Friday, February 4, 2011
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: