Phannie

Phannie
Photo taken near Monument Valley, Utah

Friday, May 26, 2023

We’re On Our Way!

At Searcy, Arkansas…

We left Ranchito Hondo a few days ago and, after a short stay at the kids’ for grandson Mason’s birthday celebration, we made our way toward Searcy, Arkansas. Why? Well, I’ll get to that. We made a stop in hometown Nacogdoches, Texas for fuel and a brief visit with lifetime friends John and Pat. 

After an overnight in Texarkana, we arrived at the RV Fog Dr. In Searcy. They formerly repaired only foggy windows, but now have expanded to include collision repair and painting. We were having them work on some paint deterioration on the top rails of the bus. However, the main reason for this choice was that Searcy is the hometown of dear friends Larry and Carolyn, with whom we always have a great time. 

The RV Fog Dr has a good reputation, but we found they had obviously overbooked, as we had to wait two days before any significant work began.

I have decided to experiment with including some videos in the blog, since that seems to be the new wave, so I’m going to experiment with this one linked here, made at the RV Fog Dr shop, that could’ve probably been done much more professionally by a nine-year-old. 

We had a great time with Larry and Carolyn and, when Phannie was all finished, we drove on to Red Bay, Alabama, Phannie's birthplace, to have a few things done, but more on that later.


Thank you, Lord, for this wonderful life; please forgive me if I don't appreciate it as I should every day.



We don't stop playing because we get old; we get old because we stop playing. 
 ---George Bernard Shaw

"I get up every morning, and I just don't let the old man in." ---Clint Eastwood





Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Flying the Mail and All the Rest – The Beginning

 At Ranchito Hondo, Hondo, Texas...

As I have been doing lately--since we haven't hit the road yet--is to republish a monthly column I write for my hometown advertising newspaper. I hope you enjoy it, even though some of the information here appeared in previous posts of Phannie and Mae. My guess is that few readers will comb back through 18 years of posts and perhaps a half-million words or even use the search feature to find it. That's one of the nice things about having a very old blog...I can write about something that's mentioned before and get away with it! Anyway, here goes--a lot of reminiscing here, for sure:

 

I have no way of knowing if readers have been following with any interest this series of columns on my flying the mail here in east Texas some 50-odd years ago when the U. S. Postal Service reprised for a while an effort like the one in the earliest days of aviation. It hasn’t really occurred to me before now that the few hundred of us flyboys who formed this second cadre are likely retired or have “flown west,” as we pilots say about a fellow aviator whose earthly life has ended.

Perhaps some are curious about how I became infatuated with airplanes and where it led besides flying the mail. I can’t squeeze it into one post, but let’s visit the earliest days with this one.

One never knows the experiences parents give their children that may create within them an epiphany—irrespective of how young they may be—that could have a profound effect on the rest of their lives. Sandy and I have tried to follow the example of my parents and expose our daughter, Mindy, to as many experiences as possible—including sharing with her some travels in Europe. Noting her fascination with medicine, we made sure she had access to all kinds of medical journals, which she read voraciously. She is now a senior nurse at one of two level 1 trauma centers in Houston.

And so it was when my parents—perhaps through fate or Divine inspiration—stopped their 1950 Chevrolet one day at the airport in tiny Center, Texas, of all places, when I was about eight years old. On that day, local airplane owners were giving short rides to the public for a donation to charity. I begged my parents to allow me to go flying, to which, surprisingly, they agreed.

It was only a short flight in an ancient fabric-covered 1946 Aeronca Champion, but I was instantly hooked. I knew from that moment my career would be that of a pilot. As I grew up after that magical experience, I would drag my parents (reluctantly, I’m sure) during our travels around the country, to countless airport detours so I could watch airplanes. Then, as soon as I was old enough, at age 16, I began taking flying lessons and flew my first solo flight at the Nacogdoches airport after about eight hours of instruction. Ironically, that momentous flight was made in the same type of aircraft—an Aeronca Champion—in which I had taken my first flight eight years earlier. I will never forget that first solo flight—realizing that only I, with the help of the Almighty, could cause this machine to return safely to earth. It was pretty much a non-event—a smooth landing on runway 6—a grass runway that is doubtlessly no longer in use. But oh, the exhilaration! I never tired of the thousands of subsequent flights and safe landings, either. I always felt that I had intruded, by way of these machines, built through human ingenuity, into a part of the planet reserved for winged creatures, for which the experience was not magical but merely ordinary, I’m sure. What ingrates they must be!

