The Five Hundred Dollar Burger

A Motor Flight Edith Wharton Would Have Been Jealous Of

by Jonas Dovydenas

This article appeared in the June 1997 Falco Builders Letter.

I'd left Lenox three days before. I walked out of the terminal at John Wayne Airport, headed to a Burger King down the street, and ordered a Coke and a Whopper. I threw the Whopper in the dumpster and sipped the Coke. The LA sun was shining. A warm breeze was blowing. The palm trees were rustling. I was certain it was all Photoshopped, but I didn't care. I was a happy man. I had wrestled for over two months with the flap improvement kit. I did an annual while I was at it. When I was done with that, one thing or another kept me kept me busy and pretending I was a mature, middle-aged, dependable man. Finally, on the morning of Friday, April 11, I'd had it. The weather looked good, the Falco was ready. I kissed the family goodbye and was gone.

I had called some friends in Washington thinking I would spend the night there. A severe cold front was on its way down from beyond North Dakota, and a smaller warm front was sitting a little way up from the Gulf. The briefers thought I would run into the cold front by four or five PM. But the late afternoon was calm, a little hazy and warm. I decided to keep flying until I couldn't any more. I landed in Winchester, Virginia, topped off, left messages for my friends in D.C. and was back in the air in 15 minutes. I crossed the Blue Ridge Mountains over Front Royal, barely visible a few miles on the left. I skimmed over the ridges into West Virginia. I followed the descending terrain, flying low, looking at the landscape and wondering at the mystery of such a simple pleasure.

Edith Wharton, who built a house in Lenox near where I live, bought a Pope Hartford car in 1904 and began touring. She had a driver, and she had servants prepare basket lunches. She would take a friend and launch herself into the countryside. The Pope Hartford was open, hard-riding, and noisy, though perhaps not as noisy as a Falco. But it was a thrill of a higher order than anything available in any conveyance before the motor car. She called her trips "motor flights". Americans, in those days always on the lookout for more freedom, took to driving in a car with an exuberance which lasted until...

When did we notice it was over? For me, it was when I put my Land Rover behind the barn after a quarter million miles and five or six coast-to-coast trips. After living in it for months photographing Nevada. After driving from Salt Lake City to Riverside, California on gravel roads. After a friend and I delivered a repossessed Thunderbird from LA to Boston in 56 hours, when we were young. When I started flying. And finally, I lost all interest in cars when I started flying the Falco.

Edith Wharton would have loved the Falco. She would have recognized it immediately as a touring car with a canopy and wings, a machine for real motor flight, not just a metaphor. The Falco makes the car seem a pitiful contrivance. Slow and clumsy. Subject to traffic jams and the lunatic antics of other drivers. The constant attention required to drive a car becomes a hypnotic bore on a long highway. You can only pretend to fly in a car, when in fact your four furiously spinning wheels are stuck to the earth. And of course, you're screwed if they're not.

Yes, Edith Wharton would have loved the Falco. She would not have been able to take her corpulent companion, Henry James, along but she would have recognized the greater pleasure of flying solo. Thoughts like these drifted through my mind as I descended into Charleston airspace and an effortless landing into a fragrant spring evening, something that never was in a Lenox April.

The front came through during the night. At five, when I looked out my motel window, the ceiling was down to a couple of hundred feet, but it was not yet raining. It didn't look like I was going to go anywhere soon, so I went out to the airport to find a hangar for the Falco. By the time I pushed it under a roof, it was raining hard. I got some towels and began mopping up the puddles inside the cockpit. I never drilled a drainhole behind frame six, so I had to access that space and mop up a cup of water. Normally if I am going to leave the Falco on the ramp in the rain, I tape up the canopy, the gas tank access and the battery hatch.

I rented a car and went to see what there was to see in Charleston. I walked over to the State Capitol. It happened that the state legislature was in its last day of cranking the law-and-sausage-making machine. Several dozen bills had to be passed or amended, some hearings concluded. The rotunda was full of people. I strolled in through a side entrance and immediately fell in love with West Virginia. There were no metal detectors manned by uptight thugs. People were milling around everywhere, going quietly in and out of the spectators' galleries without interference from the State Police, who were actually calm and polite.

