Unusual Attitudes

Why I'm Not a Junior Leaguer


One evening in the late '60s, probably after a few "ginskies" in the Sky Galley bar, Ebby and Walter Rye decided to buy a curious little antique airplane I'd seen advertised in the yellow rag (Trade-A-Plane) that arrived that day. I think they called the seller from the phone in the bar and closed the deal that night. While I was pretty pumped about the whole thing, I was also surprised since neither one of these guys had the foggiest idea what a Pietenpol Air Camper was. Ebby was all about "big-iron-round-engine-preferably-Lockheeds," and Walter didn't even drink. Maybe they were intrigued because this two-hole, parasol wing experimental had been built by Bernard Pietenpol himself and, in its original design, was powered by a Model A Ford motor. Anyway, a nice kid delivered it to Lunken later that week, painfully reluctant to part with his beloved Air Camper. But there was college tuition and ratings to pay for if he was to realize his dream of flying for Northwest Airlines.

The poor kid had hardly boarded the flight back to Minneapolis when Ebby, in time-honored tradition, went to work with a pair of diagonal cutters severing everything behind the instrument panels. Even though it wasn't that big a deal since the Pietenpol had no electrical system and precious few instruments, there were still groans from the mechanics. For 30-some years they'd watched him buy airplanes -- Staggerwing Beeches, UC-78s, P-51s, Beech 18s, and Lockheed 10s, 12s and 18s -- knowing they'd be faced with sorting out the tangle of cut wires, cables and lines behind the panel. The idea was to ensure everything was replaced instead of renovated, salvaged or repaired. At one of Ebby's birthday celebrations, the mechanics at Cincinnati Aircraft and Queen City presented him with a pair of "dikes," gold-plated and firmly welded shut.

The first order of business was to strip off the fabric for a close look at the all-wood fuselage and wing structure and the glue that had held it together for 30 years -- not a bad idea. Ebby and Walter had big plans to restore the Pietenpol to its pristine original condition, as they had with several airplanes and race cars over the years. It would be recovered in cotton and powered again with the Model A engine instead of the horrid little 65 hp Lycoming somebody had installed. NX18224 would have an original wooden prop and a tailskid to replace the modern brakes and tailwheel.

After the quick and dirty disassembly process, the pace slowed dramatically; for several years, the little airplane sat naked and forlorn in the back of Hangar 7 surrounded by baskets and boxes of assorted hardware. Apparently, what Ebby had come to call the "popcorn wagon" had lost its appeal, or maybe it just didn't seem worth the effort and expense. I wanted it pretty badly but was living from hand to mouth on the income from my flying school, and the stash in the refrigerator lettuce crisper was far too meager even to make an offer. But then, as would happen many times, my sister Mary offered to help. Mike Devanney and Bill Schwinn pledged their "help" with the reassembly. So we bought the project at a super-friendly price from Walt and Ebby, whom I'm sure were relieved to have it off their hands.

Mary had no interest in working on or flying it, and I was not at all concerned with authenticity - just getting it back in the air. So Mike, Bill and I collected and sorted parts and pieces and did some minor wood repairs. Snake Ertel welded and our dentist friend Dick O'Neill worked magic on the engine with his portable dental drills. Winter had arrived when we finally got to the recovery stage, and the hangar was unheated, so we rigged up torpedo heaters and hung tarps to keep a small space warm and dry. The project became much more fun, which may have had something to do with dope and torpedo-heater fumes. When we found a few crucial parts had disappeared -- custom-made fittings and other one-of-a-kind pieces of hardware -- Bill's day job at P&G's experimental machine shop saved the day. I guess we should have painted the Air Camper "Tide orange" or at least put that old "Moon and Stars" logo on the tail.

I was pretty much relegated to sanding, varnishing and making runs for coffee and hot chocolate. I'd work until my fingers were numb and my feet cold-soaked. We were using Ceconite (yeah, I know, not too authentic), and I persuaded the guys to turn me loose on one aileron. Working carefully with a heat lamp, I was quite proud of the attractive scalloped trailing edge, which unfortunately wasn't the original design. So it was back to the sanding and varnishing detail for me.

