Your connection with the sky

Fingers in the Airport Fence Entwined

Cole at the Airport Fence

Toward the end of 1996 or so, I was listening to WDET’s Folks Like Us show while cleaning my basement. I heard a spoken word piece by Mike Agranoff, a New Jersey -based folk musician and bard (in every sense of the word).

The piece was called The Ballad of the Sandman and it told the story of an apocryphal radio DJ on New Year’s Eve of 1969.  Oppressed by the new programming director and the encroachment of the mundane on the previously glorious landscape of early FM radio, the protagonist, Paul Sandman, barricades himself in the studio and weaves his magic until they break down the door.

Over the course of Sandman’s civil disobedience, his brother and sister DJs pass along his signal across the nation and the overnight hardcore radio listeners are treated to the swansong of this hero of radio. It’s some of the best spoken-word stuff I’ve ever heard.

When it came time to put together my first aviation book, I wanted to have a ballad in there somewhere. I also wanted it to come from the DNA of The Ballad of the Sandman.

It wasn’t hard to come up with the theme and characters for my piece. We all know an airshow volunteer, AOPA Airport Support Network participant, or other person who makes general aviation click. I wanted to write the tale of one of these nameless volunteers and to give him the thanks that he (and, by extension, all volunteers) deserve. And thus was born Fingers in the Airport Fence Entwined. I duly thanked Mike in the book and paid tribute to Sandman as the basis for much of Fingers.

Things have a way of coming full circle. I got an e-mail from Mike last night. He’s playing a show in Flint, Michigan and another one in West Bloomfield this weekend. While he’s in town, he offered to meet and trade me a reading of Sandman for a reading of Fingers. I’m thrilled. Mike’s piece is, in the parlance of Sandman, “better far than mine.” But that’s what writers and singers and pilots do. We try to pass it on and we pay tribute to those who came before us.

I'm also planning on doing an ensemble reading on Sun 'N Fun Radio on Saturday, April 25 at about 6:05 p.m. (right after the airshow), so please tune in and join me and a troupe of itinerant podcasters for that.

Anyway, I thought that you might enjoy reading Fingers. Or hearing the audio version. It’s for the guy who’s still there two days after the airshow hauling Porta-Johns or the gal who’s at a volunteer meeting in March planning for a gathering that’s still months away. It's for everyone who makes general aviation the wonderful thing that it is. Here’s the thank-you that I wish all volunteers would receive.

Fingers in the Airport Fence Entwined: The Ballad of Jimmy Short

Harper’s Field is smallish strip a mile from the edge of town,
Parallel to the section lines with farm fields all around.
An FBO, two dozen Tees ‘mid green alfalfa hay,
And a battered sign on the county road: “Airplane rides this way.”

Sometimes, when I was back from school, I’d drive down to the field,
And park the car in the gravel lot to see what the sky might yield.
I’d stand there by the airport fence with a Coke or a Huber beer,
And while away the afternoon at the sky and ground’s frontier.

It doesn’t happen often, though there’re some who say it should,
That we get a glimpse of a fleeting thing that we thought was gone for good.
When zephyrs of the atmosphere meet dreamers on the ground,
And magic, love, and science merge in a roar of deaf’ning sound.

I’d watch them make their takeoff runs; their Continentals whined,
Standing with my fingers in the airport fence entwined.

* * * * *

Jimmy Short arrived in town in 1952.
He’d served in South Korea, but his fighting days were through.
He got a job and the stamping plant and married a local girl,
And made a home and family and his corner of the world.

Sometime in the spring of ‘56 a friend from his platoon,
Called to say he was passing through and might Jim have a room?
Jim met him down at Harper’s Field when he pulled up to the ramp,
And got his very first airplane ride in his friend’s Aeronca Champ.

Jim kept his friend up half the night and talked ‘bout how to fly,
Got another ride in the morning before they said goodbye,
And when his buddy dropped him off and taxied off to go,
Jim turned around and followed the fence line down to the FBO.

So Jim began his training with a crusty world war vet.
They’d stay aloft on weekday nights ‘til the sun began to set.
And Saturdays and Sundays he’d be at the field at dawn.
His preflight done and the oil topped off; by seven, they were gone.

When the shift let out and the bars filled up, he was at the field instead,
And mowers moved across the hay as he soloed overhead.
And by the time the leaves had turned from green to fiery gold,
His private chit was in his in his hands and twenty hours old.

