(February 2011) — When we shoved open the door of the disreputable little shack, six, maybe seven, pairs of eyes swung in our direction and their expressions read, “Either these two are lost or they just arrived from another planet.” In our pastel wool winter coats, white gloves, pumps and those little lace veils women wore to Mass in 1961, we’d stopped in town for the fast 10 o’clock at St. Xavier Church and then pointed my sister Mary’s new, 1961 green Volkswagen Bug to Cincinnati’s East End and Lunken Airport. A rutted, narrow road ran along the southwest side and dead-ended on the “south line,” where a red-and-white sign announced Aero Services. OK, this was where Father Bill had told us to go, but it sure wasn’t like those nice, big, brick hangars up the road. This was “the wrong side of the tracks.”
There were airplanes, though, and before we stepped inside on that December morning I pointed to “ours” sitting forlornly in the gravel-and-dirt field north of the building. It was a little silver Ercoupe that belonged to Bill Blome and Larry Porter, two young priests who weren’t particularly eager for the archbishop to know they owned something so unpriestly as an airplane. I knew Father Blome from a “religion” course he (reluctantly) taught at Mercy High School, but when I learned he was a pilot, we spent a lot more time talking about flying than about saints and sins. I was a sophomore in college now with $250 stashed away from selling ladies’ sportswear at Mabley & Carew department store. When I called to ask where to take flying lessons, there was only the briefest pause.
“Our airplane’s just sitting idle out at Lunken, so why don’t you and Mary use it? … Just pay for fuel and the instructor.”
To me that offer has been surer proof of the existence of God than anything I learned from a religion class or a church pulpit.
Those curious eyes belonged to the regular Sunday morning “geezers” (as Rinker Buck would call them) at Aero Services. The owners were a mortician who hauled bodies around in his 182, a little guy named Virgil who didn’t say much and Bob Herweh, a bombastic, mustachioed used-car dealer and part-time Civil Air Patrol general. I’m pretty sure Lyle Castle and Joe Gillette were there along with Frank Anson and Charlie Conrad, undoubtedly in the middle of another wildly creative flying story.
Then a tall, handsome young guy came in from a tiny back office, introducing himself in a deep, resonant voice as the manager, Hal Something-or-other.
Fate? The position of the stars? The hand of God? Karma? Whatever. Surely I was predestined to spend the rest of my days messing around with airplanes. Not only was I born on the same day as Amelia Earhart, but also the first person I met at the airport was Hal Shevers, who would become the legendary “Sporty” of pilot shop fame.
Aero Services didn’t actually rate a manager, but Hal was between careers. With an engineering degree from Purdue University and a pilot license, he’d been hired by the venerable Cincinnati Milling Machine Co. But Hal and the rigid corporate culture of “The Mill” didn’t fit. In the ensuing 50 years, I would know Hal as intelligent, ambitious, funny, brash, generous, talented, loud, fair, fiercely loyal and fiercely intimidating. But taking orders from somebody else just isn’t in his DNA — and I guess tact is something less than a dominant gene. Before we left that morning he’d insulted Frank Anson and Charlie Conrad and told Joe Gillette, who was bragging about the 4,000 fpm climb rate in his Luscombe, that he was full of crap.
Winter progressed into spring, and Mary and I took lessons from Larry Whitesell, who’d recently graduated from the University of Cincinnati and was desperately trying to get hired by Delta Airlines. Hal was desperately trying to keep an eye on us after our dad called to say he would hold him responsible for keeping his girls out of trouble. Hal Shevers was (and is) a guy who understood and respected that, but he had his hands full.
Larry, however, was cut from a different piece of cloth. A few weeks later, during a lesson in Ercoupe N341 on a cold, clear Sunday morning, he said it was time we climbed to 6,000 feet so I could join the Mile High Club … a rite of passage. When we landed and I burst into the office to tell the geezers about my adventure, there was a choked silence and those same glazed stares I’d seen on our first encounter. Hal wasn’t around to do an end run, so all week I bragged to my friends and to my father, who told his friends about the feat. Finally, Carl Garlough, who owned the maintenance shop, took me by the arm (or the scruff of the neck) and said we needed to talk. I followed him out to the hangar, where he removed the ever-present pipe from his mouth and, as delicately as possible, explained what was involved in joining the Mile High Club.
With any sense, I would have recognized this “wake-up call” about the black-hearted, dashing Capt. Whitesell, who would indeed become an airline captain, flying all over the world and leaving a long trail of broken hearts. But … ‘nuf said.
