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April 15, 2024

Victory Highway (Part XII)

By John Trindle

Laura and her mother were partial to cobalt blue glass, he remembered, but he himself had a soft spot in his heart for red. When he was a child, he spent many a summer with his grandparents near Chicago. She was a lifelong first grade teacher in their small town, and he was an industrial electrician, who had to drop out of high school to support his family when his father left them to seek his fortune out west.

They lived in a two story 1930s frame house on Grace Street in Elgin, with a kitchen on each floor. The top floor was furnished, since his great-grandmother had once lived there, but was now mostly disused and stacked high with extremely miscellaneous items. There was a working bathroom and two usable bedrooms on that floor, though.

On the landing of the front stairway, in the wall, was a large oval red glass window. Mark used to stand up on his toes peering out at the neighborhood through the tinted glass. It looked so warm and friendly that way.

Another important piece of glass was the crystal bauble hanging in the kitchen window. This would catch the afternoon sun, splitting the light into a rainbow which would gradually creep across the kitchen. He commented once to his grandmother about it, and she encouraged him to look up rainbows and prisms in the encyclopedia. He went into the living room to do so, and was immediately caught up in the details. He spent the next few hours quietly leafing through the encyclopedia.

A while later, when his grandmother came into the living room to check on him, she was surprised to find him gone. She called his name, walking through the house, poking her head into the basement stairwell, calling up the front stairs to his room. No answer. She looked out the glass of the front door, but he wasn't on the porch. Then she went out into the back yard, where she noticed a fine drizzle, the blades of grass covered with drops of water. And yet, the sky was blue, not a cloud to be seen. She turned around, toward the house, and looked up.

There was Mark, on the roof of the downstairs pantry, with a garden hose. His face was damp with spray and shining with excitement.

"What are you doing?" she cried up at him.

"Making rainbows!" he replied gleefully. "See?" and he sprayed a fine mist into the air, lightly soaking his grandmother. She couldn't see the rainbow he saw. He had momentarily forgotten that she was at the wrong angle completely.

"Freeze! Don't move a muscle!" She turned off the outside tap, and heard a whine of disappointment from above. "Don't you move!"

She went in the house, and up the stairs to the second floor kitchen. There she saw an open window, and through the open window, her grandson, standing completely and utterly still. He had a ball of string behind him, which he had tied to the nozzle of the hose and thrown up on the roof. Evidently he had then climbed out the kitchen window, hauled up the hose, and proceeded to make rainbows. She grabbed his shoulder and hauled him back through the window, uncertain whether to beat him or congratulate him on his ingenuity. She settled for screaming at him, and locking him in his room.

When his grandfather got home from his factory job, she told him about Mark and the Rainbows. He took Mark aside, and with a wry glint in his eye, sternly admonished him for scaring his grandmother half to death. He then swatted Mark on the seat of the pants three times, and sent him back up to his room.

Mark had learned his lesson about roofs, all right, and wouldn't be up on one for many years. However, Mark's grandfather proudly retold the Story of the Mark-made Rainbows until the day he died. Mark continued west on US40, passing the Fox Creek S-bridge near the intersection of Rt 83. The remnant, paralleled by a newer bridge, still showed the bricks layed down in 1919. He passed by the National Road - Zane Grey Museum in Norwich, OH, preferring to see US 40 through his own eyes and not the eyes of others. However, if he had stopped, he might have read this excerpt from P. D. Jordan's book The National Road (1948): "National Road, U.S. highway built in the early 19th century At the time of its construction, the National Road was the most ambitious road-building project ever undertaken in the United States. It finally extended from Cumberland, Md., to St. Louis and was the great highway of Western migration. Agitation for a road to the West began circa1800. Congress approved the route and appointed a committee to plan details in 1806. Contracts were given in 1811, but the War of 1812 intervened, and construction did not begin until 1815. The first section (called the Cumberland Road) was built of crushed stone. Opened in 1818, it ran from Cumberland to Wheeling, W.Va., following in part the Native American trail known as Nemacolin's Path. Largely through the efforts of Henry Clay it was continued (1825-33) westward through Ohio, using part of the road built by Ebenezer Zane. By this time the older part of the road was badly in need of repair. Control of the road was therefore turned over to the states through which it passed, where tolls for maintenance were collected. It was carried on to Vandalia, Ill., and finally to St. Louis. The old route became part of U.S. Highway 40. At points on the road copies of a statue called the Madonna of the Trail have been erected to honor the pioneer women who went West over the National Road."

