The EAA’s Annual Convention & Fly-In (or “Air Venture” as it’s known these days) is the largest gathering of aircraft in the world. When Bach’s “Invitational Cross-Country Adventure” flew in to Oshkosh, Wisconsin in August of ’71, the convention had only recently re-located from its previous home at Rockford, Illinois. The reason was easy to understand – they’d simply run out of room.
With its constant display flying, hundreds of booths selling everything even vaguely connected with Aviation, and the daily Air Shows featuring most of the great Pilots in the world, it was (and continues to be) a most impressive event… But the six of us had just undertaken this extraordinary journey across half of small-town-America, so we felt out of place – back in the heart of this seething, city-like throng of hurried people.
We dutifully took in the sights and were awe-struck by some of the truly rare antique aircraft … but Michelle, Chris, Joe and I were obviously eager to get back “in the air” again. And when Bach emerged from his tent the next morning (we’d all fallen asleep before he finally returned), he seemed to pick up on this right away … and after a few pointed questions, appeared to be thinking through some kind of scheme – though none of us had any idea what that might be.
That second day at Oshkosh was a bit more magic for me as Richard stayed closer to his “gaggle of fledglings,” which meant Bach’s friends had to come to our little camp if they wanted to see him.
I’ve already explained that it was Bach’s writings that got me started in flight … and as his stories were more about “people who flew” than the aircraft themselves, we were soon surrounded by “characters” from his books and articles who – much to my amazement – turned out to be real people (albeit “Bach People”).
So by the time the daily Air Show started, we found ourselves standing in a line of some of the most famous Pilots & Aviation Writers on the planet! (The rest were flying in the show.) And I found it impossibly surreal that I was alongside them.
There was Bob Said, Editor of Plane & Pilot magazine – and Peter Garrison, columnist for Flying. Standing next to him was a very familiar character. As a matter of fact he was so familiar, I summoned up my courage, crossed to his side and said, “Excuse me … are you Budd Davisson?” When he nodded I told him how much I enjoyed his articles, at which point Davisson dropped to his knees and said, “A Fan. Oh, thank you dear God – a FAN!”
After I recovered from his somewhat unorthodox reaction, we talked flying for a few minutes before Budd said, “And if you want to meet the guy who got me started … that’s him, right over there.” Budd pointed and said, “…That’s Richard Bach.” I’ve always felt terrible that I ruined his “moment” by saying, “Oh yes. I know. We just flew in with him.”
As I bit my lip over the insensitive response, I was saved by the arrival of a quiet, bespectacled man in his twenties who really looked familiar. As Richard welcomed him with a huge grin and a booming, “Stu!,” I realized this was Stu MacPherson, the legendary young sky diver from Bach’s book, “Nothing By Chance” – the book that had changed my life. Now I truly felt like an outsider. It was one thing to be among the famous, another altogether to be in the presence of Legends!
When the Air Show ended, the “Bachian group” made their way back to our little encampment and the air was soon buzzing with stories, many of which I already knew, thanks to Richard’s books. But now, I was hearing those same tales from the people who’d actually taken part in these great adventures. The entire experience had a strange sense of déjà vu to it – and it was about to get even more surreal. Because all of a sudden, the conversation stopped and I realized all eyes were on a petite women heading in our direction … holding onto, what looked like, a very tall walking stick!
All eyes flashed from the woman to Richard and at this moment somebody leaned in and whispered, “… That’s Bette.”
“Bette?” I thought. “I’m sure I know that name … Oh, Bette! ‘The girl from a long time ago’.” That was the title of the article Richard had written about his wif-
Yikes! I suddenly realized why there was so much tension in the air.
The man on my left leant in again and said, “This is the first time they’ve seen each other since the divorce.”
Michelle and I exchanged a nervous glance and braced ourselves, expecting an awkward moment … but we couldn’t have been more wrong. The former husband and wife greeted each other like long-lost friends as Bette took her rightful place among all of their mutual acquaintances.
We learned that Bette had a great little Aeronca Champ and had flown it to her new home in upper Michigan after she & Richard had parted ways. Bette had arrived near sunset, so there was only time to quickly find a set of tie-downs and fasten the ropes snugly before the light faded away.
