My father was an airline pilot who flew bombers in World War II. All of his friends were pilots. Everyone I knew wanted to be a pilot or at least thought it was a really, really cool job. Naturally, I wanted to be a pilot, too. Like my dad. Or like James Garner in the movie Cash McCall, flying Natalie Wood to dinner in my own Douglas A-26 Invader. Yeah.
Growing up, Southern California was the undisputed center of the aviation universe and was bristling with civilian and military airfields. In the mountains above and amidst the prime real estate enclaves of Malibu, Chatsworth and Palos Verdes, Army Nike anti-aircraft missile bases were installed to protect our city (you could ride your bike to the neighborhood missile base!). Ever at the ready, they sat quietly waiting for Russian bombers to poke their sinister glassed noses over the horizon (the abandoned bases are still there, by the way). Aircraft and rockets were produced by the thousands at airports in Long Beach, Burbank, Torrance, Los Angeles, Hawthorne, San Diego, Culver City, Van Nuys, Lancaster and (yes, it’s true!) Santa Monica. Even the plastic airplane models that hung from my ceiling came from L.A. (it was a short bike ride from my house to the Revell Models headquarters in Venice). North American Aviation’s factory used to run along the south runway at LAX and on the roof of its hangars, facing the runways and passenger terminals, a huge neon sign proudly proclaimed that it was the Home of the X-15. Newly arrived passengers were thus subtly informed that they had just landed in a city whose citizens built and pilots flew Mach 6 rockets into outer space.
I was living in an aviation petri dish.
To make matters worse, my dad used to take my brother and me down to LAX to watch the airplanes land and takeoff. He would park our chartreuse 1950 Ford Custom across from the terminals and railroad tracks that still run along Aviation Boulevard (the terminals are long gone and have been replaced by numerous freight buildings and a postal distribution center; the old United maintenance hangars are still there, though). My father would select one particular driveway on the east side of the street that was optimum for watching planes approach and takeoff. My brother and I would sit on the front fender of the car and, handkerchiefs in hand, wave to the passengers in the planes that were getting ready to go. Like people setting forth on an ocean voyage, the plane’s passengers, to a man and white-gloved woman, would dutifully wave back. Quite exciting. If we were lucky, when the plane had completed its controls, magneto and propeller checks, we would get a big blast of prop wash as it pulled onto the runway. That’s when we would be able to smell the high octane exhaust of the plane’s big Pratt and Whitney R2800 motors. What a moment. The experience engaged every one of my physical senses.
Man, I really liked airplanes.
Unlike so many aviation companies that have vanished or moved from Southern California, the particular driveway is still there. Even now, if you wanted to, you can park your car on it and watch the planes come in and go out. I look for it every time I go to Hawaii. Just before I push the throttles up a tiny touch to pull onto the runway.