Jim bought the Cub that winter, though it wasn’t much to see.
The tires were flat and the fabric slack and it sat there in the Tee.
The engine was in baskets, too, but Jimmy wasn’t fazed.
The A&P who signed it off could only stand amazed,

As the gorgeous Cub that Jim pulled out in the second week of May.
That winter in the hangar, Jimmy working night and day,
Had made a bond ‘tween man and plane, both glowed there in the sun,
As Jimmy swing her ‘round and poised to make his takeoff run.

Harper’s field was younger then and, just like Jim, it changed.
Its spirit kept the beat of time but scenery rearranged.
They paved it back in seventy-six and stretched three thousand feet,
And added in an NDB just past the white concrete.

In ‘85, the airspace changed and, though Harper’s Field was “G,”
They added on a speed ring and an overhead of “C.”
You had to stay three thousand or get on the radio,
But Harper’s pilots didn’t mind. They liked to keep it low.

* * * * *

The first time I met Jimmy Short was twenty years ago,
By the fence at Harper’s Field when he stopped to say hello.
He was in his fifties and I was twenty-three,
But that didn’t seem to matter when he stopped to talk to me.

“I’ve seen you here all summer, son, just standing where you are,
Sipping on your Coke and standing, watching from afar.
There’s more to this than what you see when you stand the parking lot.
There’s a view, you know, there that gives you more perspective than this spot.”

“And what might that be?” I asked, and stood somewhat beguiled.
He hooked his thumb toward the ramp and turned, and then he smiled.
He said, “My name is Jimmy Short and I fly the yellow Cub.
It’s time to stop just standing here. It’s time to get you up.”

I followed him down the fenceline and he waved me through the gate.
I helped him pull the Cub out and he asked about my weight.
Some scrib’ling on an envelope, a finger in the wind,
Then he waved me to the front seat and he helped to strap me in.

And so, that day, I saw where I had stood there by the fence.
But I saw it from a thousand feet and I had a different sense,
Of where I stood in other ways and what I really wanted,
I knew that it would challenge me, but I set my teeth undaunted.

And when the Cub came back to earth (and later, so did I),
I turned around, asked Jimmy Short “Where do I learn to fly?”
He chuckled and took off his hat, ran his hand through his thinning hair.
“The next step’s at the FBO and, son, it’s over there.”

It seems I didn’t sleep much through the summer and the fall.
There were groceries to bag and lawns to mow and clippings left to haul.
And every cent I took to the FBO to rent the plane;
A beat-up C-150 but a perfect ship to train.

And, as I flew and talked to folks, before too long, I found,
That the name of the pilot Jimmy Short was known for miles around.
No job too small, he volunteered at every county show,
And went to every fly-in where the Cub would let him go.

You could put him on the flight line or in the parking lot,
And Jim would see that every camper pulled into its slot.
You’d see him folding tables and hauling Porta-Johns,
And many a warbird was marshaled with a wave of Jim’s batons.

You’d see him flipping pancakes and you’d see him cleaning up,
Or smiling as he showed the folks his yellow Piper Cub.
His dues were current in the EAA and when they called the roll,
Jimmy was a captain In the Civil Air Patrol.

And I found that my ride on that summer day wasn’t Jimmy’s first.
Many a pilot had Jim to thank for giving them the thirst.
For the smell of hundred low-lead and the sound of the takeoff run,
Or the landing on two-seven in a setting summer sun.

It doesn’t happen often, though there’re some who say it should,
That we get a glimpse of a fleeting thing that we thought was gone for good.
When zephyrs of the atmosphere meet dreamers on the ground,
And magic, love, and science merge in a love that’s newly found.

I’d sometimes watch as he gave a kid his very first airplane ride.
Standing with my fingers in the airport fence entwined.

* * * * *

Like I said, it’s been 20 years and I’ve flown for all that time.
I’m based right there at Harper’s Field and Six-Five-Six is mine.
I still saw Jim most weekends and we’d talk and hangar-fly,
And jaw about the weather as we watched the summer sky.

Until the day I saw him at his hangar, moving slow.
I gave him a wave, but he turned away and shuffled off to go.
The bounce was gone from Jimmy’s step and I stopped to look at him.
Then walked two down to his hangar door; called, “Hey, what ails you, Jim?”

“My medical’s been touch-and-go for years and now, you see,
I’m creaky and my eyesight just ain’t what it used to be.
The family doc says I could go again and try my luck,
But I’ll never make it by this time. It’s time to hang ‘em up.

“So I put the Cub in Trade-a-Plane and I got a call last week.
And the buyer’s A&P came by and said he’d take a peek.
And now we’ve done the haggling and it’s time to sell the Cub,
They’re coming in tomorrow and they’re going to pick her up.”

He saw the look that stole across my face and said, “It’s fine.
I’ve flown her nearly forty years and, man, I’ve had my time.
I’d give an arm and a leg or two for another summer’s flight
But it’s time for me to pass her on. I think it’s only right.”

I departed on the downwind and I dialed one-two-two-eight,
And listened to the traffic at Big Bear and Applegate.
I cruised around the countryside with nowhere planned to go,
Just listening to the engine and the traffic down below.

Now and then, I’d hear a voice I knew and key the mic,
And make a little small talk and ask about their flight,
But my heart just wasn’t in it, and soon enough I’d say:
“Jimmy Short has hung ‘em up. He’s going to sell the plane.”

Their thoughts were all the same as mine and somber grew the talk,
As word began to reach the general aviation flock.
I heard it on each CTAF and each rural UNICOM,
The sad refrain from plane to plane that “Jimmy’s moving on.”

And in the air that carried Jim in summers long gone by,
There grew a song of the mournful news that rose and filled the sky,
From two-two-eight to two-zero-five and up and down the dial,
Across the fields and lakes and on for mile on airy mile.

* * * * *

The morning dawned on Harper’s Field and the sky was clear and bright.
I was there to see the sunrise; only restless sleep that night.
For I couldn’t help but think of Jimmy Short as there I lay,
And figured I’d be near in case he needed me that day.

By nine o’clock, I’d finished cleaning my Tee for the second time,
And a Cessna 182 pulled to parking on the line.
Three men got out of the Cessna and walked to Jimmy’s Tee,
And the door rolled back and Jim stood there and waved to greet the three.

The all shook hands, then pulled the doors of the hangar open wide,
And then, a moment later, rolled Jimmy’s Cub outside.
One circled the Cub with a practiced eye ‘til his preflight was complete,
And, smiling, gave a nod to Jim; laid the papers on the seat.

Each of them in turn leaned in and signed, then passed the pen,
And stood aside to let the next in line lean in and sign again,
‘Til all was done. Jim shook their hands and handed one the key,
And turned away and walked across the ramp to stand by me.

Jim said hello to me, not with his voice, but with a nod,
His countenance inscrutable. His face was a façade.
I searched words to say to him to lend a friend’s support,
But words had all abandoned, so I just stood by Jimmy Short.

We stared out at the windsock as it dangled on the pole.
Neither spoke for a longish time; each searched within his soul.
Gone the resolve that buoyed Jim when I talked to him yesterday,
And Harper’s field stood solemnly in a veil of deep dismay.

Then slowly in the silence there came a distant song.
It wound along the hangar row and then continued on.
It played there in the parking lot, then scattered in the hay,
And rose to cover all the field as it doubled back our way.

Our eyes were turned of one accord, both us and the buyers there.
A J3 Cub on a low approach was floating through the air.
And by us flew the Cub midfield, he rolling left and right,
Then, straightening out and climbing high, he slowly passed from sight.

And ‘ere the song of the six-five Continental bid adieu,
Came the drone of the N2Cs of a pair of C-152s.
They passed abeam the midfield line in a tight right echelon,
Then powered up and, turning right, they climbed and soon were gone.

I looked at Jim, he looked at me, and all I could do was shrug.
The lineman stared and so did the men with Jimmy’s former Cub.
Now skimming low was an old T-6 with a Pratt & Whitney wail,
And close behind with a glint of blue was an F4U in trail.

I grabbed my handheld from my plane and quickly flipped it on,
Then punched in the frequency for the CTAF and UNICOM.
I could tell right away that something was up. The chatter was fast and thick.
Voices I didn’t recognize and mic click after click.

“Eight-Niner-One is clear to the north. Just don’t tear up the cement!”
I saw the Corsair banking right and wondered what he meant.
Until thirty seconds later, when came roaring o’er the trees,
A monster silver four-prop C-130 Hercules.

I wandered toward the taxiway to get a better view,
And a conga line of growing dots was on approach in que.
I keyed approach on the radio to listen overhead,
And voice on voice fell on my ears and this is what they said.