The next day there was a knock at her door and someone told Bette that a big wind had blown in overnight, snatched up her little Champ and tossed it end over end before leaving it in a crumpled heap. Bette was heart-broken, and couldn’t understand how such a thing could have happened. She was fastidious in tying down her aircraft and always used “The Barnstormer’s Knot” which would withstand all but a direct hit from an f5 tornado (as we were to discover for ourselves some years later).
As it turned out, there was nothing wrong with Bette’s knots … but the rope attached to the tie-down she’d chosen had rotted out as it passed through the steel loop underground. And that’s where the failure had taken place.
However, we quickly learned that Bette Bach wasn’t/isn’t the type to surrender. So she’d dismantled the wreckage of her broken Champ, then set about totally rebuilding her injured bird. The “walking stick” we’d seen her carrying was actually the result of a spar-splicing seminar in which she’d just learned how to repair her broken wing. It was passed around that assemblage of famous Aviators, and examined with careful scrutiny before being passed on to the next for their added approval.
You could tell Bette was pleased by their reaction and by the time the day was done, Bette ended up camped alongside us on that last night of the 1971 Oshkosh Convention.
Michelle and I had no idea we’d become good friends with Bette (and the six Bach kids), that she and “her gang” would be waiting for us in Vancouver at the end of a Trans-Continental Air Dash we hadn’t even thought up yet … that we’d visit her house and she’d visit ours … that we’d still be friends and she’d be writing for Why Fly some forty years after we first met.
But those are stories for another day…
As soon as the final Air Show was over, airplanes started leaving in droves. And by the time night fell, we had most of Oshkosh Airport to ourselves. Just before we turned in, I saw Bach conspiring with Stu MacPherson, and couldn’t help notice both were looking our way … but it had been a long, eventful day and – once again – sleep came quickly.
It was footsteps that woke me the following morning, and as I curiously looked through the gap in our tiny tent door, I saw Bette Bach walking off – alone – across the field and I clearly remember thinking it was one of the saddest sights I’d ever seen. We’ve been lucky to stay friends with Richard and Bette and her kids (most of whom now have kids of their own), and both Bachs moved on to new marriages and new loves in their life … but, nevertheless, it was sad to think that relationships don’t always last – and I clung a little tighter to Michelle for the rest of that day. The idea of losing her was simply unthinkable.
As everyone packed up their tents, or rolled up their sleeping bags, it began to dawn on us that this just might be the end of “The Invitational Cross-Country Adventure.” Richard, Lou, and “the Hippies” had to fly back east, but Michelle and I were continuing west to meet up with flying friends in Iowa. However, it seemed wrong to let this extraordinary adventure end so anti-climatically … and (as I should have known), Richard had already figured out that part. So after asking all of us if we’d like to stay together for one more day – and getting an enthusiastic YES from everyone – Bach announced that he was going to lead us south to a little town less than an hour from Oshkosh … and that Stu MacPherson was going to fly there with us.
Stu also had a Luscombe back then, so we were thrilled to hear we’d now have a four plane formation … but what really put the icing on the cake was when I asked Richard where we were going.
Bach grinned and simply said, “… Rio” (pronounced RYE-oh).
My jaw must have dropped as far as it could go … because the little airport at Rio, Wisconsin is where the book “Nothing By Chance” began.
And not only was Bach going to take us to Rio, he also said we might do a little Barnstorming while we were there.
Barnstorming … in Rio … with Richard Bach … Stu MacPherson … my beloved Michelle … and the rest of our “cross-country adventurers”!
In my whole life, I had never experienced such glorious anticipation.
We started our aircraft, departed Oshkosh, and headed south – and a little west – to (in my mind at least) The Barnstorming Capital of the World!
Watch for Episode #27 of Those Thrilling Days of Yesteryear,
“Bach’s Invitational Cross-Country Adventure – Finale.”
Coming … um … soon.
(Most of it’s already written.)
Abridged excerpt from Glenn Norman’s book
“Living On Stolen Time”
Due for release … um … whenever I get it done. <vbg>