Plenty of Jungle and not a Rain Forest in Sight

On a fall Saturday morning dad announced that he was taking me on errands and leaving my younger brothers home with a list of chores. At twelve I was the oldest he reminded them as they howled at the unfairness of it all. Mom just shook her head at being left behind as the enforcer.

Dad’s Saturday ventures often meant a trip to one of his brothers, my grandparents or the West Side market. My dad was always pumped up around his brothers. They talked loudly, even shouting in a friendly way over the next delicious meal their families were planning, or a house or a car they were looking to buy, confident of a good deal.

Years earlier my father and I had a memorable Saturday outing searching Cleveland stores for the materials needed to build a racer. He finished it the same weekend and it worked beautifully: a coasting thing with ball bearing wheels, handle brake, steering wheel and a small storage box behind the driver’s seat for tools and spare parts. Shortly after it was finished I sold it to the kid across the street for a dime. That broke my dad’s heart. But he never tried to get the racer back. I made the deal and had to live with it he had said.

Dad and I made our escape and took Broadway Avenue, the artery that connected our home in the suburbs with my grandparents in Cleveland. Broadway was lined with stores, factories, auto dealerships and a sand and gravel pit that is still there a half a century later.

That past summer the entire family was traveling this familiar route—including our two-year-old sister in the front seat—headed to dad’s parents for a visit. We were stopped at a traffic light behind a red cement truck admiring its great rotating drum when the driver’s door opened and my Uncle Chick climbed out. My brothers and I screamed his name from the back seat. He had surprised us all.

He was a handsome, broad-faced man with a mustache, dark hair and eyes and an easy smile. He wasn’t concerned about the traffic light as he sauntered back to our car like he was taking a walk at the beach. He stuck his head in the open window and Dad started firing off questions. Moments later Uncle Chick growled something at us boys making us laugh even more. After saying a few things to my mom, he reached inside to smooth back our baby sister’s hair and then gave a good-natured shrug to a final question of Dad’s and said good bye.

Uncle Chick would die in his fifties, a robust man with a fierce growl who entertained us and always got our attention. He’d die with a full head of hair streaked with gray, long before old age would ravage him. That day he climbed down from the truck he seemed forever like the sun.

* * *

I was looking out the window still daydreaming when my father asked—

“Have you thought about what you want to do someday?”

“Write books,” rolled off my tongue with pride, “and fly over the jungle—in South America!”

“You’re dreaming.”

I believed I had a license to dream. Friends, books, movies, the exotic tale of my dad’s brother riding a horse through northern Mexico, all of it had triggered my aspirations.

“Why South America?” he asked, as we passed the sand and gravel pit.

“Um, anacondas … jungle … uh, the Incas, Amazon River—panthers?”

“Traveling is fine but you can read about South America any time.” Working his jaw, taking a breath, he weighed his next comments and then blurted, “I enjoyed the places I got to see in the Navy, like Chicago, San Diego—Boy, what beautiful cities—” He wanted to say more and caught himself. “Stick to your studies,” he said, shaking his head, worried, as if his dreamy son might follow his momentary outburst and not stick close to reality. “You need to think about college right now.”

He turned onto Prince Avenue with its squat corner bar where my grandfather often came for a drink.

Although college was an eternity away, I had no problem with dad prepping me for higher learning. I enjoyed reading, being studious, and had ambitions of going to the Air Force Academy. Showing him that no fights loomed over the college thing, I asked about learning to fly before I left high school.

“You get a good job someday and then you can take lessons.”

Years later I learned that he was stretched thin with guitar and accordion lessons for my brother and me. But he never complained about scraping the bottom of the checkbook, or later, the huge cost of sending us to Catholic High School.

Before turning down the narrow driveway of my grandparents’ three-story home—all floors filled with family members—he brought up someone’s kid headed for medical school. And once again he mentioned his friend, a local lawyer whose son planned on following in his father’s footsteps.

Parking the car in front of a small garage, next to an old pear tree, its leaves already changing, dad told me to think carefully about my choices in life. Stubbornly I believed choices meant following your dreams. Years later he would admire my decision to start flight lessons, telling all his family and friends that his son was going to be a pilot. Remaining practical, he immediately took out an insurance policy on me.

As time passed we’d often sit down on Dad’s back patio and I’d tell him about my last tour—the passengers I flew, where I went, any problems with the plane. If an upgrade to another aircraft was a possibility (more training, more money and a lot of studying) he’d smile and say, “Boy, that’s fantastic. What opportunities you have.” He took the writing dream in stride, too, saw it as a hobby, and no longer worried of failure since I was making a “good buck” with a great company by the mid ‘90s.

Piloting over the lower forty-eight as well as Alaska and Hawaii, I scribbled for years at the end of the day, taking notes on a host of inspiring visions that would become American Sky. I flew in the Middle East and Europe and West Africa and had time off to explore Almaty, Kazakhstan and Athens, Greece.

During my career I’d travel to Beijing, Hong Kong, and Singapore. Indonesia has the longest spanning archipelago in the world at roughly 3200 miles with  Komodo dragons, smoking volcanoes, plenty of  jungle and not a Disney rain forest in sight. At the the Mariott in Jakarta I began writing a Christmas novella called Saint Nick and spent hours eating breakfast at one of the loveliest restaurants on the planet staffed by some of the kindest people I’ve ever met.

Ironically, I never made it to South America. Customer demands, dispatch needs, and aircraft mechanicals, constantly altered my flight schedule. So the farthest south I ever flew in the Americas was Costa Rica, even though my company occasionally flew over the Amazon Jungle and into the cities of Brazil and Argentina. We pilots just called it Luck of the Draw.

We were on the back patio one evening when I reminded my father of our long-ago conversation.

“Dad, I never made it down there.”

He smiled. “Look at all the places you’ve been to—” naming cities and countries. “You can’t expect to visit every place on the planet. Some places we just read about. ”

My father was right, only adding to the mystery of our Southern Hemisphere. For me, South America remains a boy’s vision of foreign travel and adventure. It’s a place to read about, dream about, a place to keep reaching for…. I like that.


Posted in Uncategorized by with 3 comments.
  • Jeanne Tribuzzo Zemek

    I can see your dad saying all those words to you. loved reading this

    aunt Jeanne

  • yr pal drake

    very enjoyable, Fred…keep up the good work…

  • Fred I just did two trips down to Sao Paulo last month you did not leave anything there you need to go back and get. Crossing the Amazon river is an incredible sight though. Okon and once did our line check rides to and from Buenos Aires, now they do have the most delicious steak there at Cabana Las Lilas, and Captain Mark bought the dinner on our employers credit card, which made the steak taste all the more better. I remember our many trips together and how you would start to get anxious toward the end of the week about how and when you would get home, particularly the last day it looked like we might return to CMH by 1500 and then they started to add leg after leg to the day until we finally ended up dropping the plane in TOL and taking a town car back to Columbus, you were so distraught by then you could not even speak. Or how about the “special” assignments that came your way because the more senior pilots declined the offer to bid on some of the more remote assignments.