“Turn left to one-six zero. That’s the best I can provide.
Lots of traffic over there, so keep your eyes outside.
Hey, what’s with all this traffic? You guys got some soiree?
I guess there’s something going on at Harper’s Field today?

“Approach, this here is Viper Six, we’re inbound over ROCHE.
We’d like to head for Harper’s field and make a low approach.”
“You’re cleared to the field, please say your type and report when you’re abeam.”
“Viper Six is a two-ship flight and, sir, we’re F-16s.”

I strained my eyes to the eastern sky and there they seemed to crawl
And, sure enough, on the UNICOM, there came the Viper’s call,
“Harper’s Field, this is Viper Six, approaching from the east.
Two-ship flight for a high-alpha pass; and we’re going to drag our feet.”

And in they came, with their noses high with the gear and the flaps all down,
And the thunder of the engines kept them fifty off the ground,
‘Til at the midfield turnoff point, the gear came up and then,
Their afterburners thundered as they rose to fly again.

When the ground had ceased its shaking, and the jets had disappeared,
I keyed the radio, said “Hey, what’s all the traffic here?”
“Four-Mike Fox on final,” came the crackling report.
“I though that everyone had heard. We’re here for Jimmy Short.

“I heard it at the restaurant last night at Stony Creek,
From a guy who was in from UPS and another one from fleet.
And today a guy from Kansas who was on the frequency.
The news sure seems to travel fast and I’m in good company.

“The word is out that Jimmy’s hung ‘em up and sold the plane.
Approach is all abuzz with talk and center’s just the same.
There’s folks who owe Jim big time and it bothered them, you see,
And the word went out that we shouldn’t let this go so easily.

“It started in the pilot talk on a website board or two
Then cell phone text and traffic calls and, hour by hour, it grew,
‘Till someone had a brainstorm that solidified from whim,
A low pass over at Harper’s Field and wag your wings for Jim.

“The message passed from field to field and it picked up steam all night.
And it made the Center chatter thanks to a red-eye Northwest flight.
And an F-16 maintainer passed the word to his command.
They remembered Jim from the air shows there when he came to lend a hand.”

“So I fired her up this morning and I took off VFR.
I fly a Baron Fifty-Five, so Harper’s field ain’t far.
But I used to be a groundhog, see, when I was just a pup,
‘Til I got my first Young Eagles ride and Jimmy took me up.

“So I’m here to dip a wing for Jim and let him know I’m here
He’s the reason that I started and he’s why I persevere.”
And, sure enough, the Baron came in low and came in hot,
He wagged his wings amidfield; tracking down the line he shot.

Jim was standing next to me and he overheard the call.
A faraway look stole across his face as he listened to it all,
As each new plane passed the midfield line in flashing, proud review,
And the radio told of a first flight ride or a guy in Jim’s old crew.

Then down by the fence they began to arrive; drawn in from the town,
Drawn to the stately dance o’erhead in droves from all around.
They filled the little parking lot, then the access road further away,
And out to the sign on the county road that said: “Airplane rides this way.”

Faces upturned and spellbound, they knew not how or why,
Or whence this grand ballet had come to fill the summer sky.
But came they did and they gathered near and watched each passing plane,
And each was touched by a fleeting dream that none could quite explain.

Jimmy saw the cars pull in and he watched them for a while.
The stricken look of earlier was gone and now a smile,
Crossed Jimmy’s face as the last plane passed and, in the wake of the fading sound,
He grabbed my elbow, cleared his throat, and, grinning, turned me ‘round.

You see them there? They don’t know why, but still they’re drawn to see,
The miracles we daily work, just guys like you and me.
It’s time to pass the torch to you; the telling’s your job now.
The magic is within their reach, you just have to tell them how.

He smiled again, then shook my hand and turned and walked away.
And joined a knot of Harper’s guys who’d gathered down the way.
The buyer and the other guys all turned around to leave.
My eyes were slightly hazy, but I wiped them on my sleeve,

And turned and walked across the ramp toward the fence by the FBO,
Where the crowd still stood in silence, some with faces still aglow.
As they stood and contemplated what had just now filled the air,
And wondered at its meaning all along the fenceline there.

It doesn’t happen often, though there’re some who say it should,
That we get a glimpse of a fleeting thing that we thought was gone for good.
When zephyrs of the atmosphere meet dreamers on the ground,
And magic, love, and science merge in silence most profound.

I reached the fence and smiled at them gathered up and down the line,
Standing with their fingers in the airport fence entwined.

- Steve Tupper

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