Nickel Ross died yesterday. It wasn’t really a surprise – he was 96, and when you’re 96, your chances of making it through a Wisconsin winter are even at best – but he was such a constant that it’s got all of us taking time to remember.
For me, I keep going back about a decade ago, back to the weeks leading up to the second weekend in July, when the consensus at the Prop Wash Cafe was that Nickel had decided to be old.
Those who already were old snickered at the news. Nickel was 83 at the time. They felt it was only right he started acting his age.
For the rest of us, however, it was a sad prospect, Nickel Ross deciding to be old. Sort of like contemplating your own mortality. Never mind that Nickel was thirty…forty…fifty years older than the rest of us. If it could happen to Nickel…
Part of our fascination with Nickel’s age came from the fact that he was even still around. Nobody crashes an airplane five times over the course of a life. At least nobody who makes it to 83.
But that’s just what Nickel did. Shot down twice in WWII. Once in Korea. Clipped a wire during his crop dusting days out west, then lost an engine on takeoff a few years back “just to remember what it felt like.”
Eighty-three years old.
Some would say a guy like Nickel shouldn’t have still been flying. The diminished skills argument. At 83, he’s just not the pilot he used to be, they’d say. And after five crashes…after five crashes, even he should have had the good sense to admit his luck must have been running mighty lean.
Whether or not any of this had an impact on Nickel’s decision, nobody knew. Nickel was a quiet, unsentimental man who figured once a thing was done, it was done. Because of that, he never gave a reason for his odd decision, and because Nature abhors a vacuum, speculation ran wild.
Nickel had sold his plane, you see. Flew it to Prairie du Chien for some fuel one morning and sold it to the first stooge to make the traditional “Nice Cub…wanna sell it?” offer. Just up and sold it. Cash on the barrelhead.
Was Nickel sick, people wondered. Did he need the money? There had to be some explanation. Whether he should have been flying or not was beside the point. Nobody just few to Prairie and sold his plane. Nobody with a logbook as thick as the Milwaukee Yellow Pages, at any rate.
With time, however, the wilder possibilities were dismissed in favor of the one fact that was obvious to anyone who saw him sitting there in his empty hanger: age.
And there was no denying it – without that old Cub, Nickel did look old. How could he help it? Without that old Cub, all his definitions had changed. His logbook was just a scrapbook. His hanger was just a place to pass the time.
For those of us not smirking in our coffee, it was all very sad. Especially when you considered his annual trip to Des Moines. For as long as anyone could remember, Nickel had flown to Des Moines on the second weekend in July. It was like death and taxes. On the second weekend in July, Nickel flew to Des Moines to celebrate his daughter Jilly’s birthday
But not that year. That year, Nickel drove.
So we were all feeling pretty low that Saturday morning toward the middle of July when we saw the note tacked to his hanger. A For Sale sign, we figured. We knew it would only be a matter of time before he got rid of it, but still. A thing like that hurts.
To our surprise, however, it wasn’t a For Sale sign. It was, instead, a kind of open letter. An open letter that told us Nickel might have given up on his plane, but not himself.
I copied it down so I wouldn’t forget, and now I’m really glad I did:
Ode to My Shorts
“A rose is a role,” the great Bard said
but the same’s not true for boxers.
Some call them shorts, some underwear
some art, some privates’ lockers.
Some are silk, some drip-and-dry
the good ones have designs.
The best turn something intimate
into a great big sign.
The ones I’ve got are Warbird themed
the nose art’s quite erotic.
And it gives me peace of mind to know
my cheeks are patriotic.
When I wear my shorts, I feel so cool
it’s a shame to be so shy.
The world should see such vintage wings –
old planes are meant to fly.
Though my boxers give me confidence
girls still pass without a glance.
Yet it’s hard to feel too down on life
when you’ve got a Mustang in your pants.