Saved by Mountaineering

As Sid’s first year of teaching — which turned out to be his last — was ending, he asked a fellow teacher what he did for work in the summer.  The teacher said he was in the painters’ union and made good money painting houses.

The coworker said he could get Sid into the union.  He gave Sid a list of equipment that he would need to buy first.  Oddly, the list included a painter’s suit in a specific size, which was much too big for Sid.  Sid bought the suit, but he didn’t know why he was buying it.

When they next met, the coworker looked at the suit, said it would do nicely, and put it on.  He handed Sid his own suit, which was covered with paint, and told him to put it on.

They went to the union hall, and Sid looked the part.  The coworker explained that Sid was an experienced painter from Waynesburg, where they didn’t have a union, and he wanted to join.  They welcomed him.

One of his jobs was painting the rafters in a tall arcade at an amusement park.  The park was open, and he and the other painters worked high above the crowd.  On another painting job, he and the other painters were on a tall, movable scaffolding.

He told his fellow painters that he was going to New Hampshire to climb Mount Washington.  They asked if he had ever been mountain climbing before.  He said no, and they all thought it sounded much too dangerous.  They advised him not to go, but he went anyway.

When he got back, he only recognized one of his coworkers.  All the rest had been replaced.  He asked where they’d gone, and he learned that the scaffolding had fallen while he was away.  Everybody was in the hospital except the one guy.  The one guy, who already had a limp from a previous accident, happened to catch his overalls on a hook on the way down, which saved him, cartoon-like, from the fall.

When I was a teenager in Colorado, I took up rock climbing.  During college, I put new shingles on my mother’s two-story house.  Sid thought this stuff was too dangerous, and I said, “Wait a minute — weren’t you painting steeples or something when you were my age?”  I didn’t hear any more comments about the climbing and roofing.

One Dead, Two Asleep Over Lake Erie

One day at the hangar in Magnolia, Ohio, Sid learned that Doctor Garster, the only doctor in town, had died during a vacation.  “He’s the only wealthy guy in town, and he would at least once a year go to Canada, to the outback of Canada, where you flew in and fished for big fish.  And that’s where he was at, and he had a stroke and died, and they somehow got the message out that your doctor is here in a tent, dead.”  Somebody needed to fly to Canada and bring the body home.

“So Sicky said, ‘You wanna go with me?’  And I said, ‘Oh, hell yeah.’  So we got a body bag from the only undertaker in town and took the rear seat out of a 180, put the black bag in, and we take off.”  The Cessna 180 was the tail-dragging predecessor to today’s 182.

Sicky and Sid landed in Canada in the afternoon.  “They said, ‘Well, you’re gonna stay and fish or something, aren’t ya?’  And we said, ‘Oh, no, we gotta get back.’  And they said, ‘Well, that’s just foolish.  Why don’t you stay?’  And we said, ‘Oh, no, we’re gonna go.’  So we leave poor Dr. Garster’s stiff zipped up in a bag in the back of a 180 and head back to Magnolia.”

They flew into the night, and soon they were so tired that they took turns sleeping.  At some point, they both fell asleep.

“To this day, if he was alive, we’d still be arguing over who was supposed to have been flying when we both woke up, and it was pitch dark, the absolute middle of the night, no moon, and the compass said we were flying due north.”

In other words, they plane had made a gradual U turn while they were asleep, and they were headed back toward Canada.

“It’s a real credit to Cessnas.  I mean, if you take your hand off of a Cessna, the damned thing, if you’ve got it trimmed down, will just fly itself.”

When he told me this story, I said, “I’ve heard that.  I didn’t know it had been proven.”  “Well, we proved it,” he said.

“We had no idea where we were, no idea.  We just knew there was goddamned nothing but water.”

The year was 1951 or ’52, and radio navigation was still a new idea.  They didn’t have LORAN or VOR available, and GPS was decades in the future.  The only way to find out where they were was to see something, and over water at night, there was nothing to see.  At this point, they got out an E6B, a circular slide rule that pilots use.  They kept looking at their fuel quantity and calculating how long it would last.

“About every eight minutes, we were checking again.  We cut it back to 2,000 RPM, and we had everything leaned out, and we’re just dialing that damned thing, saying, ‘How long can we stay here?’  ‘Cause we knew it was gonna be a watery mess if we didn’t make it.”

They eventually saw lights, and as dawn broke, they recognized Toledo, which is a long way from Magnolia.  “So, we survived another one.”

Sid described my late stepmother’s reaction to the story.  “And Dana, with that warped sense of humor of hers, said, ‘Boy, wouldn’t that have been exciting if you had gone down.  I can see the press release now — small aircraft crashes, and three men killed, but one of ‘em was already in a body bag.’”

Aerial Landscaping

After Sid learned to fly, he often showed up at Magnolia Airport for “hangar flying” — loafing around the hangar in case there was an opportunity to fly.  One day while he was there alone, he had a bright idea that almost killed him.

The unpaved runway was covered with clover.  “Once a year,” says Sid, “they’d reseed the clover.  And in anticipation of that, Sicky [Mr. Sickafoose] had bought two big gunny sacks full of clover seed.  They were sittin’ there, and we all knew what it was and what it was for, we just never got around to getting a group together to go out and seed the field.

“I’m all by my lonesome one day.  He had horse-traded for a monstrosity — it was a Piper Cub that somebody had equipped for crop dusting.  It was the last plane in the world you’d wanna use for crop dusting.  It had two big bins in the back for the chemicals, about halfway back in the fuselage.  Each one would hold, I found out, one bag of clover seed.”

