Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Christmas Sweater

So, in my last post I mentioned that I got a package from my Aunt Diana.  Inside was a very nice and warm wool sweater with a bit of a history.

Me sporting this awesome sweater. (It even has a pocket!)
As I said, this sweater has a bit of a history.  Aunt Diana wrote it all out and had Grandpa look it over, then she sent it to me.  She gave me permission to share it on here, so here it is:

The Christmas Sweater

A Visit to the Land of Ice and Snow

            In 1987 Grandma Rose and Captain Bob flew a single-engine light plane across the Atlantic from Connecticut to the beaches of Normandy.  The reason?  Captain Bob was doing research on the Allied landings on D-Day and wanted to visit the beaches of Normandy where the allied troops landed in WWII.  Aunt Ava was stationed in Iceland and they could visit her while on the way to Normandy.  Logistically, Captain Bob was a member of a light airplane club founded by his accountant who wanted to spread the costs and use of his airplanes among more people, and the airplane, 2241 Quebec, a Piper Arrow, was available.  Captain Bob could get the time off from his day job of flying for Pan Am.  It would be an adventure.
            But was any reason really necessary?  Captain Bob had a severe case of aviosis, a disease that only affects pilots.  Pilots afflicted with aviosis have an irresistible desire to hang out at airports and talk flying with any and all people who they could convince to listen to them.  Aviosis also involved the exchange of flying stories, near misses and occasional tips on how to improve your avionic skills.  Those poor souls suffering from aviosis could only reduce their symptoms of withdrawal by spending as much time in or near airplanes, or at the very least, talking about them. 
           Captain Bob was lucky that he could fly for a living, but that was not enough.  He taught flying at New Air, the nearest fixed base operation, as well as being its director of training.  All students seeking FAA approval of and licensing for their flying skills had to first fly with and pass the scrutiny of Captain Bob before they were okayed to fly with a FAA instructor/examiner.  This system resulted in essentially none of the student pilots failing to get approval from the FAA.  If the student did not pass muster with Captain Bob, more training was needed before the rendezvous with the Federal bureaucracy.
                As you can see, flying was more than just a livelihood to Captain Bob.  It was a passion.  This passion expressed itself in finding excuses to fly.  He decided that instead of just flying across the country a light plane from Connecticut to California for my graduation from law school, it would be more interesting to fly to and land in each of the forty-eight contiguous United States.  So that is what happened.  After moving to Florida he wondered if the extreme Christmas light display at a local home would be visible from the air.  He rented an airplane and checked it out.  It was visible in the air.  As you can see, any reason was a good excuse to fly an airplane, such as flying from the frigid northeast in the winter to Florida to visit grandchildren, which happened on more than one occasion. 
                The co-pilot, navigator and adventurer who accompanied Captain Bob on these trips was none other than the timid, retiring, but ever-loving wife, Grandma Rose.  Home and happiness was where her husband led her, even as she quaked with fear and made multiple trips to the bathroom before any adventure could commence. 
                This great adventure, a proposed trip across the Atlantic in a single engine light plane, required wading through bureaucratic rules of an international nature and acquiring or renting safety equipment, mainly to ensure survival in the event of the unthinkable, a crash into frigid arctic water or onto an ice flow with the chance of being eaten by polar bears.  A raft was required, cold water survival suits, a gun to ward off those hungry polar bears, as well as food for surviving that unthinkable crash.  A company in New Jersey provided the raft and survival suits.  These cold water flotation suits, available only in “one size fits most,”  were obviously NOT going to fit the petite, 5’3”, 110 lb. Grandma Rose in the same way that they would fit the larger, 6’1”, 220 lb. Captain Bob.  Floating in the survival suit in the seat of the airplane probably not what was intended, but for Grandma Rose, that was the situation/reality.  
                An additional requirement was that several days worth of food be taken with them.  I rifled through the growing pile of required items looking for cool, freeze dried food or MRIs (meals ready to eat) but all (the only edibles ) I could find were hard candies.  With the all important list in my hand, I asked Captain Bob where his food was.  He pointed to what I had mistakenly thought was for in-flight snacking.  
                “That isn’t food!  You can’t live on this.”  I said. 
                “We don’t need to live on it.” he replied.  “We just need to survive long enough to be rescued.  Besides, I don’t plan to crash.” 
                Hrummrpf.  I doubt many pilots actually plan to crash, but there was no purpose is discussing this issue.  It apparently was not something he even considered.  He left those thoughts to be considered and vigorously debated by every person who heard of this proposed endeavor.  (n.b. Grandpa deleted this entire paragraph when he edited the story!) 
                The only useful new thing that was purchased for the trip was a portable GPS (actually an ADF direction finder) to back-up the plane’s GPS in case problems arose, and to provide for cross referencing.   In its afterlife it would serve aboard the Mardigova, Captain Bob’s 34 foot SeaSprite sailboat.  