After my first solo flight, I spent more time at the airport than at home—fueling and washing airplanes, mowing the grass runways with a tractor—anything to make money for more flying lessons. With this laser-like focus and with help from my parents, I obtained a commercial pilot’s license and a multi-engine rating before I graduated from high school. I can’t find any statistics on the number of such advanced flying credentials obtained by high school students, but it certainly must have been a rarity.

It never occurred to me then, of course, that today would come--a day when I would be retired from flying and writing about how it was in the beginning. In my teens and twenties, I had not thought of what it would be like now, six decades later, as I remember those days of unbridled excitement at what lay ahead. For me, time was almost standing still, creeping by so slowly that it appeared my journeys among the clouds could not possibly end. But end they did, quite unwillingly; the increasing physical limitations of aging are, alas, inexorable.

A photo of my first kind of airplane to conquer the skies—an Aeronca Champion. This one is in an aviation museum in Oregon:



Thank you, Lord, for this wonderful life; please forgive me if I don't appreciate it as I should every day.



We don't stop playing because we get old; we get old because we stop playing. 
 ---George Bernard Shaw

"I get up every morning, and I just don't let the old man in." ---Clint Eastwood

Sunday, April 23, 2023

A Night Mail Pilot Stumbles Upon...Ray Price?

 At Ranchito Hondo, Hondo, Texas...

In the last post, I promised a story about Ray Price. Here it is, as I wrote it in my column current in my hometown newspaper:

                                                                                   *          *         *


I’m going to use another column or two to tell a few stories about flying the mail at night between East Texas and Dallas while most of you were asleep; this was between the years 1968 and 1973. In last month’s column, I shared about the existence of the flights that were reminiscent of the early days of mail flying but resurrected for the second time fifty years later. I also mentioned that the terminus of the outbound evening flight was in Dallas. The airport then was Dallas Love Field, where all the other mail planes (and airliners carrying mail) converged. The new DFW International Airport hadn’t opened at the time.

The mail planes all parked near an executive terminal, where they were unloaded, fueled and loaded for the outbound flights in the early morning. On one memorable arrival (I can’t remember the date), I was walking toward the executive lounge after unloading the airplane, and I noticed a sleek Learjet parked near the terminal door with the airplane’s door open and the interior lights on. As I walked past the jet, I saw that the flight crew was not aboard (they were inside the terminal) and that there was a sole occupant sitting on the rear bench seat with his reading light on. As I passed the open door, I recognized him immediately as none other than the county music legend, Ray Price.

Mr. Price had obviously just finished a concert in the Dallas area and was awaiting his crew to complete their preparations and fly him to his next stop. I assumed this because he was dressed in his sequined stage attire, but with his coat and tie removed.

I couldn’t help myself; poking my head in the door, I gulped and said, “Hello, Mr. Price; I just wanted to tell you I’m a big fan of yours! He looked up immediately at the intrusion and flashed a grin. “Come on up here; what are you doing out there, young man?”

I had not expected this, but I sheepishly climbed the stairs, and he motioned for me to sit down in one of the mid-cabin seats, which I did and turned toward him. Before I could even think of what to say in such a private environment, he began to ask ME questions about what I was doing out there in the middle of the night. I explained that I was a mail pilot, and he seemed genuinely interested in the nightly gathering of mail planes. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t, but he obviously wanted to put me at ease. We chatted a bit—I was too star-struck to remember the details, and I even forgot to ask for his autograph! I could see that his eyes were tired, and I suspect his having to make small talk with a nobody like me was not helping him get some needed rest. Soon, his pilots boarded, and I scurried off the jet, thanking him for being so generous with his time. He waved and smiled, as if we were old friends; the copilot closed the door, and Ray Price was gone.

