Day the Mules Went Crazy
by Jim Foreman
Calling Mr. Zzikxz a crazy inventor isn't totally correct. He was certainly an inventor and occasionally one of his inventions would go awry with spectacular results. But, just because most everyone in Stinnett thought he was nuts didn't make it so. In fact, after I got to know him, I considered him to be one of the smartest men I've ever known.
He spoke a thick Eastern European accent in which he said Vot instead of What and Vere instead of Where. He claimed that he was the rightful ruler of some little country which had been taken over by Germany during World War One but his family was never able to get it back after the war ended. Now, with another war going on in the same area, there was probably no chance that he would ever be able to return to his homeland. Evidently he had plenty money because he never worked but always seemed to be able to buy whatever he needed. The postmaster said that he was always getting heavy packages through the mail COD and always paid for them in cash.
He lived down by the railroad tracks in a shack that was so stuffed with books, papers and drawings of his inventions that it was difficult for him to find a place to sit or sleep, that is if he ever did either. No matter what time I went by his place, he was always busy tinkering with something. Over the years he had built a collection of sheds, barns and even hauled in several old oilfield storage tanks to serve as workshops.
He had several old cars parked around his place but I never saw him drive any of them. He was always trying to invent a carburetor which would make them get a hundred miles to the gallon of gas or else one which would allow them to burn kerosene or some other cheap fuel. Every time that he would start one of the engines, it would do a lot of belching and smoking but never ran very well. In between working on the carburetors, he invented all sorts of other things.
He must have invented what was the world's first microwave oven. It was made out of a steel oil drum with lots of pipes and wires running in and out of it. He was always trying to sell that invention to one of the big company that made gas ranges. When engineers from one of the stove companies would come out to see his new oven, he would demonstrate how it worked by putting a pan of biscuits inside, closing the door and turning the thing on. The biscuits would come out fully cooked in about two minutes but it made all the radios in town go crazy with static. All the women around Stinnett were mad at him because he always seemed to start testing something just when the radio soap operas like Pepper Young's Family or Young Widder Brown came on.
I was watching him do some sort of experiment one time when I noticed an airplane propeller standing in the corner. When I asked him about it, he said that he had started building an airplane one time but got busy on something else and never finished it. He said that it was in the back of one of his barns and offered to show it to me.
I was fourteen at the time but had been interested in flying all my life. I suppose that I was around four or five years old when I built my first airplane. It didn't look all that much like an airplane, just one stick nailed across another one, but it was an airplane to me. One Sunday after church, as was the custom in those days, it came our turn to invite the preacher to eat with us. The first thing that I did when he arrived was to bring out my airplane to show to him. He held it in his hand like a cross and said, "It is such a thrill to see a young person with such dedication. Do you plan to devote your life to God and become a minister like me?"
"Heck no," I replied. "That's an airplane. I want to be a pilot."
The preacher shook his head and said, "Oh, that's terrible, perhaps he will grow out of such a foolish notion."
The local library abounded with books about flying and how to fly airplanes, and I had read every one of them at least twice and some of them dozens of times. Most of them were fictional stories about dashing young pilots, always named Ace, Tailspin or Buzz, who flew across the country and were involved in all sorts of thrilling escapades. As much as I enjoyed reading those stories, I was especially interested in the books that claimed to teach one how to fly without ever getting into an airplane. They were written in such glowing terms and so profusely illustrated with pictures and diagrams of each step in learning how to fly that there was no question in my mind but that I could hop into an airplane and fly away.
A man by the name of Gus Irvin, who lived at the west edge of town, had an airplane but he was away in the Army as a flying instructor and kept it locked in a hangar. I had been up to his hangar many times and peeked through the crack between the two big doors, but all I could see was just the nose of it. While I had built dozens of model airplanes, the thought of actually seeing a real airplane up close to where I could touch it was something that I had only dreamed of.
Mr. Zzikxz took me back into a barn and there it sat. Actually all that was there was the fuselage without an engine and a pair of uncovered wings, but it was a real airplane. He said that he had built it from a kit and all that was needed to finish it was to cover the wings and put an engine on it.
It was beautiful, bright red with a white stripe down the side. I looked at the instruments in the little cockpit and asked him, "Why don't you finish it and fly it?"
"Ven I got it built this far, I realized that I don't know how to fly, zo I stopped and vent to vork on somezing else," he replied. "Besides, it uses a Harley Davidson motorcycle engine and I don't have vun to put in it."
As luck would have it, one of my cousins had stored his motorcycle in our barn when he joined the Army and it was just setting there gathering dust and chicken droppings. "I know where there's an engine that we can use," I shouted excitedly. "If I furnish the engine, would you finish it and let me fly it?"
