formerly "The View From Up Here"

Formerly titled "The View From Up Here" this column began in the Liberty Gazette June 26, 2007.

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January 28, 2014 From Paris, With Love

The Liberty Gazette
January 28, 2014
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Mike: I wasn’t really surprised when my students handed me the bottle-sized box with "Mamont" emblazoned in gold lettering down the side. I was, however, kind of surprised by the caviar.
Working with foreign clients one becomes accustomed to the exercise of tradition and frequent offers of respect in the form of gifts; especially student-to-teacher gifts. It doesn’t really matter all that much what the gift is, but the gesture is an important part of many cultures, and it seems to me the significance and meaning reach beyond our notion of bringing an apple to class.

My non-U.S. clients come from Russia, Korea, Nigeria, Australia and South Africa. Each culture is unique and I notice a social expectation of respect I rarely see here in the United States anymore.

Mamont is Siberian vodka. Inside the snow-white box with bold lettering is a glass bottle fashioned in a tusk-like shape, inspired by the Yikagir Mammoth. We don’t drink vodka but the uniqueness of the bottle makes it fun to look at and, after all, we can appreciate the intent. Mamont, known as "The Spirit of Siberia," is filtered through Siberian rock and distilled six times from white winter wheat at the Itkul distillery, one of Russia’s oldest. I gratefully received it and two tins of caviar while standing in a frosty Paris parking lot, but pondered how these gifts would fare with U.S Customs.

The Paris-Houston direct flight brought me to Bush Intercontinental, where upon disembarking and entering Customs the agent examined my basket of treats and much to my surprise took no issue with the vodka, but scratched his head, looking for some sort of brand recognition on the cans of caviar. The words printed on the label are in the Russian Cyrillic language, which neither the agent nor I could decipher to compare to his "items approved" checklist. Resigned to the fact that he lacked the tools to make a decision based on knowledge, and using common sense instead, he looked up from his computer screen, then back at the cans again, roughly weighing them in his hands, then handed them back saying, "You’re cleared to go."

Now, since my diet doesn’t allow me to eat fish eggs, what to do with the caviar?

Linda: With a Christmas party to go to and needing something fun for the white elephant gift exchange I suggested the caviar paired with a classical music CD would make a pleasant and unusual gift. No, we did not include the vodka. While the novelty inspired chatter, it appeared that not everyone at the party likes classical music or is willing to indulge in caviar labeled with inscriptions they can’t read. No adventuresome Russians here!

Mike: Vodka seems to be a favorite gift from Russian crews. I recently received yet another bottle of a different label. Over the years Linda has made some delicious pie crusts from a recipe that includes vodka, but the collection is outpacing her baking.

I’ve also received "Mosaic" Babooshka dolls from a pilot from Mongolia, a set of four elephants carved from stone from a Nigerian pilot, and a hand-painted plate of the Cathedral of St. Basil the Blessed in Moscow’s Red Square from another Russian crew. I respect the traditions of these people and appreciate the unique treasures and the meaning in the giving.

January 21, 2014 Magic Carpet Ride

The Liberty Gazette
January 14, 2014
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: A couple Sundays ago the Elyminator sprang up into a stiff headwind, eager to help a friend begin the journey into the joys of airplane ownership. Dean with his newly minted private pilot certificate had just ended his search for a plane of his own. Though he is building an RV-9, that airplane is at least a couple years away from taking flight So Dean bought a Grumman Cheetah to maintain his flying skills while he custom-builds his new steed. Finding one at an airport near San Antonio he struck a deal with its owner. Since he had learned to fly in a Cessna and was not familiar with the handling differences of a Grumman we flew out to help him bring his prize home.

Mike: When I think of a small 3,000 foot long grass airstrip I think of something like the crop duster strip at Gum Island next to Highway 146 south of Dayton, or the airstrip called Dunham Field near Crosby that has around 20 hangars along its 2,800 feet of turf. Another example is the West Liberty Airport located west of Dayton north of 1960 near the county line. These two privately owned airports are open to the general aviation public. Private runways like the ag-strip are not. So as we flew westbound into the late afternoon sun we expected to find something similar to Dunham, but we were surprised.

Zuehl Field takes its name from a small ghost town nearby. Its 3,000’ long by 200’ wide grass runway is so close to Randolph Air Force Base that the traffic pattern for Zuehl is restricted to the east side. At first sight I would not have guessed it to be an airport if I hadn’t spied the four-engine Douglas DC-4 sitting next to a hangar at the north end. That was my first clue this place was different. The four engine transport is just one of over 100 airplanes based here. The Zuehl Airport Flying Community Owners Association maintains the 230-acre airport. The runway seems to offer a lot of elbow room compared to most private landing zones that are hemmed in by trees on most sides. The taxiway-street layout lends to the feeling of openness.

