Friday, February 4, 2011

High Flight

Some news is best put bluntly. My grandfather, Obbie Atkinson, died earlier tonight from injuries sustained in a plane crash yesterday morning in San Luis Obispo, California. He was 86 years old.

He was born in 1924. That year Calvin Coolidge was elected president, Stalin came to power in the newly-formed Soviet Union, and George Mallory went missing pushing for the summit of Mt. Everest. The small Illinois town of Mount Vernon, where he was born and lived most of his life, was a primitive farm town by today's standards, and he was the only one of his many siblings to graduate from high school.

Like most of his generation, the Second World War shaped the transition of his life into adulthood. I can hardly imagine the thoughts and emotions he must have felt enlisting in the Army Air Force once he turned 18. It must have seemed that there was but one righteous path to follow, the path of fighting for freedom, democracy, and America, against the Nazis and Fascists, and the Imperial Japanese. I think I would've decided to follow the same path, or at least I hope I would've. He was disappointed when his service kept him relatively safe within America's borders, never bombed, never fired upon by a foreign enemy. During the war he was an instructor pilot, training those who would fly on to England and the Marianas to pick apart the industry of Germany and Japan. He saw only lands like Texas, Arizona, and California, but these must have been exotic enough for someone raised in rural Illinois. Just days before he was scheduled to ship out to the western Pacific to fly the B-29s he knew so well in combat, an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. He was younger then than I am now.

It must have seemed like a job out of science fiction. I try to imagine myself now as he was then. Young, inexperienced, and in charge of the most complicated machine yet built by humans. Watching the B-29s roll off their assembly line in Wichita must have felt like seeing spaceships come together. After the war he served in the Strategic Air Command. He flew a little bit in Alaska, a little bit in Bermuda, a little bit in Europe and the Azores. He flew over the north pole several times and through such bitterly cold inversion layers north of Fairbanks that whole mountain ranges seemed flipped upside down in their mirages. St Elmo's fire painted the wingtips and propeller blades neon green while he flew through thunderstorms over the north Atlantic. He almost certainly flew with live nuclear weapons at some point in his career.

The stories from his service are no more spectacular than those of any other flying officer from the time, but are fantastic by any reasoned measure. Once departing fully loaded and fueled from El Paso, an engine failed, crippling the aircraft's rate of climb. Slowly, achingly slowly, he nursed the airplane through a lazy circuit back to the runway, barely clearing the cactus and creosote bushes below. One night on an off-duty ride across the ocean he was awakened from an exhausted sleep high over the Atlantic. The crew was lost, and they were low on fuel. With little margin, he found the nearest land, Bermuda, and the crew made it safely home. He was a farm boy from the Midwest who captained airships. In fiction, his name would be James T. Kirk.

He was much more than a pilot, of course, though flying was his passion all his life. After retiring from the Air Force he worked in Mount Vernon as a car salesman, and he raised my dad and his three siblings. He was gifted at understanding machines, people, and the explanation of the former to the latter, skills he honed as an instructor at Luke Air Force Base, not far from where I grew up. Selling cars is less glamorous than flying airplanes, so unfortunately I didn't get to see this side of my grandpa as I would've liked, but I'm sure he was as talented reading a customer as he was reading a crosswind.

Grandpa never really retired, but he moved to Paso Robles, California around the time I was born to be closer to his family out west and because he'd fallen in love with the area in the decades past. Growing up, he was the California grandpa to me. The family had to sit in the old Cadillac for about ten hours to get there, which was annoying to a young child, but once we were there I loved the cool mountain scenery and walking around the museum he helped assemble. Like him, I was in love with everything flying, everything airplane related, and he was like an oracle of flying. He knew it all, because he'd seen it, and lived through it. What was history to me was life and memory to him.

As he aged, he slowed down a little, but never stopped being the pilot he longed to be on that farm east of St. Louis. It's a risky passion to have, but for those with it, there is no substitute for the roar and rattle of the engine and the tilt of the stomach in a banking turn. He was flying with a friend yesterday, in a little old Aeronca, when the odds caught up with him. I think the forensic details of the accident he was in are beyond the scope of this post, and even if they weren't, I don't know them yet. It would be disingenuous for me to say that I'm at peace with what's happened in the last 36 hours. I'm not. It's impossible to lose someone so close and not feel a bitter sting of loss tinged with unfairness. I'm glad to know, though, that he had the life he did.

My last name, Atkinson, comes from him. For generations before my grandpa, the Atkinsons were humble farmers in and near southern Illinois. For generations before that, they were no doubt the peasants of England and Scotland. In one lifetime he broke from this tradition, worked with the greatest machines yet built by human hands, saw more of the world than the last 500 years of his ancestors combined, and was a mentor to four children, 13 grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren. His life was astounding in every way possible. This last part will be cliche, but in light of the context of his life, I think the following poem by Gillespie Magee is appropriate:

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds - and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of - wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long delirious, burning blue,
I've topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or even eagle flew -
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high untresspassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.


  1. I'm so sorry for the world's loss of this great man. I wish I could have known him.

    May God give him, your family, and you His peace.

  2. Thank you for writing this Grant. It's a beautiful tribute. I was just about to post the same poem myself! Grandpa died an honorable pilot's death, and lived his last day doing the thing he loved most in this world. Any one of us can only hope as much for ourselves...

  3. Hey Grant. You don't know me - I'm an old friend of Paul and Sue Goldmans. We used to ski together. I met Obbie several times over the years. I didn't know him well...just casual introductions when he happened to be in Ft. Wayne. I'm so saddened for your loss. He was truly a part of the generation of American heroes! Simple people doing extraordinary things for the cause of freedom. What an imprint he had on your life! His life makes me want to do the same for my children and grandchildren. (you are a very gifter writer by the way....)

  4. Thanks for posting this. We are 2nd cousins. My grandmother, Ferne, was Obie's sister. I read about the accident on Robin's (another second cousin to you) Facebook post. My aunt is Charlotte (Ferne's daughter). My dad was J.R. (Ferne's son)

    What a loving legacy your grandfather left. Your family was truly blessed.

    I do remember your grandfather's auto sales business. I do not remember him personally (you know as a kid you just do not pay attention to some things!)

  5. Grant, This is a great tribute to your grandfather. I'm going to share with family back here in Mt Vernon, Il. I 'm sure Everett and Percy would enjoy reading. I am Robin Turner your 2nd cousin. And I do know what a car salesman he was! It was his salesmanship that my Uncle Joe (Threatt) learn from and much more from Uncle Obbie. He was truly a great man.
    God Bless you all!
    Robin T

  6. Grant, you share Obbie's gift of story telling. Thank you for these beautiful words. I feel so blessed that he gave us life, our fathers, and his love.

  7. What a great epilogue to an amazing life. I will always remember Obbie's playful and humorous side. He always had something in his pocket to make me laugh whenever I saw him. My condolences to the entire family on the passing of such a loving and special man. A piece of him lives on in the lives and interests of all his gifted offspring.
    -Josh Larsen

  8. Grant - Thank you for this loving and beautiful tribute to your grandfather. I'm so sorry for your family's loss and know that you are all in our thoughts.

    Sarah Greenman
    (Connie Atkinson's daughter)

  9. Grant, thank you for sharing such a touching tribute. I never met this giant among men but my family has tremendous appreciation for the way he served our country and for what a great man he must have been to his family. Our sincerest condolences go out to the Atkinson family during this time. My family is thinking of you all and keeping you in our prayers.
    - Steve Montano