Christmas Break was a magical term as my first trimester at the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University came to an end in 1977. When I’d started the tri in September I didn’t give a thought about getting back home, but by November it was all I could think about. Finally, on December 15th, 40 years ago today, that day had arrived.
My former roommate, Mark “Doc” Holliway and I had booked our flight to Flint together- mainly because I’d never flown on an airliner before and I wanted to travel with someone who knew the ropes… like Doc. (I stuck him with that nickname because when his freshman packet of checks came from the Sun Bank printer they read Mark “Holliday” rather than “Holliway.” He turned around and nicknamed me “Hawkeye.” Lucky for me I’ve never had a nickname that stuck). Like good ERAU students we asked for a flight itinerary that had as many takeoffs and landings as the Eastern Airlines CSR could pack into it. Thus, we went from Daytona to Atlanta, to Chicago- switched to United and flew from Chicago to Muskegon and then to Flint, Michigan. The adventure took almost the entire day and we enjoyed every second of it.
When we were on the ground in Muskegon we went up to the cockpit and talked to the crew. The UAL 737s in those days had an FE, so there was lots of room in the cockpit. They told us about the VOR approach that they had to fly into Muskegon because the ILS was out and about hiring curves and stuff. The chat went on for quite a while- then the FE came dashing in from the terminal sayin’ “We were supposed to be off the ground seven minutes ago! They wanna know what the holdup is!” Well, the captain just said “whoops, you guys better scoot- we’ll make up a good story.” Mark and I just scrambled back and nabbed two of the many empty seats and strapped in. On the way to Flint the captain came on the PA and gave some BS announcement about ATC delays and told everyone we’d burn some extra fuel and make up the time. Oh yeah… the days before de-regulation and ACARS… you could get away with lots of stuff. Doc and I just snickered.
After landing in Flint we taxied toward the terminal and Doc was at the window seat.
“Holy cow!” he exclaimed, “There’s a huge banner hanging up there that says "Welcome Home Wes!”
Looking past him I could see it strung up on the rail of the terminal’s observation deck with several people waving at us. He said that it must be for me and I said that unless there was another Wes on the plane, he was probably right. As it turned out a long-time young lady pal of mine, JL, had made the sign and rode down from Saginaw with my parents to meet me. Considering that my relationship with my steady girlfriend of nearly three years, Debbie, had evaporated by long distance over the past three months, JL was a great sight to see.
Me on December 15th, 1977- happy to be back in Michigan and lookin' forward to getting back on my skates!
This was the biggest welcome at an airport that I’d ever get. Of course that goes with the territory. As a pilot, you are always arriving at and walking into terminals and no one ever gives you a second glance. You do, however, get to witness a lot of welcomes like the one I had back in 1977.
The following day I drove to Kalamazoo to pick up my sister from Western Michigan University and that evening we all went to the Saginaw Gears hockey game. JL had posted my banner high up on the arena wall among all of the booster club banners. After the game the Gears radio announcer, Wally Shaver, saw me in Zamboni alley and put two and two together. He said he’d been wondering all night who “Wes” was and why he was being welcomed to the arena. Now it finally dawned on him that I was home from school. That was a pretty good laugh.
During the Christmas break I ate cookies, chowed on Mom’s home cooking and even played a pick-up hockey game. I was in mid-season form, or so it felt. We had a Christmas party at JL’s house and a bunch of the Gears players attended- primarily because her brother-in-law was one of the players. Meanwhile, Michigan provided plenty of snow for a white Christmas. About the only downer was when I had to drive down to Novi and meet Deb for the last time so we could exchange personal items that we were both holding. I never saw her again, but all of those love letters made great kindling in my folk’s wood stove later on. By the way- don’t feel sorry for me. I can safely say that every guy who came to ERAU that trimester and had a steady girlfriend back home saw the relationship crash and burn. Either that or they dropped out of school and went back home to her. In that era there was a fad where when you went away from your sweetie you could first buy matching pendants shaped like a heart or a coin zigzag cut in half. So when you were reunited you’d put the two halves back together and make it a whole… how sickeningly romantic. Personally. I didn’t have one because I never wear chains around my neck, but lots of guys had them. By the middle of the trimester you started seeing those frigging things tossed everywhere around campus- in the grass, in the parking lot, in the mote, in the gutter… I even saw one, (no foolin’) in a urinal out at the flightline restroom. That must have been really bad break-up. The worst incident was when a pal of mine and I went bicycle riding and as we were coasting through the RSI dorm parking lot one of the room telephones came flying through a window as the guy in the room was screaming, “You rotten cheating f$#%ing bitch!” At least my relationship died a quiet death.
As the days of my Christmas break began to expire a friend of mine from high school held a New Year’s Eve party and I attended. There were a lot of old friends from my high school class there and it was a real blast. Thus ended the year 1977. Four days later that great Christmas break came to an end as well. I did not want to get on that aircraft and fly back to the ERAU pressure-cooker, but I did it anyhow. Oddly after my summer break I couldn't wait to get back to the university and keep flying. I had realized that visiting the people back home was pleasant, but I no longer belonged in Mom and Dad’s basement.
It’s just too darned hard to punch holes in the sky from there.