“No, you can’t. It’s impossible.”
“I bet I can,” said Tommy, casting his mind’s eye on as the crow flies, on the hands of the clock, thinking it wasn’t far-fetched, not for what he had in mind to try. The brew crew at his table were making him out the chump, but he had the ace card.
“If you’re saying, Thomy Fitz, you can make it from New Jersey to here anytime you want to in fifteen minutes flat, I’ll take that bet,” said Bulmer MacNeill, waving his hands, ready to reach for his wallet.
“I’ll be back here in no time give or take a minute and be having a draft to celebrate before anybody catches their wheezy beery breath.”
“Watch your mouth,” said Bulmer. “There’s still plenty of us left living and breathing in the neighborhood.”
“Hell, we’ll all take that bet,” piped up the two other young men at the table.
“I’ll make a fine landing at our place here and have a fine time taking your money,” Thomas Fitzgerald laughed, bending his elbow again that early evening with his friends at a bachelor party being staged at Joe’s, a corner bar at St. Nicholas Avenue and 191st Street in Washington Heights.
“Helen’s not going to like you losing the family fortune,” said Pat Hartling.
“I’m going to be piling it on to the family fortune,” said Tommy. “The wife is going to be happy as pie.”
“The bet’s on?”
“It’s on, but not until round midnight, and I’ll need one of you to come with me, so we’re all clear about when I got started and when I got back here, so that there is no disagreement among friends afterwards.”
“You’re on,” said Bulmer.
It was after midnight when Tommy and Bulmer staggered out of Joe’s, staggered to Tommy’s car, and staggered down a succession of roads and streets to the Teterboro School of Aeronautics on the west side of the Hudson River. It was near Tommy’s home in Emerson, New Jersey. He drove slowly carefully watchfully. His wife and sons were sound asleep, and he didn’t want to wake them. It was close to one o’clock when he spotted the red and white Cessna 140 on the runway. He eyeballed its wingspan, which he estimated at about thirty feet.
“That’ll do,” he thought. He checked the underside of the wings. It said N252.
“Never seen that one. I wonder whose it is?” he asked himself.
“Tommy, what’s going on?” asked Bulmer, teetering on the dizzy expanse of concrete.
Tommy opened the door on the pilot’s side and looked at the controls. It was a late 1940s model with a white dashboard, black and red control wheels, and two-tone tan seats. It had shipshape wing flaps and he guessed the stall speed was about 35 knots.
“This will do just fine,” he said to himself.
He had a pilot’s license, but not a plane. He hardly ever actually flew an airplane, although he knew them well enough. Tommy Fitzgerald was a union steamfitter and worked part-time as a mechanic at the airport. Twelve years earlier he lied about his age and volunteered for the Marines. He was sent to the Pacific and saw combat. When the war ended, he was fifteen years old. Four years later he volunteered for the Army and was sent to Korea. He came home after winning both the Purple Heart and Silver Star.
“During a strategic withdrawal Corporal Fitzpatrick noticed a wounded officer, about 100 yards forward of his position. Attempting a rescue, he and a companion were seriously wounded. Despite severe pain and loss of blood, Corporal Fitzpatrick made it back to safety, directed a second successful rescue party while organizing and providing covering fire to support the rescue,” is what the Silver Star citation said.
“You saved my life,” is what the officer said.
After recovering he was sent home. But first he went to Tokyo. He did some more recovering there. Then he went to San Francisco. He had a good time and needed to recover again afterwards.
Stealing a Cessna wasn’t going to be much of a problem. Landing it in front of Joe’s was going to be challenging, but he was sure he could do it. Besides, he needed another drink-or-two before chalking up the night. He checked the gas gauge. The gas tank was nearly full. George Washington High School was near the bar. He could land on their lighted ball field.
“What time is it?”
“You’re going back in that thing?” Bulmer asked, slow on the uptake.
“Take my car,” said Tommy. “I’ll take off at a quarter after two. Check your watch when I’m off the ground. I’ll see you back at Joe’s.”
He made sure the radio and navigation lights were off. The Cessna was a simple airplane, a steadfast Continental engine up front, manual flaps, a yoke, throttle, and rudders. He pushed the power up for takeoff. It was a short strip, so he levered the flaps in 25 degrees as he hit 30 knots. The plane launched itself into the air and he bled the flaps off. Inside of a couple of minutes he was at a 90-knot cruise speed with a 2:30 AM by his reckoning landing at Joe’s.
The Teterboro control tower operator watched the airplane take off. It took him a minute to realize it didn’t have clearance. It took him another minute to realize whoever was piloting the plane wasn’t responding to his radio calls. It took him a few more minutes to find out the plane been stolen. He picked up the telephone and dialed the police.