On the ground floor a group of protesters with graying pony tails were singing folk songs led by someone who looked a lot like Pete Seeger. It was a rally against a law that, if passed, would allow DuPont to destroy the planet by polluting it with whatever it is that DuPont makes.

A few dozen mean-looking motorcycle guys with hefty motorcycle babes were intently huddling with a lawyer. They wanted the helmet law amended to allow anyone who had held a motorcycle license two years or more to be free to drive around with or without a helmet, as they pleased. I was on their side. People are not sheep; a million laws will not make them so. I would be upset if the FAA required helmets, though for sure some few lives would be saved. Then a doctor came to the hearing and described what happens to a human skull traveling at highway speed when it encounters a hard object. Doctors against bikers-it was no contest.

By noon it looked like the ceiling might be lifting. I went out to the airport and waited. By three I was out of there, flying through brilliant, white showers. The rain stopped, but as the temperature dropped a dark, misty ceiling threatened to come down to the ground. By then I was in Kentucky. If there was to be scud-running it would be over flat ground. I landed in Lexington into a twenty knot headwind. A Super Cub towing a banner was attempting to drop it and land on the grass next to another, shorter runway. He had the crosswind. He had to go around three times to drop his banner. He was not having fun. Or maybe he was if he was logging time for that job with the airlines.

I flew over Paducah and the great confluence of the Ohio and the Mississippi. Those rivers were in flood, and there were vast flats of water miles away from the banks. The temperature dropped into the forties. The northwest wind knocked my groundspeed down to 136 knots.

Henry James, who used to come to Lenox to visit Edith Wharton soon after she built her house there, remarked once that the words "summer afternoon" were the most beautiful in the language. He knew a thing or two about the English language, of course, but mostly he was, I think, seduced (and who wouldn't be?) by the Berkshire landscape, which is picture-perfect in the Hudson River School kind of way. And the Berkshire weather, which when it is good, makes breathing seem like the rarest luxury. That and conversation with Edith Wharton and her friends. So he savored those words not only for their sound, but for the arpeggios of pleasure they must have evoked in his memory.

My own candidates, as I flew into Arkansas, were "Piggott" and "Paragould". That sound makes my ears tingle. What is astonishing is that those are the names of two small towns not more than a few minutes of flight time from one another. That and the fact that my first wife happened to come from Piggott and that Earnest Hemingway's second (or was it his fourth wife?) Mary came from the same place, and that Senator Fulbright was born in Paragould. Those associations, pitiful as they are compared to what must have resonated in Henry James's mind, only help me appreciate the scale by which the beauty of words is measured. So, I submit, for beauty pure and simple, "Paragould" and "Piggott" are champs. Between these two words, one sublime the other as homely as English can ever be, lies the vast landscape of the entire language.

A somewhat plaintive call on the unicom frequency squelched my reverie between Piggott and Paragould. It was a soul in a Lear calling Walnut Ridge to inquire if fuel was available. I had been listening to someone in an Aeronca call out his own pathetic, slow approach perhaps five times in maybe ten minutes from a few miles away with no response. So I knew the Lear would need to land somewhere else. My own plan was to spend the night in Paragould, but when I flew over, it was the most forlorn little strip, long overdue for repaving with not even a beacon. Just a gray slash next to the village with the beautiful name. So I flew on. It seemed unwise to confront reality by landing, a hard landing indeed. A look at the chart showed Jonesboro just minutes away. That's perfect, I thought to myself. Here I am thinking of Edith Wharton, and a town named after Jones appears on the horizon. Jones was Edith Wharton's family name.

It was surprisingly cold in Jonesboro, in the forties. That's winter in those parts. A friendly teenager helped me shove the Falco into a hangar full of King Airs. While I was waiting for my cab, a Citation landed, taxied up to the door. Women in fur wraps and shimmering dresses descended, followed by men in evening clothes. They breezed through the little terminal trailing perfume and happy talk. The owner of the plane had come from a nearby town. He flew in the left seat. His co-pilot stayed to watch the plane while the group continued their journey in a limousine. Such are the wonders of life in rural Arkansas.

