The date for this often-postponed flight to spread my stepfather’s ashes above the Statue of Liberty was finally set for Sunday, Nov. 6. — but that morning, as every time before — brought a complication.
Previous trips had been scrubbed for weather, TFRs, and so many seemingly pre-ordained last-minute glitches that I was beginning to question whether it would ever take place.
But this time, the forecast was perfect with a golden fall day and sunshine throughout the region; no TFRs, the AOPA’s 2012 Sweepstakes “Tougher Than a Tornado” Husky ready to go; and my mom, Wilma Melville, on a visit from her home in California, and willing to make the actual drop from the Husky’s back seat.
The problem was me.
A stubborn head cold had kept my ears plugged for several days, and no amount of chicken soup, hot tea, orange juice or nasal spray seemed to make any difference. The night before, grasping at straws, I had come up with what I hoped was a reasonable compromise: A much shorter flight to Annapolis, Maryland, where we could spread the ashes over the Chesapeake Bay near the U.S. Naval Academy. My stepfather, John Melville, was a Navy veteran of World War II and took great pride in his wartime service. Was that good enough?
Early Sunday morning, I ran the idea by my wife, Martha, and she wisely rejected it out of hand.
“Look, John was a New Yorker,” she said. “He grew up on the east side. He went to Columbia. He ran the New York Marathon. It’s got to be the Statue of Liberty and New York Harbor or nothing. Nowhere else has that kind of connection to him and his life.”
She didn’t say it, but other questions (to which the answers were plainly obvious) also sprang to mind: Would your stepfather have made an extra effort for you? Would he have been willing to tolerate some physical discomfort on your behalf? And haven’t you learned from him, by now, to do things right or not at all?
I took a double dose of Afrin and waited for my mom, who was still on Pacific Time, to wake up. The Tornado Husky could fly the entire route below 2,500 feet msl, so the relatively low altitudes would make flying tolerable, even for my plugged ears.
Mom met the rest of us in the kitchen at 8 a.m. wearing jeans and a warm jacket.
She’s 78 years old, about five feet tall, pragmatic, unsentimental, and an absolute force of nature. She’s a planner, and although she realizes that plans must sometimes change, she doesn’t bend easily.
“So, are we going to do this thing or not?” she asked in her customary, no-nonsense way. “If we’re going to go, we should go soon so it doesn’t eat up the entire day.”
I told her to collect her things, then slipped a small wooden box that contained the ashes of her husband of 33 years into my flight gear.
On the short drive to Frederick Municipal Airport (KFDK), I called flight service to confirm no TFRs had popped up. None had.
Mom, an instrument-rated private pilot, wanted to discuss the logistics of the ash drop. What were our airspeed and altitude going to be? How did the Tornado Husky’s window open and close? And how could she make sure the ashes got out without giving her a face full of dust?
These were just the sort of practical matters that my stepfather, an aeronautical engineer with a cutting sense of humor, would have loved. When my brothers and I were kids, he came back from a tough day of work at a California defense contractor and asked me to pour him a frosty glass of beer.
Evidently, John and his coworkers had been trying for months to perfect a fighter weapons delivery system and, after many failed attempts, finally got it right on the test range. The pilot of the test aircraft was so elated he spontaneously performed a “victory roll” at low altitude, misjudged, and plunged into the ground in a fatal fireball.
“All that data is gone,” John, a lapsed Catholic, moaned in disbelief. “I’d like to propose a toast to the patron saint of lost data, for Chrissakes.”
My mom was a divorced public school physical education teacher with four young sons when she and John met in the early 1970s.
My brothers and I were unanimous in our dislike for him at first. Part of the rejection was loyalty to our “real” dad. The rest was made easy by the fact John was strict, sarcastic, and had a ridiculous New York accent. But his love for our mom was total, and that – over time – outweighed our own misgivings.
Mom was already a private pilot when they met, and she and John built a Rutan-designed VariEze together in the late 1970s. Later, they had a partnership in a Bonanza. She flew and he did the navigation and maintenance, and he was always amused that the vast majority of the people they met assumed he was the pilot.
A child of the Great Depression, John never had the luxury of indulging in athletics during his youth. But when he retired, he pursued endurance sports with astonishing results. He completed his first Ironman triathlon at age 65 and his last in Kona, Hawaii, at age 74. He also set age group records in distance swimming and the 50-mile run. While other athletes monitored their diets closely, he munched Twinkies and Oreos and drank beer.
He was totally supportive of his stepsons’ flying ambitions, and was never more proud than the day he pinned on my younger brother Harry’s Navy wings.
John died of cancer nine years ago at 82, and family members were all given decorative boxes containing some of his ashes. I had kept mine in an out-of-the-way dresser drawer ever since. I took the box on several flying trips thinking that I’d drop the contents over the Statue of Liberty, but fate always conspired to prevent it – until now.
A thankless job
Mom strapped into the back seat of the Tornado Husky, propped up on an extra cushion, and I handed her a Garmin GPSMAP 696 on a kneeboard to keep her busy during the 90-minute flight to New York City.
She stowed the box of ashes within easy reach in the front seatback. “Sometimes you want to hold onto them and sometimes you want to let them go,” she said a few minutes after we took off. “Personally, I wanted them gone a long time ago. I spread them in the garden at home.”
Another brother distributed his share in Hawaii, site of John’s Ironman struggles and triumphs. Between New York, California, and Hawaii, the key places in his life would all be represented.
Mom had the New York Terminal Area Chart spread out on her lap as we approached the city’s towering skyline. I had been concerned that air traffic on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon would be high, but it turned out to be quite manageable.
We flew north over the VZ bridge, USS Intrepid, and other landmarks, all the way to the George Washington Bridge before making a 180-degree turn to the south.
“The Freedom Tower looks incredible,” my mom said as we went by with the upper floors still under construction above us. “John would really like seeing that, although he’d wonder why the hell it’s taken so long.”
On our way south, we overflew Ellis Island, the place where John’s ancestors (as well as ours), first landed in the United States. At 1,000 feet over the Statue of Liberty, a cool, swirling wind indicated Mom had slid the Tornado Husky’s left side window open. A moment later, we both said a silent prayer as she released the ashes.
As the ashes fanned out in the slipstream and dropped to the surface of the bustling, windswept harbor, I imagine that John would have been touched by our gesture. Perhaps it was his Irish ancestry that gave him a lifelong soft spot for ceremony and remembrance. And the combination of freedom and flying that the Statue of Liberty and the Tornado Husky represent would have been irresistible to him.
Being a stepdad is surely one of the most difficult and thankless jobs ever invented. My brothers and I did our best to make sure John’s assignment was as complicated and strenuous as possible.
It had taken a needlessly long time for me to deliver his ashes to this place where they belong. But I suspect that he’d agree that, finally, Mom and I had done it right. Like the rising tower at Ground Zero, the result, we hope, was worth the wait.
When we landed back in Maryland and pushed the Tornado Husky back in its hangar, I hugged Mom and thanked her for participating in this special delivery. What a lucky coincidence that she had been in Maryland visiting her grandkids when all the variables finally came together.
She smiled wryly and told me it hadn’t been a coincidence at all. Planning made it happen.
It turns out Ms. Pragmatism had traveled all the way across the country for the sole purpose of taking part in this final salute. She would fly home on an airliner the very next day.
“You know, I came for this,” she said. “Visiting you and your family is a bonus – but I actually came here for this.”