Station Wagon Bombs

According to Sid, I almost got blown up by a car bomb when I was three or four years old.

At that time, Sid was the district attorney for three counties in northeastern Oklahoma. He had campaigned in 1974 on an anti-corruption platform. He took on the so-called “Dixie Mafia,” a loosely-organized, interstate community of criminals. It was a dangerous time to take a public stance against organized crime.

In 1969, young Angie Bliss and her cousin, Becca, were playing with Suzie Homemaker ovens in the Blisses’ garage. Angie’s father, Bill, started his pickup truck and detonated a bomb. The three were injured but survived. Bill was an assistant district attorney in Cherokee County, next to Sid’s future district.

A year later, Judge Fred Nelson of the Tulsa County District Court started his station wagon and set off another bomb. It was primary election day, and he was on his way to vote for himself. Like the others, he was injured but survived. As far as anyone knows, the motive for the bombing was to help his primary opponent get elected.

A grand jury convened to consider two suspects, Albert McDonald and Tom Pugh, in Judge Nelson’s bombing. One of the witnesses was Cleo Epps, commonly known as the Bootleg Queen, who had once almost married McDonald. She testified in secret while wearing a wig. She said McDonald and Pugh had come to her ranch to ask for dynamite, which she used for blowing up stumps, and she had given it to them. The Bootleg Queen and another witness, Arles Delbert Self, were soon dead. McDonald and Pugh were never tried for bombing the judge, but they were convicted for murdering the witnesses.

A year after that, another pickup truck exploded, killing 28-year-old kindergarten teacher Fern Bolding and sending her remains into a neighbor’s yard. The bomb was meant for Fern’s husband, Don, who was scheduled to testify in a car theft case.

The suspect in the car theft case was Rex Brinlee, who had also been a suspect in the Bliss bombing. Brinlee had a career of diverse criminal enterprises. In the ’60s, he was suspected of using a small plane to case out farms and plan thefts in Mayes County. He was convicted of cattle rustling but got off on a technicality. At that time, he wore a belt buckle that read “Mayes County Flying Bandit.” He had since moved to Cherokee County, where he owned several businesses and threatened people.

Don Bolding, undeterred by his wife’s murder, testified against Brinlee, who was convicted of the car theft.

Brinlee was also charged in Fern Bolding’s death. Soon after that, there were death threats all around. Reporters, the sheriff, the wife of a juror, and Bill Bliss, who was now a judge, received them. Brinlee had a dispute with a propane dealer and hinted that one of the dealer’s tanks might explode.

Brinlee was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. While he was still in the courthouse, he swung at reporter Mike Miller, who ducked, and hit cameraman Richard Wilson.

In prison, Brinlee made it clear that he had connections to the Dixie Mafia on the outside. He somehow acquired a gun. He escaped twice, but he got caught both times.

It was in this environment that Sid, who had arrived in Mayes County shortly after the Flying Bandit left, decided to take on organized crime.

According to Sid, he was giving a lecture in Tulsa when an Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation (OSBI) agent interrupted and took him aside. The agent explained that they had picked up someone who was transporting a bomb. The bomb was intended for Sid’s car. They had reason to believe that the suspect had made two bombs, and the other bomb was already in Carol’s (my mother’s) station wagon. The OSBI agent told Sid not to call Carol, but instead to go home and make sure she didn’t start the car.

I’m not clear on the details or the rationale. Maybe they wanted to warn Carol but just hadn’t gotten in touch with her yet. In any case, Sid put a magnetic cop light on his car and drove home at eighty miles per hour. He says he arrived at the same time as the sheriff’s deputies, and he told Carol just to stay inside and not worry about what they were doing in the driveway.

I was too young to remember any of this, but my oldest sister says Sid had a new ritual after the bomb scare. Before the family got in the car, we would stand in the front yard while he checked for bombs. If he had ever inadvertently set off a bomb during his inspection, we would have all been there to see it happen.

Solo Patience: Getting Used to Not Soloing

I’m on the verge of soloing.  Actually, I’ve been on the verge of soloing for almost three weeks, so I’ve had a lot of time to think about a state that most pilots are only in for a few minutes.

I’ve read stories about instructors who surprise their students, unexpectedly hopping out of the plane (on the ground) and saying, “Now fly around the pattern three times.”  I can see why instructors do this, because anticipating a solo is stressful.  The first time I thought I was going to solo, I was more nervous driving to the airport than flying.  If you’ve just made some good landings with your instructor, you might actually feel relaxed.  Now that the right seat is suddenly empty, you’re too busy to be nervous.  Set the trim, check the fuel selector, and get on with it.

