Tommy finds something out about himself...
by Erin Halfelven
My father, Todd Belew, was a Canadian barnstormer. He traveled across the USA doing his dangerous stunts and flying out of cornfields and sandlots back in the days after The Great War. Back then, a surplus biplane could be bought for $50 and kept flying with string, wire and nerve.
He met my mother, Alice Darcey, in one of those cornfields in Iowa, and she joined the act as a wingwalker and wife. Ten months later, in July of 1924, I was born and was duly named Thomas Darcy Belew, complete with an alternate spelling for my middle name.
Mom finally talked Dad into giving up the stunt-flying and when I was four Dad flew through a pass in the Rockies to find permanent good flying weather in California. Mom and I followed on the train with me at a window pointing at every flying thing I saw and asking, “Is that Daddy?”
Over the years, he made a sometimes good living doing short passenger, cargo and messenger hops throughout the California Central Valley and down to Los Angeles and San Diego and out to San Francisco and Oakland. Mom and I flew with him when he didn’t need the extra seats for passengers. Occasionally, we had to take a bus home to Stockton while Dad coaxed whatever piece of junk he was currently flying back to life.
After just such a cranky bus ride from Bakersfield, Mom and I dragged our dusty selves into the house to find that Dad had got the old Jenny back home before us. That wasn’t unexpected – it happened a lot on such trips, but for some reason, this time it set Mom off.
“It took us three days to get home!” she screamed at him. “Tommy had his thirteenth birthday in a bus stop in Fresno!”
“They had cake,” I said without thinking about the risk.
“Shut up!” Mom said to me. Then back at Dad. “We’re hot and tired, do you know how hot a bus gets between Bakersfield and Stockton in JULY? No, you don’t cause you’re up there in the air with the breeze!”
“I—,“ said Dad, proving he was no smarter than I was.
“Shut up!” said Mom. “Did you at least get paid?”
“Well,” said Dad.
“Had to spend it all for repairs, huh?”
“And gas,” said Dad, looking miserable.
“Where’s the car?” Mom asked. “We would have known you were home if the car were in the driveway. Where’s the car?” We owned a jalopy at the time, an old Model A rebuilt after a head-on collision with a Holstein dairy cow.
“I had an accident,” said Dad.
“With the car?” Mom asked in an unbelieving voice, all high-pitched and screechy.
Dad and I both winced. We both knew she would calm down soon and be her normal, sweet, reasonable self but sometimes it took a while.
“No, no, with the plane, the Jenny. I kind of came in too hard and crushed the landing gear.”
Mom rolled her eyes.
“See there was this unexpected downdraft at the edge of the field, and I had to gun her to keep airspeed up, so I didn’t land short or nose in and.... Well, it kind of crushed, ripped, tore the landing gear right off when I came in so fast and hard.”
“Are you all right?” Mom asked, suddenly showing concern.
“I’m fine, not even a head bump – it was a good landing.”
She snorted, “Meaning one you can walk away from. But let me guess, you did $400 damage to a $500 aircraft and sold our car to finance repairs.”
Dad actually looked relieved. “Better than that, much better than that!” he said.
“Uh-oh,” Mom said, glancing sideways at me. I couldn’t help it, I flinched. Mom could wrap so much long-suffering exasperation into her glances that I’ve known squirrels that got one of them to go into winter-long depressions.
“I sold the car and the plane,” said Dad proudly.
“Good for you,” said Mom, not meaning it at all.
My heart sank. At that age, I practically lived for the brief experiences of flying that I got. Best of all were the times I went up alone with Dad when he let me take the controls that he would never do when Mom was along. There was nothing like it and I perfectly understood Dad’s obsessive love of planes and flying and the sky.
Dad still looked pleased though, and I realized that while he might have sold the old Jenny, he must still have a foot on the clouds somehow. “You bought another plane!” I squealed.
He nodded, beaming. Mom frowned, but her heart wasn’t in it. She loved my old man and would forgive him anything, anything short of dying and leaving her alone.
“Not just any plane, it’s a practically new WACO cabin, a real workhorse four-seater and it’s red with black trim and silver wings!”
“You made a downpayment,” Mom said, a little dose of reality. “How much do we owe?”
Dad beamed even wider to hear Mom’s “we”. She loved Dad, and she loved being married to a pilot who loved the sky and she knew what that meant. We would always be in debt, and we would usually own more plane than we could afford.
“They wanted $4500. I talked them down to $3850 and got them to take the Jenny, as is, and the sedan for $750 and the rest of the money I got for flying that state senator down to Duarte. So we owe, uh,” he had the grace to blush, “$3055.”
Mom sat down. I did too. That was a lot of money in 1937.
Dad looked a little abashed. “It cost $6325 new, four years ago,” he said.
