Grounded

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Russ Rullman, with Christopher Rullman, in the family’s Twin Beech.

This piece originally appeared in the Nugget News, November 8, 2016

I have a photograph somewhere, taken from the rear seat of a British Norman Islander, of my father and uncle. My uncle, the captain on this flight between Pago Pago and the Samoan island of Ofu, is hoisting a beer and flashing a decidedly rakish smile. It simply simmers with mischief. My father is looking back at the camera in mock terror.

You can’t see it in the picture, but on the beach below us a gigantic tanker ship sits wrecked and rusting on the beach, half in the water, half beached, a canker sore on a strip of pure white sand and the blinding emerald of the island. Moments later we are to land on a grass strip – marked on both sides by crashed airplanes – and will be greeted by the island’s chief and most of the island’s children.

Chief Nui charged two dollars to land on the island, and after enough of those landings he was able to buy, and have delivered, the only vehicle that existed there. It was a small Toyota pickup, just large enough for the kids, and any passengers, to ride in the back on the way into the village.

So my uncle paid the chief, we loaded up, and bombed down the road into Asaga where, in a bizarre twist, a man from my dusty hometown in the Great Basin – 5,000 miles away as the crow flies – was living in a kind of self-imposed exile. I don’t know what drove him there, and I was too young to ask the right questions. Perhaps he read too much Margaret Mead. What is certain is that he had cashed it all in to find this island, and to live there raising pigs and catching fish for his new Samoan family. He seemed happy. I think he was also mildly alarmed that the world had shrunk so quickly on him.

I was a reminder of things he’d rather forget.

Most of the men in my family have been, or were, pilots. One grandfather was a naval aviator in World War II, flying TBF Avengers off of carriers in the Pacific campaign. My other grandfather was not a pilot until much later in life, but spent his war as a gunner and radioman, on a version of the same torpedo bomber, as a Marine.

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The President, and Mrs. Rullman

My uncle Rick was of the bush-pilot strain. A decided swashbuckler, he preferred island-hopping, humid bars full of spilled rum and chain-smoking ex-pats, and occasional gunplay; and so bounced from one rainforest to the next, flying seaplanes – the Grumman Mallard or Goose – around the Caribbean, or those boxy Norman Islanders in the South Pacific. Once, he escorted a giant moose head from Nova Scotia to St. Croix, where it was installed over the bar in the Comanche Club.

I hope it’s still there as a kind of monument to the ludicrous, but I doubt it.

My father was a pilot from an older school, the school of Icarus and Daedalus, of St. Exupery, Ernest Gann, and Jackie Cochran, those determined lords of the air. Had flight not existed, he would have found a way to get into the sky. Licensed at 16, an instructor before he was 20, he was the youngest person ever hired by American Airlines, and spent 37 years with the company. He retired with a seniority number of 1. No small feat.

When he wasn’t flying, he was thinking about flying, and cultivated an active bias against all things pedestrian. The aeroplane and flight, to his mind, was the summit of human achievement, and he had a difficult time relating to anyone who couldn’t appreciate the genius with the same passion.

Like me, perhaps. I am decidedly earthbound. Though I can appreciate the genius, I never caught the bug, and reasoned that if I did not have the passion for it, I could only be a dangerous pilot, like the doctors and dentists my dad regarded with thinly disguised disdain. Later, the Marine Corps would do a lot to suppress my interest in flying at all. Riding in a helicopter that is on fire, or watching one crash into the sea and kill your friends, can engender a great appreciation for remaining on the ground.

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Russ Rullman, Naval Aviator

This morning, early, a plane powered up down at the airport. I don’t know what kind of plane it was, but the sound of that great engine working to achieve flight reminded me of the tremendous roar of the seaplanes in Charlotte Amalie harbor, and so of my uncle, and my dad, and my grandfathers.

They are all gone now, having vanished into history as quickly as St. Exupery on his ninth mission. He once wrote to remind us all that “Somewhere along the way we have gone astray. The human anthill is richer than ever before. We have more wealth and more leisure, and yet we lack something essential … somewhere we have lost our mysterious prerogatives.”

And I suppose that is why I cherish that photograph I took so long ago, of brothers frozen against time in their quest for those mysterious prerogatives, Gentlemen of Adventure chasing it down in the perfect skies over Ofu.

