MAC’S HANGAR AT LITTLE RIVER AIRPORT

In the mid 1980’s, my husband, Mac, and I were deciding to live apart. Our three children had all finished high school and were away from home. We had sold our home of eighteen years on Siesta Key in Sarasota, FL, and were living temporarily in a rented house in Fernandina Beach while caring for Mac’s parents who were both in their nineties. Our oldest son, Eric, had left the USAF and was in Philadelphia working in financial management with a Baby Bell which later became Verizon. Second son, Casey, had left the U.S. Navy and was somewhere at sea as first mate on a commercial ship. Clea, our youngest, was in her sophomore year at the University of Florida in Gainesville. 

I had long dreamed of living alone near a southern college campus, so I chose to rent a townhouse in Gainesville, FL, knowing Clea would be at UF for another two years. Mac chose to buy a travel trailer and live in campgrounds around the country. We arranged round-the-clock hired help for his parents, Harold and Agie Macurdy. We took turns, going there to watch over them and their caretakers. Sometimes Mac lived in his trailer in their driveway.

After a year or two of this life style, Mac decided he would like to own property in an aviation community in North Florida and build a hangar with living quarters. I wanted him to succeed at achieving his dream, so was happy to go with him to visit various aviation communities, while he made his choice of location. It was an entertaining endeavor for both of us. After weeks of research, Little River Airport in Suwannee County was chosen.

Undeveloped lots along the grassy airport runways were to be sold at auction on a certain date. Due to partial deafness, Mac didn’t trust his hearing at an auction and requested my presence as moral support. I was happy to oblige as it was a new and interesting experience for me.

A few days before the auction, we walked around various lots until Mac had his choices narrowed down to three. On the day of the auction Mac allowed another buyer to outbid him on his first choice. However, he bid on and won his second choice which wound up being a better location for Mac’s needs.

The purchased lot was a long, narrow, triangular sliver of land, with plenty of width for a hangar on the wide end, but too narrow for other buildings on the tapered end. This gave Mac lots of road front, which was actually just an unpaved taxiway. The property was near the main road, County Road 252, with only one home and their hangar between Mac’s property and the paved road. The easy access turned out to be a big advantage.

The lot was perfectly flat and nicely wooded with pine and live oak trees. The nearest town is named Live Oak, though the small village of McAlpin, FL was closer and had a U.S. Post Office where Mac could receive mail. There was no infrastructure on this property, no city water, no electricity, or phone service. The undergrowth consisted of scrub bushes, thorny vines, and weeds. A well would have to be dug to supply water. Electric power would have to be brought in, and a septic tank created. In the meantime, Mac could park there and live in his travel trailer. He owned a huge, white Ford F-250 truck which pulled his 25’ fifth-wheel travel trailer. Plus, as always, he owned a Jaguar.

Mac researched his hangar options and chose to order a blue metal hangar and a construction crew to assemble it. But first, other steps had to be taken. The width across the front of the future hangar was to be 48 feet. One afternoon, Mac and I took a 50 foot metal tape-measure into the woods at the wide end of the lot and chose a spot for the hangar which would require removal of the fewest trees. Also, Mac chose to align the front edge of the hangar on a north/south axis rather than make it parallel with the taxiway. Plenty of space was allowed for driveways to the back and the front of the hangar.

The lowest sloping side of the hangar roof would be facing south. I sketched a floor plan of living quarters along that lower side. It included a kitchen sink and window facing the taxiway, three south facing windows to let in sunlight and provide a view. There was space for a small eating table, a sofa, a large comfortable chair, a TV, a bed, a clothes closet, a bathroom with shower, and a laundry/computer/catch-all room in the back. Mac figured out where the plumbing pipes needed to be positioned under the floor to accommodate all the utilities.

Eventually, after legal requirements were met, the footers were dug and a concrete floor was poured for the entire hangar. Mac was photographing each and every step along the way, including every layer of rock that had to be placed at the bottom of the newly dug septic tank.

In due time, the blue metal hangar kit was delivered and the trained crew arrived to assemble it. I don’t remember the dates, but will guess that happened in the mid to late 1990’s. Much had happened in our lives aside from the hangar activity. Both Mac’s parents had died. Our son Casey had died of complications from HIV contracted through a blood transfusion. At Mac’s request, I had helped him write his eight-month MIA experience after being shot down in his P-47 behind German lines in January 1944. Also, I had retained a divorce lawyer who was helping me in that endeavor.