My friend, David Stallings, the publisher of Around the Town, and I have had conversations about the days of his business relationship with Ray Price, and David was not at all surprised about the down-home friendliness the star had shown me. “That’s just the way he was,” said David. “He loved people and loved his fans.” I believe it, David.



Ray Price, Country Music Legend

 


 

Lear Jet


Thank you, Lord, for this wonderful life; please forgive me if I don't appreciate it as I should every day.



We don't stop playing because we get old; we get old because we stop playing. 
 ---George Bernard Shaw

"I get up every morning, and I just don't let the old man in." ---Clint Eastwood

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

The Cast is Off; Rehab Begins

 At Ranchito Hondo, Hondo, Texas...

In the last post, I showed a photo of my hand just after surgery. A couple of days ago, they removed the more permanent hard cast that had been annoying me for weeks. Having never worn a cast before, I couldn't imagine how they would saw it off without also dismembering my hand, which would leave me in worse shape than before surgery! Oddly, the technician demonstrated beforehand that even if the saw were touched directly to the arm, it would not leave a cut of any kind. I still haven't figured that out! I thought I would include a little video here of the process. Here is the link:

https://www.dropbox.com/s/hrnw85gs5cmsowe/Mike%27s%20Cast%20Removal.mp4?dl=0

There is a good chance that a number of readers will have this surgery when they get older, and there are lots of YouTube videos that describe it in detail. It's called a CMC Arthroplasty, and I can already tell you that it is a welcome relief from the arthritis pain I was suffering. I am typing this post quite easily and painlessly only six weeks after surgery. My left hand and wrist are a bit weak after having been immobilized for that time, but I can already tell that progress in that area will be rapid. I haven't tried playing the piano yet, but that will come in a day or two. 

Besides the surgery, we haven't been doing much here at the park. I have been elected to the board of directors, so that has taken up a good bit of my spare time. 

Lot owners are already starting to thin out from here as they begin their spring and summer travels, and we will be joining them in mid-May. Our first stop will be in Conroe, Texas to see the kids and then to Arkansas to visit friends and get a little paint touch-up on Phannie. After that, we'll drift over to Red Bay for a couple of items, then to Colorado again for the summer. 

Since I don't have much to chat about until we begin our travels in May, I'll simply leave you with a photo of Crater Lake, one of the many wonderful sights that we've enjoyed all over the country:


For those who are wondering about what our "escape plan" will be from fulltiming, the answer is that we don't really have one. I've already written about our status now after 18 years of RVing and seven years of fulltiming. Well, Sandy and I talk occasionally about that and, while we could be said really to be part-timing right now, neither of us has any desire to have the confinement, upkeep and expense of a stick-and-brick house. 

The little cabin on our property is just right to hold our personal items, the piano and a small workshop. It is air conditioned and has a nice seating arrangement for guests, but we don't live in it. It is just sort of an extension of Phannie. It's also pretty neat to be able to rent out our RV pad during our extended absences.

We'll have some more updates when we begin rolling again before long, but that's what's going on right now.

Thank you, Lord, for this wonderful life; please forgive me if I don't appreciate it as I should every day.



We don't stop playing because we get old; we get old because we stop playing. 
 ---George Bernard Shaw

"I get up every morning, and I just don't let the old man in." ---Clint Eastwood

Tuesday, March 7, 2023

Well, That Wasn't Much of a Winter (Here in South Texas)

 At Ranchito Hondo, Texas...

I know, I know.  It has been more than two months since I've posted. I can only take so much fussin' now, so give me a little slack. We've already talked about this...if we're not traveling, we're just not going to bore you with mundane details about which no one is interested. With this in mind, I'll give you a few of the more unusual goings-on and then include my latest column that I write for my hometown advertising/local interest newspaper; I enjoy that quite a lot.