Linda: The approach in gusty winds presented some challenges but the landing was uneventful and we found Dean and his wife Marilyn standing out in the brisk wind waiting for our arrival. Dean had already done the walk-around preflight inspection twice before we arrived and a ground run to warm up the engine. Mike completed his own inspection and he and Dean climbed in and started up. I took off in the Elyminator ahead of them. Climbing out I turned east over I-10, Dean and Mike only a mile behind. However since Dean was still learning his new machine Mike took some time to help him settle in and I continued on keeping in radio contact with them. They were not far behind when I landed back at Ellington.

Mike: Soon Dean and Marilyn will say good-bye to long car trips and long airport security lines as they travel the country in their ‘new’ magic carpet.

January 14, 2014 Gypsy Week

The Liberty Gazette
January 14, 2014
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Linda: The week from Christmas to New Year's offered some time to get away. With weather in some parts behaving wretchedly, we pledged to go where the sun was shining - westward ho!

First order of business was to make good on a promise to a young niece and nephew in Pflugerville who were eager to take a flight. The children enjoyed their aerial sight-seeing tour, a first for them, after which we headed west with no particular plans. The afternoon spread across the West Texas plains, the last hour of the flight extending past sunset, with residual light shining upon Guadalupe Peak for 50 miles. We ended our day in Las Cruces, New Mexico, where fellow air racer Seth Baker gave us a warm welcome, a couple of meals, and a pleasant send-off in the morning.

Along the playa just west of Lordsburg, New Mexico some areas were still soggy from recent rains, but the Peloncillo Mountains stood proudly along the Arizona-New Mexico line. There, in Skeleton Canyon, Geronimo surrendered to the United States Cavalry. While it was rainy and cloudy back in Liberty, we were soaking in the sunshine, and my own personal historian and geographer offered thoughtful narratives about the areas below as we took turns flying.

Mike: The Chiricahua Mountains, like others in the Southwestern U.S., are surrounded by arid deserts. I’ve climbed these mountains and find their nickname, "Sky Islands," appropriate because with gains in elevation the temperatures decrease and vegetation turns green. Near the top stand pine trees up to 70 feet tall. Flying over the foothills at 8,500’ those pines at their highest point were still higher than we were.

Pushing into the headwind, further west we discussed Cochise Stronghold in the Dragoon Mountains to our left, then crossing a ridge into the Tucson area we turned toward Phoenix.

After a night in the Valley of the Sun, Flagstaff seemed to be calling. Our friends the Strayers welcomed us with warm hearts and homes and good food. Driving out to their remote property I realized how much I missed mountain air. After joining them for worship services Sunday morning we headed for Boulder City, Nevada, past the southern end of the Grand Canyon for a quick visit with my brother and his family.

Benson, Arizona, a place familiar to us, offered a good stop for the next night. With the airplane tied down we took the courtesy shuttle to the hotel, while unbeknownst to us Seth had flown to Benson too. His text message early next morn admitted the only reason he didn’t hide our plane in a hangar and leave a treasure map on the ground was because he wouldn’t be there to witness our surprise.

Roy Jones runs the Benson Airport and sets a great example. With his wife, he’s raising five kids on the airport, managing the business, giving flight lessons, helping people. And he offers a fuel discount for a clean joke he can tell his kids.

The next morning’s flight took us over Reserve, New Mexico, to Albuquerque for lunch, and into Santa Fe in time for New Year’s Eve.

The first day of the new year we reluctantly headed back to the real world. The 57-knot tailwinds across the Rockies created up and down drafts we felt over 160 miles downwind, but shot us quickly home. We agreed, Gypsy Week should happen again.

January 7, 2014 Boyhood dreams

The Liberty Gazette
January 7, 2014
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Mike: Standing high upon a rocking and swaying platform leaning into the strong winds the boy holds fast to the mast. He shades his eyes to the blazing sun with his other hand looking out on deep blue swelling waters as their tops curl into waves. The black flag is flapping behind him and he thinks he sees another ship or possibly a tree on an island in the distance when his concentration is interrupted by a shout from below. Down through the branches Mother is hollering for him – its time to go and he has to come down now.

Arduously climbing down through interlocking brambles of branches, he voices a protest he knows will not prevail, "Awe Mom, now?" Even then he is imagining sliding down the fasting rope from the Jolly Roger’s crow’s nest, back into reality.

