimes you give a gift to someone else and it turns around and winds up giving you back far more than you put into it?
My grandfather is one of the coolest people I know. He’s an engineer, pilot and tinkerer who has done a whole lot in his life, patenting radar and telecom inventions and rebuilding everything from antique clocks to old cars, motorcycles and even airplanes.
A few years back, for his ninetieth birthday, we threw him a party with eleven guests, and he made a cake-shaped template for the kitchen staff, so they could cut the cake into eleven equal slices rather than having one left over. They laughed, did as they were asked, and returned the template as a souvenir that we still have. For his ninety-fourth birthday, though, I wanted to do something different.
Back in the early 1970s, Grampie was at an airport, not in the market for a plane, when he came across a run-down old two-seat tail dragger: a 1947 Luscombe Silvaire 8E. He asked around, found out that she was for sale, made a deal, and, as he put it ‘pulled her wings off and dragged her home.’ Over the next years, he brought her back to life, doing almost all of the work himself. For the next two decades, they were inseparable. He and Grammie went to fly-ins; he taught himself to do loop-de-loops, hammerhead stalls, and barrel rolls; and he and his friends flew in formations and danced with the clouds.
Eventually, though, things got harder. In his early seventies, he stopped flying over populated areas, figuring if something happened to him, he didn’t want to hurt anybody else. Then, when he was seventy-eight, he made the decision: he couldn’t do his own work anymore, which meant it was time to sell the plane. He found her a good home, of course, with a mechanic friend of his who had always wanted a Luscombe. He handed over the plane and paperwork, and all the spare parts he had accumulated over two-plus decades. And he said goodbye to flying.
Not long after, he and Grammie (with their little dog, Lady) moved into a senior facility close to my mom, where they made friends and a new life. The years elapsed, life moved on … Eventually, Grammie passed on gently, as did Lady, and it hit Grampie hard. A few years down the road, though, he’s doing amazingly well, squiring his girlfriend around on her scooter and making intricate models in the workshop of their assisted living facility, where he’s the go-to guy for small appliance repairs and inventing workarounds for senior-living problems.
He’s never forgotten what it meant to fly, though. His email address (yep, old Grampie emails!) is the tail number of that old Luscombe, and while he doesn’t do too much remember when-ing, he’s usually good for a flying story or two when I visit. So when it came to his ninety-fourth birthday, I thought, Aha! I’ll see if I can find his old plane! He’d love to know what she’s been up to, maybe get a current picture. So I turned to faithful Google, typed in the search …
And when the results popped up, I stopped. I stared. Because I didn’t just get a couple of hits on Grampie’s old plane. I got pages of them.
Me: OMG. What has the old girl been up to?
Computer: Click on a link and let’s find out!
I picked one at random, and found myself diving into the archive of a vintage airplane club’s monthly publication, circa 2002. And what do you know? It turned out that the man Grampie sold the old Luscombe to, Butch, was the president of the club, and had written an introductory note to the magazine each month, many of them talking about the flying he was doing with his own vintage airplanes.
Charmed, I went back to 1998, when Grampie had sold his plane, and picked up her story, reading her new owner’s newsletter articles in order. I saw my Grampie through Butch’s eyes. He wrote about having always wanted a Luscombe Silvaire, and how, after the deal was done, my Grampie would show up at his hangar at random intervals with this, that, or the other spare plane part he had found while cleaning up his garage.
He didn’t mention the Luscombe in every issue, but the little snippets drew me along the years as his picture aged in the masthead. I read about how she had shown up a bigger, slower airplane coming into a tiny country airstrip, and then sipped nine dollars of gas to the behemoth’s double or triple digits; and how he and his wife had briefly lived in an apartment over their hangar while they were between houses, and had hung laundry from her wings.
After a decade or so, a new president took over the organization and there weren’t any more articles that mentioned his name together with the old Luscombe’s tail number. Except for one.
His obituary from the end of 2012, written by the members of the vintage airplane club. He had died of a brain tumor, leaving behind a whole lot of friends, family and fliers to mourn.
