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The wonder of flight; Birds and war planes

Flying has always held a great fascination for me. As a child I would watch the birds and I would wonder how they managed to soar and glide. I would run and try to catch them, but they always managed to get away.

At the young age of five, the Germans invaded my country; and suddenly my country and I were introduced to airplanes. With that introduction came death and destruction. It was not something that I could understand, but war has a way of fast tracking one’s education. These war machines rained down terror, death, and destruction on my home town, Rotterdam, the Netherlands.

When I was a little older, I learned that the introduction of airplanes into our lives had caused, in one night of horror, the death of almost 1,000 of my countrymen and the destruction of 25,000 homes. It was the beginning of five long years of suffering under German occupation. It was a cruel way for a little boy to be introduced to flight.

Three years later, we moved to the northeastern part of Holland. The town of Rijssen was a small farming community of about 12,000 inhabitants. We lived in a parsonage, a lovely home owned by the church, and it provided rent-free living for the church’s pastor and his family. A small orchard was part of the property. It provided a natural haven for many birds.

The orchard included some cherry trees. Unfortunately, the crows liked cherries as much as we did. One day, as I was playing in the orchard, I found an injured baby crow. With the help of some caring adults, I fed it and nursed it back to health, and soon it was able to fly again. It became my pet, and whenever I was outside, it would fly to me, sit on my shoulder, and eat out of my hand.

I had become a parent.

Then one day, he flew away and out of my life. I was heartbroken, but I felt better when I was told that perhaps my pet had found a new family, and that maybe he was even going to become a daddy.

During the last years of the war, airplanes overhead became a daily occurrence. At first there were just “dog fights” between German and English fighters. We would stand outside and watch, fascinated, as they performed their deadly acrobatics. Sometimes a German, and at other times an English plane, smoke pouring from its fuselage, would crash to the ground.

Sometimes we would see a pilot manage to get out of the plane and glide to earth under a parachute. Other times the plane, with its pilot still inside, would crash to the ground exploding into a giant fireball. If it was a German plane we would cheer (if there were no German soldiers around to see us) and feel sad when it was British. As the war went on we started to see more and more waves of English bombers, going from west to east, from England to Germany. A couple hours later, the planes would return, heading home, having accomplished their deadly mission. German planes would attempt to shoot down the British planes. Sometimes they succeeded. At other times the German planes would be the losers.

Eventually, at the end of five long years, the war ended. I became involved in my own world of flight. My parents, knowing of my sorrow over the loss of my pet crow, purchased two racing pigeons for me; a male and a female. A local carpenter constructed a pen in our backyard, and I again became an animal parent. The war was over and I happily spent my time raising and training my bird family.

After the war, racing pigeons was a popular sport in our town. We even had a racing pigeon club. Each Saturday there was a race. Each racing pigeon wore a tiny band with the owner’s number on its leg. The birds were transported by a truck from a local transportation company, to a location, sometimes a hundred miles or more away.

The birds would be released, and then the owners waited anxiously for their return. The pigeons would fly back to their home pen (hopefully) and as they entered their pen the owners would disconnect the tiny leg band and insert it into a special clock which would notate the exact time. Later in the day, the owners would gather and the times on the special clocks would be posted. The pigeon that had the shortest flight time was the winner.

My bird family did well. I had received them when they were just youngsters. They soon accepted me as their parent. Eventually, it was time to start preparing them for racing. I would put my pigeons in a closed basket and then, on my bike, I would take them a few blocks from home and release them, at first.

I would race home, and each time they would be waiting for me to feed them. Unfortunately, I never had the chance to enter them in a race. The tables were turned. The birds stayed home and my family and I went to America.

My fascination with flight continued. I dreamt of becoming a commercial pilot and to fly like a bird. Eventually, I did take some flight lessons. My first lessons were in a glider, (an engineless airplane) at the Boulder City, Nevada Airport.

I absolutely loved it. A tow plane would pull my glider (with instructor of course) up to 2,000 feet, and then I would pull the release handle, and we would be free to soar, almost like a bird. The only thing that keeps a glider from coming down was the “lift” provided by the updrafts (air currents).

The Boulder City area was great for gliders because the nearby mountains provided a lot of updrafts. At the end of the lesson I would steer out of the updrafts and glide back down to the airport. I took several lessons and eventually learned how to do the “take offs”(behind a tow plane). I also learned how to do landings, turns and even dives (a bit scary).

Later, when I was living in the U.P. of Michigan, I taught at a school in Gwinn. Part of our school district was on the K.I. Sawyer SAC (Strategic Air Command) Air Force Base. The B-52’s, of the Strategic Air Command were the planes that carried nuclear armaments.

We had school facilities on the base, which meant that I had a special pass to drive on and off the base so that I could go to my teaching station. My special pass also allowed me to shop in the P.X. store and eat in the officer’s Mess (restaurant), which had great prices, by the way. Each day we could see the giant B-52 bombers do their take offs and landings.

I loved watching them.

Whenever a “bird” with nuclear armament came in, the sirens on the base would sound, and until the armaments had been “cleared” the entire base would be on “lock down.” No one was allowed to enter or exit the base.

One time I was given the opportunity to see the inside of one of those giant bombers (no picture taking, of course). Awesome. My school superintendent was a licensed pilot and belonged to a flying club at the Marquette airport, about 25 miles from where I was teaching.

He loved flight as much as I did, and he, knowing my love for flying, constantly invited me to go flying with him. Flying above the Northern Michigan woods at 2,500 feet during the autumn color season was an experience that I will never forget. It was like flying over a giant painting.

Eventually I did take some single engine flying lessons with a flight instructor at the Houghton County Airport. I became proficient enough that I could do the take offs and landings, and even some “stalls.”

My most memorable lesson was the one where I had to fly “under the hood.” The training for that included having to be at the controls, wearing a helmet with a small visor that only allowed me to see my instruments.

I was not able to see left, right or straight ahead. The reason for that is that when you are flying in a cloud or in total darkness, the only thing that you can depend on is your instruments. You are without reference for up, down or sideways. The rule is “Always trust your instruments.”

It’s probably a good lesson for life, too. Learn to trust your instruments, in this case, your inner voice, your conscience, your moral compass. All of us are born with such an inner voice. We do well to heed its calls. Some of us believe that our inner voice is the voice of God.

A number of years ago, I was asked to deliver the eulogy for Mel Grimsby, a dear friend and colleague of mine. We had both been working for the Schmitt Music Company. Mel was an organ technician, and I was a church organ consultant. Mel was part owner in a single engine airplane club. He was an accomplished pilot and he and I made several organ related fly trips together.

Often during those flights Mel allowed me to “take the controls.” I felt deeply honored when his wife asked me to deliver the eulogy.

The poem “High flight” is one of my favorite flight poems. It reminds me of my friend, and it expresses how I feel about my own flying experiences.

I ended my eulogy with a recitation of that poem, composed by John Gillespie Magee, Jr., an American pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force in the Second World War. He came to Britain, flew in a Spitfire squadron, and was, unfortunately, killed during a training flight on Dec. 11, 1941. He was only 19 years old.

“Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of death,

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.

Hovering 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 wind-swept heights with easy grace,

Where never lark, or even eagle, flew;

and,while, with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod

the high untrespassed sanctity of space,

put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: Gerrit Lamain is a former Copper Country resident who served as a music professor at Suomi College. He was also the organist for the Michigan Tech hockey team before moving on to the Minnesota North Stars.

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