Saturday, February 19, 2011

The Road to Wright State

When I told my wife I was leaving at 3:00 AM Friday morning for my trip to Fairborn, Ohio, she said "Why are you leaving so early?"  I replied, "To beat the traffic out of New York."  There were historical reasons for doing this.

My family was from Glenshaw and Etna, Pennsylvania, towns right outside of Pittsburgh.  When I was young, when we visited my grandparents and my Uncle Elmer and Aunt Syl, we often left very early in the morning, around 3 or 4 AM for that eight hour drive to Pittsburgh.  We still did that as we got older.  Years ago, we rented a van to drive to Pittsburgh for my cousin Ron's wedding.  We left around the same time.  It was always the same reason.  Avoid the traffic in New York.

So here I was, at 4:00 AM on a Friday morning, driving to Ohio for a basketball game.  Dayton is western Ohio, so the trip is somewhat different from Pittsburgh.  But a good part of it takes you into central and western Pennsylvania, highways and scenery I am very familiar with over the years.

The last family trip I took to Pittsburgh was the summer of 2008 when my mom went with my wife, my kids and me on vacation.  It was the last trip my mom would ever take to Pittsburgh.  When I saw the familiar signs off I-81 for I-76/Penn Turnpike, I thought about all the vacations I took with my siblings and parents.  And then I thought about the last trip to Pittsburgh I took with my mom with my own family.  My mom always loved the trip.  I couldn't keep my eyes from watering up.

The trip takes you from southwestern Pennsylvania, briefly through "Wild and Wonderful" West Virginia,  through Columbus onto Fairborn, which is right outside of Dayton.  The hotel, I am staying at, the Fairborn Holiday Inn on Presidential Drive is literally across the street from Wright State University.  It's also a very short drive from the Nutter Center, where Hofstra is playing Wright State later this morning.

If you can't tell from the picture, Wright State is named after the famous Wright Brothers, who moved to Dayton from Indiana in the late 1800s. The University of Dayton's mascot name, Flyers, comes from the first Wright Brothers engine powered plane, "The Wright Flyer".  It's also home to the Wright Patterson Air Force Base, which contains the magnificent National Museum of the United States Air Force.

The first thing you need to know about the museum is that admission is free.  Parking is also free. The museum contains over THREE HUNDRED real planes. They have various galleries - hangars from early planes, to World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Asia-Southeast War (Vietnam), to Cold War era planes and finally an awe inspiring missile gallery. There is also a special registered tour of Presidential planes that you can signup for and and an air park.   It is literally a little boy's dream.  You can click here for a virtual tour.

And it's not just American manufactured war planes.  There are a signficant number of World War I and World War II German and Japanese planes.   A lot of the planes were donated by other countries. One Japanese Zero was found on the Island of New Guinea.  An Air Force B-10, which based on the placard story, the Air Force was desperately trying to find one still intact for the museum.  This B-10 had the insignia of the Argentine Air Force.  That's because the Argentine government bought several of them and this one was donated by the Argentine Air Force. 

My brother, who is ten years older than me, was in the Air Force.  So when he was stationed over in England in the 70's, he would write me letters and enclose drawings of World War II planes, which I so loved.  So, as I walked through the entire World War II gallery, I was a veritable kid in a candy store. As much as I love the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, this so blows it out of the water.  As I walked through the various hangars, I wished my two sons, who love airplanes, were with me to see all these.

Since I only got to my hotel at 2:00 PM, I didn't get to the Air Force museum till 3:00 PM.  I basically rushed through the galleries in about two hours since the museum closes at 5:00 PM.   As I headed back to the gift shop entrance, I saw one of the museum attendants.   Figuring he worked for the Air Force,  I casually stated "You have a great museum here."