Sailing over New York City the bird’s-eye view from the airplane at 5000 feet was of the big city all wide bright spread out. The cabin was only three-or-so feet across at the elbows and Tommy could see clearly on both sides of him. But the field at George Washington High School was dark. What had made him think it would be lit up? He circled the school and thought fast. He banked the Cessna, keeping the sink rate steady, blipped the throttle over the threshold and rolled the yoke forward. He soared over Snake Hill, gliding between stores buildings tenements on both sides of the street, and landed neatly in front of Joe’s.
“I saw something coming down,” said John Johnson, driving a jalopy, slamming on his brakes. “I didn’t know what to imagine. The plane skidded over the top of my car and made a perfect landing ahead of me. I saw a man get out and run.”
The man was husky tall wearing a gray suit bare headed and laughing up a storm. Tommy ran into Joe’s. It was 2:25 in the morning. It was twenty minutes before last call and more than a half-hour before closing time.
“Time to pay up, boys,” he said, throwing himself down onto a bar stool, swiveling to face his friends.
“He’ll be along. Now reach for your wallets.”
Bumpy didn’t often leave Harlem on Saturday nights for Striver’s Row or Sugar Hill or Washington Heights, but there was a bar in Washington Heights he liked, and after lunch with Stan Riddman, taking a nap, changing his clothes, and putting some money in his wallet, he took a subway to the 191st station. He had seen neighborhood kids jump the fence at 200th Street and jump on top of the IRT 7th Avenue cars, riding them to Van Courtland Park. He knew without a doubt that one of them was going to kill himself doing that one of these days. He walked up out of the subway and down the street towards Shorty’s.
There was gang graffiti everywhere on a brick wall that once was part of an apartment building that collapsed. Lucky Lords. The Enchanters. Egyptian Kings. One of the Egyptian Kings, called the Cape Man, had shot a Lucky Lord, who ran out of luck that day and went to the Lord.
Farther down somebody had spray-painted “GUNS FOR THE JEWS.”
There were plenty of Irish and Germans and Italians in Washington Heights, but there were Jews, too, and some Puerto Ricans, as well as Negroes. Irish whiskey, Italian bread and pasta, and Jewish pastries were always right around the corner. The five-story apartment building that had collapsed into a heap happened when the abandoned icehouse next to it exploded.
“It was horrible, said Dorothy Fiege. “The rumor mill said it was kids playing with matches, causing leftover ammonia fumes to ignite. The icehouse came down and cut the apartment building in half. It was like you were looking into a dollhouse. I don’t remember how many people were killed, but among them was Old Joe, the Good Humor Ice Cream man who used to ride his refrigerated bicycle around the neighborhood.”
Up and down Washington Heights was working men and women, kids, baby carriages, and veterans. Some of them limped, others walked with a cane, and one walked very carefully. His eyes had been damaged by a grenade. More than a few of them drank too much, even though most of them were still family men and held steady jobs.
Bumpy strolled into Shorty’s and found a seat on a stool near the end of the bar. He was black and free. That felt good. On Monday he would have steady work. What was he thinking? He had been thinking about it and now it happened. It deserved a drink. He settled in for one or two.
Harvey Joffe, a Surface Transportation bus driver, was on 191st Street when the Cessna came in from nowhere for a landing
“I had just got back into my seat when all of a sudden I heard something that sounded like a large fan,” he said. “I looked in my rearview mirror and saw this plane coming at me. The plane hit the ground and bounced twenty feet in the air. I thought he was going to take off again. Then he hit the ground again and taxied. “
Harvey Joffe stopped and jumped out of his bus.
“God forbid if I ever hit a plane. What could I say at the safety hearing?”
“That was an almost impossible landing,” said Sgt. Harold Behrens of the Police Aviation Bureau.
“When I saw it, I thought maybe they had trucked it in, as a practical joke,” said Sammy Garcia, a kid in the neighborhood who woke up slowly from a dream and looked out his bedroom window.
“I thought, there was no way a man landed in that narrow street.”
“A great many terrible things could have happened,” said Magistrate Edward Chapman on Monday morning when Tommy Fitzgerald was arraigned for breaking the city code forbidding landing airplanes on New York City streets.
That same morning the Cessna 140, after being pushed aside to allow busses and cars to get by, with the back half of it on the sidewalk and the wheels in the gutter, was taken apart and towed to the police station at 182nd Street.
“He landed on a street with lampposts and cars parked on both sides,” said Fred Hartling, a friend of the family who lived in the neighborhood. “Tommy had a crazy side, but he pulled off a miracle.”
“What the hell is that?” Bumpy asked himself, stopping short coming out of Shorty’s, astonished at the sight of an airplane in the middle of the street in the middle of Washington Heights in the middle of Manhattan.
“That’s a tight fit,” he thought. Then he noticed it was blocking the front of the opening to the subway.
Where was there another station? How was he going to get back to Harlem? Maybe he could boost somebody’s jalopy. He walked up the street, in the direction home, keeping his eyes wide open, just in case anything else came down from the sky.