My taxi finally showed up. It was a Fairlane badly made sometime early in the seventies. It had a reddish body and a green door on my side that didn't want to shut. The driver was wearing a greasy down jacket, patched with duct tape. He didn't look like he enjoyed shaving, or washing, but he was friendly and cheerful as he told me his life story. When he got the chuffing old beast out on the highway, the front wheels began shaking. Both of them. Violently. "Front end's shot" he said without a trace of concern. "They ought'er give me another car, but the owner says he ain't got the money. I'm bout ready to look for sumtin else to do."

At the motel, the man at the front desk told me about Jonesboro. "This used to be a real slow town until Burger King and Walmart came in. That and a couple of big plants. The population's about double what it used to be." I was interested in how a booming town of fifty some thousand could be dry in a world of rap, Peter Jennings and a short, straight highway to a wet county. But it was, sort of. Two long country blocks away from my motel was a Supper Club. This was good-I needed a walk as much as I wanted a drink. I thought of the half dozen times in my life that I had managed to find a drink in a dry town. It always had required some effort, which made that first drink lot more tasty than it was anywhere else.

But this was now, in Jonesboro. A perky young waitress bounced up to my table and simply said, "And what would you all like to drink this evening?" Not even pretending to be private, or brown bag, or anything. Just a big, busy, restaurant with the only bar in town. I finished my meal wondering how such a beautiful scam could be brought about, when my still-perky young waitress handed me the check, it was for something like eighteen ninety-five. I had ordered a couple of beers, had the salad bar and the prime rib special. A decent honest meal.

I was amazed. Some guy had gone to the trouble and expense of fixing things so that he could openly get around the law, and he was giving it away. It was upsetting. If I had paid triple for my beer (never mind the nine dollars for the slab of good beef), it still would have been less than what a hotel bar in, say, Chicago would have charged. So, it was no big deal and no great expense to sin in Jonesboro. I was disappointed. I'm always disappointed when sinning is no big deal.

I left Jonesboro the next morning topped off and happy that the lineman wouldn't even consider my offer to pay for the overnight in the hangar. The bright green of the new leaves and the intense morning light tempted me to fly low.

It's by far the best way to see the country. The interstates are just boulevards between cities. The two-lane highways have become overgrown by a kudzu of trademarks. Flying low is the way to see the country. Driving is like watching TV. Flying is like looking at a book of landscapes. The Falco cockpit is a chair in the air, a convertible without the hair-ripping breeze. Traffic below four thousand feet is slow. A practiced instrument scan takes a second of casual attention.

The engine, I know, will not fail me. The chance that my transponder will stop working, that my emergency procedures list will not be there when I need it, that the propeller will suddenly shed a blade, that the crank will snap, that a wing will fall off, that I will crash in a ball of fire-that's so unlikely worrying about it tells me I am either a severely disturbed individual or I'm ready to take up writing columns for flying magazines.

I sat back and enjoyed the sight of a church steeple or a small white house in the woods with a bright green roof and an immaculate lawn around it, wondering-whose? There is Kellyville, and up ahead must be Never Sweat, which I never saw.

Then suddenly the red earth announces Oklahoma. And like a scene from a movie, there is the square one-story farmhouse on a square lot in the corner of a large red field. There are cars without hoods, lawn mowers, washing machines, piles of old shingles, an outhouse, a falling-down garage, rusting farm implements, and laundry flapping on several lines tied to the back porch and some trees. A Hollywood set for an Okie movie. It has to be-ordinary people are not capable of such perfection.

I landed in Clinton for fuel. There were four Cessnas without engines and a cannibalized Shrike Commander on the ramp. Three men were doing what looked like a top overhaul on one of the Cessnas. I called my family, ate an itty-bitty, fifty-cent bag of Fritos for lunch and took off heading for Amarillo, where I was routed around some T-37's doing pattern work. They looked like daggers flying overhead. I flew over some feedlots and looked for an increase in power, but I guess I wasn't low enough for the methane to show up on the EGT.