Thursday, December 7, 2017

Memories of Roosevelt Field

as told to Nancy Frazier 85 years later                                                               
March 2014

Growing up in Garden City, New York, in the 1920’s was great for boys! We were growing and learning and making model airplanes, boats and radios.   The nation was growing and learning too. Automobiles had advanced from two cylinder cars to 8 cylinder, the $25,000 prize money for the first transatlantic flight from New york to Paris had brought us into world headlines, and everybody we knew had a radio. We didn’t know what it would do for history. We only knew it was exciting to be a part of it all.   

When I was fourteen years old, and my brother Rich was thirteen, we often pedaled our bikes to Roosevelt Field after school. The bikes gave us freedom, adventure, and got us outdoors of course! Since the press was buzzing with talk about aviation history, it was a natural that we wanted to go there as often as we could. We thought nothing of biking the four miles from Hempstead High School to the airfield; we bicycled everywhere in those days. Once there, it was a quicker, more direct route home to the new part of Garden City where we lived.   

I remember taking Trigonometry that year, and it was the last class of the day. I anxiously waited for the first tones of the three o’clock dismissal bell, and then sprinted out of the building, down the granite steps between the front pillars. Rich was already there, leaning against his bike on the sidewalk. He had gotten out before me and brought my bike around from the back. I tied my books onto the rear fender, swung on with a shout to Rich, and we headed down Middle Street. The early spring air had a chill in it, but we were warmed by riding fast.

On the way over, we passed through the ruins of Camp Devens (I think that Dad was referring to Camp Mills), a training camp for WWI. Water hydrants painted a battleship gray stood like iron sentries posted every 500 feet. Piles of wrecked automobiles left abandoned to rust beside the wide roads made interesting landmarks of a bygone era. No trees grew there, only weeds, some of which sprouted between cracks like Jack’s beanstalk, reaching to over six feet high!The whole expanse covered about eight business blocks!

Pretty soon, approaching the airstrip from the western side, we would arrive at the larger Curtiss Field, once an old riverbed. In fact, a ten-foot deep gully separated Curtiss from the neighboring airstrip. It was rather L-shaped allowing planes to takeoff and land simultaneously. Curtiss had a downward take-off slope, allowing a plane loaded with gasoline to get a better start.   Ground crews and air traffic control towers didn’t exist, but a camaraderie and respect among the pilots kept things amazingly safe. Every kind of plane that existed came in and out of there, except warplanes. The Curtis OX5 was designed right there! This busy hub of wheels and motors and flight fascinated Rich and me, and most of our friends too.

But that year of 1927 Rich and I were drawn to the smaller, adjoining field. Roosevelt Field did not have as much activity, but it did harbor the now famous single engine, air-cooled monoplane called “The Spirit of St. Louis.”   We would ride all around it where it was tied to steel posts in the grassy field. We would stop, touch its smooth silvery sides, and wonder why this man named Lindberg would want to fly the smallest plane the farthest distance.   We never saw him up close, only from far away when his plane was coming in.   But I once saw a technician standing on top of the plane with a transit, making sure the compass was correctly calibrated before his fight.

We didn't see the take-off. It was a rainy, overcast day, as I remember, and we didn't think he would be able to fly and clear the trees. But he did! He did it all the way to Le Bourget Field in France, and made our little runway famous all over the world!

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I welcome any comments, stories–Dad loved stories.