The Time I Built an Airplane in my Garage

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Memoir  |  House: Booksie Classic


When I was very young I decided to try and build and airplane in my garage. The results were not successful.

Submitted: April 03, 2018

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Submitted: April 03, 2018

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The Time I Built an Airplane in my Garage

by Chris Chabot

I had always wanted to fly. I mean literally hold up my arms and soar into space high above everything. I had dreams where I could fly, but in them I could never get above the telephone lines and I had to fight and struggle like a swimmer in a strong tide just to get that high. I would get above the first line and maybe the second and then I would futilely float back down to the ground. I could never get higher. At the age of five, I even managed to climb one of the tallest trees in our town, which happened to be behind our house just to feel like I was flying. I could see much of our town from the top. I used to watch birds in the trees flying effortlessly and wonder how they did it and what I needed to fly like they did.

The answer lay in a visit to the hardware store. My father spotted a small package hanging on a store wall and smiled. He grabbed it and told me it was a surprise. We got home and opened it. All I saw were pieces of balsa wood, a red propeller and a rubber band. I tried to make sense of it. Was this a fan? A boat? A strange bird-whistle?

My father knew. He was an expert at assembling things. He had built sailing ships from kits complete with sails and rigging all over it. He had assembled thousand-piece puzzles into masterpieces of art. Within minutes he had turned the pile of wood into an airplane. I figured it was something I could put on my dresser and look at.

We went outside into the summer air. My father wound up the propeller and then let the plane go. Before my amazed eyes, it took off into the sky, careening all over our yellow dandelion field before hitting a tree and falling to the ground. I had stopped breathing and it took me a moment to get over what I had just witnessed. I imagine people watching the Wright Brothers first flight had the same reaction.

I had never seen an airplane up close. I could see the contrails of jets far above our town crossing the sky. This was the first time I had actually touched an airplane, even if it was only 12 inches long.

I spent all afternoon winding the propeller up and watching my plane disappear into the sky only to crash land a minute later in the lawn. I had temporarily discovered the meaning of life and it involved toy planes. I was content and happy, until an older kid came along with a better plane. It was larger, had a bigger propeller and most amazing of all it had wheels! He put it on the ground, wound it up It moved along the ground and then the wheels lifted up and it was airborne. It soared. It did the takeoff on its own. Devastated, I ran home and told my parents. The next Saturday, we got another wooden plane. This one had wheels.

The wheels in my own brain were spinning wildly. I began to think about having a larger one that could fly with me on it. I estimated in my child’s mind that if I could build one eight feet long with a large propeller and bigger rubber band I could see the whole town from the air. I would be up among the birds. I came in and proudly announced to my parents that I was going to build a model airplane I could fly in.

They chuckled knowing my inventor skills didn’t quite work the way I wanted them to. I had been given a chemistry set for Christmas and it resulted in a patch of lawn that was always yellow. There was a massive fire in the garage that I put out by racing in an out with large chunks of snow and tossing them into the flames. The fear of dying did not occur to me, the fear of being in trouble did. A friend watched in amazement as I kept running into garage and disappearing into the smoke with boulders of snow until I got the fire out.

Death was not on my list of things to fear. Spiders and tornadoes were, but death, no. This was evident when I decided to explore the forest outside of town where construction was booming. New roads and houses that were to expand our town to keep up with our huge copper mine that now had 3,000 employees. I followed a dirt road until I spotted a large pile of fallen trees. Eager to see what was at the top, I ignored the group of kids frantically running from the pile and scrambled up. At the top was a beautiful view of the area; trailers and trucks and machinery clearing the forest. That included a tractor pushing what were now my pile of trees into an area to burn. The entire mountain began to shake and shift as the tractor did not see me. I madly fought moving branches and managed to stumble off the side, losing a shoe in the process as the bulldozer roared past. I returned later to retrieve my sneaker, now stretched between two large tree trunks, finally yanking it free and putting back on my foot. I returned home without sharing any information about that day as I did not think anything significant had happened.

