May 25, 2012 | Posted in: Friends
With Memorial Day weekend upon us, it’s a reminder that there have been many favorite days in my life … precious days that grow sweeter with the passing years. Special days worth memorializing. The story I’m telling today is about one of my favorite days ever. And, as promised, it’s dedicated to my friend, Phil Ballard.
The day of which I speak was in the early ’90’s. I was visiting my father figure and mentor, G. A. “Go Ahead” Curly Smith, at his home in Nevada. Curly was the father figure for whom I’d been searching my entire adult life. I like to tell people he was the father every girl wished she’d had (at least that’s how much he meant to me).
Curly was born in 1922. The son of a sharecropper, and one of five children, every day for the first 19 years of his life, he’d gone to bed hungry. With his first paycheck, he bought himself a steak dinner and told himself he’d never be hungry again. At age 34, he read Napoleon Hill’s book, “Think and Grow Rich”. At age 54, he earned his first million. When he died at age 78, he left his only child, a daughter, enough money to last three generations. And, in me, he’d instilled the undying belief that I would fly as high and as far as my dreams would take me.
I met Curly in 1989. He came into my life at a time when my suffering was great. One year later, we were guests at an anniversary party for friends we had in common, a party I had absolutely no desire to attend (I was suffering so much at this point that, had I not been forced by my loving daughter-in-law to go to the party, I would have probably driven my car off a cliff in order to end my sorrows … but I digress). At the party, Curly, told me he knew I was desperately searching for the truth, and if I was prepared to listen, he had the answers. He was nearly 70 and I, 34. One of the best decisions of my life has undoubtedly been to listen to what this man had to say.
There were many times over the course of the ten years Curly was in my life that I thought nothing of hopping in my car and making the 530 mile roundtrip-road-trip from my door in Phoenix to his in Boulder City (at one point, I needed his guidance so desperately, that I made the trip three times over a ten day period!). While there, we talked about everything and anything weighing heavily on my mind.
Life. Money. Business. Love. Marriage. Divorce. Children. Discipline. Philosophy. Religion. Politics. Transcendental meditation. Common sense. Success. Accomplishment. Wisdom. You name it, if it was important, it was one of our topics. In our decade together, we never spent a minute of time on small talk. My conversations with Curly were the balm that played a significant role in healing my broken life.
On this particular trip, my husband and one of my girlfriends happened to join me (I loved sharing Curly with important people in my life, and he, along with his beautiful bride of 50 years, Georgette, were always delighted with the many guests I brought to their home).
It was a perfect spring day with a bright blue, cloudless sky, and, in mid-conversation, Curly said, “Hey. I was just thinking. Would you all like to take a break and fly down to Kingman to pick up my new twin-engine?” I didn’t give anyone else a chance to answer before enthusiastically saying, “Absolutely positively YES!” Kingman was 90 miles away and we simply got up — walked out the door — hopped in his plane — and WENT to Kingman (Curly was a man of action!).
Curly had been flying since 1941. An accomplished pilot, he was up-grading his ride from a single engine Bonanza to a Beechcraft King Air. Too cool. I was especially excited by this spontaneous trip because it was the first time he’d ever extended me an invitation to fly with him. Before I knew it, we were airborne. Wow. Being that I’d only been in a private plane a couple times, flying right seat to Curly was simply thrilling.
Shortly after takeoff, and as soon as Curly got us straight and level, he looked across at me and said, “Cindy, would you like to fly the plane?” I was incredulous … but not slow to respond. Grinning ear-to-ear, I was tickled pink to take the yolk. Little did I know that my husband and girlfriend, sitting in the back seat, were giving each other looks like, “What in God’s name is going on here?!!!” Indeed, based on my lack of experience, they had cause for alarm.
The first few minutes were pretty thrilling. I was all over the place. Up and down, wings tipping to-and-fro. Dials, previously, cool calm and collected, suddenly spinning and whirring seemingly out of control! It was easy to tell I’d never done anything like this before. From an outsiders perspective, I’m sure it was a hoot to watch.
As a result of some type of time warp, five minutes of flying the Bonanza felt like an eternity. At one point, I looked over at Curly and said, “Do you want to take over now?” only to have him say, “No. No. You’re doing fine.” He then proceeded to keep talking about whatever important subject we’d been discussing earlier that day.
Shortly thereafter we had Kingman in sight. I’d been flying for about 20 minutes or so. I knew, at any moment, he’d simply reach over and take control. But he didn’t. He just keep talking. And every few minutes he’d tell me something new to do. “Flip this switch.” “Push that rudder.” “Pull this knob.” Little stuff. But lots of it. He kept this up until the airport was looming through our windshield … at which time I knew he’d HAVE TO take back the yolk. But he didn’t.
Now, as I looked down towards the ground, the Kingman airport was immediately to my left and I’m obviously a little more than nervous. I’m looking at Curly like, “WHEN, in God’s name, are you going to start flying THIS PLANE?!!” I’m so concerned at this point that I’ve got cotton mouth and I can’t speak (and God knows, I’m seldom if ever at a loss for words!). He, on the other hand, never, not once, acted a bit concerned. That said, in a non-plussed voice, he started speaking to me a little faster; the instructions were more detailed; and then everything started to happen faster and faster; and, as I quickly gave a furtive look to my husband in the back seat, I could tell, through his blood-drained face, that I wasn’t the only one who was terrified.
