Another one of the stories I told Michael about his heritage, this one about his Grampa, his step-great-Grampa, if there is such a thing, and a B-52.
My dad was stationed at Castle Air Force Base in Merced, California in 1967, where the 93rd Bombardment Group was based. The 93rd at the time flew B-52’s, and they trained pilots and crews both in the planes and with simulators. They did this 24 hours a day, seven days a week. When they weren’t flying the airplanes, these pilots and crews were in the simulators, practicing.
And my dad fixed those simulators.
A few hours north of Merced is Santa Rosa, where dad’s mom and stepdad lived. Dad’s stepdad, we’ll call him “Grampa Bill” fancied himself to be an artist and photographer. This is a point that could be argued pretty heavily. And, it turns out, when dad and mom were a young couple and dad was stationed elsewhere, Grampa Bill wanted to take some photographs of mom that could at the very least be described as ‘inappropriate’. I won’t go into any more detail other than to say that when dad found out, he stormed in to see his commander and asked if he could have some leave so that he could go pour a goodly amount of chlorine into the gene pool. His commander declined the request, but sent someone to check on mom. She was fine, but that incident cemented the relationship between dad and Grampa Bill into something very, very simple: Dad hated Grampa Bill, with a passion. And honestly, as I see it, he was right.
Now it’s not that he could have done anything about it overtly, but as the years went by — well, you’ve likely found out at some point in your life, there is this thing that’s known by several names…
Some call it “The Golden Rule”,
Some call it “What goes around, comes around.”
And some call it “Karma.”
And when you find yourself watching, almost from the outside,
…how “The Golden Rule” is turning things toward you,
…and you find that things that have gone around are coming around,
…or, put another way, watching Karma setting up a situation for you – whatever you call it, it’s almost impossible not to smile.
Such was the case with dad and Grampa Bill.
Dad worked with or near airplanes.
Grampa Bill wanted to take pictures of airplanes.
More specifically, he wanted to take a picture of a B-52, taking off.
…and dad could make that happen.
Now the thing was, Grampa Bill didn’t want to get a picture with a little camera he’d be holding in his hand. He wanted to shoot the picture with a camera that looked like a small accordion and came in a small suitcase. It was a film camera, the kind that uses film not in rolls, but in sheets, 4 inches by 5 inches in size. You had to look through the actual camera, not a viewfinder, and to be able to see the picture you were about to take, you had to have your head under a dark cloth to focus and frame the shot on the ground glass (think frosted glass) in the back of the camera. This image you saw on the ground glass would be upside down and backwards. When you were satisfied that it was framed right, you shoved a film holder into the back of the camera by the ground glass and from there on out you couldn’t see through it. You closed the open shutter and pulled out the slide protecting the film from stray light. Then and only then was everything set. If you opened the shutter at that point, the film would be exposed, and you’d have your picture.
It was, as you can imagine, not a fast process, and you can probably figure out that it’s not a camera you would use to take images of, say, moving objects.
But that’s precisely what Grampa Bill wanted to do.
At Castle Air Force Base.
Where dad worked.
Where they flew B-52’s.
…and an absolutely evil plot started festering in dad’s brain.
See, dad knew several things that Grampa Bill didn’t know:
He knew how much of the runway the plane would use up to do a normal takeoff.
He knew that aerodynamically, while most planes take off with their noses pointed to the sky, when a B-52 takes off, the pilot actually has to aim the plane 2 degrees nose down to climb for the first little bit.
More importantly, Dad knew the pilots flying these planes.
Now, if you happen to be standing at the end of a runway – and on the other end there’s a half million pounds of raw power accelerating directly toward you out of a black wall of smoke created by not 1, not 2, but 8 of some of the most powerful jet engines of the time, there’s a good chance you’re going to leave something in your pants as it goes overhead – liquid or solid, doesn’t matter.
If the person you asked to get you to this position knew the pilot, and also had a years long score to settle with you, those chances would likely lean toward the solid, and it would best be time to start digging yourself a hole.
Dad worked on the B-52 flight simulators – so he knew, and was acquainted with, all the pilots who trained in them.
And he knew this one.
Dad had explained to the pilot that he’d be out there one Sunday with his step dad, who wanted to take a photo of this takeoff, and as a last request, said to him, “Do you think you could keep it on the ground a little longer this time?”
There was a look between them, and as is often the case, words were not exchanged, in that guy to guy way we men often communicate. But the pilot clearly understood what was meant, and he did indeed agree to keep it down on the ground…
…a little longer.
