Technicalities: Two Bobs

A tale of two very different Bobs. Peter Garrison

I graduated from college in 1965. The Vietnam War was in full swing, and any able-bodied male who was not being educated was being drafted. I could have gone to graduate school, but instead decided to take my chances. I moved in with a couple of old friends in Palo Alto, California. Having a fancy B.A. in English, I went to an unprepossessing flight school at the Oakland Airport and got work as a lineboy in exchange for commercial-license instruction and a pittance suitable only for a breatharian.

The school was run by a fellow named Bob Short. I recall him as a tall, lanky guy with a mustache. But that isn’t how he really looked. The reason I know that’s not how he looked is there’s a tiny picture of him online, playing the tuba with the San Francisco jazz band of Turk Murphy.

Short seems to have been a pretty terrific musician. During the 1930s he mastered a number of instruments, including cornet, trombone, banjo and string bass, and he played with several bands in Portland before coming to San Francisco in the 1950s. At some point, he started flying — maybe he was looking for a different way to get rich — and by the time I got to him, he was no longer a regular with Murphy, though he still did gigs with other bands from time to time. According to a 1998 article in the Frisco Cricket, he “was probably the most influential tubaist of the revival, with disciples still playing his ideas in the ’90s.”

I didn’t know any of this. To me, he was just the guy who ran the flight school and checked me out in its Citabria, N11097, and Champ, N9986Y. I had never flown taildraggers before, and Short taught me that the key to a good landing is to feel for the ground with the tailwheel. To this day, I still land tri-gear airplanes that way, holding them off as the nose goes higher and higher, eclipsing the runway, the stall horn blaring. If the airplane is not on the verge of stalling when the wheels touch, I am unhappy with the landing. Short, who died in 1976 at the age of 65, lives on in the hearts of certain jazz aficionados, and in my landings.

I flew every day. At the end of my second week, Short told me to deliver 86Y to a mechanic at Novato, at the north end of the San Francisco Bay. Although I had 370 hours and had already made trips back and forth across the country in the Comanche 250 in which I learned to fly, I was surprised and moved to be entrusted with the little Champ for a trip away from its home field.

Three days later, I was drafted.

Ten years afterward, my airplane was hangared with another Bob, whom I will call, out of respect for his privacy, Bob Long. This Bob was a kind of wild man who mingled outbursts of raunchy humor with moments of disarming sincerity. His two favorite things in the world were sex and guns. Believing as firmly as anyone could in a well-regulated militia, even if it consisted only of himself, Long would pass a slow afternoon by punching .45-caliber holes in a discarded oil drum behind the hangar.

Years later, after he had given up his aviation business and gone into another line of work altogether, he related to me how he had once pursued an armed bank robber in the streets of the seaside town in which he lived. When the fellow turned and took a shot at him, he returned fire, to the extreme disadvantage of the fleeing felon. He told me that the police reprehended his tactics but congratulated him on his good aim — and then he exploded in his characteristic long, arcing laugh.

When I was about to leave for Alaska to collect material for an article, a bunch of people were standing around in front of the hangar, getting ready to say goodbye — some of them, I suspect, wondering if they would ever see me again, since I intended, after finishing with Alaska, to fly my homemade plane across the Pacific to Japan. Bob suddenly had an idea. He went to his office and brought me back a .22-caliber revolver and a box of ammunition. Its ostensible purpose was to scare off bears and, perhaps, to bag small game should I be forced to land in the wilderness.

I daydreamed a good deal about the .22-versus-grizzly scenario while crossing the vast tract of virgin land between Anchorage and Nome, but the engine never ceased to run smoothly and my puny armament remained stashed in an underfloor compartment behind the seats. It was destined, however, to cause me a good deal of trouble.

My companion Nancy joined me in Anchorage on July 3, and we immediately set out. Leaving Cold Bay, at the tip of the Alaska Peninsula, at 9:30 in the evening, we flew for 15 hours and arrived at Chitose, on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, at 6:30 a.m. on July 5. We had crossed the international date line around midnight, and so had inadvertently excised July 4, 1976, the bicentennial, from our lives. We made up for it later by doing July 27 twice.

Nancy had slept during the flight, but I had now been up for 30 hours or so and was ready for a good day’s sleep. It was not to be.

When the general declaration form required by customs asked whether we were carrying any firearms, I naively checked yes. The bureaucratic consternation was complete. It was illegal to bring a gun into Japan without all sorts of prior arrangements and authorizations. Once its existence was known, it could not simply be left in the plane, nor could it be handed over to the airport authorities for safekeeping. There seemed to be a rule against everything, but no rule for solving the problem. I suggested that as far as I was concerned, they could confiscate and destroy it — I figured Bob had plenty of other guns and wouldn’t miss this one — but there was a rule against that too.

The puzzlement continued for hours. I would fall asleep while talking to people. At noon, one of the supervisors, who spoke no English, took us to lunch. We had sushi. It was probably a grim experience for him, conversationally; for myself, I remember a few disagreeable textures.

Finally, perhaps because it was almost time to go home, they came to a solution that would have occurred to an American immediately: Break a rule. The chief of police arrived and took custody of the gun. We repaired to an inn. Three weeks later, as we prepared to depart, the chief ceremonially returned the gun to me while a group of giggling Air Nippon stewardesses lined up for a photograph with Nancy. When we re-entered the United States, no one even thought to ask if we were packing heat.

Peter Garrison taught himself to use a slide rule and tin snips, built an airplane in his backyard, and flew it to Japan. He began contributing to FLYING in 1968, and he continues to share his columns, "Technicalities" and "Aftermath," with FLYING readers.

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