                Every time you fly there is a procedure to follow called weights and balances.  A plane has limits on how much weight it can have on board and still fly.  Fuel, necessary for flight, has weight and must be calculated into weights and balances.  If you want to carry full fuel tanks, a necessity for a long-range trip, you will be limited in the amount of other weight that can be in the aircraft.  An interesting historical fact is that the first transpacific flights (Pan American Airlines, of course) were flown in airplanes that could carry 35 passengers.  However, the need for fuel, and its accompanying weight, only allowed eight passengers to actually fly on those transpacific trips.   
                In strict compliance with weights and balances requirements, Captain Bob actually weighed every single item that was going into the airplane, no estimates.  To reduce overall weight the two back seats of the four-seater airplane were removed.  Survival gear, maps, snacks, clothing, everything was weighed, even the people.  Grandma Rose was affectionately known as the bag lady, as she would but miscellaneous items into plastic bags.  These plastic bags multiplied.  We had a German meat scale we had brought from Berlin and every small item that wasn’t easily weighed on a human scale was weighed of this scale.  Then, the item description and its weight was memorialized on a list, which ran to several pieces of paper.  
                When the lists of weights were tallied, the airplane was over gross!  This means that its weight was over the legal weight for take-off.  Even stripped to the bare necessities for the trip by removing superfluous items, the weight was still too high.  What to do?  Cancel the trip?  No.  Captain Bob merely reduced his own weight by twenty pounds, a figure that brought the weight to just one pound under the maximum allowable amount.  He rationalized that after flying for a while and burning fuel, the weight would be lessened by the reduction in fuel weight and all would be copacetic.  And this was from the father who only discovered in his seventies, more than four decades later, that most of his five children had lied about their monthly weight, a record he kept when we were growing up.  His older three daughters routinely lessened their weight, while his scrawny, skinny son added to his weight. Only Aunt Ava, too young to have any embarrassment concerning her weight, was truthful. 
                The planned adventure advanced to reality.  Landing the airplane in Canada was required for a check of equipment and survival gear.  The required gun was not in their equipment, a fire axe was substituted and hoped to fulfill the protection requirement.  It did.  The officials failed to examine Captain Bob’s lengthy sheath of papers listing the weight of all items in the aircraft, much to his consternation and dismay.  However, he was LYING about his own weight.  He should have been happy. 
                The trip went well, no crashes, no hungry polar bears to deal with, no need to subsist on hard candies while awaiting rescue.  I called the air traffic control tower in Iceland on Aunt Marcie’s birthday, expecting that 2241 Quebec had arrived.  I was a few minutes too early.  I was told that the plane was on their radar screen and would be landing within twenty minutes.  Good enough, I thought.  They have arrived safely.  I phoned my siblings and other relatives to announce the safe arrival.  After landing, Captain Bob phoned Aunt Marcie to announce their arrival and was astounded to discover that she already knew!  
                From Iceland the Beaches of Normandy beckoned.  That goal achieved all that was needed was to reverse direction and go home.  Everything went as planned until Mother Nature required a change to the grand plan.  The transatlantic portions of the flight followed the prevailing winds to minimize fuel usage and optimize distance and speed.  Eastbound, the intrepid adventurers landed in Narsarsuaq, Greenland, a town of about 150 residents who essentially worked at the airport or hotel.  The airport had been an important airport in World War II for planes to use while being ferried to England.  Captain Bob wanted to see this historic airport.  Ruins of Viking homes can be seen across the fjord from the airport. 
Narsarsuaq, Greenland.  Check out 
       On the return trip, however, the landing in Greenland was further north because of prevailing winds.  The airport that would be the last fueling opportunity before the long stretch across the Atlantic Ocean did not have any fuel.  Its fuel was located across the fjord and visible from the airport in 50 gallon barrels.  The problem was that it was on the wrong side of the fjord and icebergs in the fjord made it impossible for the barge to transport the aviation fuel to the airport.  The solution to this problem?  Leave Grandma Rose behind in Iceland and carry the fuel needed with you.   She could fly commercially and Captain Bob could proceed by himself to Boston, where they would be reunited.  
                This new plan was put into effect with the assistance of Aunt Ava.  She was in the Air Force and worked as a radar technician in Iceland stationed at Keflavik/ Reykjavik.  Her job entailed tracking Russian Bears, Russian aircraft flying over international and American soil.  Aunt Ava helped Captain Bob purchase ten five-gallon fuel tins of military design to carry in the airplane.  All went well according to Plan B, even though you are not supposed to fly with fuel in an airplane cabin.  Another violation of regulations. 