Curiosity and dreaming were high on my list. As a budding inventor, I had gotten tired of my glasses getting wet during the rain, so I decided I needed windshield wipers like our car had. The blades went back and forth to keep the rain off so I figured it would work for glasses too. I unbent two paper clips and wrapped Band-Aids around them. I took a small rubber band and ran them between the two wrapped paper clips and then taped them to each side of my glasses. I tied two pieces of string to the middle and had them hanging down with one draped over the glasses so that when I pulled one the wipers went up and when I pulled another they went down. I proudly marched into the living room where my parents were on the couch and showed them how it worked. Their mouths were agape and then they reacted to this explosion of genius. They laughed so hard, they fell off the couch. It took a good ten minutes for them to recover. Undeterred, I took them to school and walked into my classroom with them on. The teacher asked what was on my face. I pulled each string to show him. He quickly left the room and returned with other teachers. Their reaction was similar to my parents. I was also a hit in the lunch room as I showed kids how it worked. I don’t think I heard that much laughter until I went to see standup comedy at a nightclub.

To me this giant airplane idea was an improvement over my glasses. I scoured the town looking for materials. The town expansion project meant piles and piles of wood. My father had a large collection of tools in our garage and I went to work. I kept the balsa wood plane nearby as an example looking at it regularly like a painter looks at a model next to his canvas.

Neighborhood kids stopped by to watch as I used a pair of saw horses to hold up the large middle beam, which was about eight feet long. During construction, I accidentally nailed the first saw horse to the airplane and then realized that would save me time on the legs. I nailed a wheel on each side from an old wagon and then nailed two smaller boards in an x-fashion like a propeller on the front. I nailed a large hook, normally used for hanging plants, underneath.

I decided to connect the back sawhorse the same way. Someone pointed out that planes like that had just one wheel and the airplane had to be at a 45-degree angle going down so it would take off. I patiently explained to my smaller-brained colleagues that I could slide down and fall off the tail if I did that so it had to be at the same level. I stuck a large piece of plywood shaped like a triangle on the back and connected another large hook underneath. Almost done!

The family next door had a father who was a carpenter and had a garage filled with assorted items from a factory. Included in it was what looked like an eight-foot rubber band. I was ecstatic. That would spare me the hours on the phone to Sears trying to order a rubber band, size XXXXXL. I opened the garage door and was ready.

As usual, in any new expedition there are naysayers trying to kill your dreams with questions like, “What if you fall? What will you hold on to while it is flying?” I ignored them. I was too busy practicing visualizations of waving to my fellow townspeople as I zoomed overhead. I might even take the plane to nearby towns. Heck, I might even take it to France like Charles Lindbergh had in his Spirit of St. Louis! I would land on an airfield just outside Paris and be greeted by crowds. The papers would say “Young boy makes Atlantic Crossing in small wooden plane powered by eight-foot rubber band.”

I put on a jacket, to deal with the cold weather when one is at ten thousand feet and a hat and my rain-proof glasses. I was ready.

“What if you crash?” someone yelled. I pondered this and went back in and got my football helmet. If I was going to crash, I was going to crash in style.

I climbed onto the beam and held onto to two large spikes and leaned forward.

“You’re going to hold on to those for the entire flight to Paris?” A heckler shouted.

I patiently explained that this was only a test flight. All I had to do was hang on for 852 feet; the same as the Wright Brothers. That flight had only lasted one minute. I was ready. I felt I should make some dramatic statement as I took off.

“Flight crew, prepare for take-off.” I yelled. It wasn’t exactly “One small step for man,” but I had plenty of time before moving on to building a replica of a Saturn Five rocket. A neighbor girl who had flown in real planes stepped forward and asked people to extinguish all cigarettes, fasten seatbelts and secure all baggage underneath.

I had one of the older boys crank the propeller until he could no longer turn it and then he let go. I closed my eyes to keep any take off dust from blinding me. The propeller began spinning wildly. I kept my eyes closed until the propeller was done and then opened them. To my disappointment, I was not a thousand feet over the town looking down at houses. I was not even above the roof of my own house. In fact, I was still in the garage and the plane had not moved an inch.