Before I knew it, Curly in his soothingly calm voice, was telling me to pull the throttle all the way back, and magically, at that very instant … we touched down and came to a rolling stop on the Kingman airport runway. I looked across at Curly and instantly burst into tears.
My husband and girlfriend let out a collective sigh of relief followed by a raucous round of applause.
Curly, on the other hand, simply smiled at me and said, “Outstanding, Cindy. I’m very proud of you. It’s obvious you’ll be one of my very best students. You follow instructions perfectly.” What an incredible way for me to learn the joke was on me. 🙂
My mentor, my father figure, my G. A. “Go Ahead” Curly Smith, had purposefully failed to tell me he was more than an accomplished pilot … he was a masterful flight instructor, too.
In 1941, at age 19, and after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Curly’s first job, the job that bought him that first steak dinner, was teaching countless young soldiers how to fly in preparation for military combat. His students would solo at 9 hours and would often go to war with a mere 26 hours of flight time. Imagine that. Our Greatest Generation won the war because they were taught to do unbelievable things by men like Curly. Forget that it was a perfect day to fly, for Curly, teaching me to land a plane under disastrous conditions would have been as natural as breathing. Humbling isn’t it?
The reason Curly was never worried? The man knew exactly what he was doing. Even his trip to pick up his new plane wasn’t a seemingly spontaneous joy ride. It was planned (down to the last detail) to test my ability (and willingness) to follow his instructions. Had I failed his “test”, Curly would have been faced with the decision of whether or not to invest another moment of precious time in my education.
We gain knowledge in one of two ways: 1) Experiential and 2) Intellectual. To learn to fly from someone who only has intellectual “book” knowledge of the dynamics of flight? Disastrous. To learn to fly from someone like Curly, a man with intellectual AND experiential knowledge? Brilliant. Powerful. Life-changing.
In every sense of the word, Curly was a phenomenal teacher. I had come to him in hopes of finding success and happiness. What I found was The Truth. The Truth about what it takes to make it in life. It’s that sense of “purposeful teaching” that I use as I do my best every single gosh darn day to make a difference in the lives of others.
All we need do to create a life of value and purpose is either 1) become a teacher who can teach their students (at a high level) the ability to find mastery, or, 2) learn to receive and follow (at an even higher level) proper instruction from a masterful teacher.
As to his name, G. A. “Go Ahead” Curly Smith. It’s appropriate that I share the significance as it pertains to this story. “Go Ahead” is an aviation command that is most often given from the Control Tower. It means, “Go Ahead … Send Your Transmission”. Since WWII, Curly had introduced himself as, “G. A. “Go Ahead” Curly Smith”. I found it charming that his real initials were “G. A.”, and though they should have, his parents most certainly didn’t name him “Go Ahead”!
And, so, on this Memorial Day weekend, to my Gerald Anderson Smith, I say, “Thank you for Going Ahead. Thank you for saving my life. Thank you for making my day, my year, my life by investing a decade of your life-energy in teaching me what it takes to become a person of substance. There’s not a moment that goes by that I don’t thank my God for you. There’s not a time that I look toward the sky without thinking about the day you taught me to fly. I love you, G. A. “Curly” Smith, and I will spend my last waking breath paying tribute to you and the difference you made in one girl’s life.”
(As a side note, a few short years later, in 1998, I went ahead and earned my private pilot’s license. The last time I saw Curly, he was standing on the runway at the Boulder City airport, waving goodbye to me as I took off towards home. There were tears in both our eyes. I, his best student, and he, my most profound teacher. In that instant, we knew nothing would be able to keep me from reaching my potential. We knew we’d come full circle. We knew my time to fly had arrived. Little did we know he would die a few short weeks later, on December 7, 2010, the 59th anniversary of Pearl Harbor.
Tomorrow, May 26, marks what would have been Curly’s 90th birthday. Incredibly, it also marks the fourth anniversary of the the accidental drowning of my best friend and professional mentor, Bob Schmidt. Another teacher who’s profound impact on my life brings me to my ever grateful knees.
Monday, May 28, marks what would have been my beloved brother, Cliff’s, 48th birthday. He died in 1994 after waging a long and determined battle against liver and pancreatic cancer. He died with honor and courage. He left us, his siblings, knowing, without question, he was the best of all our mother’s children. Our life would be the lesser if not for him. He taught me how to die with dignity.
All three of these men, Curly, Bob, Cliff, rank at the top of my list of teachers who’ve taught me never-to-be-forgotten lessons about living life to the fullest. Is it any wonder, then, that Memorial Day weekend is virtually a sacred time of year for me? That said, have a fantastic day. I hope today becomes one of your favorite days EVER … a day you will be able to live over and over and over in your heart and mind. A day where you’ll learn you can fly as high and as far as your dreams will take you.)
Do something spectacular. Go Ahead. Make My Day.
Dedicated, with love, to my friend, Phil Ballard, a man who’s kindness has reached across the years and blessed my life.
Happy Birthday, Curly. I love you.