Mac had been traveling the country, pursuing other women, living like a bachelor and loving it. I had my own gentlemen friends. I wanted the best for Mac, but did not want to live with him, so we were both okay with the arrangement, up to a point. I thought it made sense to get a divorce, so I consulted with military legal officers at Tyndall AF Base near Tifton, Georgia and at MacDill AFB in Tampa. I learned that for a divorced military spouse to retain her DEERS card, she needs to have been married to the retiree for 15 years while he was on active duty. DEERS is an acronym for Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System. Because our wedding date was in February 1952 and Mac’s retirement was in August 1966, I was four months short of meeting that requirement. I wanted to keep my military benefits, so I backed away from divorce, believing that someday my military DEERS card, might provide me good health insurance, and I was right. The Department of Defense now provides me Tricare for Life, the best Medicare supplement insurance ever.

Living quarters inside the hangar were developed as planned and were working well. Mac continued to enhance his use of the hangar. Just the huge automatic roll-up door alone was $5000. Then he had a smaller automatic back door installed, so he could pull the trailer inside the hangar through the front door, un-hitch it from the truck, and drive the truck out through the back door. Conversely, he could hitch up the truck and pull the trailer out through the back door and set off on a cross country trip.

I don’t remember the date, but eventually, Mac ordered a kit for building a RANS-9 one-seater light aircraft. The kit was delivered from Kansas to his hangar in a wooden box which later became his clothes closet inside the hangar. Mac was good at re-purposing.

So, the building of the airplane began. I was busy with my own life in Gainesville and not paying close attention, but Mac would call me occasionally and report on his progress. We were living three counties apart, which Mac joked was the perfect distance between us. He felt comfortable showing up at my house for a visit whenever it suited him. Now and then he invited me to come to the hangar and see his progress. I would go and take lunch.

A paint room was built using plastic sheeting. Mac could take airplane body parts into the paint room and spray paint them without getting paint all over the hangar interior. Once when I went to visit, I was invited to sit in the cockpit. While sitting there, I could look to my right and see fuel sloshing in the tank in the wing, inches away from my face. Looking to the left, I saw fuel sloshing in the left wing, again just inches from my face. I found it very disconcerting thinking about the possibility of a fiery crash.

Depending on time of year, wild flowers were beautiful along the route from Gainesville through Newberry, High Springs, Fort White, and north to the hangar location in Suwannee County. I rather enjoyed the one-hour drive to and from. Particularly enjoyable was the donkey farm. If Clea and I were together, we would pull off the road and admire the donkeys, especially the donkey babies. I always jokingly chose a baby donkey to buy for Clea’s husband, John, to keep in his back yard in Maryland. When our kids and grandkids visited from up north, we would all go out to the hangar, take pictures, and observe the odd life style. On one visit when our grandsons Andrew and Stephen were teenagers, Mac allowed them to target shoot with his .38 pistol. Andrew bagged a live oak tree trunk and the bullet hole is still there to prove it.

Mac developed the habit of socializing from a specific bar stool at the Lake City Holiday Inn. He was known by all the locals, and if one of them was occupying his stool when he walked in, they would move away and let him sit there. Clea and John witnessed that once when they entered the bar with Mac on Christmas to have drinks and then Christmas dinner at the bar. They were impressed when some guy who was occupying Mac’s stool, vacated it immediately when he saw Mac enter the room. Toward the end, Mac bought a brand new Jaguar sedan for these drives to the bar.

One day, Mac called me, all excited, to announce that he had just flown his airplane the first time. I remember saying “Holy Shit, Mac! Did you have to do that on Friday the 13th?” There were other flights, but I don’t think they were as exciting or challenging as having built the airplane and taken it up on its initial test flight.

I became acquainted with a few of Mac’s airport neighbors and friends and did a small amount of socializing out there. Mac was well into his eighties and was beginning to have health issues, including unsteady gait. When he fell inside his hangar apartment, his neighbors called me and I drove out there to get him. Two of the men lifted him from his chair where they had put him and placed him in the passenger seat of my Acura hatchback. I drove him to the emergency room at Shands Hospital in Gainesville where it was determined he had a fractured pelvis and needed nursing home care. That was arranged and I visited him there daily.

When released, Mac chose to go back to the hangar, though at the time, our son, Eric, strongly believed he should be properly cared for in an eldercare facility. Our daughter, Clea, arranged for a hired woman to care for him part time at the hangar.

