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A Flight Along America's Highway

One man’s mid-century portrait of the United States—from 1,500 feet.

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In the decade or so after the end of World War II, whole fleets of perfectly good but obsolete aircraft were surplussed by the U.S. military and fell into the hands of a generation of ex-military pilots. Some vets wanted to start airlines or cropdusting services. Some just wanted to fly for the pleasure of it. Bill Price wanted to take an aerial portrait of the United States. He proposed buying a surplus airplane and buzzing America’s Main Street, U.S. Highway 40, capturing its likeness with a camera.

Price believed that a low-altitude aerial survey would reveal patterns in geology, agriculture, housing, industry, and American culture that were invisible on the ground. “I was trying to figure how it would be possible to take a sample of the whole country all the way across, but it needed something to hold it together and Highway 40 seemed the way to do it,” he says. Price planned to make a book of it, a collection of handsome plates with a detailed analysis of what he saw along U.S. 40, which stretched from sea to shining sea.

The plan began in 1945 when Price was declared war surplus himself. He was discharged from the U.S. Navy at 30 as a full lieutenant (senior grade). He had racked up over 2,300 hours tooling around the northern and central Pacific in PBY Catalinas and PBM Mariners, twin-engine amphibious patrol bombers, and all that flying time left him quite at ease in a cockpit.

Upon discharge, he went to work at his last place of civilian employment, the newsroom of the New York Daily News, where he had to work as a copy boy before returning to the rank of reporter. Soon he was able to convince the paper that it needed its own air force, a Waco biplane that he ferried in from Troy, Ohio, and operated from a grass strip in Queens, just across the East River from Manhattan. Price was soon flying News photographers over horse races, outdoor ceremonies, fleet reviews, oceanliner arrivals, and plane crashes. Price thought the camera work didn’t look that difficult, so he bought himself an Argus C-3, which he used in freelance work for aviation magazines.

He’d already bought his own airplane, a U.S. Army Air Forces Stinson L-5 with a Lycoming engine. Price had picked it up in December 1945 for a song in Muskogee, Oklahoma, and for the next few years he flew it hard and everywhere in the eastern United States. He then took a leave of absence from the Daily News and set out in January 1948 on an odyssey south to Texas (“Feb. 4, 1948, Stimson Field, San Antonio—STINKO WEATHER”) and on through Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama, where he had a buyer waiting. The last leg was the hairiest; in Colobre, Panama, he joined an air search over the jungle for a missing pilot (who turned up safe elsewhere), and his log then tracks him from Paitilla Airport to remote “Pinogana Village to pick up boy with tetanus infection and returned to Paitilla and hospital—strip 650´ long, 12´ wide—mountain one end, trees other—no wind—boy’s mother had to come—big gal & pregnant to boot—barely cleared trees, landed Paitilla with 3 gals. gas left—boy died in hospital 1 1/2 hours later.” When he sold his L-5 in Panama City, Price had accumulated nearly 300 hours of civilian flying. And soon after, he had a pair of war-surplus K-20 Fairchilds, aerial cameras that produced four-by-five-inch negatives in rolls of 50.

After he sold the L-5, Price flew rented and borrowed aircraft: a Ryan trainer, a Piper J-3, and an amphibious Republic Seabee. In February 1951, he rented a Cessna 120 at the Linden, New Jersey airport and hopped west, visiting old friends and throwing the side window open in the frigid air to take aerials. He figured out how to handle the stick with his knees while photographing steam locomotives or his airplane’s shadow flitting across cornfields. He turned for home from St. Louis on March 1, and en route to Gary, Indiana, flew over the county seat town of Carlinville, Illinois. And there, a few hundred feet above the domed courthouse, Bill Price discovered what he called “the synoptic eye.”

Three years later, while he was on his flight along Route 40 with his friend Bob Bedell, Price was still thinking about the synoptic eye. He explained it to Bedell and two nurses in a Cincinnati night spot one evening. Price spread the aerial photo of Carlinville that he’d taken in 1951 out on a table. In the center was the courthouse and around the grassy square were the pillars of a mid-century, Midwestern town—a block of stores, a block of churches, a block of rooming houses and apartments, and on the far side of the square, a row of substantial private homes, dominated by a large Cape Cod with a screened breezeway and a fenced yard.

Bedell, who is today a globe-trotting engineering consultant, was in 1954 an engineering professor on summer vacation from New York’s Cooper Union when he signed on as Price’s assistant for the flyover. In Cincinnati, Price and Bedell were a good 70 miles south of U.S. 40, but they were there because Price wanted to look up the two nurses, whom he’d met on an earlier trip.

