I haven’t heard a new story from my 91-year-old mother in quite a while. But today, when I visited, she had just had her hair freshly washed, set, and combed. There must have been something about feeling all spiffed up with no place to go that helped her remember another tale of growing up in Carlisle.
She had been looking out the window of their assisted living room when she spotted a small plane flying overhead. “A plane!” she said excitedly, a little like Tattoo on “Fantasy Island” used to shout to Mr. Roarke at the beginning of the show.
She scared the pitootie out of me, but my dad, who was fast asleep in his chair, didn’t move a muscle.
I turned around to look out the window, too. “Do you remember the first time you ever saw an airplane?” I asked, watching the plane fly out of sight.
She looked blank for just a minute. Then she got that faraway look in her eyes that I have come to recognize as ‘data bank retrieval.’ She had remembered something.
“We had planes flying overhead occasionally when I was a girl,” she said, “but I remember the time a plane landed in Ugstad’s field.”
“Where was Ugstad’s field?” I asked.
“Right between our farm and the Eide farm,” my mother said. “It was on our path to school.”
“Did you see it land?” I asked.
“No, it landed on the weekend,” she remembered, “but we walked right by it on Monday morning when we went to school. It must have been the early 1930s.”
“Why did it land in Ugstad’s field?”
“It had engine trouble, I guess. It was a big transport plane that carried cargo, flying from Minneapolis to Canada, and it had engine trouble over Carlisle. So it had to land in the field. Luckily it was spring and they hadn’t done any planting yet.”
“Did you walk over and see the plane?” I asked.
“Oh, everyone around Carlisle went to see the plane.” Then she got a sly look on her face. “But they did something kind of bad that made those airplane people angry.”
“What did they do?” I asked, surprised that the good Norwegian Lutheran farmers around Carlisle would purposely sabotage the plane.
“They all started writing their names on the tail of the airplane,” she laughed. “It was covered with names. I guess they all thought it would be fun to have their names flying around in the sky.”
“Did you write your name on the plane?” I asked.
“No, we were just school children. It was the older ones who wrote their names on the plane’s tail.”
“How do you know the airplane people were angry about the names?” I asked.
“The day the men came to fix the broken parts on the plane, my father walked out to the field to talk to them. He said they were hopping mad. They were repainting the tail so the names wouldn’t show,” she smiled. “Oh, they were mad all right.”
“Had your father put his name on the tail?” I asked.
“Oh, no,” my mother said quickly. “He wasn’t the ‘writey’ kind. He was quiet.” I thought about that one for awhile. It isn’t every day that you find out your grandfather wasn’t into graffiti.
“Well, that’s a story you haven’t told me before,” I said finally.
“I had forgotten it,” my mother said, that faraway look back in her eyes, gazing out the window. “It was a huge plane. Or maybe it wasn’t so big, but I thought it was big because I had never seen an airplane up close before.”
I looked over at my dad, hoping to verify some of her facts, but his eyes had been closed during my entire visit. I wasn’t sure if he was sleeping, because even though he’s sometimes half awake, he doesn’t have the energy to keep his eyes open.
I secretly hoped that he had been one of the young men in Carlisle who had written his name on the tail of that plane. I suppose I’ll ever know for sure, but I’d like to think my dad’s signature is on a vintage plane somewhere, hidden under a coat of paint.