“Oh, Todd,” said Mom. “We’ve got $61 in the bank and $7 in the piggy. I’m not working, Tommy will need new clothes to start school soon and you never, ever get paid on time for anything. How are we going to make payments? How much are the payments?”
“Uh,” said Dad. He searched through the pockets of his flying suit which he wore most all the time. He found a slip of paper which he read. “I got a five-year note for $59.42 a month.”
“Dear Lord,” said Mom. “That’s twice what we pay in rent!”
“For this dump?” Dad said, looking around at our meager little bungalow where I slept in the living room on a rollaway daybed. Wrong thing to say and I got out of the house about then, so I didn’t hear the end of the argument.
* * *
Out in the backyard, under the peach trees, I petted one of the neighbor’s calico cats and fantasized about flying the WACO over the coast range to maybe land in Santa Barbara, a beautiful place I had been to exactly once.
I didn’t hear Billjo Bragg glide up on his bike because the roar of the hundred fifty-seven horse engine in the imaginary WACO drowned him out.
“Wanna race?” he asked in his southern drawl, nodding toward my blue Elgin Blackhawk. Nineteen months older than me, a foot taller and forty pounds heavier, Billjo was the nearest kid to my age in the neighborhood. It did not make us friends, but we did hang out together.
“Okay,” I agreed, knowing he would not stop asking until I did so. Either that or he would want to ‘wrassle’. I had much rather race him. I got my bike untangled from the bushes where I had left it, and we walked out to the alley.
“Your mom is so pretty,” said Billjo. He said that frequently so I ignored him. This time he added, “You look just like her.”
“Huh?” I said, feeling stupid and picking that unfortunate moment to choose to toss my hair out of my eyes with a little headshake, a gesture my mom also used.
Billjo chortled. “Yeah, see, like that. You even act like her.”
Like a lot of boys in America in 1937, Billjo’s own hair was down to his shoulders, a sort of dirty blond shag or bowl cut. My hair had more of a golden color and almost reached the middle of my back. I hadn’t had my hair cut in years; it cost a quarter, which I could use instead to buy almost two of my favorite aviation magazines.
Skinny boys in blue jeans with a fixation on airplanes are not always well-liked. And yet, Billjo, an otherwise infamous bully had never exactly been an enemy even if we weren’t friends. Or maybe he did consider me a friend.
Neither of my parents were big people. On his tallest day, Dad might have stretched to five-seven in his aviator boots. Mom never made it to five feet without heels. At age thirteen, I was a couple inches shorter than Mom, about the size of the average fifth grader. Smallest kid in my class at school back in the spring by two inches and with the summer half gone, I had not grown enough to notice.
Billjo, on the other hand, was taller than my dad, though part of that was the clodhopper boots he wore. He had the accent to match – his folks were from northern Alabama, and he had a drawl as thick as grits and a whine like a mosquito with tonsillitis when he wanted something. “Race you,” he whined.
“In a minute,” I said.
I took a much-abused handkerchief out of a back pocket and cleaned off the seat of my bike. Stockton’s nickname is Mudville (yes, that Mudville), and if it isn’t raining, the wind is blowing dust. Things get filthy if they are left out in the open.
Billjo watched me as if I were fascinating. Just to be contrary, I wiped the handlebars, the tank, and the little platform over the rear wheel that Sears called a parcel rack, too. It was only a year old when I got it, a 24” Blackhawk Special, smaller than a standard bike. Dad had looked really hard to find a nearly new bike that fit me for my birthday two years ago. Even if he had to settle for a girl’s bike – at least I had one.
I kept my bike as much like new as I could, not having an inside place to put it. It even still had the funny little wrench it came with in the tool compartment in the tank.
I mounted up, and we pedaled out to the alley which in late July was hard-packed earth. Billjo’s bike was a 26” black and cream Schwinn with no rack and a missing rear fender. I noticed stuff about bikes almost as much as I did about airplanes and usually pretended that my two-wheeler had wings.
“Wanna make a bet, Sky?” he asked as nonchalant as an octopus at a lobster dance.
With a last name of Belew, carelessly and frequently pronounced ‘Blue’, an obsession with airplanes, and the appropriate color eyes combined with being short for an opposite, Sky was my obvious nickname. I actually kind of liked it – better than ‘Crabby’ which was what Mom called me when things weren’t going the way I thought they should.
“What kind of bet?” I asked, for some reason cautious. Betting on anything, everything, and nothing was a popular pastime of boys my age that I had never understood.
“We’ll race to Long’s Market,” he said, about four blocks. “If you win, I’ll buy you a coke.” He didn’t mean a Coca Cola, he meant what the locals called a soda, and my mom and dad called a pop. Soda cost a nickel at Long’s if you drank it there or plus a penny for deposit if you didn’t bring a return bottle.