Looking back over 45 summers, Bedell remembers the evening clearly. “Bill had this picture with him and he was saying the airplane gives you the ‘synoptic eye,’ the ability to sum things up from the air,” he remembers. “And he says, ‘My guess is that the woman who lives in [the Cape Cod] house reads the New York Times. And [the nurses] say, ‘Ah, you’re crazy, Bill.’ So we made a bet. It was for two cartons of cigarettes or they would have to take us both out to dinner, but the deal was that we couldn’t ask a direct question. We had to knock on this woman’s door and find out without asking her directly. So we detoured at Alton and went up to Carlinville. We knock on the door and this woman says, ‘Sorry, you can’t come in.’ She thought we were trying to sell her an aerial photo of her house. But we talk and talk and talk and finally she lets us in. We start asking her questions like ‘What do you do?’ She says, ‘I’m a nurse. My training was in St. Louis but I lived in New York for a while.’ So we go on asking questions and finally we say, ‘What do you read?’ And she says she reads this or that magazine, ‘but every time I get to St. Louis, I buy a copy of the New York Times.’ ”

So how did Price do it? Sitting in his apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Price, now 84, laughs at his own cockiness. It is a hot spring day, and through the open windows come ambulance sirens and car horns. Price’s living room is jammed with second-hand furniture, photo albums, books, filing cabinets, artwork, pictures of himself as a handsome young Navy flier, left-wing political posters, a stereo, and, over in the corner, a wooden airplane propeller. Also present is Bedell and an old friend of Price and Bedell, Jane Hogg, who comes into the synoptic eye story a little later.

The three friends are gathered at Price’s apartment to make sense of the yellowing notes and curling contact prints from all those years ago and to hear Price explain his Carlinville caper of spotting the Times reader from 1,500 feet. “I was always trying to find the clues you could see from the air,” he says. “Here this is the county courthouse so this is obviously the town center. Now on this side are the well-to-do. These are pretty big houses, substantial homes, but this one is different. It’s in a New England style and it’s the only one with a fence around it. It has the only fence in the whole picture so I thought this would indicate someone who read the New York Times in the middle of nowhere.”

That was the theory—that an aerial viewpoint inspires speculations about life on the ground. The means for testing it was Price’s second war-surplus airplane, a Consolidated Vultee L-13. He bid on it through the mail, and the government said it was his for $2,000. In June 1954, he dragged Bedell, who was not a pilot, down to Panama City, Florida, where they took delivery. The L-13 came in bare metal, a tail-dragger with a Franklin 245-horsepower engine and a two-seat, side-by-side, glass-covered cockpit. Its big fold-down side windows made it perfect for flying a camera. The L-13 also had radios, though it wasn’t supposed to. “Whoop-dee-doo,” said Price when he spotted them.

Price and Bedell took off on August 18, 1954, from Pennsville, a tiny airfield in southern New Jersey, crossed the Delaware River, and turned west to follow U.S. 40 as far as daylight and weather allowed each day. The synoptic eye was airborne.

Looking back at those pictures now, one sees the country alternate between an old-fashioned appearance and an extremely modern one within the space of a few frames. Price photographed a new housing tract just west of Elkton, Maryland, part of the post-war era of sprawling suburbs that still swallow up farmland at an alarming rate. An hour’s flight west and he was over untrammeled farm country, photographing a landscape of fields to the horizon, all contour plowed and planted.

The highways and streets in 1954 still belonged to big American cars, with not an SUV, mini-van, or VW bug in sight. Though U.S. 40 was two lanes of serviceable concrete, the interstate highway system was already under construction. Within a decade, interstates would consume long segments of U.S. 40, and the route would be incorporated into I-70 or I-80. Elsewhere, the interstates would simply bypass U.S. 40, leaving the towns that lived off its passing traffic to wither.

On their journey, the fliers found a more trusting hospitality than they probably would encounter today. From Indianapolis they flew west to Alton, Illinois, then north to Carlinville to interview the woman who lived in the Cape Cod house. There was no airport so they had to set down on a farmer’s private strip. Bedell remembers: “This guy comes out in his truck and says, ‘What’s up, boys?’ So we explain about what we were up to and he says—and this was a Saturday night—he says, ‘Just make sure you have the truck back on Monday morning because I’ll need it.’ It was incredible.”

Jane Hogg agrees. She flew much the same route with Bill Price a year later to fill in areas of the country that Price felt he hadn’t adequately captured. “People were amazingly generous,” she says. “You’d fly into an airport and someone would say, ‘Do you need a lift into town? I’m going that way and I’ll take you.’ Maybe it was the pilots’ fraternity, but people had a different attitude towards small planes then. I still remember circling Zanesville, [Ohio], in the dark, trying to figure out where the airport could be. We circled the field a couple of times until I realized that there were a lot of cars driving toward the airport. They knew the sound of a plane in trouble. People circled the field with their lights on.”

