One of the big advantages to moving to Huntsville sixteen years ago was that we were going to be closer to family. After years spent serving with the army in Germany and starting our civilian life in California, it was nice to be back within driving distance of almost all of our family.
On one of the first Thanksgivings after we moved, we headed up to Lexington, Kentucky to celebrate the holiday with most of the “Burke” side of our family. My parents came up from Charleston, S.C. and my sister and her family came up from Atlanta. We joined my cousins and their families there as we all converged on my Aunt Kathy’s house. Even my Burke grandparents were there. It was a rare and special event for a family so used to the nomadic life of the military. So special, in fact, that it became a yearly tradition.
As the years went by our visits fell into a kind of rhythm. After catching up on what everyone was doing and expressing the obligatory amazement at how much each of the kids had grown, there was a list of “things we always do” that had to be accomplished during that weekend. There were footballs to be thrown in the back yard, walks with the kids to burn off some energy, new movies to go see, and parades and football games to watch on TV. Sometimes we added activities that were inspired by recent obsessions, like the year we all went geocaching together. And of course there was always the preparation (and consumption) of wondrous amounts of the most delicious food.
Interspersed between those activities were wonderful, peaceful moments spent piled together on the couches in the living room. Sometimes we snoozed, sometimes we read books, and sometimes we chatted about whatever was on our minds. Grandma and Grandpa often sat with us. I know it thrilled their hearts to have all their grandchildren and great grandchildren around!
It was during one of these moments that Grandpa unexpectedly provided us with one of the most treasured memories of our Thanksgivings together. In recent years, Grandpa had started having trouble coming up with some of the words he wanted to say during our conversations. At first it would take him just a few seconds to rebound, but over time it got worse. He managed to explain at one point that he knew in his mind what he wanted to say, but for some reason he just couldn’t get the words to come out of his mouth. When that happened we waited patiently while he worked it out, sometimes offering words we thought he might be looking for, but eventually the effort became more than it was worth to him. From then on, he satisfied himself with sitting silently and listening to our conversations, nodding and smiling as he followed along.
We got used to Grandpa’s silent participation in our chats. He was well into his 90s by that time, but he clearly understood the conversations and enjoyed our time together. One year, I was telling tales from my training to get my pilot’s license when all of a sudden Grandpa perked up. With a gleam in his eye, he sat up and suddenly started speaking, without hesitation and as clear and strong as ever.
It seems that he had his own tale about learning to fly.
When he was in his teens, back in the days of the barnstorming biplanes, Grandpa apparently wangled some flying lessons from a friend of the family who lived close by. The plane was a two-seater, front and back. The pilot normally sat in the rear seat and the passenger up front, but there were controls at each position so Grandpa could actually fly the plane while the owner provided instruction from behind. After a few lessons the owner was satisfied that Grandpa knew what he was doing, so he gave him permission to take the plane up by himself.
On his first time up, Grandpa successfully got the plane into the air and quickly overcame whatever nerves he had about his abilities to fly. Sitting in the back seat now, as the pilot, he noticed that the cables controlling the wing surfaces ran along the underside of the wing just above his head. Reaching up, he found that he could actually control the plane by moving the wires directly, instead of using the control stick in the cockpit. Emboldened by that discovery, Grandpa tried standing up in the open cockpit and flying by using the wires.
I should point out here that NO one in the family had ever heard this story before, so the combined effect of Grandpa suddenly speaking and the novelty of his story had us all glued to his every word! It was hard to imagine the staid and wise old patriarch of our clan doing something so adventurous, and well, foolish, but we hadn’t yet heard the half of it!
From his standing position, young Hubert saw that the front seat of the airplane was actually close enough for him to step into. It occurred to him that it might be fun to pilot the rest of the flight from the front seat…so with his hands hanging onto the control cables, he picked up one leg and gingerly placed it in the front seat…where his pant leg immediately became entangled with the control stick.
So there he was, flying above the fields of Kansas with one leg in each seat of an open air cockpit, controlling the plane using the wires running underneath the top wing and trying to free his leg from the stick in the front seat. Every time he tried to free his leg, it moved the control stick, which moved the cables he was holding onto.
Grandpa said he wasn’t sure how he finally freed himself, but somehow he did. He landed the plane without incident. Once safely on the ground he decided that anyone stupid enough to try a stunt like that shouldn’t be flying an airplane.
He never flew again.
It’s sometimes easy to forget that the men who have always been adults during our lives were once boys themselves. There is tremendous comfort in knowing that, while they may have finished their journeys as venerated patriarchs and ancestors, they started out just as goofy as the rest of us.
Hubert D. Burke died in 2005 at the age of 97. As far as I know he never told another story.
He left behind a lasting legacy of wisdom and humor and fine examples of what it means to be a man.
I’m proud to be his grandson.
originally published 2/27/12| next post Perspective