I've had fun here at our local old folks' RV park. Most of the time, we're in short sleeves except for about a week when it dipped below freezing a few times. Now, the trees are almost fully leafed out, and we're running the A/Cs. I've been doing some keyboard playing over the last few months which everyone seems to enjoy. You can catch that and other silliness on my YouTube channel. Just go to YouTube and input "Mike Mills P515" or "Mike Mills Battle of the Keyboards" and you can wander around in there. I've got to learn to dress a little better when I'm doing these videos. I'm still new at it. Some of the videos are OLD! If you see the quartet singing at the old sanctuary at First Baptist Dallas, the pianist is yours truly.

I'm really enjoying my new digital piano, which is a top-of-the-line Yamaha P-515. Its keyboard is the same as a grand piano's, and so is the sound, in my opinion.   

The piano playing has come to a screeching halt for a couple of months, however, as I have just had surgery on my left wrist/thumb to relieve some increasing arthritis pain. I put up with it for a long time, but it eventually restricted my left hand reach to an octave rather than its usual tenth, so I knew it was time to get help. I had the surgery a few days ago, and this is what my left hand looks like right now:



Six weeks, they say, to get the cast off and 2-3 months after that for back to normal.  This is a well-proven surgery that's been around a long time, so I'm hopeful to reach the tenth again.  Gonna take a lot of practice to get back to normal after being away from the piano so long.

We got some good news the other day: Mary, a wonderful blogger from Reflections Around the Campfire, whose postings I eagerly read and who is almost as OCD as I in the propriety of prose used, is headed to Texas in the fall with her family. We've never met, but we will this time, and meetups with virtual blogger friends is such a rush; we can't wait.

As we get older, we keep the medical and dental professions awash in cash, but one can't do much about the frequency of visits when things wear out as they do. That makes for a lot of trips into San Antonio, something we always enjoy.

So now, I'll leave you with the aforementioned column. I hope you find it interesting. I'll get back to y'all when I get around to it. Thank you for your patience!

Air Mail: The Early Days

And a Second Time Around--

 Right Here in East Texas

 

Some folks are vaguely aware through their studies in history of the beginnings of air mail flights in the United States during the earliest days of aviation. The experiment began in 1911 by the U. S. Army Signal Corps, which developed into the U. S. Army Air Corps in 1926 and, ultimately, into the U. S. Air Force in 1947. Because of the primitive nature of the earliest “production” aircraft—open-cockpit biplanes whose fabric-covered wings were held in position largely by wires—and the inexperience of the pilots, who largely had to learn to fly on their own, air crashes were numerous and deadly.

The Signal Corps decided that assisting in the longtime goal of the U. S. Post Office for faster mail delivery might be accomplished by flying mail via its airplanes—initially from New York to Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. The Corps had their own motive, however; they thought the straight routes between large cities with plenty of landmarks could help the pilots gain more experience, both in flying and navigating, thereby helping reduce the horrendous accident rate. It was not uncommon then for pilots frequently to find themselves lost, as there were few, if any, radio navigation aids at the time and no radios in the cockpits to receive signals. The pilots had only rather primitive maps that pointed out cities and significant objects on the ground, and the airplanes had compasses that were notoriously unstable and difficult to read.

This mail-flying experiment had some success, finally stretching coast-to-coast, but accidents, while lessened in number, were many, and the air mail was eventually tendered in 1926 to the nascent airlines that had begun to develop.

Few people know that the U. S. Postal Service tried flying the mail a second time nationwide some fifty years later. Even fewer know that east Texas—the same area reached by the very publication you’re reading right now—was involved. And you might be surprised to learn that the pilot who flew those nightly mail runs from Lufkin to Dallas was none other than yours truly, the humble author of this piece.

I was 21 years old, and it was my first real flying job. My first flight began on May 8, 1968, almost exactly fifty years after the first of those primitive mail flights began on May 15, 1918. While, like most young men, I felt indestructible at the time, so I had little hesitation about a checkout in an ancient Beech 18, a type derived from an old military C-45 and considerably more challenging than is normally allowed for a relatively novice pilot like me. It had Pratt and Whitney R-985 radial engines and was considered by most pilots as a bit squirrelly, especially upon landing, due to its tailwheel configuration, requiring the initial touchdown on the main landing gear then lowering the tail to the runway. This could be tricky with the then-reduced forward visibility, especially in a crosswind.

