hile you and Kern were taking your monumental flight across the country did you (before the TV crews and reporters got to you, that is) really understand what a big deal this trip was? Could you see how your daring adventure might "speak" to America?
Absolutely not. We never anticipated news coverage and as I described at several points in the book, we were astounded at the interest in the flight. Only with the passage of time did I see that we represented a kind of last statement on innocence, a corny bit of achievement, that symbolized the 1960s before the social and political divisions over Vietnam began.
How does your brother, Kern, feel about Flight of Passage? As you were writing it, did you worry about what he'd think when he read the story, or did you just know that he'd trust your descriptions?
My brother wishes I went a little easier on some of our descriptions of our divergent personalities--sports, being shy, going out on dates and the like--but considers the book overall a fitting, apt portrayal of our coast-to-coast flight. I didn't worry about this a lot as I was writing. Successful autobiography depends on a writers willingness to sacrifice his own privacy and maybe even pride to get to the truth. This can create problems for the people you write about, but you have to accept this equation. Readers will know when you're holding back and not expressing everything that is there and then you don't have a book. Whatever it takes to make a book good, you do it.
Was Flight of Passage a story you had to "wait" to tell? For example, did you need to become a father yourself to truly understand your Dad? I don't think I needed to become a father. I needed to become a better writer. I was impatient to write Flight of Passage for many years, but it's better that I waited. Indeed, the maturity required for good memoirs is an interesting subject that some university professor or literary shrink should take up. Russell Baker was well into his fifties before he wrote Growing Up; Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, in many ways his most touching and unusual book, arrived near the end of his life. Ditto Nabokov and Speak, Memory. Jill Ker Conway was about the same age as I am now when she wrote her absolutely perfect The Road from Coorain. I think if Flight of Passage had been finished when I was younger it would have been brattier and less wise.
Did you write Flight of Passage for your family? Did you want a lasting, true account of this formative period in your life?
No. I don't think anyone should write a book because it will be "good for their family," or "therapeutic" for the author. Generally you accomplish what you set out to do. If a book begins as therapy, well, maybe you'll feel better afterward, but it won't be much of a book. Those kinds of books generally end up being "As Told To" commercial volumes with a Mommie Dearest whiff to them. Maybe they fizzle and pop for a while on the best-seller lists but in the end the cause of words and culture hasn't been advanced much.
I tried, instead, to think of the reader first and just write the classic good book, observing all the rules of the coming of age genre. A lot of writers don't like to talk about their mentors and influences. But I feel that writing is basically derivative and to make a good book successful you have to appeal to the universal consciousness of storytelling that all literate people have. I experimented with a few narrative juxtapositions--the flashback to my father when we were flying over the Little River country in Arkansas--but basically I stuck to the agenda, employing the standard tools of the form. Understatement, narrative voice, structure, dialogue and timing. The thing just takes care of itself after that.
Will you teach your daughters to fly?
I took my daughter, Sara, age 11, flying the other day and up over Canaan Mountain, she asked to take over the controls. As soon as we got off the windward turbulence I gave her the plane and she kept the wings level all the way back to Great Barrington. She did a couple of nice sloppy turns, too. She gained 2,000 feet on me in just about 12 minutes of flying and I couldn't have cared less and thoroughly enjoyed myself.
I couldn't care less if my daughter ever learns to fly. She does too many other things well. If she enjoys flying, fine, I'll assign her out to a good instructor or old airport geezer type.
Do you think there should be stricter legislation regarding children acquiring pilots licenses, as many people were proposing after the death of seven-year-old pilot Jessica Dubroff?
The Jessica Dubroff crash was a tragedy that had nothing to do with aviation, or for that matter, common sense. She wasn't a licensed pilot and couldn't have been at the age. The flight was a publicity stunt concocted by a family that was going through other problems at the time. The plane was flown by her "co-pilot" and instructor, who was legally pilot-in-command at the time and in fact handling the controls. It's very hard to explain this to people outside of aviation, but in fact she was not in any meaningful senses the pilot of that plane and any record she would have set would not have been credible. My brother and I were a completely different case. He was legally certified as a pilot and we actually did the flying ourselves. Also, we never set out to gain publicity or establish a record, and in fact didn't realize we had achieved one until we reached the west coast.
How do you like airline flying, when you are not in the cockpit, but merely a passenger?
Oh, I like airline flying, being surrounded in that cocoon of white noise and shut off from the rest of the world, as much as anyone else, I guess. But I don't like the flying part as much, especially in rough air or on approach to landing, and a lot of pilots feel the same way. You know what's happening and want to control the plane yourself.
Looking back, do you ever wonder how your mother really felt about her teenage sons flying across America in a tiny little plane?
I never really understood why my mother let us go, but you have to understand the context of families back in 1966. Mothers and motherhood were very different then. I never had any sense that my mother had a vote in how the boys of the family spent their time. Our house was very much a patriarchy, which was much more common then. Then you have the details of raising 11 kids. My father was a bit of a headcase, my mother knew absolutely nothing about aviation. And we had already done all this crazy stuff as a family--taking a covered wagon trip down through Pennsylvania one year, putting up a Nativity crêche with live animals every Christmas in front of our house. So my father wakes up one morning and tells her, "Hey, dear, the boys are flying the Cub out to California next week. Isn't that great?'
"Sure Tom. That's great!"
It felt natural. I was the sort of thing we would do.
At age 15, you seemed unimpressed with the throngs of press following your flight. Since you eventually became a reporter yourself, do you now see that it was a great story? If you ever had to cover such an event today, would your questions be different from those that members of the press asked you back then?
I was unimpressed with the throngs of reporters who met us on our journey west for two reasons. First, publicity had never been part of our plan, and I couldn't understand at first what the fuss was all about. We were just these two little prop-nerds flying west in our homebuilt Cub. Second, most reporters don't know squat about aviation and they asked the most annoying questions.
When you recall your father's boundless enthusiasm for life and his zest for a challenge, have you ever resented the fact that he let you and Kern, his young sons, take such risks?
I still don't know why my father let us do it. I had the same choice today, I wouldn't let my children go. You're not really denying them anything. They could always do it a few years later, when they're older, wiser, safer.
But even saying that misses the whole point of Flight of Passage. "My father was a dreamer, a magnificent dreamer," I say in the introduction to the book. And we were very much his boys and became dreamers too, which negated all practical considerations.
Maybe this wouldn't be so important if we were derived from some other gene pool. In so many people, the dream gene gets neutered by other, stronger impulses. But in the Irish the dream gene is dominant, recessive, monstrous, and once an idea like that takes hold all you can do is strap yourself in and fly.
Photo Credit: Christopher Little.