In his ninth or tenth year, Ansel Head wasn’t sent back to the mountains of North Carolina for a third summer at Camp Mondamin. Instead his family toured the West for three weeks in a Mercury station wagon. Trunks covered the left and middle back seat, which had been folded down flat, and the empty compartment in the far back; that’s where Head and his sister resided. Their older brother sat in the remaining, upright rear seat; by then, the prewar boy was a cadet at McCallie and considered too old to comingle with his siblings in their travelling play pen. Their mother and father rode in the front seat with a newly installed air conditioner under the dashboard between them. Hanging from the hood ornament was a canvas water bag for refilling the radiator when the hot weather, high altitude, and the extra burden from the A/C overheated the engine.
The younger boy’s synopses were far too primitive to permanently record much about the journey. Only snippets remained: Pancakes and ham for breakfast, the Grand Canyon, the moose outside the window at Jackson Hole, the cold and smelly docks in San Francisco, and Disneyland being very much like the place he had seen on television. The movie about Jackie Robinson, which he saw while the car was being serviced, had left him teary and wondering why the others had been so mean to the nice ball player.
But his second day out did stick fast in his thin grey matter. The family had travelled from Birmingham to Altus Air Force base in Oklahoma to join his Uncle Aud’s family for the tour west. Uncle Aud was not really an uncle but a good friend of Head’s parents who by then was a Colonel commanding a Boeing B-47 wing in the Strategic Air Command. Upon arriving, Uncle Aud took the kids out to the flight line. The young soldier walking about with a rifle slung over his shoulder smartly saluted his Colonel.
Straight away, Ansel Head climbed into the cockpit. He was way too short to reach the pedals, but his head did stick up just above the rim of the fuselage and into bubble canopy; his hands fell naturally upon the yoke and throttles. He could see over the nose of the bomber to the other planes, runway, and horizon beyond. Out to his left and right were the jet engines hanging on the swept-back wings, and behind him was the co-pilots seat where his older brother had settled. He wanted to know about every knob, switch, dial, and lever; and his Uncle Aud went patiently through it in detail as if the young boy were a nugget flight student.
Another thing stuck fast. It was a song that seemed to have been playing every day on the radio. At the time, he didn’t think much about “The Wayward Wind”. Forever afterwards though, there was something in the song that haunted him, that kept pulling at him.
In college, his roommate Andy had the 45 record in his vast collection. No one else every wanted to hear it. So when he was alone, Head would play it over and over, trying to intellectualize his fascination. He studied the words. They clearly did not fit him. He was no wanderer, he wasn’t born next to a railroad track, and he hated the idea of retreat and abandonment. In the end, Head concluded that it was just another failed subject in his quest for an education, a puzzle his non-superior intellect would leave unsolved.
As the years passed, he heard the song only infrequently. Nevertheless, the melody and words would stick with him for days afterwards, going round and round in his head.
Many years later, Head travelled with Ms. Wolfe to New Mexico. They had flown before to the high desert to visit Head’s mother who would take up summer residence in Santa Fe; she had grown weary of the hot, humid climate of her native Alabama in July and August. Since no one sees much from the modern day cattle cars at 38,000 feet, the two adventurers wanted to experience the foot paths and wagon ruts of earlier American pioneers. The old trails had faded away though, leaving the two with only modern trade routes to be traversed in an air-conditioned Ford Flex. Down through Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley on Interstate 81 they travelled, then West on I-40 across Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, the Texas Panhandle, and into New Mexico. Like the explorers, they too slept under the Western stars, but their view was shaded by the roofs of Hampton Inns. It was exhilarating. In three days, they did what took their predecessors six months.
Maybe it was those three days out and back that cleared his eyes and mind. Maybe it was the changing landscape – the lush green of the Virginia and Tennessee mountains and valleys; the rich Mississippi bottom land in Arkansas filled with corn, soy beans, and alfalfa; the rolling Ozarks falling into the Oklahoma prairie; the even flatter ranch land in the Texas Panhandle; or the desert, arroyos, and mesas of New Mexico. Maybe it was the relaxed and extended conversations with Ms. Wolfe. Or maybe it was his rigorous concentration on seeing things through his trusty Nikon’s lenses. What ever it was, as the car sped past Tinker Air Force Base, out of the corner of his eye in an exhibit lot next to the highway, Head caught a glimpse of a B-47 and parked next to it an F-4. There were his war planes sitting out on the prairie. It was only a fleeting look. By the time the images registered in his cerebral cortex, they had passed and the planes were out of sight.
From nowhere, “The Wayward Wind” rushed in and pushed aside the airplanes and his adventures in them. In that flash, everything was made clear. Head’s preoccupation with the song’s words and melody had been masking the key to the puzzle. In the end, he hadn’t needed that Ivy League education to answer the riddle.
In his long life, he had travelled through England, Europe, Greece, South America, the Mediterranean, the Orient, the Middle East, and Australia seeking an education. And all along, that song had yanked on him, harkening him back to what he had experienced when he was nine or ten but was too vacant to grasp. His real education was to be found not elsewhere but here, here where that restless wind in the song blows around his ancient airplanes and over the mountains, valleys, prairies, and deserts that make up his land – his heritage – his country. It’s people, his people – the waitress in the Waffle Houses, the musician playing in a street, the Black farmer at Church’s Fried Chicken, the lady sitting at the next table at a hamburger place, the retired stewardess who takes care of old people, the Peruvian immigrant, and the young teenager who by design makes mistakes – it is these people’s stories and surroundings from which his real education was to be found. His many cameras, by always pointing at these things, had been trying to tell him this truth for years. All of his past studies were merely a prelude to the meaningful courses awaiting him and his faithful Nikon.
To commemorate his discovery, Head cobbled together some pictures caught by his Nikon on that trip with Ms. Wolfe and set to “The Wayward Wind” sung by the original artist, Gogi Grant (or at least the artist who sang it for all those years for Head). Click on the image and it will take you to the gallery.