Being the sons of an Army aviator, my brothers and I aspired on occasion to becoming unstuck from the earth like our father did. Obviously not just like he did. He was a helicopter pilot and we simply didn’t have the technological prowess to recreate a rotary wing aircraft out of scrap lumber and pilfered bicycle parts. Something along the lines of a glider would have to suffice. After days of scrounging wood scraps and pulling any exposed nails from any available source, we began construction of the JX-1 Albatross. In case you aren’t familiar with the naming conventions of experimental aircraft designed by grade schoolers, JX-1 meant that this was the first iteration of the (J)ohns e(X)perimental glider. I chose the moniker “Albatross” since it was a glider and we hoped to stay aloft for extended periods of time much like the plane’s namesake. Also like the plane’s namesake, we really didn’t expect much in the way of graceful landings.
Construction of this type begins with the straightening of nails which is typically achieved by placing them on concrete and smashing the fingers holding them repeatedly with a rock since your father got sick of things coming apart due to missing nails and hid the hammer from you. With each new mangling of a finger I found myself flailing about on the rough concrete patio. My curly hair would stick to it like Velcro. My t-shirt did much the same and became a mess of little cotton pills, pulled threads, and runs. I’d wipe tears with little bloody hands and prep the next nail for rendering it into aviation quality material. It was a true test of my resolve, but I would not be deterred.
Have you ever tried to tackle a wood working project with little more than a rock? It is challenging to say the least. I know that my father was trying to instill a sense of independence and self-reliance by keeping his power tools from me, but fifth graders rarely understand paternal motives and it seemed to me that my father didn’t share well and was overly cranky when he flew nights and I used power tools near his bedroom window during the day. Honestly, I wouldn’t have trusted me with them either. I am talking about the kid who couldn’t operate a roll of duct tape without losing a tooth that wasn’t even loose. In retrospect, I really did bleed a lot as a kid. Aaaaaaaand I’ve gotten off topic again.
Without the use of a saw my middle brother and I were able to cobble together something that vaguely resembled an aircraft if you really used your imagination. It was experimental after all. It was based on a giant triangularly shaped piece of plywood we liked to tell ourselves was a delta wing configuration. I pulled it out of one of those large dumpsters used at construction sites to cordon off large quantities of tetanus. I didn’t learn this was the true purpose of these bins until I limped home dragging my prize and having to explain to my mother that it was ok because I pulled the nail out and I wouldn’t even have to straighten this one. I brandished my rusty prize and she took me for my third or fourth tetanus shot. Who knew that these things were a series? I didn’t. I’m on like the tenth one in the series.
Upon this delta wing foundation, we mounted the cockpit. It was an old ammo crate I’d pilfered through a hole in the chain link fence of the ammo dump when we lived in Panama. I was enamored of it for some reason, but for the sake of technological advancement, we removed the lid and voila! a place for the pilot to sit once it was nailed to the wing. The lid became a vertical stabilizer that wasn’t quite vertical nor stabilizing, but this was just a prototype, so it was fine. I can’t tell you where the bicycle tires came from, but we had two of them for rear landing gear and a wagon’s front axle for the nose of our plane.
There were no controls in the cockpit. I guess that in my thought processes we would just test it at this stage and gently land a few feet away after a brief and triumphant glide. I envisioned it like the flight of Howard Hughes’s Spruce Goose, but unlike Mr. Hughes, we would take the Albatross on more than one flight. There were just a few more blocks to check before we made history.
For one, we did understand that planes needed lift and thrust to make things work. While we didn’t have thrust, lift seemed an easy enough thing to attain. The massive hill leading down to our house would have been optimal, but I’d been all but banished from it by neighbors pursuant to bicycle and go-cart incidents. Really people. It’s a road, not a parking lot for your new cars. We did have a nicely sloped roof though and I enlisted the aid of The Brain (my middle brother) and Twinkle Toes (the tip-toe everywhere he goes little brother) as porters to move the Albatross from now pock-marked and blood stained construction site to the Cusp of Glory (as I called my newly christened runway. They held our creation there as I silently (no need to wake dad until we had proved air worthiness) climbed down to secure a retaining rope to a large stake driven into the back yard.
To my immense sadness, I would not be the test pilot. My hands were so badly mauled that they were only fit to cut the bonds that held our creation to the earth and I was still limping from my recent discovery that my right foot is really awesome at finding things like nails. The Brain declined the honor with the simple statement “I’m not getting in that thing”. He’s quite intelligent, but has a hard time expressing his thoughts in a non-hurtful manner especially when he’s getting emotional. I understood fully as I too was flushed under the onslaught of excitement and emotion so intense it threatened tears. So I bestowed the honorific title of Ground Crew upon him. Twinkle Toes tried to decline the place of honor as well but acquiesced when we politely insisted. At the time I didn’t understand why he did so with a fearful look at my right hip.
That look became clear once I’d taken my position by the stake to which the Albatross was tethered. I drew my machete from its scabbard and raised it above my head, reveling in the moment. The Brain had vanished altogether. I assumed he was in the front yard so that he might witness our creation take flight. I stood majestically like some Greco-Roman hero poised to strike the head off a dragon. I held the chrome plated decorative machete over my head and watched as a single ray of sunlight broke through the clouds and glinted off its surface. Before I could bring my blade down in its intended arch, my father emerged from the back door of the house with sleepy eyes squinting against the reflected sun light off my blade. There was an audible ping as my machete glanced off of trees in the woods behind the house. I figured that if he couldn’t find it he couldn’t take it away and I was sure he was blind at the moment and couldn’t see where it went or if I even had it.
I was made to free Twinkle Toes from his place of honor before I could lower my masterpiece back to the ground. The JX-1 was subsequently dismantled and Project Albatross was shut down in its entirety. As the project manager, I was placed on indefinite administrative leave through an all too familiar term uttered by he who would remain the only aviator under our roof: “You’re grounded”.
(Image is dad in the cockpit, Germany, 1988)