Oh yeah, and remember that the plane is now significantly lighter.  My father clipped a tree on his first solo, which was in a two-seater.  I’m flying a four-seater with a petite instructor, so the fuel I burn during a lesson weighs almost as much as she does.

My instructors were stealthy at first.  I passed my pre-solo stage check without even knowing I had taken it.  One day I happened to have a lesson with the head instructor, because my regular instructor was off that day.  He had me do some things I had already covered, including stalls and engine-out procedures.  At the time, it seemed like we were just reviewing random stuff.  In reality, he wanted to see me demonstrate all the skills you need before you solo.  He was taking me through a stage check in the guise of an ordinary lesson, because my regular instructor had already told him I was about ready to solo.

My next lesson was on my regular instructor’s last day before going on vacation.  She told me that I would probably solo before she got back.  I had kind of read the syllabus, so I asked, “Am I supposed to have a stage check or something?”

That’s when the cat was out of the bag.  “Well,” she said, “I don’t want to make you nervous, but John told me your last lesson counted as a stage check.”  So this was it — my next lesson was likely to be my first solo.  It was time to start wearing an old shirt and being nervous on the drive to the airport.

This was twelve days before my forty-second birthday.  I was born on my father’s forty-second birthday, so number 42 was a big deal to me.  I’m not big on setting goals, but I was hoping to solo by then.  My father is an old pilot, so I guess soloing was something I wanted to have in common with him by that day.

Have you heard of get-there-itis, the dangerous tendency for pilots to take off when they really shouldn’t?  Part of me worried that wanting to solo by a certain date was a form of get-there-itis.  I tried not to worry about the date, but I had a lesson scheduled a few days later, and of course I wanted to solo.

The day of my lesson, my day to be nervous, happened to be a windy one.  It was also a weekend, and for a small airport, things were a little busier than I would have liked.  A couple people were doing IFR approaches, so they were intersecting the pattern but not following it.  Somebody from out of town came for a check ride.  Even the ionosphere seemed to conspire against me, as we were picking up radio chatter from another airport that’s a couple hundred miles away.

With an instructor — one of the part-timers who come in on weekends — I taxied out to the hold-short line, announced that I was taking off, and then realized that I had forgotten the run-up.  It was a big omission, and it made me feel like I wasn’t on my game.  I did the runup and announced my takeoff for the second time.  By this time, I really didn’t think I was going to solo, just because it was so windy, and I was kind of glad.

Flying around the pattern a few times, I thought my landings were pretty rough, but apparently the instructor was happy with them.  Surprisingly, he told me I could solo if I wanted to.

For the first time in my life, I had the option of flying an airplane all by myself.  I could solo before my forty-second birthday.  And you know what?  I didn’t.  With the wind, the traffic, and worrying that I might forget something — as I had with the runup — it just didn’t seem like a good idea.  I made a few more landings with the instructor, but the wind was getting worse, and pretty soon we both thought it was time to quit.  In my logbook, the instructor gave me credit for crosswind takeoffs and landings.

At the beginning of my next lesson, a warning light came on in the plane while we were still on the ground, and we didn’t take off.  At least that lesson was free.  After that, I had a lesson that got cancelled due to low clouds.  Someone I know soloed at another airport that day, so I was a little jealous.  Then there was a Saturday morning with perfect weather, but I was busy.  My forty-second birthday came and went.  I had another day with low clouds, and we flew the pattern at 700′ AGL to stay in Class G airspace, gaming the system in terms of cloud clearance rules.  We had to stop when rain moved in and reduced the visibility.  Then my regular instructor came back — she had been gone for two and a half weeks — and I told her I still hadn’t soloed.  She said she was actually kind of glad, because she wanted to be there for it.

Not surprisingly, my instructor’s first day back was another windy day.  I had some more gusty landings, and we saw a wild turkey near the runway, but it was mostly uneventful.

After a full-stop landing, as I was about to taxi back to the beginning of the runway, my instructor gave me the choice again.  She said I could solo if I wanted to.  We were approaching a fork in the taxiway where I could either turn left and drop her off or turn right and go straight back to the runway.  My instructor said, “Left or right, it’s your choice.  There’s no pressure.  I’ll close my eyes.”  I was too busy taxing to see if she really closed her eyes, but I think she did.

By this time, I was used to not soloing.  I’ve come to realize that even though the first solo is a big deal, it doesn’t need to happen at a certain time.  I’m learning and progressing.  According to the syllabus, I’m working on stuff that comes well after the first solo, so really I’ve just kind of skipped the solo and moved on.

