The wind kicked gravel against the pitted windows in the town post office, where I had gone to find out if I’d gotten in to graduate school at the University of Colorado. I didn’t think the letter had arrived, but with time on my hands I was looking for something—anything—to do, so I drove into town to check.
When I first went away to college, I used to come back home to Deer Trail, Colorado, frequently, plus I worked summers on the farm, so I kept up with who was there and what everyone was doing. But I had been away too long. I didn’t have much to talk about with the people who remained. After a couple of weeks sitting around, with nobody to see and nothing to do, I was bored stupid.
“Whatcha doin’ here, Squee?” It was John, a local cowboy.
“Oh, nothing, John,” I said, “just looking for some mail.”
“So whatcha been up to?”
“Not a hell of a lot of anything,” I replied. “I’m a fish out of water, John.”
“Let’s go for a ride.”
We stopped at a liquor store, where John picked up a case of beer, and drove eastward, in the general direction of Kansas. After nearly an hour, I was beginning to get an inkling of what the plan was. When we passed through the boundary of federal land referred to as The Breaks, I knew the destination. In another 15 minutes, sure enough, I saw that the wreck was still there.
Torn, weathered, Army-surplus canvas flapped from the starboard wing. The landing gear—converted Model A spoke wheels—sat rusting in the Colorado desert. Sun-baked tires, long flat, clung to the rims, submerged in drifted sand. The cockpit windows were broken, probably shot out by some youthful hunter, or shattered by hail. The fuselage and tail section were in good condition, but years of prairie winds had left both warped and twisted.
While under construction, this aircraft was the laughingstock of the county. Only Ed Cornwell thought it would fly.
John and I had enjoyed a few quiet moments sipping our beer and appraising the discarded vehicle, framed in buffalo grass, with the Rocky Mountains as backdrop. As I watched, the old relic seemed to come alive. In fact, John and I were there together when Ed’s big day had come around.
“Ready for another beer?” John asked.
John reached in the back seat of his Chevy convertible, and my thoughts drifted back to a September morning in 1948. This might take more than one more beer, I figured.
I happened into Ralph Lessy’s welding shop one afternoon. Ralph was designing something for a huge engine that sat on the concrete floor. Ralph, a laconic grouch to those who didn’t know him, was actually funny, clever, and somewhat acerbic. He was an expert and creative welder, and if he liked you, he would make anything for you, even if he considered it a waste of his time. He tolerated Ed Cornwell and knew that what he was putting together for Ed didn’t make much sense.
“What are you building?” I asked.
“An engine mount for Ed Cornwell’s airplane,” he said.
I looked at the six-cylinder behemoth sitting nearby on the concrete floor. “That’s a truck motor,” I said.
“I can tell you’re gonna go far, kid,” said Ralph.
“Well, Ed was an aviator in the war. He must know what he’s doing.”
Ralph reached for his welding hood. “A lot of folks thought he was, but he loaded bombs.”
“He was a pilot, Ralph! Everybody knows that!”
“He was in North Africa with Doolittle. I was in North Africa with Patton. I know what Ed Cornwell did during the war.”
Ralph pulled his helmet down—my cue to leave.
John Dugan, who knew everything about wood, ran the lumber yard. He was a dour old guy, but tolerant. I played baseball with his kid, Tommy, who had a big butt and could hit a half a mile. I found out from Tommy that his dad was helping Cornwell with his airplane. I had to get in on that.
We stood under the overhang, watching the construction. Old John and Ed were gluing the wing spars. It was a big operation.
“Where’s the propeller?” I asked.
Ed, a muscular blond who looked like Joe Palooka, glowered at me. “That’s none of your affair, Squee,” he snapped. Apparently he took me for one of his skeptics.
“Okay. I was just asking.”
Old John explained. “Ed’s whittling it out himself.”
“Out of what?” I asked.
“Hickory, goddammit!” Ed snarled. “You and Tommy be on your way!”
I knew Sherman Quine, a handsome dark-haired guy who had married my elementary school teacher and had made bomb runs over Germany in B-24s. I walked up to the porch of his sumptuous red brick home to find out what he knew about Cornwell’s airplane. The Colonel—that’s what we called him—hadn’t been in the war for God, country, and glory; the man was there to fight and win, so he could come back and get his farm equipment dealership established. He was an easygoing gentleman, receptive to questions.
“Did you know Ed Cornwell’s building an airplane?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said, nodding.
“I just saw it,” I said. “It looks pretty raw. Doesn’t he need controls, plexiglass, hydraulics, and things like that?”
“He does,” Quine said.
“Where would he get that stuff?” I asked.
“I arranged for it.” The Colonel’s voice had a tone of resignation.
“Out of a salvaged L-19.”
“A spotter plane. Something like what he’s trying to put together,” Quine explained.
“I’ve always heard he was a pilot,” I said. “Ralph Lessy says he isn’t.”
“No, he’s not.”
“He’ll kill himself!” I said.
“I wouldn’t think so,” the Colonel replied.
“He won’t get off the ground.”
To Ed’s credit, he picked the right spot for the attempt. The public land was grassy, smooth, and infinite. The day of the flight, all types came from miles around—ranchers, townspeople, farmers. John Arness, who owned the newspaper, was there to record the big event. Cars ringed the area, and they honked incessantly. Some spectators set up tables with lemonade; others with booze. The crowd clamored. Tufted, puffy cumulus clouds drifted in a clear sky.
Ed strutted to the aircraft and directed his crew away. He didn’t acknowledge the crowd, and if that was on purpose, no one could blame him. That group would not have given him a chance.
The airplane, in its military olive drab, was ready. It did, in fact, look airworthy. Ed crawled into his contrivance and closed the door. All horn honking and conversation ceased.
Minutes passed, and it began to look like Ed may have caved in to his detractors. Then the propeller began to turn. Car horns began anew. The engine caught, and the propeller became a blur—spinning hard, noisy, and certain. In an instant, the mood changed. The audience began rooting for the all-American buffoon to pull it off.
The engine roared, the airplane shook, and the propeller strained. Ed had the power at maximum, but after a few long, precious seconds, the airscrew could no longer stand the stress. The propeller broke, both halves flying like missiles. Years later, a wrangler discovered a broken propeller section far away in a gully.
Cornwell cut the power, and the engine wound down in a humiliating whine.
A few had wanted to see the airplane take off, and others had divined its failure. No one moved. The Colonel, realizing Cornwell was not about to exit his airplane to face the silent audience, ushered them away.
I contemplated the deteriorating wreck, and after I had finished a more than adequate amount of beer, I thanked John. “I needed that,” I said.
We drove away. Ed’s old airplane had struggled mightily to indulge its maker. But it wasn’t a total failure: It brought me home.
Lewis A. Bartlett is a man of great vision: He says it was so flat where he grew up, some Mondays he could see all the way to Wednesday.