Actually, a few papers in front had blown around wildly and dust was in the air. The propeller had spun like it was supposed to, but the rest of the plane did not follow suit. I climbed off, took off my helmet and tried to figure out what went wrong. The neighbor kids left, offering words of comfort like, “Jez, I was hoping it would at least explode!”

The carpenter next door came over to see what the commotion was and offered words of wisdom.

“You know, Chris, a lot of guys tried before the Wright Brothers to fly and their machines didn’t work either.”

I asked if they at least had the satisfaction of seeing the Wright Brothers succeed.

“No, they were all dead because their planes crashed. Good luck with the rocket idea and let me know if you ever find fuel for it so I can move far away before you launch.”

I went into the kitchen and poured a glass of milk (being only nine I was too young to commiserate over a scotch) and tried to figure out where I went wrong. Maybe it was the drawing board. Maybe I needed a drawing board. Or maybe I needed to use math. I was terrible at math and was years away from taking geometry or algebra, but my Dad had said his office had a computer that used punch cards and could hum, “She’ll be Coming Around the Mountain” with the right cards installed. Maybe I needed to spend a day with my Dad at work.

My Dad arrived home a little after five and opened the garage to put the car inside only to find a large wooden airplane taking its place. He walked inside and spotted my Mom who was in the bedroom reading a magazine.

“There’s an airplane in our garage.”

“Yeah, right,” my Mom chuckled.

“No, there’s an airplane! Chris, what is in our garage?” He called out to me.

“Junk,” I yelled back. I explained to my parents about how my dreams of landing in Paris with an adulating throng of balsa wood fans greeting me was now in tatters. I would never cross the Atlantic or buzz the Eiffel Tower or glide over the Seine River. After their laughter subsided, they commiserated with me. We all realized that I needed a new dream.

A few days later, my parents said they had another surprise for me. They drove me 20 miles outside of town to a large field. A coworker of my father met us there and opened a large garage door. Inside was a real airplane; a Cessna 172. It was a good four or five times longer than my little garage plane and the wingspan was also four times wider. The propeller was far larger and it seated four. Best of all; no rubber band. They fired it up and off we went. The wheels left the runway and I was completely giddy. I was airborne! In seconds we were over the forest, but it looked more like a small toy town with little fake trees. I saw dozens of tiny little houses that made it look like a set designed for matchbox cars. Part of my brain was convinced they were not real until I saw what looked like a small toy dog running down the street. I could see army man-sized people looking up. We were far above the telephone lines and yet I could see every detail including all the roof tops. I saw the church steeples and the stores and the endless trails of streams and rivers. For the first time I knew what the word horizon meant.

When we returned to the field, I was a new person, filled with desire for adventure. I wanted to see faraway lands and cities and countries. I knew once I graduated from high school, change would be in the air.

When I was 20, I packed my bags, put on my jacket and hugged my parents as they put me on an airplane towards my new destination. This one was big and held a lot of people. I left my home town and my dreams of building an airplane and headed towards one of the biggest cities in the world: Los Angeles. I would live there for the next thirty years flying in commercial planes all over the world as far as Australia. Each time I looked down from my seat at the earth below and thought of my little airplane in my garage. I was now so high I couldn’t even see telephone lines or houses, just small lines indicating rivers and lakes that looked like ponds.

I once took a long-distance flight and it happened to take a path near my town which was on the horizon. I tried to spot it, but from the distance, it was just a dot on the landscape. Even the clouds were way below me. I had gone beyond my dreams of trying to float a few feet above the earth. Like a teddy bear you once held as a child that now sits in a closet somewhere, it was gone, but not forgotten. It had fueled my dreams, but the sparks that it created were still ever present in my mind. Decades later the sight of a small balsa plane reignites it like the smells of a grill bring back memories of summer picnics and hotdogs and corn on the cob. A half century later I was still dreaming and I was still flying.

 

 

 


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