Mary was black, athletic, a high school basketball referee, good looking, and impressive in her white nurse’s uniform. On occasion, Mac would call me to meet them for lunch at the diner in High Springs. They would arrive at the diner, with Mary looking smart and capable in her white uniform at the wheel of the elegant Jaguar sedan. The three of us would have lunch together. Other patrons after overhearing our conversation, would follow Mac to the car and thank him for his military service.

Clea spent time at the hangar a few days at a time, while her small daughter, Anna Rose, stayed with me. Clea is patient and sensible but lost her temper with Mac when he insisted on having her use his enormous compressor to clean his electric razor every day. After one such clash, she was out front stomping up and down the taxiway saying he needed to f…..ng clean his f…..ng razor like an f…..ng normal person. Pete Ashley, Mac’s next door neighbor, observed her distress and joined her in stomping up and down the taxiway cursing Mac’s unreasonable behavior and exasperating demands.

Clea also recalls going to a lot of trouble to rearrange her dad’s furniture to make a pathway for his walker between the bed and the TV for access to the bathroom. As soon as she left he moved it back to the old way. A similar thing happened with his .38 pistol which Clea deemed unsafe near his bed with hired help present. She took great pains to hide the gun safely in the Knaack truck tool box on the floor in the hangar. Again, as soon as she was gone, he retrieved the gun and continued to keep it by his bed.

My house-cleaner went with me a few times to the hangar to do cleaning out there. Brad, my computer geek, went with me a few times to work on Mac’s computer at the hangar. Mac sold his airplane, as he was obviously not able to fly again. It was left for me and Eric to later sell the travel trailer, the Jaguar, Mac’s many tools, and the hangar. The truck had been given to Clea. 

Eventually, Mac fell again and was taken by ambulance to Lake City Hospital, then released from there to a re-hab center in Gainesville where he died December 29, 2006. Five months later his ashes were interred at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.

At Mac’s wake at my house on New Year’s Day, 2007, his hired caretaker, Mary, admitted that she had allowed him to drive the Jaguar knowing it was verboten. She would let him drive the short distance from his hangar to the paved road, and then they would switch drivers. Pressed for more information, she confessed that she had also allowed him to drive fast on long stretches of country road. Eric had long since realized that Clea had done their dad a huge favor by enabling him to live at the hangar enjoying a modicum of freedom as opposed to being “properly cared for” in an old folks home.

When my time comes, my name will be inscribed on the back side of Mac’s grave marker at Arlington. When you visit there, you can find us in Section 54, Grave 6370. The view is quietly beautiful and sobering. It is on a hill with a sweeping view of the city of Washington. My name will be there, but not my ashes, which will be scattered somewhere along Standing Rock Creek, Tennessee where I was born and raised and remain firmly rooted in the rock.

Following Mac’s May 2007 Arlington burial, complete with his much-loved bagpipe music, we convoyed to a nearby Marina for open-bar happy hour and food. There were about forty attendees standing more or less in a circle after loosening up with a few drinks. Anna Rose was six and received much praise for her good behavior through it all. Only later did I learn that Clea had her heavily bribed into perfection.

None of our family had even a remote connection to a minister, so we borrowed a female minister named Cherry from a Maryland friend. She started things off with a prayer. Then each person there said a few words about Mac. Much of it was very funny. Clea always liked to say “Mom brought a date to Dad’s funeral.” Well, it is true, but it was entirely appropriate as the two men had been F-102 pilots together in Spain and had great respect for each other. I had to stop Jim when he started telling the crowd about the skinny dipping that went on in their back yard pool in Canilléjas, a suburb of Madrid.

Mac would have approved of this light-hearted goodbye. He had chosen to live his life as a colorful and irreverent non-conformist. We sent him off in his own grand style. He is remembered with grudging respect, humor, affection, and astonishment.

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4 thoughts on “MAC’S HANGAR AT LITTLE RIVER AIRPORT

  1. Hi Dear Friend: I enjoyed the Hangar story very much and have no suggestions for revisions 😀 You know our pod has disbanded; it was time. I’m still enjoying Pickleball and plugging away on my book #2. My wife Pat remains too busy. I am being pulled in several directions: Pickleball, writing, watching series on TV(eg, Blacklist), lazing at poolside or snoozing. I admire you and think fondly about you rather often. We shall stay in touch, Love, Bob

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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