I loved flying the old airplane, and, after a while, it felt a part of me. I must admit, however, that the many flights I made in it were not without a few tense moments. Like the pioneer mail pilots of 1918, I learned more about flying during the five years of flying east Texas’ nightly mail than in most of the rest of my aviation career. I’m including a photo of one of the Beech 18s I flew at the time, taken at what was then called Del Rentzel field in Nacogdoches:

 


The postal carriers would gather mail in trucks from all over east Texas during the day and bring it to the Lufkin post office, where it would be sorted and sent out to the Angelina Country Airport, where it would be loaded onto my airplane for its flight to Dallas Love Field.  Takeoff time was about 9 p.m., and I made a stop in Palestine to pick up another load that had been gathered from that area. I arrived in Dallas at about 10:30 p.m., along with as many as a dozen other mail planes that had arrived from other cities around Texas. Postal workers would take the mail from the airplanes in trucks to a sorting facility and, at about 2:00 a.m., the armada of mail planes would depart for their return trips, loaded with the next day’s mail that would be flown out to their airports of origin and distributed among the dozens of small towns from which the previous day’s loads had originated. I would touch down in Lufkin at about 3:30 a.m., after which the mail was taken to the Lufkin post office and sorted again for delivery around east Texas.

During this era, first-class mail was carried along with the air mail in order to have a sufficient load; first-class was placed in green sacks, and air mail in gold ones. Eventually, air mail would cease to exist; it would become “Priority Mail.” This same scenario was carried out in a hub-and-spoke system across the U. S. five or six nights per week.

This second mail-by-airplane experiment lasted about as long as it did the first time in 1918. By 1976, it was largely over. I’m not sure why it ceased, for I had moved on to airline flying by then.

Flying the mail was a heady time for this east Texas-bred boy from Nacogdoches, and I have a few stories to tell about it, including how a mail pilot (me) got to visit with Ray Price under these unusual circumstances. 

Thank you, Lord, for this wonderful life; please forgive me if I don't appreciate it as I should every day.



We don't stop playing because we get old; we get old because we stop playing. 
 ---George Bernard Shaw

"I get up every morning, and I just don't let the old man in." ---Clint Eastwood



Sunday, January 1, 2023

So Whatever Happened to Pig Stands?

 At Forest Retreat RV Park, New Caney, Texas...

We are in the last few days of the Christmas/New Year's/Grandson Pryce's birthday celebrations before returning to Ranchito Hondo. We have had a grand time visiting family and friends, and we cherish each moment with them. So as not to overdo the photos of such festivities in this blog that's supposed to be about travels, we will skip the family/friends photos this time and perhaps bore you with them on another occasion, when the changes in all our appearances may be more evident--some for the better and some, unfortunately--well, age does take its toll, doesn't it?

Since a family visit doesn't really count as a new travel experience, I'm going to post another of my columns from Around the Town, my hometown advertising newspaper. These seem to have met with a good deal of interest in the paper so, sharing them with you seems like a good idea when we're not really on the road to new territories.

Here we go:


So Whatever Happened to Pig Stands?

If you have read a few of my columns, you know by now that I tend to harken back to the days of my youth, when things seemed, well, normal. I often think of my teen years in Nacogdoches and some now long-gone eating joints like the Top Burger where, in high school, I could get a burger, fries and a Coke for 50 cents…I kid you not!  There were also the late-night hangouts, like John’s Restaurant on South Street, a favorite chicken fried steak emporium and, also on South Street--how many iced mugs of root beer did I drink from the old A&W stand? Who knows? And let’s not forget the Caraban, way out north on U. S. 59; I think they had an especially good charburger.

But this story is not about the restaurant ghosts of Nacogdoches’ past; I’m writing about Pig Stands. Now you probably won’t remember Pig Stands unless you have quite a few decades under (over?) your belt, but there were more of them than you probably realize—more than 120, in fact, throughout the U. S. They started in Dallas in 1921, just when the automobile began to achieve some real popularity. Being quite a visionary, George Kirby took note of the increasing number of cars on the road and decided to offer them curb service food, complete with carhops, resulting in the first restaurant drive-in in the country. 