If you've ever made the maiden flight in a home-built experimental, you won't forget the feeling: elation because it's finally ready to fly along with gnawing worries about the struts and control surface attachments, cables, fuel and oil lines, all the homemade parts and, in this case, some of Mike's "Rube Goldberg" modifications (remind me to tell you about the Coors beer-can nav lights on the Cub). I would be going around the patch only once or twice on this bitter-cold February morning since the little open-cockpit airplane had no heat and the cockpit was far too snug for a serious winter jacket or boots.

"Hey, jerko, you knew going in this thing that it was 'experimental.' So quit thinking about it and just go fly."

And it flew, not without a little struggle to convince the poorly rigged airplane who was boss, but it flew. Then after a few more adjustments, test flights and paint and interior details, my 10-year Air Camper odyssey began.

A few months later, in the early spring, Margaret Weaver, the society editor of The Cincinnati Enquirer, called with an idea for a feature about Cincinnati's Junior League. The theme of the newspaper's annual fashion show and gala ball was "exotic travels," and she wanted to illustrate the story with photographs of the young society matrons modeling their finery around a biplane. I don't know why she called me -- I was hardly Junior League material -- but somebody must have told her I knew about antique airplanes in the area.

Well, the Pietenpol was too small for any kind of drapery, but there was Bill Hogan's Taperwing Waco at Hamilton and a bunch of assorted Wacos in Dayton. And Millard (Midge) Huff had this terminally ragged UPF-7 at Blue Ash Airport, which was closer to home. I think Midge worked at GE, but he hung out at Blue Ash, dropping jumpers from a Cessna 170 and hopping passengers in the Waco. He was a great big guy and, well, colorful, but I knew it would be a disaster if he dealt directly with the prim Mrs. Weaver and her Junior Leaguers.

So I called him with the proposal and he said, "Well, hell, sure, why not? Will you be there with them in case I'm not around? You know where the airplane's parked under the tree out here next to the house. I'll kind of wipe off the worst of the bird crap, but I don't have to wash it or nothin', do I?"

"No, it's fine the way it is, Midge," I answered, hoping Mrs. Weaver, the photographer and the society ladies would be able to appreciate local color in its most vivid tones. Secretly, I was delighted -- and it wasn't about helping these privileged women who, I guess, do a lot for their communities. It was about the potential for some wicked fun.

While I pretended to be oblivious of any caste system, I was embarrassed and hurt by being from the west side of town, from behind the "sauerkraut curtain" in the Westwood-Price Hill area. My mom's maiden name of Bierman wasn't in the blue book, I hadn't gone to the right schools and we didn't summer in the right places. I'd been living on the fringes of Cincinnati society, half accepted as Ebby's rather eccentric choice of a fiancée, and my priorities and values were pretty screwed up. Even after all these years, I'm ashamed to confess how very much I wanted to be invited to join the Indian Hill Garden Club or the Junior League.

Anyway, the perfect spring morning dawned bright and clear, and I flew into Blue Ash in the Pietenpol. Mrs. Weaver was there with her clipboard and notepad. The ladies were arriving and milling around in their finery, laughing shrilly and chattering about how "quaint" this was. The newspaper photographer seemed to be losing a battle to herd them into position, and there was Midge, next to the house, smoking a cigarette and looking totally bewildered.

I joined him on the porch.

"Who in the hell are these women?" he asked.

"Well, Midge, they belong to the Junior League," I replied. "It's kind of a charitable club; you know, they volunteer their time and help kids and stuff. The pictures are for the newspaper to advertise a fundraising campaign."

He mulled that over for a few minutes and then brightened, saying, "Oh, hell, why didn't you say so? I know about that club. My daughter belonged to that Junior Achievement in high school."

I nodded and, with some difficulty, kept my mouth shut. The photographer was positioning the ladies on and around the wings, and the ladies were repositioning themselves for maximum exposure. All of a sudden, Midge appeared, lumbering into view waving his arms and shouting for everything to stop.

"Hey, you can't put them fat ones out on the ends," he yelled. "My gawd, those big butts'll sink right through the fabric. A few skinny ones are OK, but the fat ones have to stand up or sit real close in to the fuselage."

First the women looked shocked and then unsure about where they fell in Midge's assessment of "fat ones and skinny ones." The photographer looked scared -- of Midge or the women, I'm not sure, but probably both. Mrs. Weaver looked like she'd smelled something bad and then slightly faint. I was shaking with uncontrollable laughter, edging toward the Pietenpol for a quick getaway, tears running down my face.

I know I'm wicked, but oh, it was perfect heaven!