I shook my head. “I can’t afford to buy you a soda if you win.” Actually, I could, I had a dime left over from some change Mom gave me during our trip. I intended to save it to buy the next issue of Flying when I found a nickel to make up the fifteen cent price. So, no stupid bets. “Besides, you know you’re going to win.”
“I’ll give you a head start,” he said.
We had reached the street. Long’s Market was at the corner of Airport Way, at the end of a zigzag course through Little Manila and the edge of Chinatown where we lived. Billjo and I were also two of the only six or seven white kids for blocks around, and we had walked or biked ten blocks to go to the white grammar school north of Weber. It was even further to the junior high and would be further still to the high school.
“How much of a head start? A block?”
“To the first corner,” he said. Half a block. “I won’t start until you get there.”
“Um,” I said. “I still can’t afford to buy soda pop.”
“If I win, we wrassle. If you win, I buy us both a coke.”
I thought that over. You could get hurt ‘wrassling’ Billjo, even in fun. He seriously did not know his own strength.
“We won’t bet on the wrassling, it wouldn’t be fair,” he added. “I always win that.”
“Why do you want to wrassle?” I asked. “It’s hot.”
He shrugged. “It’s fun. You ready? On your mark!”
Somehow, it turned out I had agreed to the race. “Go!” I shouted and started out.
I was flying when I passed the first corner and heard Billjo shout, “Here I come!”
I chose to go straight at the next corner, risking going up Airport the wrong way for the chance to take a shortcut through Mrs. Velasquez’s backyard. But she had laundry hanging and that wouldn’t be worth it. I cut down the alley instead. Gomo, the boxer dog Mr. Amayo kept on a steel chain behind his paint shop, chased me part of the way, growling but wagging his stumpy tail. He hit the end of the chain hard like he always did, jerking a noise out of him that sounded more like a burp than a bark.
Behind me, I heard Billjo curse at the dog but he wasn’t stupid enough to kick it. Gomo would take a piece out of you if you made him mad, and if he didn’t and you hurt the dog, Mr. Amayo would bite you himself.
Billjo sounded too close, but I didn’t look back, it would be a mistake to give anything away in such a close race. The delivery steps in the back of the store became my goal. But how to stop without cracking up the bike and me? That turned out not to be a problem.
Billjo was so intent on beating me that he ran his bigger bike and self right over me. I’m not sure how that worked, but we ended up in a tangle of bruises and spokes ten feet from the back steps. He must have hit my rear wheel with his front and got me turned sideways. We almost went into the pit where trucks could back up and unload things on the level.
We lay there in the dirt laughing like idiots. I had Billjo’s elbow in my face and his handlebars in my stomach, and he had my foot in his ear. The only bloodshed was when he cut the back of his thumb on a fender edge while untangling us.
“It’s a tie,” he said, sucking on his thumb-knuckle. He sat knees-up on his heels. Only Southern boys seem to be able to do that for very long.
“What do we do?” I asked, still laughing.
“I buy us both cokes and we wrassle, ‘cause we both won,” he said.
That didn’t stop my laughter – I got the hiccoughs, instead.
I waved vaguely at our bikes, nothing seemed bent or broken but it would probably take both of us to untangle them. “Hic,” I said.
Billjo nodded, staring at me intently. “You got the hiccum-ups,” he said.
That got me to laughing again.
“Hiccoughs,” he said, pronouncing it, “hiccuffs”.
No help. I fell back against the steps, and yes, I was giggling and hiccing like someone with a fatal case of fits.
“Wrassling first!” shouted Billjo springing from his crouch and grabbing me around the waist. I tried to hit him, but I had no strength from lack of air. Not that I could likely have hurt the horse of a boy he was on my strongest day ever.
Billjo shifted his grip and pulled his face up to mine and before I knew it, he was kissing me — right on the mouth. He had my right arm trapped between us. I didn’t know what to do. I took my left hand and tried to find his ear, hoping to twist it till he let me go.
A horn honked and a voice shouted, scaring both of us so bad Billjo’s grip loosened. I slipped away and he almost tumbled into the delivery pit again.
The voice was still shouting. “You kids get those bikes out of the way!” A truck had backed into the alley, angling to make the turn up to the loading steps. I remember the painting on the side of the truck, a fat friar eating grapes and the words “Hermitage Produce and Grocery” in a fancy font.
We jumped to untangle the bikes.
The driver leered from his window as he backed in past us. “Take her somewhere more romantic than an alley next time, kid!” he said to Billjo.
That did it. Face burning, I hopped on my bike and headed for home, raising another cloud of dust from the parking lot. Billjo called to me to wait. His front wheel was lined up with his handlebars instead of across them, and he couldn’t ride till he straightened them, but I kept pedaling.
“Sky!” he shouted. “I’ll bring the cokes to your house.”
I almost didn’t go home but where else did I have to go?
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