The Pig Stand’s signature sandwich, as you might expect, was the Pig Sandwich. This was a big hit before the world’s insatiable craving for beef burgers took off. The Pig Stand also has the distinction of inventing fried onion rings! As the legend goes, one of the cooks wondered what it would be like to put some breading on onions and toss them into the fryer; the rest is history.

Now, let’s fast forward 102 years. During the meantime, changes in ownership, bad business decisions and non-payment of taxes began a gradual winnowing of the restaurants over the years. Guess how many Pig Stands are left from the original 120 or so?  If you said “none,” you would have matched my guess. But imagine my surprise when Sandy and I, quite by accident, ran across the very last one in operation. It has been there since 1967, near downtown San Antonio, buried underneath an I-10 interchange. It is rather shopworn, and the drive-in part is shut down, home now to a few junky vehicles. As you can tell from the photo, the sign has faded, and the pink art-deco design was out-of-date when the place was built more than 50 years ago. Also gone are the Friday night hot rod gatherings that were all the rage back then.


We had to stop there, of course. Luckily, we hadn’t had lunch, and judging from the rundown look of the place, it had a potential for a death knell itself. We knew this could be our only opportunity ever to patronize a Pig Stand.

To our utter delight, the inside had the same corny d├ęcor of many restaurants of the ‘50s and ‘60s. We even gasped when we saw the juke box play selectors at the booths. Could this have gotten any better? And we hadn’t even been seated yet! We were led to a booth by an ancient server in a waitress’ uniform, of all things! I didn’t get her name, as I usually do; my senses were overloaded as it was. Looking over at the juke box selector (I can’t remember if there was a different term for them back when they were popular), I could see that the Beach Boys were still going strong, as were Elvis, Marvin Gaye and Buddy Holly. My nostalgic rush was so strong, I almost didn’t notice when the menus were dropped on our table.


 If you think I would leave there without eating one of their famous pig sandwiches, you would be wrong. That’s what I ordered, and Sandy ordered a hamburger. Having no idea what their classic pig sandwich was like, I was a bit surprised when it arrived. It consisted of thick slices of pork loin and dill pickles between two hamburger buns lathered with barbeque sauce. While it was a decent sandwich, the pork loin was sliced too thick to be tender and, if it had been smoked, it was not really evident. I’m thinking it was just roasted in an oven.

 


Sandy’s hamburger was declared to be “okay.”

Okay, so the meal wasn’t spectacular. It did not diminish, however, from the feeling I was young again and that Sandy and I were on a date, listening to Bobby Vinton crooning away from the jukebox. I was in heaven.

Looking around, we couldn’t help but notice a vast collection of ceramic pigs in every pose and caricature you could imagine. You can see part of the collection in the photo. I especially liked the pig in a chef’s uniform and the pig on a motorcycle. 

 

I’m pretty sure all the pigs were for sale because an older couple were standing at the cash register in front, peering into a glass case at a selection of ceramic pigs inside. Our server was there, pointing to the various pigs, most of which appeared to be piggy banks. I overheard her say to the couple while pointing to one of the larger piggy banks, “Now, this one is two hundred dollars.” I was a bit taken aback by this, but I didn’t know if it was a rare artifact or if that was the going price. That’s probably because I have not shopped for any ceramic piggy banks lately.

I guess I’ll recover before long from this blast from the past. I even told Sandy I might try to get a ducktail haircut next time. Always a bastion of support, she said, “Well, you better hurry; that’s about all you’ve got left.”

Oh, the places we go and the places we’ve been. I hope sharing our travels brings back some good memories for you, too.


Thank you, Lord, for this wonderful life; please forgive me if I don't appreciate it as I should every day.



We don't stop playing because we get old; we get old because we stop playing. 
 ---George Bernard Shaw

"I get up every morning, and I just don't let the old man in." ---Clint Eastwood