It’s spring break, 1978 and I’m sitting in a cramped Cessna 182 Skylane II with my father. We are on final approach to the Mexican resort town, Mulege on the Baja peninsula. The runway is directly ahead of us. We’re bouncing up and down and sideways as Mexican Baja desert thermals hit us from below and a steady wind blowing in from the Sea of Cortez slams into our port side. It’s a particularly difficult landing because the dirt and gravel runway is planted between a large hill and the hotel. Winds swirl through and around the hill, creating vortices and vicious crosswinds. My father nervously works the throttle with his left hand and his feet tap back and forth as he works the rudder pedals. He randomly jerks his head like he’s shaking a fly from his neck. When he gets nervous or stressed, he shakes his head a lot. This is not a good sign.
I am scared shitless. What the hell am I doing here?
A month earlier, my father called me from his office in Palo Alto, California. I was attending UCLA, living in West Los Angeles. Let’s take a fishing trip to Mexico, he says. I’ll fly into the Santa Monica airport and pick you up on the way down. The best way to get there is by small plane. We can spend a week fishing and enjoy the remote resort situated midway down the Baja. We can rent a fishing charter cheap and spend the entire week on the water fishing during the days for tuna and mahi mahi. No TV or phones in the room. Disconnected from the world. Sure, I respond. What could go wrong? And oh, did I mention, I hate fishing?
My father loved anything to do with aviation. The way he told the story, he went to see the movie, TORA! TORA! TORA! Lee rarely went to movies. He couldn’t sit still for two hours so this was a big deal. He came home from the theater and proclaimed he was going to take flying lessons. Not only did my father take flying lessons, he bought two Cessna 150 Commuters. He then set up a fixed base operation at the Palo Alto Municipal airport and arranged a lease-back arrangement where the business would pay to rent out the planes. He continues his license certifications moving to bigger and faster planes and now I’m joining him for this trip. This will be the first time I’ve flown with him other than a few quick patterns around our home field.
I worked part-time at Ralph’s Liquors in Venice. Not the big grocery chain, Ralphs. It was a strip mall liquor store owned by Ralph Pansek and is frequented by movie stars, elderly alcoholics and other locals who needed a quart of milk or a six pack. Ralph offers to pay me to paint the adjacent laundromat he owns. Sure, I say. I could use the extra cash for my upcoming Baja adventure. I spend late nights painting and days studying for finals. My body gets so stressed, I contract trench mouth and my gums are painfully swollen. I can’t eat solid food, I’m constantly hungry and one day after taking my last final exam, I’m sitting in the Skylane with my dad, flying south. I’m miserable.
After two go-arounds, we finally land. My father executes a perfect soft field landing to avoid rocks hitting the prop. He lands nose high so I can’t see in front of me. Our plane thuds down on its nose wheel and we taxi off the main strip and park directly in front of the hotel. I open my door and stumble out onto the sand and gravel tarmac. I squint my eyes up at the sun, feel the heat on my face, and think, damn, it’s hot here.
The week is long. My teeth hurt so bad I can only eat refried beans and drink Mexican Coca-Cola. Lee rents a small charter for $50 a day and the two of us have full use of a small cruiser with two locals piloting the boat and baiting our hooks. There’s boiled shrimp, sandwiches and all the beer and soda we can drink.
The Sea of Cortez is a wild life bonanza. We hit a patch of tuna and the water boils as the tuna feed. Dolphins leap into the air amongst the tuna, spearing and snatching them as they dive back into the water. We see sea turtles. Manta rays cruise just below the surface and occasionally one leaps magnificently into the air. When the boat speeds up, we leave our lines in the water and only barracuda are fast enough to catch the bait. Flying fish skim along the water next to us. We catch several dolphin fish. When you hook one, it fights so hard to shake loose that its tail thrashes and it dances across the water straight up for several yards, shooting sprays of seawater and glittering green and aqua blue in the sunlight.
Despite all this, I’m not enjoying myself. My father and I don’t have much to say to each other and I’m tired all the time. Lee is in a fishing frenzy. He tries for marlin, but ends up catching several dolphin fish and tuna. He is relentless, never stopping. One hand gripping a rod stuck in a waist holder, the other drinking a beer or shoving a sandwich into his mouth. I fish off and on, but spend a lot of time below deck, sleeping.
I finally beg off from any more fishing and my father shares a charter the next day with a writer from Sports Illustrated.
Lee takes a day off and when I wake up, I can’t find him. I follow the single dirt road into town and I find him at a street corner, sitting at a small table with two locals playing dominos. Lee doesn’t speak Spanish and they don’t speak English, but they’re slapping tiles, laughing and drinking beer.
Later, Lee takes me down to the beach and introduces me to a family living in a small hut with a dirt floor and a propane stove on the floor. The husband is American, his wife Mexican and they have two small children. They are poor, happy and exuberantly tell me how my father brings them food and other necessities each time he makes a trip to the Baja.
On Friday, there’s a weekly pig roast at the hotel. During the day, I watch a procession of small planes land and park. They’re Americans here for the party. That night I sit amongst drunken young professionals telling stories and laughing with my dad. The next morning, I watch the same men, hungover, stagger into their planes and one by one, roar into the air and back home to their comfortable American lives.
We leave the next day and it’s a long flight back home. I return with my father to the Bay Area to spend some time with friends. We land and my father is walking around the plane, chocking the wheels and unloading our baggage. Distracted, he walks directly into the wing and hits his forehead on the sharp, trailing edge. He staggers, stunned and I start screaming at him. He has a huge welt across his forehead. Instantly, I feel ashamed and we don’t speak the entire drive home. It’s not the first time I’ve treated my father like an asshole nor will it be the last.
Thirty years later, my son, Josh, and I are finishing a long road trip from Southern California to Colorado Springs. Josh is driving and as he prepares to make the final left turn onto our street, I make a wise ass remark about a car we just passed. Josh turns his head toward me and starts yelling at me. Twelve long hours together on the road and he blows up. I just stare at him and think, this must be how my father felt when I screamed at him on the airport tarmac.
I began writing this first blog post as a Father’s Day homage about flying and fishing, but as I typed away on my PC, the story evolved into something more. This just wasn’t a guy trip, it was series of lessons showing me what kind of man my father was. He tried his hardest to show me the world and raise me to be independent. He took risks, worked extremely hard and loved to take grand adventures and experience life as much as he could. He was generous, gregarious and never bragged about his acts of charity. My father and I had a complicated relationship and because of that, I couldn’t see all that he was trying to give me. Forty years later, as I try to explain what I see now in writing, it all seems clearer to me. Maybe it’s maturity, maybe it’s my experiences raising my own son or maybe it’s just that my mind only remembers the good things now. Whatever the reason, I look back on this trip as a grand adventure that he wanted to share with me and that is a grand gift indeed.