The Piper Cub was the airborne equivalent of the Volkswagen Bug.  It was slow, cheap, and very popular in its day.  Unlike a Bug, the Cub had only two seats and no trunk.  It was definitely not made for carrying cargo.

In an airplane, balance is just as important as weight.  You want the center of gravity to be at the wing.  Putting extra weight in the back of a plane is generally a really bad idea, because it can make the plane uncontrollable.  Somehow, though, Cubs with pesticide tanks in the rear were apparently pretty common.

And did I mention that there was a huge tree at the end of the runway?

Sid continues, “So I thought, ‘Nobody’s here; I’ll just plant that clover seed.’  We broadcast it anyhow, this would be a great way to broadcast it.  So I emptied the two bags into it and I’m thinking, ‘Boy, am I gonna be a hero.’  And I went out to the runway and started down, and I got to the rotation point, and nothing was happening.  I wasn’t even getting the tail off the ground.  And I thought, ‘Oooh, shit!  There’s a big tree down there at the end, and I’m not gonna clear it.’  And at that point, I just pulled the lever and dumped the two bags of clover seed, and of course the plane shot up like a rocket and went through a couple twigs in the top of the tree.  I escaped that one by the skin of my chinny-chin chin.

“I went back, and as soon as I could, I went down to the mill and bought two new sacks and put ‘em back so nobody would know what I’d done.

“And then, in about three months, everybody was saying, ‘Have you ever seen such a stand of clover as we have at the south end of the field? God, we’re not gonna have to do anything with that part of the field this year.’”

Sid just said, “You know, it’s prob’ly the good rains we’ve had or something.”

Sid Learns to Fly

When the Wright Brothers first flew, Blaine and Marguerite Wise were already adults.  To them, flying was not normal or safe.  Unfortunately for them, both of their sons desperately wanted to be pilots.

Joe, the older son, wanted to join the Air Corps during World War II.  As Joe told me in the late ’90s, “Mother made me swear on a stack of Bibles, literally swear on a Bible, that I would not volunteer for the Air Corps. All in the world I wanted to do was to fly.  I’d been messin’ around with airplanes since I was 16 years old, and when she found out about it, she went ballistic.  She said, ‘You’re not going to get shot down and burned up in an airplane.’”

Marguerite’s ploy backfired when Joe volunteered for submarine duty, which was even more dangerous than being a pilot.

Sid was still in high school during the war.  His band instructor, Mister Sickafoose, happened to be a flight instructor, but of course Sid wasn’t allowed to take flying lessons.  “They were two generations removed,” said Sid, whose parents were old enough to be his grandparents.  “They didn’t understand my generation.”

When Sid entered Denison University, he was one of very few students who failed to get into a fraternity.  “If you were an independent,” says Sid, “you were really an oddball.”  Joe had attended the same university before he went into the Navy, and Sid wanted to be in Joe’s old fraternity.  According to Sid, one of the Phi Gamma Deltas had a grudge against Joe, and he blackballed Sid because of it.

Due to his lack of a social life, Sid had plenty of time to work on the school newspaper.  He became the editor while he was still a 17-year-old freshman.  In May of 1947, Orville Wright visited Denison University, and Sid got to interview him for the paper.  If Sid’s big brother hadn’t pissed off a fraternity brother a few years earlier, Sid wouldn’t have met Orville Wright.

After college, Sid taught high school and lived with his parents.  He told his parents he had a new assignment at work, and he started leaving the house absurdly early.  The truth was that he was sneaking off to take flight lessons with Mister Sickafoose, also known as Sicky.

Sid’s new hangout was a tiny airfield in Magnolia, Ohio.  He learned to fly in Cessna 120s and 140s, all taildraggers.


The former airport in Magnolia, which evidently got paved at some point, is now a dragstrip. This map is interactive.

“It was an 80 acre clover field that we flew out of,” says Sid.  “And at the end was a huge big willow tree or something down there that really was a threat [another website mentions a huge elm at the airport], and you had to take off that way ninety percent of the time.”

After his dual instruction with Sicky, it was time to solo.  In a two-seat airplane, removing one person makes a big difference in how the plane handles.  When Sid soloed, the first challenge was learning to fly a lighter plane.  The second challenge, waiting at the end of the runway, was the big tree.  “I can’t tell you how many times I brought in a little piece of that tree in the tailwheel.”

At the other end of the field, a new neighbor decided to create some more obstacles.  “Some idiot came in and bought this flat piece of land at the end of the 80 acres this way, and that was where you came in to land 90% of the time, ’cause you took off that way.  He decides that he doesn’t like those damned airplanes coming in all the time, and he goes out and he plants poplar trees, ’cause they grow like topsy and get tall and thin, and he picked out poplars, and he put one about every five feet across the end of the runway, obviously hoping they’ll grow like crazy and stop those damned airplanes.  On one occasion at least, he went out on a six foot stepladder and sat there, I think he had his shotgun, and sat out there on top of it.  And of course, the poor bastard, it’s a wonder he didn’t lose his head, ’cause you know, we had to come in.”

Sid had an idea.  He got some well points, which are pointed pipes you can drive into the ground to create wells.  From the airport side of the property line, he drove the well points at a forty-five degree angle toward the trees’ roots.  Then he used a big funnel to pour saltwater down the well points.  “Every weekend, we’d go out and pour more saltwater down ‘em.”