Eulogy for a Traveler
Speaker's Corner: Bob Payne remembers his father, a man who inspired an entire family to take to the road
03.15.06 | 10:23 AM ET
Near the middle of the United States, at the eastern edge of the Rockies, there is an often snow-covered mountain called Pike’s Peak. The mountain is a significant bit of American geography, because the views from its summit, looking out toward the Great Plains, inspired the words for “America the Beautiful.” For my sister Pam, my sister Patti, and me, Pike’s Peak is a significant bit of family geography, too, because for most of our childhood we were convinced that it really should have been called Payne’s Peak.
And it would have been, too, my dad told us when we first saw it during a family automobile trip across the country. But Colonel Zebulon Pike, who the mountain is actually named for, was so worn out by the end of his attempt to climb it, that my dad, who was some distance ahead of him, had to come back down, get behind him, and push, giving the tired old soldier the credit, and the glory, for being the first to reach the top.
The fact that Colonel Pike climbed the mountain in 1806 and my dad was not born until 1927 did little to affect our belief in the story. My dad was a traveler who inspired us to become a family of travelers. And from him we learned that one of the purposes of travel, whether across the country, or through life, is to look for stories to tell, entertainingly, if not always accurately.
I’m not exactly sure when my dad’s career as a traveler began, because travel, the dreaming of it, the planning of it, begins in the mind, long before the first steps of a journey are actually taken. I do know, however, that throughout his boyhood in Toledo, Ohio two of his loves were the ships that could take him to sea and the airplanes that could take him into the sky.
Ships being more available, Dad, at the age of 14, or 16, depending on whether he or his mother was telling the story, went to work in the engine room of a steamer on the Great Lakes, and by the end of World War II had seen much of the world from aboard ships of all kinds and risen to the rank of an engineering officer in the U.S. Merchant Marines.
A life at sea was a life he loved, and it was a life he could have made a career of, if it weren’t for one particular incident that occurred near the end of the war. He was on a ship that was loading bauxite in some out-of-the-way port far up a river in British Guiana, on a day when the temperature in the coolest part of the engine room, under the ventilator fans, was 114°F. He’d come on deck to get some relief from the heat and the bauxite dust, when all of a sudden he heard a roar of engines and looked out to where a seaplane, its blue and yellow paint-job glistening in the sun, was lifting off from the river. And as the seaplane climbed into the sky, Dad asked himself a question: “Would a person with any sense rather be down here, or up there?”
From that moment, he dedicated himself to a life in the air. And in a relatively short time, after stints as an aeronautical draftsman, an airline mechanic, and a mechanic/co-pilot with one of the oil companies that flew seaplanes out to the platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, he was offered a job as a flight engineer with Pan American Airways, a company he flew with for the next 35 years. Yet while commercial flying was his career, amateur flying—in single engine planes, twin engine planes, sea planes, stunt planes, sail planes—was his passion. He always claimed he didn’t favor one kind of plane over the other—“Anything that flies, that’s my preference,” he once said. But if you really want to know how he felt, the fact that he logged so many hours in sailplanes, not only in the Seattle area, where he lived for the last decades of his life, but all over the world, and that he asked that his ashes be taken aloft and spread above where he did most of his soaring, speaks for itself.
When my sisters and I were growing up, flying was part of our lives, too. There were the family vacations to places that Pan Am flew, like my favorite, Central America, from where I remember we had to smuggle my sister Pam, then a baby, back into the country because we were afraid the measles she had broken out with would get us all quarantined. There were the detours, no matter where we had originally been heading, down any road that had a sign pointing to an airport. And there were the occasions when one of us would find ourselves strapped into the back seat of a stunt plane while Dad “entertained” us with spins, and rolls, and—the maneuver my sister Patti recalls causing her to throw up most often—hammerhead stalls. My dad wasn’t always perfect. He could never understand, for instance, why we kids might not enjoy hammerhead stalls as much as he did, or that there might be any connection between that and the fact that I never wanted him to teach me to fly.
But he was always, in the words of my step-sister Darcel, “Interesting, and interested.” He was always doing something you wanted to hear about. But he was more interested in hearing what you were doing. Darcel and Dad shared a bond, by the way, that I am happy I did not. Together they learned to skydive.
After Dad and my step mother Grace married, he told me he would leave the more adventurous journeys to me and would from then on concentrate on more conventional travel. As Grace was to discover, more conventional travel, to Dad, meant that they would wander though the Australian outback on a local bus, cross Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway, go on a picnic, with locals, in Greenland, and—this is my favorite: Apparently, Grace wanted to take a cruise, and Dad wanted to go someplace where he could practice his German. So they compromised, by crossing the North Atlantic, in the dead of winter, aboard a freighter, with shipmates who spoke hardly anything but German.
In truth, my dad’s adventures have never ended. After he went into the hospital four months ago for what he thought was a minor ailment and learned that his illness was terminal, he didn’t talk about it much, because that wasn’t his way. “I’m feeling fine,” he would always say and the next thing you knew, you were telling him about your ailments. But he did say to me that he wasn’t afraid of dying, because he believed there was something on the other side of death. And that would be an adventure, too. I hope he is right. And I hope that when I get there he can finally teach me to fly.