Where I grew up, my grandmother -- and then my mother -- owned several acres of field abutting a forest owned by, well, we don't really know. The paper companies owned a lot of land around here so maybe they owned it. Nobody seems to know for sure who owns it now, although there are a few survey stakes and ribbons about. But it was a great place to play when I was a kid. We had a couple of horses and cows.
So I went back into the field today to evaluate some of the damage from the December ice storm. My oldest brother planted small evergreens about 40 years ago as part of a 4-H project. The ice storm did them in (photo above).
The field has changed a lot. It's overgrown in many places. Back at the far end, I looked for the rock and tree where our two horses used to stand in the shade on a hot day. It was the only shade in the field.
It took me awhile, but I found it.
But some things never change. The river that runs along the edge of the property -- where we'd go swimming on hot days -- is as beautiful in the spring as I remember, although the fiddleheads and the ladyslippers haven't fully sprouted yet.
For people who don't know New England milltowns of the 1900s, they have -- or had -- three faces. The bottom rung was the first- or second-generation immigrant who worked the mills, the middle rung was the small business owners and factory bosses, and also the farmers, and the top rung was the mill owner and city entrepreneur.
It's easy, I think, to look at New England's cities and see only one face these days, but that would be wrong. I happen to like the industrial age, so I'm still taken with the architecture and history of the mills. This one used to be a toy manufacturer.
This was a cardboard box plant... If you had a key on a chain, it probably came through Fitchburg. One of my college summer jobs was working at Independent Lock (Ilco), helping them move stuff out of the plant, on its way to its new home in North Carolina. When John Edwards was running for president and bemoaned the loss of jobs in North Carolina to Mexico, I didn't care much. Whatever Mexico did to North Carolina, North Carolina did to Massachusetts first.
But if you turn your focus from the industrial city, you can drive for 3 minutes out of town, and be in the "country" part of the city, and be reminded about New England's common rural beauty, marred though it presently is from last December's massive ice storm.
Dairy farming was big here, much of it by Finnish immigrants, much of it by a few centuries of colonists. But all of it was on land in which you still can't stick a shovel in the ground without hitting a rock, a fact which led to thousands of miles of stone walls.
The fields are woods now, which makes Fitchburg a great place for people with money looking for their homes on a hill in the woods. You can have a backyard with a view of Mt. Wachusett, the second-largest mountain in Massachusetts. From the top, you can see Boston, just 50 miles away.
If I were in a plane now, and we got up another couple of thousand feet, you'd see the ocean thataway...
On my drive around, I also took note of this:
This is known as "the rock" on Rollstone Hill. For generations, it was tradition for the senior class at Fitchburg High School (that long brick building with the white spire at the center top of the picture at the top of the page was my high school; it's closed now) to paint it with FHS and then the class year underneath -- in my case 1972.
It was a source of great pride and it was a pain in the neck to paint it because that rockface is a sheer drop and it's slick from decades of paint. There were holes for stakes at the bottom along which we'd tie a rope. On the lone time I went up to help paint in my senior year, that rope saved one classmate. He started skidding down the face and grabbed the rope shortly before he would've fallen off.
As loyal Red Raiders, we would defend "the rock" at all costs against the heathens from Leominster High School, who -- around the time of the annual Thanksgiving football game between the two schools -- would try to deface it with gallons of blue paint.
Now, however, it is just another giant hunk of graffiti. When did that change? I'll tell you when. 1972. In that year, not only did we have to defend it against Leominster High School, but also against the Fitchburg High School Class of 1973, who often painted over the "72" and made it a "73." The pricks.
So today, I notice there were a couple of kids up on "the rock."
I'll bet they have no idea of the history upon which they stood.
After 1,390.5 miles of driving over two days, I arrived in the ancestral homeland -- Massachusetts -- on Tuesday night.
And how do I know I was back in Fitchburg? I could buy a cup of Dunkin' Donuts coffee.
... and a copy of the Boston Globe. It might be going broke, but it's still a hell of a paper. Today's editorial page was miles better than the Minneapolis Star Tribune. It actually took a stand on important issues.
Every stop in Fitchburg has a good memory. The Dunkin' is on the site of the old MaryAnn Donuts, where the family would stop for a treat after Friday night swim at the Y. It's right across the street from Crocker Field, where we used to watch the Fitchburg High School Red Raiders football team, from the spot just in front of the WEIM location in the pressbox, the better to have our obscenities broadcast to the world.
Every view is like that. This one. My old elementary school -- the brick building -- and the paper mills that made the city hum back in the day when this country not only had a manufacturing base, but a thriving one. I could tell you, I think, what every building in this city used to be. That yellow one use to be Godroy Wholesalers.
It's a city chiseled into the granite hills, and a welcome antidote to two days of driving across the flatland of the nation's midsection.
Fitchburg has its problems. I could barely see as I drove in last night -- being rainy and all -- because the city has turned off most of its street lights to save money.
It got hit -- bad -- by an ice storm this winter. Residents have cleaned up the debris and put it out by the road where they've been told the city will pick it up. But nobody has picked it up and it's almost May.
I haven't had a chance to look at the damage around my mother's house yet. Yes, this is the roof I fell off of last year (from the peak).
Most of my work today was spent indoors, rewiring a nursery light system for my mother's flowers and vegetable seedlings in the basement. I got to see the route from Ashburnham St., to Home Depot several times, however. And she's good to go and should be in good shape to get a head start on growing other crops if Massachusetts ever legalizes marijuana.
I'm driving back to Massachusetts from Minnesota starting tomorrow but my currency for renting at Thunderbird Aviation runs out at the end of the month. So today was my last chance to get in the air.
Unfortunately, the atmosphere was extremely unstable, as befits flyover country in the spring. There was rain showers, lows clouds (1400 above ground level --AGL, I'd guess) and wind. Lots of wind. About 19 miles per hour gusting to 30.
In my younger flying days, I'd probably have canceled, but these days I want to be sure I'm up for challenging weather. This isn't a stupid decision, mind you. I remain a conservative pilot. But I also know that flying cross country -- as I hope to do in my RV-7A someday -- means being ready for short bursts of crappy weather, while I head for the safe harbor at a nearby airport.
So I launched from Flying Cloud in a Piper Warrior. They apparently didn't think anyone would be flying today because they were all in the hangar. On climb-out, I realized why. It was a rollercoaster of turbulent air and wind sheer.
With wind out of the northwest at 330, I headed for Airlake in Farmington, around the Minneapolis-St. Paul Class B airspace, with a thought to heading up to Fleming Field, with its runway oriented 340 for some mild crosswind practice on a relatively short field.
Approaching Airlake, I flew a midfield crosswind to check the windsock -- which I couldn't find -- saw a Sundowner in the runup area and considered turning a left downwind to try a more severe crosswind. But a KingAir announcing he was on the ILS approach (note to IFR pilots: This tells the VFR pilot NOTHING. Would it kill you to say how far you are from the airport?), so I decided to continue heading south, gain some altitude and then head northeast to South St. Paul.
As I headed in that direction, however, I saw a raincloud ahead and knew there was no going around it. I'd have to turn. Before I knew it, however, I was in the cloud with no reference outside. I knew what had to be done -- a 180 degree turn while I flew by instruments (no, I'm not instrument rated, but I'm well trained for these sorts of unintentional flights into instrument meteorological conditions). The attitude indicator indicated a right turn of about 30 degrees and when I emerged from the cloud, I was a little steeper than I would've liked. But I was in control, not panicked, and ready for a long straight-in to runway 30 at Airlake.
The problem with the Warrior is their rudders aren't big enough for serious crosswind, and it took all I had to stay lined up with the runway, with all of its lights blazing. The landing wasn't bad at all for someone who hasn't flown since January, so I returned to try another one around the pattern. This time the more stabilized approach yielded a better result. And the gusty conditions abated about a 1/2 mile short of the runway. My airspeed said about 70 knots, the GPS said my groundspeed was around 50. It took me forever to get to the threshold of the runway.
On the second-climb-out, I noticed a bird heading toward my window about 5 seconds before it quickly veered off to my left. He missed me -- or did I miss him -- by about 15 feet. Now I remember why I don't like flying in Minnesota in the spring -- unstable air and lots of birds.
The third takeoff was my mistake. I should've been making sure I was ready for takeoff while I waited for a State Police helicopter to depart. If I had, I would've noticed I hadn't set two notches of flaps for takeoff. And when I bounced off the runway and assumed my normal attitude, the stall horn went off. Again, I knew what to do: push the nose down and then figure out the problem., which made itself apparent pretty quickly.
The subsequent landing had a decent approach, but I bounced back into the air on landing. In gusty winds, getting the airspeed just right is a tricky proposition. Although it wasn't a good landing -- heck, it wasn't any landing at all -- I was proud of what I did next. I firewalled the throttle and retracted a notch of flaps , the tires touched the ground briefly and I was back in the air for a go-around. The decision-making was sound, the execution was good. We pilots tell ourselves we're not supposed to try to save a bounced landing, but we do and there are plenty of accident reports to prove it.
After an uneventful landing, I tried heading up to South St. Paul again. I had to snake between some rainstorms and heavy clouds, and I was right up against the Class B as I made my way to the Mississippi and then a long final for runway 34. I stayed high because there are neighborhoods all around KSGS, and the landing was relatively uneventful. With the headwind I had, flying the glideslope would be a disaster if the engine quit.
I considered stopping in at my hangar to mess with the RV-7A project a bit, but I didn't want to waste a lot of money taxiing around airports, so I headed back and took off for the trip back to Flying Cloud.
The tower said winds were 350 (NNW) for runway 36, but I think it was farther off the nose than that because I again needed quite a bit of rudder. If I hadn't carried extra speed to account for the gusty conditions, I wouldn't have floated quite so far down the runway, perhaps, but since Thunderbird is located off the departure end anyway.
And it's not like there was much traffic around any of theairports I visited today. It's Monday, and some pilots just don't like a good workout that leaves you tired.