Even if they hadn’t, Price probably wouldn’t have broken a sweat. Nothing seemed to bother him in the air. There was the time, Hogg says, when Price flew them along the front edge of an electrical storm. “I remember asking him what would happen if the plane was struck by lightning,” she says. “And he said, ‘Don’t worry. The plane’s insured.’ That was not the response I wanted.” Price grins.

Once he and Bedell had to make a forced landing. Flying over WaKeeney, Kansas, their engine overheated. “We had the tech manual; it was the size of the Manhattan phone book,” says Bedell. “I looked it up and said, ‘Bill, the head temperature is going up. We’ve got to land right away.’ And Bill said, ‘Those instruments are never right.’ So I handed him the manual and he handed it right back and said, ‘Oh, you’re serious.’ So he put it down. The landing we made was exactly 37 feet. We measured it. It was 37 feet from touchdown to stop.” Price climbed out to photograph the silver L-13 in a stubbled field. Bedell duly noted in the photograph log that he was keeping the arrival of Officer George Valentine of the WaKeeney Police Department, who summoned a mechanic.

Their airplane repaired, they headed west toward the Colorado Rockies, following U.S. 40 across the high country to Vernal, Utah, then along the Salt Lake and on to Elko, then Reno, Nevada. Now the land opened up as wide as a K-20 camera could see. Price snapped dry rivers that looked like roads and shiny roads that looked like rivers. They went over Donner Pass with 3,000 feet to spare and swooped down the Pacific slope to Sacramento. At 4:45 p.m. on September 10, the synoptic eye circled the Golden Gate Bridge, firing the K-20s. With weather layovers, emergency landings, and detours, it had taken 24 days and 938 exposures to run Bill Price’s traverse.

At that point the synoptic eye lost some of its focus. Bedell stayed in California to visit family. Price flew the L-13 to Phoenix, Arizona, where he sold it for $10,000 and took a commercial flight back to New York. But even with the profit from the sale of his airplane, Price was struggling to complete his project. He was finding the late 1950s a time of increasing hostility toward his brand of progressive politics. His cousin, CBS news correspondent George Polk, had been killed under suspicious circumstances while reporting on Greece’s civil war in 1948, and Price became active in a newsmen’s commission to investigate the extent of CIA involvement in Polk’s murder. That and Congressional investigators convinced the Daily News to drop him. Price moved into a second career as a purely political journalist, community organizer, and chronicler of housing wars in New York City.

He bought one more surplus airplane, another Stinson L-5. That’s the craft he convinced 19-year-old Jane Hogg to climb aboard in 1955 to serve as his note taker on the fill-in trip. They set out west on September 22, 1955. The weather was beastly.  It took three days to fly from Moorestown, New Jersey, to Newark, Ohio. “We could have driven it faster,” laments Hogg. The pace picked up after that, but the return journey was more of the same. “On the way home, I couldn’t take the length of the trip,” says Hogg. “Finally we’d put down again in somebody’s back yard somewhere between Philadelphia and New York and I said, ‘That’s it. I’m just going home by bus.’ ” It took Price another two days to get the L-5 back to New Jersey.

The 1955 expedition lasted 18 days, including weather layovers, and went no farther west than Kansas. Still, Price filled in his portrait of U.S. 40 from Atlantic City to Baltimore and missing links in Ohio, Illinois, and Missouri.

Later that fall, Price realized he could no longer afford to keep his own airplane. Tie-down fees, repairs, and maintenance made it too expensive a luxury, forcing him to sell the L-5. He never piloted an airplane after that. He did, however, keep the L-5’s old prop, which has served as part of his home decor ever since. He never could find a publisher interested in the monumental volume that would be required to do the synoptic eye justice. For decades, the only people who explored his albums of prints were family and friends. In 1994, his apartment was heavily damaged by water in the aftermath of a fire. Virtually all of his meticulously catalogued negatives were destroyed. The contact sheet albums and several boxes of prints are all that’s left of his transits of America. That and the stories.

Why did he persist with this private photographic expedition? Why did he go into hock and risk his neck over and over to photograph alluvial fans in the Sacramento Delta and a junkyard near Russell, Kansas? “I’ve been trying to figure that out myself,” says Price. “It’s obviously a question that I ought to have an answer for. I think it’s something like, I’m in love with America. I know that sounds kind of crazy ’cause I’m very critical of what the U.S. is doing these days, but get away from the cities and the political centers, then you can see the land and what kind of impact we’ve had on everything. It’s a very strong thing. I found myself thinking of two songs. The first is ‘America, the Beautiful,’ which is not a political song, and then comes Woody Guthrie’s ‘This Land Is Your Land.’ ”

From the redwood forest to Pennsville, New Jersey, at 2,000 feet and 115 miles per hour, this land was made for you and me and Bill Price.

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