Every summer weekend through most of the ’60s, Midwest Airways flew its original northern Michigan route from Cincinnati to Traverse City and Harbor Springs as well as the weekday Cleveland and Detroit schedule. So on Friday evenings from June through August at least one Lockheed 10 came to roost on the grass runway at Harbor Springs — unless the weather was so rotten we needed the ILS at Pellston, Michigan.
After the passengers left, Capt. Ebby Lunken and I would clean up the cabin while the copilot was dispatched with the honey bucket. We assumed he disposed of its contents in the terminal building restroom until an irate neighbor stormed over one night with a dreadful tale about his garden. I can’t remember if it was a flower garden or a vegetable garden, but I think I’d better move on somewhere else with this story....
We’d take the liquor with us to the Harbor Inn, where the staff — a bunch of college kids — entertained the mostly geriatric clientele in the lounge after dinner. What fun it was to swagger into the lobby of that old resort hotel, hot and disheveled, strolling between the assembled guests and the cellos and violins with an assortment of liquor bottles hanging from our pockets and bags. Ebby always frosted the cake by setting his “50-mission-crush” cap at a disreputably rakish angle.
Saturdays we just messed around or worked on the airplane, and on Sundays after Mass at the 1828 vintage Church of the Holy Childhood, Ebby would take me to brunch out on Harbor Point. How casually elegant it all was; 50 years later Marty Leyman is still to me the quintessentially attractive, perfectly groomed, gracious hostess. Since you couldn’t drive on Harbor Point we’d leave early enough to walk back to town and pick up sandwich trays at Juilleret’s for Flight 101, leaving MGN at 6:30 p.m.
This particular Sunday would be a dark and stormy night. Yeah, I know, “There she goes again,” but it really was — or at least it was going to be. We knew there was weather down the line, but it was classic northern Michigan clear when we departed Harbor Springs Airport on time with eight passengers. An hour later, still daylight but with a high overcast, we climbed out of Traverse City with 2½ more “SOBs.” Capt. Lunken may have looked calm and cool in his pressed khakis with wings (his own design) on the lapel, a sleeve full of gold stripes and the aforementioned crushed hat, but he was pissed.
The Electra was now packed with 10½ passengers plus a crew of three: Ebby, a new copilot named Larry McLeod and moi in back, keeping everybody in the cabin happily well oiled. Sunday night passengers were mostly men going back to the city after a weekend with the family, so the hooch flowed freely, unlike on Fridays, when they were expected to arrive at least somewhat sober.
Tonight’s “half” passenger was an elderly raccoon carried on board in its cage by a Traverse City passenger. After much glowering and muttering, Ebby finally acquiesced; I reminded him that otherwise we’d lose a fare, which was critical with only 10 revenue seats. So we jammed the cage in the rear aisle, blocking the “blue room” as well as the cabin door, which wouldn’t pass muster on today’s airlines.
Well, everything went pretty smoothly until a “perfect storm” near Grand Rapids. In those days without radar you stayed low and punched through, aiming for the light spots, and weather around here was nothing new; there seemed to be a permanent front lurking across the middle of Michigan every Sunday evening. But tonight’s lightning show and rain were pretty spectacular, plus you could hear, even feel, claps of thunder over the drone of the R-985s. My solution to most of life’s problems at the time was to dispense libations more freely, but the strategy backfired when a too well-served passenger announced he needed to use the potty. That damned raccoon cage — its occupant blithely riding out the storm — was blocking the door, and no attempt to pry it open met with any success. As minutes passed the passenger agonizingly reminded me he really, really needed to go.