It’s no secret my dad loves flying. He was a pilot of his own plane for many years, flying various locations to work sites on business or on adventures with family and friends. He also proudly served in the Texas Civil Air Patrol, piloting multiple search-and-rescue missions through the years before turning in his wings (and boasts even today he can still fit into his required uniform).
Not long after his official Alzheimer’s diagnosis, he asked me one evening to take him once again to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, specifically the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles International Airport, a companion facility to the original museum on the National Mall. These days, what daddy wants (when he remembers), daddy gets, so we headed north to visit and stay with family outside the beltway, spending an entire day at the museum. While you were not with us to experience this day through his eyes firsthand, some others unexpectedly were…and what a treasured flying-high memory for all.
These two ginormous hangars at the Udvar-Hazy are filled to capacity with thousands of aviation and space artifacts, including a Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, a Concorde, and the Space Shuttle, Discovery (I know you’re impressed; I was paying attention, huh?!). As we entered through security, Pop insisted on navigating the museum chronologically so he could share his knowledge and insight as an aviation history lesson; he was the teacher and I was his sole pupil…for about 5 minutes.
You see, as we stood in front of a Wright Brothers glider and Pop waxed eloquently on the profound contributions this team made in 1903 and beyond, I noticed a mom and her four children scooching closer to listen and absorb. This little group continued to follow his path along all the early flight experiments and exhibits while dad talked about “how failure forces us revisit, reflect, and improve on our hunches.”
As we entered the age of WWI and WWII (and picked up dad with a group of five elementary-age girls), the aircraft were divided among the various service organizations, their important missions, and successes. We stopped at length in front of the Enola Gay, when the world entered into the atomic age in August of 1945. This B-29 Superfortress bomber flew some 1,500 miles from the island of Tinian to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, thus forever changing the course of world history. POP KNOWS ALL ABOUT THIS PLANE and he left no detail to chance! You see, dad grew up across the street from the sister of Colonel Paul W. Tibbets (later Brigadier General), the pilot of this infamous mission. Pop spent many childhood hours visiting, questioning, and listening to Tibbets’ stories, later talking with him at airshows around the country…but back to the museum. It was about this time I noticed an even larger group gathered around us…a museum docent with a senior citizen group of six and then nine middle-school-age guys. Dad continued sharing vast knowledge, answering questions presented to him on aviation, and talking like the flying expert he is. About four hours later, Pop stopped, looked at me, and asked if we could sit down for a snack. The docent gave him a museum hat and said, “you’re hired.” The mom, dad, and children cheered in thanks. The middle school guys each shook his hand and thanked him personally with one commenting, “you’re the BEST part of this trip today, and by the way, you look great to obviously be 90-something!” (Pop’s not even 80 yet 🙂 )
After so much complex medical news, decisions, changes, and more in recent weeks, this day was balm for both our souls, a truly JOYfilled experience where daddy’s older more powerful memories allowed him to share his wealth of expertise with others. The pictures portray his passion and purpose along with his will to positively carry on in spite of deepening memory loss.
Pop miraculously understands how little things in life are to be celebrated, and for just a few hours on this random day, he bravely once again stood out among the stars. As daddy himself often says, “eras have a way of ending all over the place.” Here’s hoping we find more ways to continue sparking his powerful memories and take what we’re given with grace and dignity “as off we go into the wild blue yonder, climbing high, into the sun…”