Saturday, March 31, 2012

Flying by the seat of their pants.


My mom's been writing up some more of her childhood memories of the family farm lately...here's one about my great uncles and their airplanes.

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I’d like to share some memories of my uncles who loved to fly – Mike, John and Steve Lajcak, my father Andrew’s brothers.  They were farm boys born in Moquah, Wisconsin, just ten miles west of Ashland.  Their parents were Mary and Joseph Lajcak, who immigrated to Moquah in 1910 from Czechoslovakia.  There were seven brothers and two sisters in the family.  

Great Grandpa Joseph and his sons, 1927.
(From left: Steve, Andrew [Jane's father], Paul, John, Frank, Joe, and their father Joseph [1927]. Not pictured: Mike.)


Great Aunts Mary and Anna.
(Their sisters Mary and Anna, 1920s.)

Mike Lajcak was their oldest son.  He was born in 1905, possibly in Czechoslovakia.  Mike only went to school until the 5th grade at Moquah State Graded School.  At this young age he left for work in Detroit, where he remained all his life.

John, the middle son, was born in 1914.  He attended school through the 8th grade and served as a Marine in the war.  John married Elsie Kramolis, also a Moquah native and former Marine.  They settled in Oshkosh where John was a barber.

Steve, the youngest son of the family, was born in 1919.  He finished 8th grade and acquired his high school GED certificate in later years.  I add these education facts because it shows that back in those days, education was minimal in rural areas.  Most students first had to learn to speak English, then learn the rest.  But how much they were able to learn through life experience and the desire to figure out how things worked!


1917.
(Joseph with sons Mike, Joe, Frank, John and Paul, 1917.)

Only recently did I learn that a fourth brother, Paul, also loved airplanes.  He joined the Canadian Air Force in WWII, but tuberculosis and failing health spoiled his dreams and he died in the early 1950s.


Great Uncle Paul, on a giant pile of hay.
(Paul on a hay wagon at the farm, 1928.)
Mike’s first flight home back to Moquah was in his own homemade “Flying Flea” – a tiny plane he finished building in his garage, party with his own inventions.  He and a friend from Moquah, Mike Zoldos, flew their planes at the same time back up north in 1940 – they flew the 700 miles “as the crow flies” to their family farms.  Years later, he would buy and enjoy other planes and was an early member of the Detroit Experimental Aircraft Association.  Mike died in 1985 at age 80.

Great Uncle Mike, Great Aunt Anna, Great Uncle Steve.
(Mike, Anna and Steve.)

John and his wife Elsie had many flying adventures.  They bought their first plane in the early 1950s – John had learned to fly in Oshkosh.  They were an early part of the Oshkosh Aviation Expo and came “home” to Moquah often – sometimes with a toddler between the seats and a newborn in her lap.  Elsie says her older son’s first flight was at ten days old.  Eventually they would have four children and decided it was time to drive north, instead.  John died in 1996 at age 84.
John and his son Kenny in front of his plane, 1950s.


Look at my mom.


(Elsie and kids visiting the farm in Moquah, 1950.)

Steve was our family’s most devoted flyer.  A bachelor, he entered the Army Air Corps in 1940, learned to fly glider planes and served dangerous missions over China and Burma in the Asian Pacific theater of the war.  He received the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal with two Oak Leaf Clusters.  Decades later we would learn that he had also been a part of the Secret Service as part of his military duties.  


Uncle Steve, somewhere in WWII.
(Steve, somewhere, during WWII.)

Steve managed the Ashland and Ontonagon airports after the war, but eventually settled in Denver, Colorado and spent the last years of his life retired back in Iron River, Wisconsin.  We all remember the sound of “Uncle Steve’s” plane, swooping in so low over our little farm to tell us he was coming to visit.  He loved to fly “loop the loops” and put on little thrill shows for the neighbors.  Steve passed away in 1993 at age 80.



Uncle Steve.
(Steve at the airport in Ashland with his last plane, 1985.)


Great Uncle Steve with Dewey, Mary & Nick, 1985.Lenway Tower near Herbster, WI.  Ashland from the skies, 1970.
(Pictures Steve took from his plane -- Lenway Tower in Herbster and the Ashland bayfront, 1970s.)


There was a landing strip on our farm in the late 1940s-50s, to the east of our house, in a large field.  And our machine shed was sometimes used as a hangar.  My brothers, sisters and I all grew up somehow thinking this was “normal” – having uncles land on our hay fields in the summers.  In the early years all three brothers had Aroncas and liked to fly in formation when they were all at home.  Elsie says it let the neighbors know the Lajcak boys were in town!

Farmhouse with landing strip in the field behind it, 1940s.
(Landing strip behind the farmhouse, 1940s.)

Out at the farm with a plane in the background, 1948. 


Uncle Tom in front of an airplane at the farm, 1947.
(My mom's brother Tom in front of an airplane parked at the farm, 1947.)

My grandmother (Mary) never learned to speak English, but was heard to say in Slovak how she thought “if God wanted her sons to fly, he would have given them wings!”

Great Grandma Mary tending piglets, 1928.
 (Great Grandma Mary tending piglets on the farm, 1928.)

What a different time in history that was.  Apparently there were very few regulations – and they called a lot of it “flying by the seat of their pants.”

It makes me wonder how the countryside must have changed in the decades since.  So many little family farms are gone, and I’m sure they relied on the rail lines and few highways as markers.  No cell towers or interstates, and fewer cars and trucks, for sure.  And to fly up north so far as to come upon beautiful Lake Superior – the Moquah valley...all the familiar sights we still call home!  Grandma Lajcak was wrong – her boys did have wings!

-- Jane Asbach, March 2012


1 comment:

Elena said...

We share Moquah roots and I often heard your family's name in my grandma's tales!