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 Harvard BA in English, I knocked on the door of an unprepossessing flight school at the Oakland Airport and got work as a line boy in exchange for commercial-license instruction and a pittance suitable for someone who eats only air.

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

Bob Short seems to have been a pretty terrific musician. During the 1930s he had 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.” That there was even such a thing as an influential tubaist had never crossed my mind.

I didn’t know any of this biographical information until much later. 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 was to feel for the ground with the tailwheel. To this day I still land tri-gear aeroplanes that way, holding them off as the nose goes higher and higher, eclipsing the runway, the stall horn blaring. If the aeroplane is not fully stalled when the wheels touch, I am unhappy with the landing.

Short, who died in 1976 at the age of 65, lives on both in the hearts of certain jazz tubaists 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 then and had already made trips back and forth across the US in the Comanche 250 in which I learned to fly, I was surprised and moved to be entrusted alone with the little Champ for a trip away from its home field.

Three days later, I was drafted.

Ten years later, I had designed and built an aeroplane, Melmoth, and it 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 humour with moments of disarming warmth and sincerity. His two favourite 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 of a slow afternoon beguile the time by punching .45 calibre holes in a discarded oil drum behind the hangar.

Years later, after he had given up his aviation business and gone into import, he related to me how, after retrieving the gun he kept stashed under the floormat in his car, he had pursued a 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, as it turned out, of the fleeing felon. He told me that the police reprehended his tactics but congratulated him on his aim – and then he exploded in his characteristic long, cackling laugh.

When I was about to leave for Alaska in Melmoth 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 calibre revolver and a box containing several hundred rounds of ammunition. He explained that I should have it 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 vs 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 at around midnight, and so had inadvertently excised July 4, 1976, the great US bicentennial day, 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. This was a mistake. It was a great opportunity to tell a white lie, and I missed it. The resulting 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 for the first time. 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. The next day, we were briefly minor celebrities, appearing on a daytime TV show with a hostess who found most remarkable not that we had arrived from the United States in a homemade plane, but that we had done so in ordinary street clothes.

Three weeks later, as we prepared to depart, the police chief ceremonially returned the gun to me while a group of giggling Air Nippon stewardesses lined up for a photograph with Nancy. And then we climbed into our little plane and crossed that enormous ocean again.

When we re-entered the United States, no one even thought to ask if we were packing heat.

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