The Flying Lesson


May 20, 1991|By AUGUSTA TUCKER

In 1918, when I was 14, it was a frequent custom for Navalaviators from Pensacola to ''hop'' over to Mobile with their intended brides and ask my father to marry them. If they had a marriage license, and the bride was 18 or over, my father would perform the ceremony.

Leave in Pensacola usually began with the beginning of the afternoon watch and therefore the weddings usually took place at 3:30 or 4 p.m. Then bride and groom could catch the afternoon train to New Orleans for a quick honeymoon on a three-day pass. The groom's best man would fly the plane back to Pensacola.

Only rarely did the bride bring a best friend or maid of honor, and I was frequently called upon to so perform, mainly to hold the bride's bouquet while her hands were oc- cupied with the ring. I usually was dressed in a blue serge middy-blouse and blue serge pleated skirt, with high-laced shoes. I had a bow of red ribbon an a barrette on my head. My plait went down over the middy blouse collar between my shoulders.

Nobody knew that I knew that the three stripes on my middy blouse, which had been filched from the British by the U.S. Navy, stood for the battle of Abukir Bay, the Battle of the Nile and Trafalagar. (I al- so knew that the 13 buttons on the front-buttoned bell-bottomed trousers U.S. sailors then wore stood for the 13 original U.S. states.)

The bride, too, was in uniform. Hers consisted of a hobble-skirt suit, a cloche hat, a ruffled blouse, white gloves, high-heeled pumps, patent leather purse -- and a lighted cigarette (which was extinguished before the ceremony) and a corsage of sweetheart roses.

After one of these weddings, the best man turned to me, after I'd returned the sweetheart roses to the bride, and asked: ''Have you ever flown?''

''No,'' I said, eagerly.

''Would you like to?''

''SURE. When?''

''Now'' he answered. ''I'll take you all up.''

My father wouldn't let my younger sister and brother fly, but he let me. The best man made his manners most politely to my parents, took my arm and said to my father: ''Don't worry, sir. I'll bring her back in about an hour.''

He had a taxi waiting in front of the rectory, with which we dropped the bride and groom off at the railroad station, and then we headed to the air field. On the way the best man stuck his head out the window and hollered: ''It is clouding up. I've got to get a plug of tobacco somewhere.''

''What for?'' I asked.

''I'll show you when I get it. Want me to let you out now?''

I wouldn't back out. I said, ''I don't care if you chew tobacco.''

''Driver you heard her,'' he laughed as the driver pulled up aside a tobacco store. ''Make it Bull Durham,'' the aviator ordered the driver. ''It's the best.''

''Best for what?'' I said.

''Wait and see. How old are you?''

''Fourteen,'' I answered, ''How old are you?''

''Twenty-eight. Twice your age. I'm an old man.''

''You are too young to chew tobacco.''

The aviator roared with laughter and said, ''If you don't watch out you are going to like me. I didn't get the tobacco to chew.''

''Well, then, what for?''

''Wait and see. Just wait and see.''

Shortly, the driver came back peeling the cover off the plug, and they began smearing the tobacco on the glass windshield of the airplane, to keep it clear.

I have told that story many, many times in 73 years, and nobody really believed it. But this spring I got authentication from Phil Richebourg, an old Navy flier who had been at Pensacola in 1921. The trick is, you smear the plug on the inside of the windshield. Then, ask me not why, it stays clear in any weather.

Augusta Tucker is a Baltimore novelist.

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