As it was, he was unaware even of the irony of the bricks on the Fox Creek S-Bridge. The bricks were laid down to provide a footing for the heavy military vehicles of the nineteen-teens and twenties. It was an ironic foreshadowing of the Eisenhower Interstate System, the network of roads established by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956 to promote the rapid transport of military equipment across country. The same Interstate system which would lead to the disuse, decay, and eventual death of US 40.

In Zanesville, he crossed the confluence of the Muskingum and Licking Rivers in the center of town on a large bridge. Oddly, this bridge had an intersection in the center, and US40 bore to the right. After he made the turn, Mark glanced in his rear view mirror and noticed the bridge was in the shape of a capital letter Y. "Why Indeed?" he asked sardonically, and continued toward Columbus.

Columbus was a generic city, nothing there of any interest, at least to Mark. He didn't know about the Ohio History of Flight Museum, or the Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum, or the fact that Columbus was the home of his favorite humorous short story writer, James Thurber. Thurber had the deft touch, or perhaps the daft one. His drawings, simple and unadorned, made Charles Schultz's "Peanuts" comic strip look overdone. Columbus was, in fact, a most unusual city in that it was a perfect example of how Americans viewed themselves, rather than how they were.

Next major landmark, Springfield, reminded him of his cross-country trip to the Experimental Aircraft Association fly-in in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, with his best friend Cliff. Two rather pudgy guys (one rather pudgier than the other) jammed into a Cessna 152 in July.

They left their home airport early one morning, and climbed rapidly to cruising altitude. It was only slightly less comfortable than an AirTran flight, and a lot slower. They didn't notice, however, chattering with excitement about their Big Adventure. Mark knew this part of the journey well, as they flew over the state capital of Richmond, and his boyhood home of Charlottesville.

The first leg of the trip remained uneventful, but they noticed that they were making very little headway as they creeped over the Allegheny mountains. Finally they landed at the tiny, tiny airport of Buckley, WV. Unfortunately, there was no fuel, no phone, no taxi service from this picturesque airstrip, just a hand pump or drinking water and a picnic bench. Overloaded still, despite their low tanks, they took off again toward the north. It was very exciting when they had to turn to avoid the hill at the end of the runway, and spiral slowly upward, circling the field, until they could safely clear the surrounding mountains.

They squeaked along until Huntington, an industrial town on a river on the western border of West Virginia. The crosswind was also from the west, and gusty, but the runway ran roughly north and south. It was a rough landing, but they were grateful to be at a field with people, and fuel, and most especially bathrooms. The takeoff was even worse, with the light plane bouncing a few times on its left wheel, and reaching nearly the end of the runway before Mark was confident they had enough speed to avoid stalling due to a sudden gust from behind.

Their next stop was Springfield, OH, near Dayton, and so near Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. This was the original stomping ground of the Wright Brothers, essential founders of American Aviation.

They made it somewhere in Indiana next, and their last stop was Frankfort, Illinois, where Mark's original flight instructor Gene had become the owner of the FBO. They ate dinner at German restaurant with Gene and his wife, and slept on their floor, before renting a car and driving the rest of the way to Oshkosh, WI. Mark was nervous about flying anywhere near the biggest air show in the world.

They had fun at the airshow, and stayed in a Super 8 Motel in Fon Du Lac, lucky to get a room. Each day they would drive 40 miles back to the show, braving the long lines of cars and people to watch daredevil pilots and admire up close antique civilian and military aircraft. Mark loved the old biplanes, the Jennies and Stearmans and so forth that barnstorming pilots had brought to the rural communities of the 1920s and 30s, familiarizing the public with the idea that they too could fly.

Cliff was enamored of the World War Two era planes, and those civilian ones which were popular in the 50s and 60s. He had, in fact, taken flight lessons way back in the 60s, but had never been able to afford enough flight hours to get his license. It was the first (and last) airshow that Mark attended without having to work a booth, since after that even Cliff joined Mark's simulator company and was always working.

On the way back to Frankfort, Cliff and Mark stopped at Elgin, Illinois, to visit Mark's grandfather in the old house with the oval rose window. The house seemed small, but still too large for his grandfather, who had shrunk even more so since his wife had died ten years earlier. This was the last time that Mark saw his grandfather in the old place, as it was sold that fall.

Then Cliff and Mark went to the Illinois Railway Museum in Union which Mark had known as a child. He expected it to be disappointing, in the way that childhood places revisited generally are, small and shabby and slightly embarrassing. But no, it was better than ever. They had been adding on and improving,

Article © John Trindle. All rights reserved.
Published on 2003-08-11
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