It was strange how much shock I felt at seeing it, how much sadness for someone I had never met. How much it meant to see the Luscombe mentioned in his epitaph, which talked about his love for flying, and how she was the last plane he worked on, collaborating with his nephew to rebuild her instrument panel. And how much I felt his friends’ sadness at his passing. I sat there, taking a long moment of silence for a stranger whose life had come near mine but never really intersected. Then, not sure what I would find next, I kept clicking. And I found it.
Sold, January 2013.
The website even had her new owner’s name and mailing address. And so, hoping this wasn’t the end of the adventure, I sat down and wrote a letter, introducing myself and asking whether he would be willing to talk to me about his new plane…
Alas, I didn’t get an answer. But I wasn’t deterred.
Grampie’s birthday rolled around and Arizona and I went up for a visit. My first present was to (as the younger generation is required to do, regardless of age) set up the flatscreen TV my mother had finally talked him into, along with the sound bar that Grampie’s lady-friend had gotten to go with it. In a moment of brilliance, I bought a universal remote that Arizona and I managed to connect to not only the TV, sound bar and cable, but also to his ancient VCR, thereby condensing four remotes into one.
Grampie, being an engineer and gadget guy, was in heaven and Arizona and I looked like geniuses. But that wasn’t all, because I then handed over a legal-size envelope with WHERE IS SHE NOW? A MYSTERY IN PROGRESS printed on the front.
You should have seen his face when he read my introductory letter, then paged through the newsletter articles I had found. And then, at the end, my letter to the Luscombe’s new owner, and a last page that said TO BE CONTINUED …
(No, that’s not a cliffhanger for you, dear reader. It definitely was for him, though!)
The afternoon moved on through burgers and cake, and the conversation bounced around, as conversations do when you get family together, but he kept coming back to the airplane mystery, marveling that I had found as much as I had, and what might happen next.
What happened next was nothing short of lovely. Because a week later on Christmas Day, replete with good food and company after spending the day with Arizona’s family, I opened my email to find a note from a stranger named Leon. It began: Hi Jessica, I just opened your letter yesterday and it was a pleasant surprise and very thoughtful of you to do this for your grandad. I will be glad to send you any information you like …
He went on to say that the old plane was back flying with him and his wife, and had even won an award at a recent fly-in, just like she had back in the day with my Grampie and Grammie! Overjoyed, I wrote him back, and we exchanged a flurry of emails, during which I learned that he had found the plane much as Grampie had—sitting at an airfield, looking sad. Same as Grampie, he hadn’t been in the market for a plane that day, but something about that old Luscombe had called to him. He asked around, found out that she was for sale, and made an offer, just like Grampie had back in 1973. And, like Grampie, he pulled off her wings and dragged her home to make the necessary repairs himself.
The vintage airplane community is a small one, and Leon knows an old friend of my grampie’s … Delighted to hear that he’s alive and kicking, she sent a secondhand hello via Leon, and that along with printed-out photographs of Leon’s Luscombe, wearing new paint and a bigger propeller, just about made my grampie’s month, possibly longer. My mom says he’s called her three times now to tell her about the pages I sent him to finish out the story, and that’s rare for him. He’s pulling together pictures to send to Leon now, and I have a feeling they’ll get in touch with each other soon to swap flying stories.
So there you have it, folks. That’s the story of a gift idea that wound up meaning as much to me as it did to the giftee. I have really loved meeting Butch (alas, posthumously) and Leon, and sharing this info-scavenger hunt with my mom and Grampie. And more, I love knowing–and knowing that Grampie knows–that the old girl is back flying with a pilot who couldn’t walk away from her. Again.
Jesse here again, JauntyFriends, with an apology that this got so long. But it was a story I wanted to share. If you stuck with me this long, let me reward you with the following postscript: Leon and Grampie stayed in touch, as old flyboys tend to do. And when the time came and my mom and I were cleaning out the apartment, I found that very same envelope, marked A MYSTERY IN PROGRESS…, lovingly preserved along with the well-thumbed pages and photos I had included.
It’s here with me now, along with many photographs and memories, and a half-built model of a Sopwith Camel that Arizona plans to complete with Wallaby in a few years, and fly in his Great-Grampie’s memory.