When I entered the little shack at Shafer Field, I was met by the musty pall of ages and ages past, and the cramped height of the ceiling made me feel like a man who, after growing up and living a long happy life, returned to one of his grammar school classrooms and discovered that reality had shrunk the coliseums of his imagination into tiny tombs of dying memory. Instantly, I found myself squeezed into the America of the 1970's:
I put my bags on the floor and sat down. Aside from the sudden time warp, I felt right at home. I took out my phone and called up Enterprise
to see if they could deliver my car to the airport. The manager there told me that because it was Saturday, he didn't have enough staff to do it, that I would have to come and pick the car up myself. I thanked him and hung up.
Just as I was getting comfortable, I heard somebody enter the building from the back. I could feel his every footstep pressing toward me through the planks of the floor, the sagging weariness of the entire structure pulling me down with it as the man entered the office. His name was Phil, one of the FBO attendants and the local A&P:
He asked me about the Dove
, about where I was from, and about whether or not I was planning on staying for the night. I told him that I was. I told him that I had a car reserved in Glen Carbon and needed a ride to go pick it up. Phil said he would make a call to Ed Shafer, the airport manager, to see if he could drive me into town. Ed was currently giving a local Comanche owner a ride to the airport and would be arriving within the hour.
"Okay, thanks," I said.
"The overnight tie-down fee is five bucks," said Phil.
"No problem," I said. "You want me to pay it now?"
"Nah, you can pay it when you leave," he said. Phil was leafing through some paperwork and he handed me a sign-in sheet to register the Dove
and myself as overnight guests. I also signed a yellowing guest book by the door. Phil walked back out to the hangar where he was working and left me sitting there alone in the gloom and the sag and the stale musty air. About ten minutes later, I heard the crackle and crunch of the gravel driveway behind the shack. It was Ed Shafer.
I went out through the back door and saw Ed coming toward me. He was a gray-haired man of 84, with a sturdy frame and a briskness in his walk that belied only the slightest hints of his age. He waved, then shook hands with me as we walked over toward his vehicle. As we drove into town, I gave him a little background of my mission to fly around America. Ed shared with me some of his experiences as a Korean War veteran in the U.S. Air Force where he was trained as a radio operator. There was an astute wisdom and acuity that emanated from this man, I thought, and I was extremely grateful for his giving me a ride into Glen Carbon. I told him that after I signed for the car at Enterprise, I would meet him back at the airport. His
airport. He owned it.
I secured a small, Hyundai Veloster
at Enterprise and drove it back to Shafer Field. On the way, I stopped at a local fruit stand and startled the owner when I walked in. He was attached to a respirator, dozing in a lawn chair under the awnings when I entered:
He got up and we started talking about how hot it was, and then I bought a couple of large, ripe red tomatoes and some peaches. I thanked him as I left.
I found Ed giving flight lessons to a young man who was preparing for his private pilot check ride. Ed was prepping him on a long cross country flight, telling him about plotting his courses and using the E6B with paper charts. Standing back and observing this, I knew he was my kind of instructor. Old school all the way. The kind that wouldn't be afraid to bark in your ear every now and again just to let you know who was boss. That was when I knew I had met someone very, very special.
The student left. Ed and I were alone in the shack. Here was the owner of the airport, a vibrantly aging flight instructor standing behind a paper-cluttered glass cabinet and with an aura of experience immeasurable about him---and there I was, wondering how I was going to answer for all those bags on the floor.
"Where you staying tonight?" Ed asked.
I kind of stuttered. I felt like a student pilot who was getting grilled. "Well . . . uh, I was kind of hoping I might be able to sleep on the couch."
There was an immediate craning of Ed's neck that suggested having been slapped in the face. The furrows of his brow cringed. "No, we don't do that here," he said.
I told Ed that I had a tent and that I could pitch it if need be. "Well, let me think about it," he said. He had another student to teach that night, and I could tell his mind was preoccupied with more important matters than tending to a guy from California who didn't have a place to sleep.
The afternoon shadows were lengthening in a nearly unbearable heat, and I decided to drive into Troy to do a little exploring. It was the night of Troy's annual homecoming, and police officers were directing traffic as the floats and their occupants prepared to begin parading down Market Street. I found that St. Paul's Lutheran
was holding worship that evening, so I went in and sat down in the front pew:
The Old Testament reading was from Genesis 18, describing Abraham haggling with the Lord over the destruction of Sodom; the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 11, focused on the Lord's Prayer. Pastor Mitchell Schuessler preached a fantastic sermon while sirens and honking horns blazed beyond the walls where the parade had begun.
After church, I met a man in the congregation who wanted to know who I was. I told him that I was visiting from California and was on a flying mission around America, that I had landed at Shafer Field. The man said he lived right across from the airport on Triad Road
and personally knew Ed Shafer. Thanking the man for introducing himself, I went back into town just in time to pick up a few pieces of candy off the street and see a few floats straggle by:
Heading back toward the airport, I stopped at a roadside burger joint called, Loomy's
. I ordered the biggest burger they had, with fries and a shake. While I waited for the food to come up, I had a good conversation with a guy who had been working all week in the heat of the day, digging trenches and laying pipe for the Illinois highway authority. He looked pretty worn out and sunburnt.
I ate outside and sat next to a young couple and their two little girls. One of the girls, about 8 years old, kept practicing cheerleading moves while I was eating. I asked her if she could do cartwheels. She said she could. I told that I could do cartwheels, too, but she didn't believe me, so I had to prove it to her. We practiced cartwheels together, the little girl and I, in the grass by the picnic benches while the rest of the family watched with laughter and with the love and joy of friendship leaning their faces toward us as the day dissolved.
In the heaven of half an hour, we were friends. Parting ways into twilight, I clung to the beauty of the moment as the family drove away.
I finished my shake and drove back to the airport. It was nearly dark when I got there. Ed was wrapping up his last lesson of the day, but before long, he and I were alone again. I could tell he had softened up a little bit, and he told me that it was going to be all right for me to sleep on the couch that night.
Ed and I spent over an hour talking together. I learned about his purchasing the original property of the airport as a dairy farm, then eventually working through a long series of hurdles to make it the public use airport it is today. The office space and the authorized FAA flight testing center over my shoulder had been renovated out of a chicken coop, the timbers of which still supported the building. Then Ed shared with me the depth of his love for his wife, Lois, who died suddenly about 11 years ago. A corporate pilot herself, Lois was a cherished part of Ed's long and productive life in aviation---an irreplaceable part that was very clearly and very sorely missed.
After our long talk, Ed left me and went to his home for bed, right next door to the once-chicken-coop-now-FBO building, my hotel for the night. Before retiring myself, I thought about my plans for the morrow as I walked the length of Ed Shafer's runway. I lay on my back and felt the heat of the day soaking through me from the asphalt, lifting me, pushing me, pressing me onward---ever and ever onward---toward that beauty my soul so sought, that beauty only my country could bring, that beauty that was America. Come morning, my spirits would once again soar in her glory: