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I often miss the delightful ignorance of childhood, when the most important things in life were the simple pleasures of life itself. We keep those memories somewhere in the archives of our brains, to be brought out occasionally by specific triggers such as smell and sound. Our childhood friends were the best we ever had. Most of us have people we take for granted, they’re called “parents”. It’s almost expected of that ignorance to limit our ability to appreciate. But as we grow up, we realize that many of the things they said, okay everything they said, was correct, and we acknowledge them whilst wiping the egg off our faces. But occasionally, there’s an object in one’s memory that affects one just as deeply. A thing you never knew meant so much to you until it was gone, leaving you to wonder where it was, believing in all likelihood you’d never see it again.
I grew up in Wall Township, New Jersey. Encompassing a large area, it still remained a small town. It didn’t even have its own zip code… in whatever section you resided, the “real” neighboring town was your zip. I lived in the Belmar section, on Woolley Road. I knew all my neighbors, and we played together every day after school. Up the street from us, on an adjacent road, was the local park; Airplane Park. Situated on a triangular plot, surrounded by three roads, it was the best little park in the area. There was a swing set, big, painted sewer pipes, metal rocker animals, one of those spinning plates with the bars on it for holding on. Hell, there was even a cement slab in the middle that was always “home base” for games of tag. It didn’t take much to impress kids back then. We could play with anything, or nothing at all and have fun.
At the far corner of the park, nestled in the vertex of the isosceles, stood the most famous of all the playground “toys”, as well as the park’s namesake, an airplane. We knew it was a real plane, flown at some point. I vaguely remember my father, who used to work for the company that built that model, talking about it. What does a 7 year old retain, though? “Fighter plane, blah blah, Navy, blah blah, aircraft carrier, blah blah…” It meant absolutely nothing to me. All I knew was that climbing on, and in it, was fun. We would scale the then giant gap between the ground and the wings, crawl through the tail, through the fuselage, and come up out through the cockpit. If you were small enough, you could even crawl through the holes in the wings. Hornets used to nest in parts of the plane, too. And dodging them without being stung was a game we played. Of course, pretending the hornets were enemy fighter jets. Good times… good times.
But, alas, the thrills of childhood are quickly replaced with the stress and angst of being a teenager. I grew up, and like many others, those memories faded… until 1987, when I noticed the plane missing from the park. I freaked. Well… in my mind, I did. “Where’s my plane?” I thought. But again, being a teen, and a sullen, geeky one at that, I had other things to worry about. I honestly don’t remember if I asked my parents what happened to it. But as I’m sure I wanted to keep up appearances of hating them like you do when you’re a teenage girl, I assume I let it go.
More years went by. Having moved, but not too far away, I would pass the park from time to time, and smile. New toys had been brought in, plastic… scoff. The plane was metal, with many sharp edges. We were torn up from time to time, but we were kids, and our parents would yell at us for being reckless, but none ever thought to do anything about it. The building on the lot went from a post office to a nursery school. The town grew larger. New buildings went up, old ones came down. Progress. It wasn’t until years later, and my reluctant joining of Facebook, that I found out what happened to my little plane.
A friend of mine from school, followed the Facebook page for the Intrepid Air and Space Museum Museum, and I happened to see a post about the refurbishing taking place. Could it be?? I asked my friend, and he confirmed that this was, indeed, “our” plane. Struck by a wave of emotion, I immediately began following the news of the plane’s progress. Right up until the unveiling, on May 21, 2011. While I couldn’t make it up there for the unveiling, I did plan a trip, alone, to visit my old friend.
As it turns out, that plane was an F9F-8 Cougar, built by Grumman Aerospace in 1955. It was retired from active duty in 1965, and was loaned to the park in 1969, where it remained until it was taken back by the Navy. The plane had suffered from 20 years of exposure to weather, vandalism and disrepair, and as it became increasingly more dangerous to play on, the Navy decided, wisely, to remove it from the park. It was eventually chosen to be restored, and displayed on the Intrepid Museum, located in Manhattan.
I went to visit him that fall, and he is magnificent. A lot smaller than I remember, his colors were changed to blue and gold, which were the colors of the Intrepid planes. He was silver with yellow when at the park. I stood there for about an hour and just looked at him. Yes, it’s a “him” in my mind. Recalling all the good times I’d had on him, while also being painfully aware of the irony. This treasure that I blindly took for granted, seeing it as a favorite toy, not an integral machine in an armed force’s arsenal. It was difficult to choke back the tears, so I just let them roll. The guards were aware of my presence, walking by and smiling at me occasionally. When I began crying, one of them came up to me.
“You look sad, does this plane have special meaning to you?”
“Yes… I grew up on this plane. It’s just really good to see my old friend again.”
I know I mentioned in another blog my love for airplanes. And this Cougar was the cement, I believe, that affixed them to my heart. And I can happily say I am one of the very lucky few to see that object brought back from its presumed grave and restored to its original glory. It is forever validated as a very important part of my history, my memory, and my life. And though it certainly felt like it to me at first, there is no statute of limitations on appreciation.
I consider it a privilege to have spent my youth in a time when we were safe walking up the street alone. We were free to play on a vehicle that had tons of sharp edges, scrap metal and wires, as well as hornets’ nests all over it. And guess what? We survived. Crazy as I am, I like to think of what the plane was thinking while we were climbing all over it. If it could have spoken, it probably would have told its incredible story. And as kids, we wouldn’t have cared. But as adults, we come to see things with a perspective that is the sole product of the way we have lived. And that’s the big secret; to learn from your life, regardless of the life you’re living. Don’t take anything for granted, even though it may seem innocuous at the time. For all you know, you may literally be sitting on top of history.
And if you’re ever in New York City, stop by the Intrepid Museum, and say hello to my childhood friend. Tell him Tracy sent you.
For information about the Intrepid Museum hours of operation, visit their site.
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