The attendant turned around and said, "No, this is your museum," and he proceeded to start a conversation with me.  Jeffery was a volunteer, a retired Dayton policeman, who served 22 years on the force and unfortunately who had been injured on the job.  He talked about how the museum is run by a non profit organization that is entirely funded by donations.  The Air Force only funds the normal operations and maintenance costs of the facility.  Other than that, Jeffery noted that it's people like you and me that fund the museum foundation.  If you would like to donate to the foundation, you can click here.  I plan to become a member when I get back to Long Island.  

Jeffery also talked that they have numerous other planes for which they don't yet have the hangar space.  The museum is also planning to get the Shuttle Atlantis to the museum since the shuttle flew a lot of private missions for the Air Force.  Now that will be really cool to see, since I later got both my boys a toy space shuttle in the museum gift shop.

Finally Jeffery talked to me about the concerns the museum community and people in Dayton in general have about Dayton's economic fortunes.   He talked about how Delco, NCR, Frigidaire and many other companies left Dayton.  He also talked about the GM Truck plant that closed not too long ago.  Apparently many museum officials and Dayton civic leaders are concerned that Dayton will become "unpopulated" as he put it.  They are hoping that another company will come in to beef up employment and that events like the NCAA First Four will help tourism and increase interest in the museum.

As Jeffery talked about Dayton's woes, it reminded me of the manufacturer of a lot of the planes in the museum, Northrop Grumman, or as I knew it growing up, simply Grumman. As many people know, Grumman was a major manufacturer of airplanes for the United States Armed Forces over the years.  Grumman was based in Bethpage, where I lived much of my life.  During the 70's and 80's, many people were employed by Grumman, including several of my brother's friends.   When the Cold War ended, the military aerospace industry basically went into the tank.  Grumman no longer had a lot of government contracts and basically left the island, leaving many people unemployed or finding other jobs.

My mom's house is on Cherry Avenue in Bethpage, across from the high school.  When Grumman was in its heyday, Cherry Avenue was the busiest street between 7:00-9:00 AM and 4:00-6:00 PM during the weekdays.   It was actually a dangerous street to cross.  Nowadays, the traffic is 1/20th of what it was.  The high school is still there and there's now actually a traffic light by the entrance, which was never there years ago (Grumman wouldn't have allowed it).

We have been trying to sell my mom's house for the last several months with few people interested.  From what I hear from my sister, the people that have looked at it are turned off that it is on such a main street with a lot of traffic.  When I heard that, I had to laugh.  If they only knew what it was like in 1980.

I thanked Jeffery for his time and the talk.  When I get back to New York, I will join as a member of the museum foundation and tell others to join as well.   And I will definitely make my way back to Dayton and the museum with my two boys.  They have to see this museum and this time, I will make sure to have most of the day available for the museum.

I got back to my hotel, rested for a few minutes, then went into downtown Dayton for dinner.  I drove around a little bit and noticed that a lot of downtown was vacant on Friday night.  It reminded me of downtown Richmond and Jeffery's comments about Dayton's now lack of industry hit home.

But I made sure to have dinner at the South Park Pizza Tavern that has been made so famous by the Mid Majority's PIG party which he has in honor of the Play in Game annually held in Dayton.  Dayton is now a host site for the "First Four", so it will have two games there, not one, since there are now 68 teams in the tournament.  It's a cozy place that has great unique beers on tap (had the Kolsch last night) and very good pizza.  I recommend the Cheeseburger deluxe.  Very good.   The South Park Tavern also has the U.S vs U.S.S.R hockey game which I played many a night at the Ground Round during the late 80's when watching the NCAA Tournament.

When I was heading towards downtown on Colonel Glenn Highway, I noticed a Dairy Queen on the left side.   So of course on my way back to the hotel,  I stopped at DQ for my traditional blizzard.  I brought my Blizzard back to the hotel and ate it while watching UConn vs. Louisville.  I wanted to watched the replay of VCU vs. Wichita State on ESPN3 on my laptop, but I couldn't get it due to the Holiday Inn wireless.  No matter.   It had been a long day, but a very good one and today brings the BracketBuster game.  Can't ask for anything more than that.

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