Wednesday, March 11, 2015

For Ray - in hopes that email has a very long reach

Long ago in a galaxy far, far away, I was a college student who found work at a local radio station in Kentucky that was blessed to have, as its manager, a fellow named Raymond Holbrook.

Raymond Paul Holbrook
photo from the Lexington Herald

Ray was a broadcaster's broadcaster who came up in radio after a degree in journalism from the University of Kentucky and his then-obligatory national service as a Captain in the Air Force. His work in radio took him from several stations in Kentucky to television, to the Radio Advertising Bureau in Washington and, finally, back to his home at WVLK in Lexington. When you fly to Lexington in an airliner, it is Ray's voice that welcomes you to the terminal.

I always considered it my very good fortune to have met and worked for Ray Holbrook. We got back in touch a few years ago and amid a little reminiscing I decided to make a trip back to Kentucky to see him. The Keeneland race track, practically next door, is home to one of the most beautiful horse racing venues in the world so I decided to time my visit in April or October to spend an additional afternoon in reunion with college buddies, bourbon and burgoo while watching the ponies run. As things go sometimes, I put off the trip and learned last week that Ray died in December.

Ray was not only a broadcaster and friend to me, he was a pilot and writer, too. We spent lots of time talking flying before I did my first real training, and talking about writing before I sold a thing. To make myself feel better as much as anything, after a one-sided conversation while walking alone last week, I wrote him an email that I'm posting here word for word. One note: he showed me an early draft of an essay about a flight with a friend of his in a Crosley Moonbeam. It was published years later in one of the aviation magazines. I'm recreating the last lines of that essay as best I can remember them so the words aren't mine - they're his. Another line expresses the frustration of writing - that came from Richard Bach. 

"Well, Ray, my trip to Kentucky - the one I've been postponing for stupid reasons - was postponed one Keeneland meeting too many. 

"It's probably foolish, seeing as how you've flown west ahead of me, but I want you to know how much you meant to me when I was an aspiring radio, and later TV, guy. I should have chosen to stay on the talent side but I wanted to go where the 'big money' was and tried my hand at sales. What a comeuppance that was! You were generous, though, and let me fire myself from Channel 27. Much later, when I called myself the "world's worst TV advertising salesman", you wouldn't accept the description. It worked out well; as a TV ad salesman I made a pretty good pilot.

"The flying thing? That was your doing, too. I had always loved airplanes, spent untold hours at little airports as a young teenager. When you gave me a chance to sell some advertising to Mr. Boehmer at Bluegrass Field, he ended up selling me flying lessons in return. I think I got the best commission of my life that day. It took me 9 years to build the hours to get my first flying job, but that was the next big day in a series of big days that stretched over 40 years. At the end, I was Chief Pilot and Director of Flight Operations at an international flight department out of New York, flying all over the world, the bear who went over the mountain.

"The writing thing? You were a big part of that, too. Air&Space/Smithsonian published three or four of my essays; somebody else printed one as a contest winner. I actually got paid by A&S and they wanted more, but I stopped writing, largely because I didn't feel right, baring myself that way. Your essays for the aviation magazines, on the other hand, were awfully good. We spent time talking about writing, reading Gordon Baxter and others, debating what was good and what wasn't. I suspect it was a personal pursuit for you, too - too personal, almost painful, to spend your days and nights wadding up little balls of paper and throwing them into a corner of the room when the words didn't come out just right. I never did get past that, myself.

"So this note to you, my friend, may never be read, at least on this green earth; it comes a little late. I thought I might put my long overdue trip to Kentucky together for next month. Something made me use the computer to search your name one more time and I saw the writeup in the Herald. You're gone, it said, but you're not and never will be as long as those who love you have breath. 

"Save me a place to tie down. When we've had lunch I'll give you a prop and we'll take the Crosley Moonbeam to the runway, cut the cord that ties us to the earth, and let it slowly drift away.

"Fly Safe"

 Crosley Moonbeam, s/n 4, at the Kentucky Aviation Museum in Lexington
Photo posted to a "Wiki" site and attributed to a fellow who calls himself "6oclocklow"

Of all the things I've done and not done, the greatest regrets have come from those reunions not kept.