Jim Klobuchar - Remembering Dad's Only Flight
Editor’s note—In 1986 Jim Klobuchar was a finalist in NASA’s projected Journalist in Space flight. Shortly before the candidates were to enter a training regimen in Houston, where NASA would make its choice, the program was canceled in the wake of the fatal accident of the shuttle Challenger. One of his qualifications for the flight was his prior experience as a licensed pilot. In a few days he plans a reunion with the light plane he flew then—and an unforgettable hour with his dad.
My friend Mike owns a single engine plane called the Cessna 172, not all that much changed today from the same plane in which I trained and flew for nearly ten years in the 1970s. A forgiving plane, it was called by the manufacturers and pilots I knew, meaning it was and I’m sure still is relatively uncomplicated and can absorb most of the predictable mistakes the amateur pilot is likely to make in his or her early seasons.
Mike is well beyond his early seasons with the plane, and he’ll be the pilot. Chivalrously he may offer me a few moments at the controls and I’d be amazed if I don’t accept. Yet that wasn’t the main inducement for me.
It wasn’t until later that I told him about my father’s first and only experience in flight more than 40 years ago, his burst ofexuberance seeing his hunting and fishing grounds from the air. He didn’t blush to show his wonderment; sounding like a kid, experiencing something very close to a fairy tale.
For most of his adult life he had been an iron ore miner, part of the first generation of men and women whose parents had emigrated from what they called “the old country.” In their case it was the Balkans in the late years of the 1800s. Many of the families settled on the Iron Range of northern Minnesota. In the ledgers of the time they were carried as Cheap Labor. The immigrant families might have been aware of that unflattering description. It wouldn’t have mattered if they were. America was huge and full of energy and ambition, offering a new beginning for families whose sons in the old country were being conscripted to fight the wars of the foreign monarchies that ruled them. But this was America and they would become citizens. America had public schools their kids could attend and learn to read and write English and some day they would graduate from college.
My dad was part of that first generation. He didn’t have the opportunity of college but he wanted to go to sea. He brought home geography books when he was a kid. His grades were good but when he reached 15 in the early 1920s his parents had both died and he was the eldest son with eight younger siblings. Social workers said they could place the children in foster homes and orphanages. He had a better idea. The mines needed workers. America had adopted the beginnings of child labor laws in those years, but the mining company superintendent listened to the teen-age kid who was trying to keep the family together. He offered him a job in the underground mine, where the iron ore lay in caverns 1500 feet beneath the surface. Within three or four years he became a foreman, married when his siblings had finished high school and had two sons, my brother and me.
The regret of my life is that we were never close. He provided, he was devoted to our mother, insisted that we study and examined the report cards. He established rules of behavior in the house, and in our personal lives as we grew older, but this was 60 years ago and more, and the habits of family in “the old country” clung. Small talk, laughter and tears, were pretty much consigned to the moms. When Dick and I became adults the distance closed and I now understand the sacrifices he had made and the direction he and mother had given us. But it was still hard to confide, and to understand the true measure of his gifts to us.
So one day in the 1970s I flew up to my home town of Ely in northern Minnesota in a rented Cessna 172 and hangered the plane for the few days of our visit. On the second day my father took our two girls fishing, a skill that somehow had escaped me despite the presence of 75 or 80 lakes within a few miles of the town. They got back in mid afternoon and I said to the undisputed head angler of the house: “Dad, have you ever flown?”
He said he hadn’t. “Have you ever wanted to?” Uncertain silence. He had the usual paternal wariness about some of the wilder schemes of their offspring. But he had also seen me land the plane, understood I was licensed and said, rather valiantly I thought, “well, sure.”
So we took off into the west from of the sand runway of the rinkydink little airstrip that then served as the community airport.We had climbed only a few hundred feet when the great expanse of Shagawa Lake on the town’s edge erupted in view, and my passenger gasped. He had lived there his entire life, fished the lake hundreds of times, but had never seen it in full dimension, miles in length and radiant blue, motor boats flitting on the water with wakes hundreds of feet wide.
I handed him an aerial map and told him he was the officially designated navigator of the flight. We went through a 30-second orientation. Not unlike a train conductor, he began calling out the names of the lakes and rivers where he had fished, swiveling in his seat, suddenly a kid again, excitement building up into to a runaway exuberance, soaking up the great green spread of spruce and Norways below, and the blue threads of the streams and the sprawling lakes. After a half hour he had a proposal, “Would it be okay to fly a few miles into Canada?” I couldn’t honestly tell him it was but I doubted that the Royal Canadian Air Force was going to scramble a squadron of attack jets at us for violating its airspace with a Cessna. So we flew a few miles into Ontario and came back to Minnesota using the Echo Trail of my childhood as our check point to the air strip in Ely.
The town’s airport today is lit, paved and modern. In those years the airstrip resembled a weedy gravel road. It also had power lines nearby and the town cemetery flanking the north-south runway. As we made our approach into the south wind, my father offered an estimate of the situation, trying not to sound worried. “That runway,” he said, “it doesn’t look very long from here.” His shoulders looked a little hunched. I slipped into my flight jargon. “Affirmative your last transmission,” I said. “It doesn’t look very long from here, either.”
But we landed uneventfully and taxied back to the hanger. Before we got into the car he put his arm around me and thanked me, his cheeks dampened.. “I never thought I’d fly,” he said. “That was something. Seeing Snowbank Lake from the air..” I hugged him.
I don’t know what took me so long.
About Jim Klobuchar:
In 45 years of daily journalism, Jim Klobuchar’s coverage ranged from presidential campaigns to a trash collector’s ball. He has written from the floor of a tent in the middle of Alaska, from helicopters, from the Alps and from the edge of a sand trap. He was invited to lunch by royalty and to a fist fight by the late Minnesota Viking football coach, Norm Van Brocklin. He wrote a popular column for the Minneapolis Star Tribune for 30 years and has authored 23 books. Retiring as a columnist in 1996, he contributes to Ecumen’s “Changing Aging” blog, MinnPost.com and the Christian Science Monitor. He also leads trips around the world and an annual bike trip across Northern Minnesota. He’s climbed the Matterhorn in the Alps 8 times and has ridden his bike around Lake Superior. He’s also the proud father of two daughters, including Minnesota's senior U.S. Senator Amy Klobuchar.