                As Grandma Rose was a shopper with unexpected time to kill in Iceland and looking for presents, trips to stores selling the famously warm Icelandic wool items was a must.  Icelandic sheep are a very primitive ship, having been brought over by the Vikings.  They are also unique among sheep as they have a double coat, a long, straight overcoat for weather resistance, and a softer, curlier and fluffier undercoat for warmth, essentially two different and distinct types of wool.  The long, straight outside guard hair that protects them from the weather, and a softer, fluffier, warm undercoat that keeps them very warm.  
               The sheep come in a variety of colors: shades of black, brown and grey.  The two different types of wool they produce results in three types of yarn. The separate types of wool individually made into separate wools, or they are combined to create a yarn that is called lopi.  All of this wool is very warm. 
             The sheep are a primitive breed.  They were brought to Iceland over 1,000 years.  There was no grain on Iceland so the sheep had to survive on grass, even in the winter.  The weaker, less hardy animals died leaving a very resilient, intelligent animal. The sheep provided milk, meat, wool and pelts.
              Horses also arrived with the Vikings.  Shetland, Connemara and Highland ponies are thought to have been imported from Great Britain.  These hoses also needed to be hardy and natural selection made them hardy.  They, too, had a double coat for warmth.
            In Iceland there are not many resources so nothing is put to waste.  Everything that can be used, is used.  In addition to be used for recreation, as horses are in this country, Icelandic horses continue to be used on farms.  Some are even breed for slaughter.  Their pelts are harvested after death.  Your mother and I each received an Icelandic horse pelt from Aunt Ava.  I still have mine.  It is a robust chestnut, similar in color to the horse on the left. 
            Your Christmas sweater is a sweater Grandma Rose bought for herself in Iceland on this transatlantic adventure.  I thought that you should know its provenance, and thus wrote this story for you.  The sweater is made with various colors of naturally colored Icelandic wool.  Wear it in good health and warmth during your own adventure teaching English to Korean children.
Aunt Diana
That's the history of it.  I find it interesting that this sweater started in Iceland, spent about ten years in Connecticut, USA then about another ten years in Florida, USA before arriving in Korealand.

I'd say this sweater's been around....


  1. It looks good on you :) I think Grandma would've enjoyed seeing you wearing it!