The lesson was going better than the day when the other instructor had offered to let me solo, or at least I was less nervous.  However, the wind was getting a little worse each time I went around the pattern.  It had started out blowing straight down the runway, but it was becoming more of a crosswind and getting a little stronger.  My instructors haven’t touched the controls in a long time, so in theory, I should be able to do all this by myself.  But what if the wind got worse?  What if the instructor’s timely advice helped me get through the flare, as it often does?  I wanted to solo, but I wasn’t totally comfortable with the situation, and I wasn’t in a hurry.  I turned right, back toward the runway, with the instructor still in the plane.

Just like before, the wind did get worse, and we only made a couple more landings.  Now that I think about, the gradually worsening wind was great for practice.

After the lesson, my instructor endorsed my logbook for soloing.  The school has stickers with text on them so the instructors don’t have to write too much, and she got out the number two sticker.  In other words, she skipped the usual first solo endorsement and essentially gave me the second solo endorsement, allowing me to fly with a little more wind than the usual first solo.  After all, that’s the kind of weather I’ve been flying in for a while.

Pretty soon I will solo, and in a way it will be a surprise after all.  It might not happen on a calm day, but it will happen on a day when I feel good about it.  And I won’t mind if it’s not the next lesson.

Update:  The day after I wrote this, the wind was zero, but the ceiling was only 200′, so we cancelled my lesson.  The next time I had a lesson, my instructor showed up in flip-flops, thinking she was just there to watch me solo.  That happened to be the day that an aerobatic club came to town, so no pattern work was allowed.  We flew to another airport and worked on stuff that’s supposed to come after the first solo.  Ah, patience…

Heroin Aviation

If you’re a smuggler with an airplane, and you want to move heroin from Mexico to Chicago or New York, you need to refuel somewhere along the way. A dark cornfield in northeastern Oklahoma might be just the place for clandestine refueling, if you plan ahead.

Sheriff Weaver and Sid were alarmed when kids in Mayes County started turning up with heroin instead of pot. Sid and Pete had a pretty good idea of what was going on. Sid was a pilot, and Pete Weaver was omniscient in Mayes County.

“We relied on informants to tell us where they were at, or we would fly. You’d see a corn field or a wheat field where they had obviously cut an airstrip.” The smugglers were flying twin-engine planes, generally Beechcraft. “They had to have a landing spot ’cause that’s when their fuel would run out. They would make arrangements for somebody to meet them.”

Sid was hanging out at the sheriff’s office when one of the deputies called Pete on the radio. “We’re sittin’ there pickin’ our nose and whittlin’ when this deputy calls in,” says Sid.  The deputy was at the small airport outside Pryor, the small town that’s the county seat for Mayes County.

The deputy said, “Uh, a couple o’ hippy-lookin’ kids just put 250 gallons of aviation fuel into barrels in the back of this van. Is there any law against that?”

Pete looked at Sid, and Sid said, “Not a thing in the world.”

Pete asked the deputy if the van had placards for flammable cargo. The deputy said no. “Does it have any kind of fire extinguishers in it?”

“I didn’t see nothin, Sheriff.”

“You stop ‘em.”

Along with the fuel, the hippies had two hand pumps and hoses.

Sid says, “So he brings these two kids into the sheriff’s office, and they’re tremblin’ in their boots. Of course, we didn’t have a thing in the world on them. You know, they were just innocent drivers of a van. And when you walk into the sheriff’s office, there in front of you is the dispatcher, i.e. booking agent. So Pete just went like this, and the kids walked up there, and he says, ‘Empty your pockets.’ And of course, in their pockets was a diagram of the landing field.” On the same piece of paper were instructions to cut the wires on their brake lights so they wouldn’t be seen.

Pretty soon, a lawyer showed up. “Boy, I mean the Mafia worked quick. By the time we got one of ‘em in the office to try to visit with him, there was a lawyer walking in the front door, says, ‘I’m here representing a couple of my clients that you’re holding without charges, and I demand you release them immediately.’ We said, ‘Well, we’re not holding them. They’re right here. We’re just visitin’ with ‘em.’”

Pete and Sid didn’t catch the smugglers, who presumably found another airstrip and a stealthier pit crew.

Speaking of himself in third person, Sid says, “Of course, the reason this was uppermost in Sid’s mind, and had been for a couple o’ years, was that anytime you would capture something like that — confiscate it — it became sheriff’s property. Sid would have a twin-engine Beech in his collection.”

I asked if he had a twin-engine pilot, since he wasn’t qualified to fly twins himself. “I’d be one pretty quick. Oh, damn!”

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.”