Say “Colorado” and people envision snow capped peaks and lush mountain meadows teeming with wildlife. That’s a pretty fair picture of the Colorado where Jim was raised and eventually married, but the southeastern end of the state more closely resembles its neighbor New Mexico than it does a Coors commercial.
The Air Force built a training base on these flat, brown plains during World War II near a small town named La Junta. The town itself sprung up around a trading post along the Santa Fe trail 70 years before the Wright Brothers took flight, but it was those aspiring wartime pilots, their trainers, and their families who ballooned La Junta’s population. By the mid-60s over 8,000 Coloradans called the little town home.
Where there are 8,000 people there’s also an abundance of washers, dryers, ovens, dishwashers, water heaters, swamp coolers, lawnmowers, vacuum cleaners, televisions, refrigerators, and who-knows-what-elses, many of which were purchased from the local Montgomery Ward department store. Yes, and when all of those mechanical hearts stopped beating who did their owners rely on? Their friendly neighborhood Wards repairman, of course, and so at the behest of his employer the 20 year-old father of two and husband of one packed up the Dodge and moved his family from downtown Denver to the Park-It Trailer Park in La Junta.
Everything you’ve heard or thought about repairmen is likely true, as are the stories of their customers. Jim was as likely to treat a kind but down on his luck customer to a free repair as he was to tell a rude homeowner that he was going to need to order parts to fix a refrigerator that was simply unplugged. The wife of a retired colonel was so obnoxious that her washing machine required three separate visits, each one delayed by the need for parts that Jim unfortunately didn’t have in his repair van. Nipping dogs, parents treating a service call like free babysitting, lonely housewives looking for ways to shave a few bucks off the bill–he loved the repair work but he grew to dislike the people. In one particularly egregious episode, a customer accused him of stealing her engagement ring. All that saved him was a boss who believed his employee over the stranger demanding cash rather than the return of her property.
But he had no intention of staying on the ground with the liars, cheats, and hustlers anyway. La Junta’s newest business, Lyddon Flying Service, offered flying lessons, so what little discretionary income the young family had went toward funding Jim’s pilot license. A half century later Jim remembered his flight instructor as a grouchy old son of a bitch with no patience for anyone who didn’t possess the desire and skill necessary to earn a pilot’s license, but in reality Bill Lyddon was only 14 years his senior. Of course, it’s possible Lyddon had a mean old bastard working for him. It’s also possible that 50 years took their toll on the film reels spinning in Jim’s mind, combining characters from movies and stories with people he knew. Whomever his actual instructor was, Jim revered the man as the best pilot he ever met–the kind of guy who could fly and navigate without a single instrument; the kind of guy who could set a plane down like a master dart thrower who could hit the bullseye blindfolded.
Lyddon (and we’re going to assume for the sake of this rather unusual obituary that Bill was that legendary aviator) rode Jim hard, but on December 13, 1965 he deemed the young man ready for his solo flight test. Shortly thereafter, Jim was no longer stuck to the ground. Provided that he could pony up the cash to rent one of Bill’s Cessnas for a few hours and gas it up when he was finished, he could take to the air whenever he felt like it–no screaming babies, no obnoxious customers, no overwhelmed wife worrying how they were going to pay the bills. He’d fly over to the mountains and catch updrafts that would push the little plane thousands of feet in the air like an invisible elevator, then find a downdraft that would shove him earthward just as quickly. Sometimes he would cut the engine and let the aircraft dance on the currents. That may have been against FAA regulations, but what they didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them. Besides, it was fun and what was the point of flying if not to have fun?
When it was time to head home he’d follow highway 50 back to La Junta. Once he got east of Pueblo there were no towns to speak of, just a straight arrow of asphalt pointing toward home. The occasional car moved along the highway at a speed not much slower than that of Lyddon’s little Cessna. Jim pointed the plane’s nose at the cars, diving for them like enemy tanks. He swooped over the unsuspecting drivers then bounced the plane’s landing gear off the highway and soared back into the sky in a maneuver known as a “touch and go” at airports throughout the country, “airports” being the key word here. There was no question whether doing so on a state highway was a severe violation of FAA regs, but this was even more fun than dancing on the currents.
Car after car fell victim to the winged avenger’s touch and go game, each one likely receiving an unexpected and unwelcome adrenaline jolt the thought of which amused the newly licensed pilot. Well, it amused him until he looked out of the airplane’s window and saw the bright red gumball machine swirling atop a highway patrol car.
You might not be aware that similar to an automobile license plate each airplane bears a registration number, but unlike cars the display of these numbers is quite variable. They often appear on a plane’s vertical stabilizer, the big fin on the aircraft’s tail (which is why these registration numbers are commonly called “tail numbers”), but not always. Lyddon’s Cessna had “N7936U” painted on either side of its fuselage in letters so big that they were easily readable from the ground.
You’re also probably not aware that this particular Cessna had a top speed of about 105 miles per hour. Even back in ’65, 105 MPH wasn’t a problem for a patrol car, and as I mentioned earlier highway 50 was straighter than your state’s senator pretends to be. Jim couldn’t outrun the cop, but if he turned the patrolman could read the giant N7936U that identified the plane. He slowed to get behind the cruiser, but the cop simply slowed with him. He tried climbing, but there was no way he could get high enough to be certain the plane’s tail number was unreadable. For miles the two vehicles paced each other until Jim finally caught a break: a small cluster of clouds just big enough for him to change direction without revealing the plane’s number. He changed course and puttered around for another hour or so, hoping the patrolman would give up long before La Junta.
When he eventually touched back down and taxied the rented plane back to the hangars, Lyddon was waiting for him. “The police came by while you were out,” Bill said.
“Said there was some idiot doing touch and goes in a Cessna out on 50, scaring the hell out of drivers. You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?”
“Nope,” Jim said. “Did they catch the tail number?”
“That’s the thing. I guess the pilot did a pretty good job of keeping it out of sight.”
Bill stared at the young pilot. Jim stared back. “Don’t do it again,” Bill smiled.
On October 7, 1967, Jim flew in his very own plane for the first time: a 1941 Taylorcraft B-65, an aircraft so underpowered that he could turn it simply by opening the doors on either side of the cabin. He owned a house now; well, the bank did until he paid off the $13,000 loan on the 1,000 square foot fixer upper on the west side of Denver. He had another mouth to feed, too–a baby boy just six months old when his father bought that Taylorcraft.
Three kids, a mortgage, and an airplane, all on an appliance repairman’s salary. At 22 years-old Jim and Bonnie Stafford were flying pretty level, but one unexpected downdraft could bring it all crashing back to earth.
Will a complaining customer push Jim too far? Will the family receive a late night visit from a grudge-holding highway patrolman? Did that poor woman ever get her washing machine fixed? Tune in next week for part five of The Rather Unusual Obituary of Jim Stafford!