Mr. Zzikxz thought about my suggestion for a few minutes and said, "I vill giff zee airplane to you and I vill show you how to finish it yourself, zen you can fly it."
I was in a total state of shock as I ran home to tell my parents that Mr. Zzikxz had given me a real airplane and all I had to do was cover the wings and put the engine on it and I would have my own airplane to fly.
My dad listened to my enthusiasm for several minutes and then summed the situation up in one sentence, "You don't know how to fly an airplane and you aren't old enough to get a license."
I wasn't about to let some simple little problem like that slow me down so I charged ahead at full speed. I dragged the parts of the airplane to our barn and set about covering the wings. Mr. Zzikxz had all the materials needed to cover and finish them. He carefully showed me how to sew the cloth covers, attach them to the ribs and apply the dozen or so coats of dope necessary to finish them.
When the ship was finally finished and assembled, it was a beautiful thing to behold. The only thing left to do was borrow the engine from my cousin's motorcycle and get it installed. After all, my cousin was away in the Army and he should be happy that someone was keeping his engine in good shape. The final task of converting the engine and getting it fitted to the airplane proved to be a lot more work than I had expected but with Mr. Zzikxz's help, it was finally done.
The door of the barn was far too small to allow us to take the airplane out with the wings on, so they had to be removed and put back on once we had it was outside. If the wings hadn't been easily removable, it would have been like the man who built a boat in his basement and then couldn't get it out.
With the tail tied firmly to a post, I sat in the cockpit to operate the throttle and switches while Mr. Zzikxz swung the propeller to start the engine. It came to life in a sputtering cloud of blue smoke before it finally settled down to a roar. The little airplane strained at the rope securing it to the ground and to me, I was like a young eagle ready to take its first leap into the air. I wasn't really flying, but I was sitting in my own airplane, smelling the burning oil and feeling the blast of wind in my face.
Mr. Irvin, who was home on leave from the Army at the time, heard about my airplane and stopped by to see it. After looking it over for a while, he suggested that he make the first flight just to check it out. I agreed with great enthusiasm because if he flew it, that meant that I was just that much closer to flying it myself. Instead of taking it up to his airstrip, he decided that a relatively level area in our cow pasture would be a suitable place for the test flights.
After several runs across the pasture, each one a bit faster than the one before, he lifted the little ship a few feet off the ground, then dropped back for a landing. After doing this two or three times, he climbed into the air and flew around in large circles. After he landed, he made a few adjustments to the wing struts and wires, then he flew it once again. His only comment was that it was a nice little airplane and flew surprisingly well. After we tied it down in a sheltered area behind the barn so it wouldn't blow away in the Texas winds, he said, "Come up to my place tomorrow morning and I'll give you a lesson in my airplane."
Needless to say, I didn't sleep a wink that night as I lay there waiting for daylight to come so I could get what was to be my first flying lesson. Not only would it be my first lesson, but also my first ride in an airplane. I would turn fifteen in about three months and then it would be another full year before I would be old enough to legally fly solo, but I was on my way to becoming a pilot.
That excitement of that first lesson was almost a mental overload because he was having me do things which were totally new to me. He did the takeoff but allowed me to hold the controls and feel what he was doing as he explained each movement of the stick and rudder pedals. When he turned the controls over to me in the air, I quickly discovered that none of the things that I had read about flying had prepared me for the real thing. As I wallowed through the air, I quickly realized that it is impossible to learn how to fly from a book. He was what was called a seat-of-the-pants pilot who wanted his students to feel and sense what was going on instead of simply moving the controls and waiting for the airplane to respond. Before I realized it, the hour was over and I was drenched with perspiration from the tension and excitement.
Back on the ground, he went over what I had learned and told me to come back the following day for another lesson. My initial excitement had subsided somewhat and I could relate to his instructions much better on the second lesson. At the end of the hour, he talked me through a couple approaches and landings. I suppose that I did things right because he never touched the controls. He went over to a cabinet, took out a real pilot's log book and filled out the first two lines. I could now consider myself to be a real pilot because I had a real log book with two lessons in it.
I was filled with excited anticipation of another lesson the next day but the weather turned bad and we couldn't fly. He had to return to his base but promised that he would fly with me again on his next leave. I asked him if I could taxi my plane around a little just to get used to it.
He thought about it for a bit and then rather reluctantly agreed, "Go ahead, but only in light winds. Also, be very careful that you taxi slow enough to keep the tailwheel on the ground at all times. I don't want you to ground loop it and hurt yourself. The main thing I want you to do is practice how to taxi in a perfectly straight line."