Hal had a Piper Comanche that he couldn’t afford to fly, drove an old black Studebaker Lark and, with a half-dozen bachelors, rented a derelict mansion they called “The House of Bad Dreams.” In the basement, he and Russ Falk bottled airplane exhaust-gas stain remover called Pilot’s Best Friend. I’m pretty sure it came from Aero Services’ 80-octane pump and was less than a real hot seller. But then he bought a wholesale lot of Japanese transistor radios and ran an ad in Trade-A-Plane, and Sporty’s Pilot Shop was born.
As the saying goes, “If you remember the ’60s you probably weren’t there.” I was oblivious to the war, Crosby, Stills and Nash, free love and protest marches, but it wasn’t because of drugs or alcohol. It was all about airplanes. When I wasn’t at work or at school (and sometimes when I should have been) I was hanging out on the south line at Lunken. Hal resigned from the executive staff at Aero Services and opened a retail pilot supply shop (the original Sporty’s) in the terminal building. When he kept insulting a large segment of the walk-in traffic, his partner, Russ, banished him to the back office, and I guess that’s how the catalog was born.
Mary and I got our private pilot tickets and became part of the South Line Gang, an ecumenical collection of characters including a doctor named Tom Byrne. Tom worked at a rather notorious nearby uranium plant and claimed he glowed in the dark. He owned a Champ Challenger, forerunner to the Citabria, and would become my best friend, teaching me “contour flying” and how to cook, to drink, to forgive hurts, to laugh more, to recite dozens of dirty limericks and to celebrate life with joy. Tom was gay in a time when that wasn’t acceptable; maybe I knew, but more likely I didn’t understand and chose not to let it get in the way of our friendship. He was a gentle man, highly intelligent and utterly childlike, who covered any darkness with an over-the-top sense of humor.
The Champ was still painted in the colors of its former owner, the Ohio Highway Patrol, and Tom showed me how to maneuver its shadow in front of speeding cars on the new interstate and watch the dramatic decelerations with glee. In a local Good Friday tradition called “Praying the Steps,” hordes of Catholics (Cincinnati’s full of them) climb from the Ohio River bank to a church atop Mount Adams, stopping to say a prayer on each of the 150 steps. Instead of doing the church thing, we two part-time Catholics substituted “Flying the Steps.” Tom said a really low pass along the hillside, well below the statue of the Immaculata, would only serve to intensify the fervor of the prayers.
We all frequented the Greenwich Tavern (where a plate of spaghetti and a mug of dark beer cost $1.99), grilled burgers on the back porch of Hal’s shop (infuriating the airport restaurant owner), flew to pancake breakfasts and challenged each other to spot-landing contests. When somebody was exposed to hepatitis A, Tom brought vials of gamma globulin and shot everybody in the butt in the Sporty’s storeroom. We did the “all-you-can-drink martinis and daiquiris” on Fridays at Mergard’s bowling alley bar, and we swam in the algae-covered pool at the House of Bad Dreams. Mostly we talked about flying.
Then, suddenly, shortly before his 30th birthday, Hal announced it was time he settled down and got married.
“What do you think, Marth? Should I marry Kay or Sandy?”
“Jeez, Hal, you’ve gotta be kidding. How would I know, and what difference would it make anyway?”
But he kept at it. … “No, c’mon, I really want your opinion. You know both of them and you know me. What should I do?”
“I don’t know. … Kay’s really pretty and she has a sweet personality. She’s a heck of an artist and, yeah, OK, I like Kay a lot. Sandy’s a great gal … smart and cute, but I just kinda think Kay.”
Within three months Hal ended up married …
To Sandy …
Which was fine …
Except he told her what I’d said.
The South Line Gang drifted into “grown-up” lives — marriage, the draft, airline jobs, graduate schools. A few lost interest in airplanes. Tom lost his way in the darkness and committed suicide. Sporty’s, of course, would become a generic word in the aviation world and Hal a hugely generous benefactor, not only to aviation causes but also in promoting opportunities for young people.
Despite incessant scrapping (he can still be a pain in the ass), we’re forever friends. I’ve worked for him twice, once quitting in tears and once getting fired, but Hal’s the guy I’d call if I got in trouble. Yeah, he’d kick my butt, but he’d be there to bail me out.
Sandy? Well, I’m not really sure she’s ever actually forgiven me. …