Norman Rockwell’s "Boyhood Dreams" was one of a four-painting series covering the four seasons. In the summer painting a young boy has set his garden hoe aside and sits on a split rail fence as he and his dog watch a train chug down the tracks in the distance. How many boys and girls daydream of places just over the hill? How about acting these out as they scurry up to their fort precariously built among the tallest branches of a large tree? Think of the thrill of building that hide-a-way and the adventures to be had there.

The other day I was having lunch with Dean Doolittle, EAA Chapter 12’s Young Eagles coordinator. He told me of a Boy Scout troop in Houston that has over 200 scouts. I was shocked to hear that Dean approached the group several times to offer Young Eagles flights – a highly successful program now in its 24the year, having introduced nearly two million children to the wonders of flight - yet not one of the boys in that particular troop has participated.

We learned that it isn't the scouts’ lack of interest stopping them, but their parents’ fears.

Do parents listen to their children’s hopes and encourage their dreams throughout early development continuing on into adolescence and young adulthood? Or do they quash them or try and replace those dreams with their own? Are we creating future leaders that are scared of their own shadows by holding them back?

I don’t advocate reckless behavior but I do encourage young people to develop their imaginations and expand their boundaries. I can appreciate and sympathize with parents wanting to protect their young ones, remembering my mother’s similar desires, but she finally let me loose and in doing so, encouraged me to soar.

Being dangerous is part of a boy’s (and some girls’) DNA. What do boys do when they go camping? They hunt up snakes, lizards and all sorts of gruesome and terrifying creatures. They'll do that anyway given half a chance. But if they are never allowed the freedom to roam, raised as risk-averse, they likely will become fear-driven and never stand up when it matters most. Perhaps we should send those scout parents "The Dangerous Book for Boys."

Slipping the bonds of earth and overcoming gravity is just one adventure that awaits. Searching for far-off lands, being a sheriff in an old west town or just sailing on the open seas are all worthy dreams. Happy trails – and let your boys be boys.

December 31, 2013 Plages Sombres - Known but to God

The Liberty Gazette
December 31, 2013
Ely Air Lines
By Mike Ely and Linda Street-Ely

Mike: I stand in quiet survey of the scene, cold water crashing on the shore before me. A faint murmur accents the air, its sound emerging quickly into a crackling roar. In seconds a French Mirage fighter jet dressed in camouflage screams past me, a hundred feet above the churning English Channel. The pilot banks hard north and disappears in the distance. Silence returns.

Turning from the overlook a lush green carpet of grass spotted by immaculately maintained trees unfolds behind me. There, in perfect symmetry, ten thousand white marble crosses declare the war is over. Winter may be the time to visit this place as there are neither crowds nor chaos to compete with contemplation except for an occasional military jet flying by to pay respects to the soldiers buried here.

I learned of the D-Day invasion in school, history books, and movies, but standing here in the American Military Cemetery and Memorial at Normandy, the realization sinks much deeper. Touching the sand of Omaha Beach one can know of yet not quite fathom the terror and dedication those who took part in this colossal undertaking must have felt. I step with humble reverence around the headstones, reading names; many Known But to God. More than 1,500 names of sons who were never recovered or identified are etched in a circular stone wall. If they could, they’d speak of family, of going home.

During my flying career I have been afforded some grand opportunities. For the first two weeks of December my job required a return to Paris, France. I wasn’t interested in spending my free time in Paris so one weekend I rented a car, took on the challenge of Paris traffic circles and got the heck out of Dodge.

June 6th, 2014 will mark 70 years since these brave souls and others spilled their blood so that we might remain free. The price paid during the D-Day campaign was 50,000 Allied lives, with another 150,000 wounded.

As I drive around Normandy it is difficult to imagine war ever touching this landscape of low rolling terrain graced with long rock walls and hedgerows, quaint farms, cottages and stone chapels. Yet, if I looked, I’d see the evidence, a rusting cannon sitting on its side at a field’s edge, ruins of buildings left for the memory. Museums and historical markers populate the villages.

At Pointe Du Hoc is a moonscape of massive craters from bombs dropped to secure the planned offensive, shattering some of the fortifications that once overlooked both Omaha and Utah beaches. Here the cold winter wind seems to cut into me as the rain begins to fall while I enter preserved bunkers, thinking hard on the fate of those once inside them. Look, out on the beaches, where U.S. Army Rangers climbed these 100-foot cliffs taking this ground in the early morning hours of the invasion. Their losses were heavy as they stood off several counter-attacks until relief came the next day.

Near the memorial two flagpoles champion United States flags hung at half-mast. At sunset life in the cemetery pauses, the flags are lowered and all who are breathing salute or place their hand over their heart for the playing of Taps. I behold what is about me and I whisper "Thank you."