Every Air Force base has what they call a ‘perimeter road’ – a road that goes around the perimeter of the airfield. You are not supposed to get any closer to the runway than that road, and even while you’re on it, you’re not supposed to stop once you cross under the flight path.
Dad and Grampa Bill got into one of the Air Force trucks and headed out toward the runway.
Grampa Bill was having trouble believing his good fortune.
Dad turned the truck off the perimeter road and up toward the runway, where there was a sign that started off with, “Authorized Personnel Only” and got significantly more threatening with every word, ending in something along the lines of “Deadly Force Authorized”.
They drove past the sign.
Dad drove Grampa Bill out to the end of the runway to pick out a good vantage point to take the picture from.
Grampa Bill’s excitement grew. This was better than he’d hoped. He’d be allowed to get far, far closer than he’d dare dreamed.
In taking him past the signs, dad also took him in past the approach lights at the end of the runway, so they wouldn’t clutter up the picture.
When they stopped, he was almost beside himself. Grampa Bill proudly set up his camera, meticulously judging exposure, focus, depth of field, while 2 miles away, the B-52’s pilot got the his bird into takeoff position.
He’d finished the pre-takeoff checklist with his copilot and pushed the 8 throttles to takeoff power. The plane shook as the jet exhaust made a black wall of smoke behind it.
It took a few seconds for the thrust to build and the sound to reach the far end of the runway, but once it got there, the deep rumble of raw power stayed, getting louder with each passing second.
The pilot held the plane back with its huge brakes and waited till they and all systems were cleared for takeoff.
He’d told his copilot what was happening, and while they didn’t deviate from the checklists or official cockpit language, they did share a grin under their oxygen masks.
They were given clearance, and the plane started to roll.
Grampa Bill sensed the movement and tried to hold his excitement down. The ability to stand right at the end of a runway while an airplane, not just an airplane, but the mighty B-52 took off directly overhead was an astoundingly rare treat.
Nearby, Dad stood by, calmly leaning against the front fender of the truck, also conscious of the opportunity of an astoundingly rare treat.
Now depending on its load, a B-52 has a takeoff speed of about 163 mph, and its wings sag when it’s on the ground, to the point where the engineers at Boeing designed extra landing gear out there just to support the wingtips. As the plane accelerates, those wings start to fly themselves first, before they create enough lift to take the plane up with them. They have a range of about 22 feet of ‘flap’ at the tips – so as the plane got closer, and faster, and bigger, and louder, those wings started flying,
But the nose was still pointed directly at Grampa Bill.
And his camera…
On the Tripod…
At the end of the runway…
The pilot, a major, kept the plane on the centerline, and felt the yoke slowly come alive in his hands as the 8 engines overcame inertia and brought them ever closer to takeoff speed.
Grampa Bill saw the tremendous contrast between the black wall of smoke, the white and silver plane, and the incredibly bright landing lights and wondered, for a split second, how that would affect the exposure setting on the camera.
The pilot felt the rumbling cease and the plane smooth out as the wheels left the pavement – and then aimed the nose down the 2 degrees, at a small tripod with a black box on it just off the end of the runway, to start the climb.
At that moment, Grampa Bill’s thoughts of exposure, focus, and timing were suddenly replaced with a rather urgent need to decide between liquid and solid.
Beside the tripod, Grampa Bill tried to be manly and stand his ground, but from his angle, the plane just couldn’t climb fast enough, it wasn’t even aimed up – in fact, it looked like it was actually aimed down, right at him. Those 8 engines, inhaling more air in a second than he breathed in a year, looked like they were going to inhale him, vaporize him, and blast the remaining bits into that huge wall of smoke behind the plane.
In the cockpit, the pilot thought he saw movement near the tripod just before it disappeared below his windscreen.
Below, the plane’s shadow passed with the fury of a tornado, the violence of an earthquake, and the heat of a blast furnace. The jet blast tore the canvas top off the truck they’d driven out to the runway in, knocked the camera and tripod over, and sent them all diving for whatever cover they could find. (This being an airbase, the only cover available was the truck they’d come out in).
And in the decision between liquid and solid, a compromise was made.
The last time I saw them, all the pictures Grampa Bill had taken were being stored in boxes in a chest of drawers in the attic. They’re 4 x 5 negatives – or sometimes 4 x 5 positives. I’ve looked through them all.
And there’s no picture of a B-52.
I still find myself smiling at that…
And somehow, I think those many years ago, under that truck, his ears still ringing, my dad smiled, too…
(C) 2010 – Tom Roush