My fondest memory of my Father, Wayne Kuhn is of his smile. It was a combination of Cheshire cat and impish grin. And his eyes would almost disappear in a sad looking downward turn but yet they were not sad at all. Just joyful. Three things made him happy…cars, playing golf and flying. And when we were on our way out to his plane to take a spin he was a happy man.
He had served in the Navy during World War II and had always wanted to learn to fly. When the war was over, he married the love of his life, settled down in Eastern Oregon and started to raise a family.
When I was still young, he discovered that he had the opportunity to get his pilot’s license with money paid for from the GI Bill. I remember well the day he made the decision to go for flying lessons. He piled my Mother, my Sister and myself in the car and went to the nearby regional airport to watch amateur pilots practicing their take-offs and landings. It was as if he was testing all of us to see who would rise to the occasion and make a pledge to be on “his team.” My Sis was a clear “No” and my Mother was excited for him but remained grounded. I immediately blurted out I couldn’t wait to go flying with him.
My fondest memory of my Father, Wayne Kuhn is of his smile. It was a combination of Cheshire cat and impish grin. And his eyes would almost disappear in a sad looking downward turn but yet they were not sad at all. Just joyful.
And so started weeks and weeks of study with my Mother helping him prepare for the Ground School exam. He took flying lessons as often as he could with a goal toward achieving the necessary “hours in the air” with an instructor. He was a different guy during this time; he seemed younger to me, almost like a flashback to the California kid many years before who had attended Pasadena City College. My Dad was such a laid back, laconic man. He was a Gary Cooper type with a kindness that was recognized by all round him. He did right by everyone in life. He simply could not take advantage of anyone either personally or at work. He was honest and quietly courageous. And those were the strengths that enabled him to be a good pilot.
It was a happy day when Wayne Kuhn finally received his pilot’s license. Together with two other amateur pilot partners, he purchased a Cessna 140. They parked it on an abandoned air strip five miles out of town. In our tiny hamlet the plane was a means of quick escape but also gave us a birds eye view of the beauty of the Pacific Northwest.
I had the enviable position in high school of having the Dad who was “cool”. Daddy owned a gas station with a large garage and he was the best mechanic for miles in Eastern Oregon. Cars were his passion as a young man and now fixing them was his business. All the young guys in town went to him to get advice on their cars or to talk shop. And knowing that he loved hot rods they would hang around the garage, longing to share stories of fast cars and wild rides. But they also wanted to live through his knowledge of performance engines. To them it didn’t matter whether it was a great car or his airplane. While they were with him in that garage, they felt part of something bigger than our small town afforded them.
He was a Gary Cooper type with a kindness that was recognized by all round him. He did right by everyone in life. He simply could not take advantage of anyone either personally or at work. He was honest and quietly courageous.
I was popular with the guys in high school and it had everything to do with the fact that these boys wanted to be close to my Dad. Once, two of my friends were hanging out with me after school. My Dad came home and asked them if they wanted to go take a spin to get a milk shake. The guys said “Sure!” They drove out to the landing strip, jumped in the plane and flew about 60 miles to an airport across the Columbia River in Washington State. Those boys talked about that trip for years. The young guys in town who knew my Father would have done anything for him as he made such an effort to make them feel special. And always with that smile of his.
I remember vividly the first time he took me up in the air. I was excited for the thrill of flying but also to be part of his passion. He was a smart pilot and never took risks. Once, on going up with him and one of his Navy pilot friends, inclement weather set in and surrounded us on the flight down the Columbia River gorge. The steep walls of the Gorge were a dangerous notion if we lost visual. I always remember him turning around to me and asking if I wanted to turn back. It was such a fantastically equitable moment for me, I was included in the decision making! But my Father realized that I might also be interested in learning to fly at some point in my future. So he was keen that I assumed responsibility in my answer. I said a resounding “Yes!” His friend turned to me and said, “That’s why your Dad is such a good pilot…he will never take a foolish risk.”
He flew me all over the Northwest…to Idaho to music camp, back and forth to the University of Oregon in Eugene or just out for a joy ride. As it turned out, I was the only one in the family who would fly with him. My Mother was terrified of the small plane and that prevented her from sharing in his passion. My Sister had made her decision long ago not to accept the adventure while I couldn’t wait to be on his team. I loved his sense of peace when he was in the cockpit. It was a statement of pure joy. His personal pursuit of life in the clouds was like a crusade for himself.
His friend turned to me and said, “That’s why your Dad is such a good pilot…he will never take a foolish risk.”
Eventually he and his partners traded the Cessna for a Piper Cherokee with retractable landing gear. My Father celebrated the upgrade which allowed him the ability to take longer trips with overnight stays. There were plenty of late nights as he and his chosen co-pilot would pour over maps planning out the next extended trip.
Every year the plane had to have an extensive overhaul in compliance with FAA regulations. In addition, the pilot also had to pass a health physical to renew his license. One year my Father’s Doctor told him he could not sign-off on his physical. High blood pressure had grounded him. There were many attempts to control the blood pressure and all failed. He was going into kidney failure and after experiencing two small strokes his eventual downward spiral into poor health was inevitable. He was devastated not to have the freedom to fly. I remember that he used to joke periodically that he would soon have his health back, would pass the physical and would be back in the air in no time. He was so hopeful and life was so unfair. Ultimately he never did retain his full health. It was painful for me to watch him sell his share of the plane with the realization that his life and his health would never be the same again. Through the years up until his death fifteen years later his passion for flying had never dimmed.
I love planes and I love flying. Each time I board a flight, I feel close to my father. I have made hundreds of commercial flights in my life and when I board I always have the feeling that he is there with me on the plane. I calmly feel his presence. I hear his voice calling me in the way he always used to, “Hey Squirt” and reassuring me that the turbulence is tolerable. I almost feel as if we’re together in that little cockpit again with him analyzing the winds and plotting our course. And I see the vision of that smile come over his face with his eyes wrinkling at the corners in that bond of caring that I know so well. And each time, I feel truly relieved and safe.
I believe that when he left this earth he assumed a place in the clouds. Where he can be free and unfettered from pain. He is waiting for me to join his team again. And we can fly with the best of them in the skies for eternity.