My wife, who is the mother of four children and has no independent income of her own, at first regarded my amateur piloting with more tolerance than enthusiasm. Oh, Natalie would go along on trips and hold the maps sometimes; she thought clouds were nature's poetry; she agreed that flying was cheaper, smoother and faster than traveling by car. But that was about all. Then one fine summer she took a long trip around the U.S. with me and I wrote a magazine piece about it, starring her. For some reason this caused a woman in Bismarck, N.D., a total stranger, to send Natalie an old book of memoirs by Mrs. Anne Morrow Lindbergh, the wife of one of my fellow aviators.
Mrs. Lindbergh apparently pushes an eloquent pen. A new spirit entered our household. Recently I was encouraged to replace my clanking, independent-minded old Ercoupe with a new Piper Tri-Pacer, "...in the interests of speed, range and gross loading capacity," as Natalie put it.
"You mean seating space for the kids," I said.
"No, I mean how much it can carry," she said. "Ask them at the factory about taking out the back seat and putting in a big gas tank. I'd love for us to fly over the ocean together and look for something weird and worthwhile on the other side."
April 4, 1955
She knew how I felt about single-engine airplanes over water, and had seen me pick the narrowest crossing over even such a placid duckpond as Long Island Sound. But she also knew I'd go to great lengths to keep up her new-found interest. So we ended with a compromise: while I went to pick up the plane (with back seat intact), she'd study the atlas and find us a reasonably handy destination which involved navigating a body of water somewhat tidier in size than the Atlantic Ocean. She said as long as we would be out of sight of land at some point en route she'd be satisfied. I suggested the Mississippi on a hazy day, but she finally decided on the Isle of Pines, a little place south of Cuba.
"It used to be a pirate hangout and it has solid marble mountains," she told me.
"Um," I said. "About a hundred miles open water from Key West to Havana, 50-odd miles more water from the south coast on..." and I got out the computer and started figuring altitudes and rates of descent.
"The Isle of Pines inspired both Treasure Island and The Gold-Bug."
"I don't want to go higher than 12,000 feet without oxygen," I said, "which ought to give us around 15 miles gliding radius. That leaves 70 of the big stretch..."
Her eyes flashed contemptuously.
"The whole route will be cluttered with fishermen and pleasure boats," she said. "Besides, we've got radio. Charles didn't even have radio most of the time."
"I was only thinking of your children," I said lamely. It is one thing for a wife to share her husband's hobbies; another for her to grab the ball and run with it.
TO BEAT OFF THE BARRACUDA
She was furious when I made her put on a rented Mae West before we jumped off from Florida. The web straps bunched her skirt up between her knees and made her feel silly. She joined the airport loungers in a smirk when I told the radio people I would call in at 15-minute intervals, and when I circled Key West for a while to gain altitude before striking out across that endless-looking water, she let it be clearly known that it was her impression that our destination was 197° south, not 90° straight up. She then retired behind a fat copy of Harper's Bazaar, explaining that she'd brought it along to roll up and beat the barracuda off me in case we went into the drink.
We got on course and flew along in bitter silence for a while, still climbing, and then some patches of sparkling cumulus cloud which appeared below enticed her from the magazine and restored her good humor. I was grateful to the clouds for hiding some of the water.
"How far have we gone?" she asked at length.
"About a third of the way."
"You couldn't make Key West now if the engine quit?"
"If you keep 'em serviced, and mind your pre-flight checks, light-plane engines don't quit these days. But I wish to hell you wouldn't bring it up. No, we couldn't make Key West."
"Then," she breathed rapturously, "we have passed The Point of No Return!"
"Not even Charles' wife would say a cornball thing like that," I snorted.
That drove her back into her corner. I tuned in the Omni station at Key West to correct our heading, and was checking with the man for the latest weather sequence, when Natalie told me to turn the radio off.
"I wish you'd listen to the engine," she said. "It's sort of skipping in a funny way. Not skipping, exactly, but it sounds different. And the oil gauge is shivering the least little bit. It never did that before."
A SUBTLE GRINDING
She was right. This is a phenomenon known in single-engine flying circles as "Automatic Rough." A subtle, grinding, coughing, spluttering sort of thing, accompanied by ominous little shakings in the instruments, it is frequently brought on by the engine's breathing the air over rugged mountains, slimy swamps, or wide, deep bodies of water. Adjusting the fuel mixture or applying carburetor heat only aggravates the condition; the only sure cure is the air encountered over more hospitable terrain, where there are plenty of places to land safely. Some scoffers might say Automatic Rough is purely a mental condition, that air is air wherever you are. But us Sunday Pilots know better.
"By golly, it's good to see you paying attention to these things," I said, trying to show pleasure without delight.
Another interesting thing happened soon after. At our airspeed, Havana should have been an easy hour from Key West, and by now the coast should have been in sight. But it wasn't, and I knew why. If Natalie had been listening to the radio, instead of to the engine, she'd have known also. We were bucking a stiff headwind. So it came about that after she'd studied the vibrations long enough to decide that after all there was a fair chance of the engine holding together until we made landfall, she looked up ahead and her eyes got wide.
She glanced at me, back at the water, at me again; I kept my peace and made a big production out of twiddling radio knobs in a confused sort of way.
"I guess Cuba is a pretty small dot in all that ocean," she said.
I nodded and went on twiddling. I was merciless.
"I suppose you could miss it. How much gas have we got?" Her Viking helmet was slipping badly.
"They say you can see the Andes from hundreds of miles on a clear day," I said. "We'll hold our course and see what pops up."
"Oh, come on, now. Where does the radio say we are?"
"Glad we wore Mae Wests?"
"I think it was very foresighted of you to rent them." She put her head on my shoulder, just like when we drove cars. "Please find Cuba," she implored.
"Land ho!" I cried, master in my own house again, and we began the long letdown for Havana, where swarms of customs officials descended upon us as if we'd been a DC-7, exacted tribute in the form of landing fees, and cleared us to the Isle of Pines. We had a fine time down there, and for the flight back I bought a machete, ostensibly as a souvenir. But Natalie knew it was to fight off the monsters of the deep, and she didn't say a word about it.
Twenty-four years ago this week Knute Rockne, en route to Los Angeles to make a motion picture, died in a tragic airplane crash near Bazaar, Kan. With his death football lost a witty wizard who as head coach for twelve years (1918-30) had guided Notre Dame to 105 victories as against only 12 defeats. Rockne's teams were undefeated and untied throughout 1929 and 1930—his last two seasons of coaching.