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14 thoughts on “Grounded

  1. Interesting, I grew up in airplanes, my dad’s first plane was a1949 Bonanza A35, I was 1 yr old. He was building a Saw Mill on timberland part of a family lumber business. The timberland was a 100 mi NE of Sacramento, this was all the justification he needed to purchase a plane to commute back and forth. At his wake in 2010, his brother noted,” he would rather fly across the street than walk” He had over 15,000 hours when he passed. He had me at the controls at a young age 8-10, he taught me how to keep wings level with the horizon, keep a light touch on the wheel, and to keep my vision looking for other planes scanning back and forth across the sky. I’ve got lots of stories like yours and am getting inspired to start writing about them. I was the oldest of 4 boys, we didn’t have a religious upbringing, our religion was going with dad to the airport, where we often were polishing the plane,(made it go a couple of MPH faster)….sitting on the flight line watching planes come and go, sometimes flying to the Nut Tree half way between Sacramento and SF, or other destinations for fun and a reason to go flying. .i could go on and on, thanks for your article…I guess i should get writing,….thanks again for stimulating some great memories…
    Take Care
    Todd Setzer

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  2. Definitely get writing. I imagine you have some terrific stories to tell, and we must tell them. I have great memories of flying with my dad, and like you, spent a lot of time at the controls. And my dad too, was religious about polishing his plane. He would often tell me, after flying in for a visit, that he could not stand the thought of bugs on his plane. Occasionally, and this happened more than once, he would demand a drive-by just so he could look at his plane out on the tarmac. Great stuff. The last day I saw my dad, he picked my wife and I up in Solvang and flew us out to Catalina for the day. It was a fabulous day. And I remember the Nut Tree, wow has that country changed a lot over the years. Happy New Year!

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    • Oh Cindy you are too kind. We are a collection of bedraggled outlaws from the Missouri badlands. You know this. But I will admit that I would pay a lot tonhave hung out with the Jensens and Rullmans in the old Hollywood days 😜 Happy New Year my friend.

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  3. Another well-written memoir… Thanks for sharing.  

    From: The Bunkhouse Chronicle To: timroberts214@yahoo.com Sent: Tuesday, December 27, 2016 11:49 AM Subject: [New post] Grounded #yiv7275994572 a:hover {color:red;}#yiv7275994572 a {text-decoration:none;color:#0088cc;}#yiv7275994572 a.yiv7275994572primaryactionlink:link, #yiv7275994572 a.yiv7275994572primaryactionlink:visited {background-color:#2585B2;color:#fff;}#yiv7275994572 a.yiv7275994572primaryactionlink:hover, #yiv7275994572 a.yiv7275994572primaryactionlink:active {background-color:#11729E;color:#fff;}#yiv7275994572 WordPress.com | Craig Rullman posted: “This piece originally appeared in the Nugget News, November 8, 2016I have a photograph somewhere, taken from the rear seat of a British Norman Islander, of my father and uncle. My uncle, the captain on this flight between Pago Pago and the Samoan island” | |

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  4. Wonderful piece, Craig. Enjoyed it; and appreciated the familial ties.
    My Dad had a lifelong fascination with airplanes – from the ground! He worked as a jeep mechanic and ground crew at U.S. Army Aircorps bases in England in WWII. Drove “Follow Me” jeeps; and came under fire at times when assigned to turn on the spotlights that led to the runways. Dad drove a jeep out there as they had to be turned on by hand. German fighters would be in the air just waiting to shoot out the lights as soon as they were turned on. Said that he’d turn them on and run like hell, diving over hedges, into woods, etc., anywhere to get away from the rounds coming down at the lights.
    He always talked of the bombers just limping home, crews and planes all shot to hell. Some crashed short of the runways, others crash landed. Planes would be full of dead and wounded crew members. Serious business. The movie “The Memphis Belle” is exactly what he did, but as a ground crew guy. For the rest of his life he’d always gaze at airplanes flying overhead. I wonder what he was thinking, and perhaps remembering.

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    • Thanks, Rick. It has always amazed me how flight captures our imaginations like little else. And no one is ever really safe around flying things. Your dad’s experience is certainly proof of that. The men of that generation never cease to amaze me.

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  5. Please excuse the cliché here Craig, but in this case a picture indeed is worth a thousand words just on their own. Your words take it the rest of the way and then some. That first photo is like an open invitation to join in on the trip. Impressive family legacy there that leaves one wanting to know more…

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