For next several days, I puttered back and forth across the cow pasture until I could make it hold a line as straight as a sting. Unfortunately, as my confidence increased, so did my speed until I was bouncing along with the tail in the air and the engine purring at about half speed. I even got to the point where I would shove the throttle wide open as if I was going to take off, let the little ship accelerate to almost flying speed, then close the throttle just before it lifted off the ground and let it coast to a stop as if I had just landed.
I was having so much fun that on one of those fast runs, I very foolishly decided to lift the airplane off the ground just a few inches, then close the throttle and let it land again the way that I had seen Mr. Irvin do when he was testing it. The little ship must have been far more ready to fly than I was because when I pulled back slightly on the stick, I suddenly found myself about fifty feet in the air. I immediately closed the throttle and tried to land straight ahead but realized that I would run out of landing area long before I could get it on the ground and stopped. There was nothing that I could do at this point except open the throttle, go around and come in for a landing.
I shoved the throttle open, climbed to a few hundred feet of altitude and began a large circle to come around so I could line up for a landing. Here I was in the air with only two hours of flying instruction and two landings. One of my many mistakes I made that day was making my turn toward town instead of away and as I passed over the court house, everyone in town became aware that the Foreman kid was actually flying his airplane.
On my first attempt at landing the little airplane, I approached so high and fast that there was no way that I was going to get it on the ground before I ran out of room. Seeing the barbed wire fence at the south end of the field approaching, I opened the throttle to make another circle. The next attempt was a bit better and I almost got the wheels on the ground before having to go around. On the next try, I actually got the wheels to touch the ground but I was going too fast and immediately bounded back into the air. Things certainly weren't going the way that all the books had claimed that they would.
As I circled around for another attempt to land, I frantically tried to remember all the things that Mr. Irvin had told me when he talked me through those two landings in his airplane. As if to add to my problems, people began arriving in large numbers and lined up along the edge of the grassy flat. I figured that they were there to see me fly but now realize that they were just there to watch me crash. Most of the adults arrived in cars while the kids were either running or riding bicycles. I also noticed a man on a horse racing across our cow pasture, then realized that it was my dad. Now, I was really in trouble.
I made several more attempts to get the airplane back on the ground and even had the wheels rolling on the grass a few times but since the little airplane had no brakes, I was always going too fast to stop before hitting the fence at the end. At the last possible second, I would open the throttle and go around again. Everything that I had ever read or heard about taking off and landing in an airplane was that it had to be done into the wind. There was a very light breeze blowing from the south, no more than three or four miles an hour, and I was trying to land facing into it. The problem was that the ground dropped off in that direction at about the same rate as the glide angle of the airplane and there was no way that I was ever going to make a successful landing. Had I turned around and landed up hill, it would have been a snap, but that was a lesson that I would learn much later in my training.
By the time that I had made at least a dozen attempts to land, everyone in town was there. In looking back, I'm sure that my dad died a thousand deaths as he watched his only child about to smash himself to bits and there was absolutely nothing that he could do about it. It wasn't until years later when I had a son of my own and he did some equally stupid things that I realized the pure hell that my dad must have been going through.
There is an old saying that all good things must come to an end and just as I cleared the fence and telephone wires at the south end of the pasture, the engine coughed a couple times and stopped. I was out of fuel. At least I had the presence of mind to lower the nose so I wouldn't stall and spin in. Directly in front of me was a long open area next to the railroad tracks where they raced horses. All that I had to do was turn slightly to the right to miss a low fence that kept people from parking too close to the race track. The wheels hit the ground, bounced once and suddenly I was rolling straight ahead. The landing seemed so simple. Just before I rolled to a stop, the right wheel dropped into a hole in the ground and with a sickening crunch of bending tubing, the landing gear folded. The little ship skewed around to the right, the tail rose and then dropped back to the ground. Everything became deathly quiet.
I was standing in front of my wounded airplane and contemplating the bent landing gear when my dad came racing up on his horse. His face was as white as a sheet and the horse was dripping with sweat from being run so hard. "Are you OK?" he asked.
"Yes, I'm fine but the landing gear is bent," I replied. "But, I think that I can fix it," I added.
"You won't have to have to worry about fixing anything," said my dad as he thrust a shaking hand into his pocket. He pulled out some kitchen matches, struck one across the sole of his boot and tossed it into the dry grass under my airplane.
He grabbed my arm as I tried to dash to stamp out the fire. Evidently he had made his decision about what he was going to do long before I was safely back on the ground and I had to stand there and watch my airplane turn into to a pile of twisted tubing and ashes.
As we walked away from the smoking remains, he said, "When you are old enough to fly legally, I'll pay for your lessons."
True to his words, about three months before my sixteenth birthday, he took me to the airport at Borger to begin flying lessons. I celebrated my sixteenth birthday by making my first official solo flight with eight lessons in my log book.