Welcome to the Chubby Chatterbox Newsletter, where I’ll be posting favorites from the Chubby Chatterbox archives. In addition, my complete thriller Return of the Mary Celeste will soon be serialized here for those who have asked for something beyond a regular post.

My novel is based on a true event, arguably the greatest maritime mystery of all time. In 1872 the crew and passengers of Boston brigantine Mary Celeste abandoned their seaworthy ship and its valuable cargo, vanishing in the middle of the Atlantic. Speculation over their fate has never abated. History records that after the Mary Celeste tragedy no one from that fateful voyage was ever seen again. History is about to be rewritten…

Return of the Mary Celeste


Tragedy struck the brigantine Mary Celeste on the morning of November 25, 1872. The hourly log was later recovered from the deserted vessel; At 8 a.m. the last notation was made. By 9 a.m. no one remained aboard to chalk the next entry.

Something had terrified Captain Benjamin Briggs and his crew, prompting the seasoned skipper to make a decision certain to affect not only himself, his ship and crew, but his family as well—his wife and two year old daughter were aboard Mary Celeste. Much ink has been spilled in fanciful and scientific attempts to explain the calamity that engulfed this perfectly seaworthy ship, yet all that is known for certain is this: in a matter of minutes Captain Briggs became convinced that the only way to save their lives was by ordering everyone into a hastily launched lifeboat. By giving the order to abandon ship, he also launched the greatest of all maritime mysteries.

On December 5, 1872, a month after leaving New York Harbor, Mary Celeste was found drifting on a calm and empty sea. The ship was in fine condition, perfectly intact with valuable cargo safely stored in her hold, but the crew and passengers had vanished. None were ever seen again.

Until now….

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Dad Goes Solo

April 26, 2017

I was inspired to post this reworked piece from 2012 after discovering this photograph among my late mother’s things. It was taken after Dad soloed, earning his private pilot’s license. I’m the little grinning dork in the copilot seat, although I waited on the ground during the solo.




Whenever Dad saw a picture of Amelia Earhart, he’d get a wistful faraway look on his face and mumble under his breath, “You know, she would have been an attractive woman with just a bit of makeup.”


I remember observing Dad as he watched a news report about her on TV: A picture of a smiling woman with short-cropped hair had popped up on the screen, and Dad was wearing that wistful look.


I asked him who this friendly looking lady was, and he said,” Why Amelia, of course. Amelia Earhart.”


“But who is she?” I wanted to know.


Dad looked at me solemnly. “She was a famous pilot who disappeared in 1937 and was never seen again!”


I remember thinking what a wonderful name Air-heart was for someone who flew.


“What do you mean she disappeared?” I asked.


“Well, she just vanished. She was trying to fly around the world, but she disappeared somewhere over the Pacific Ocean.”


I was fascinated. That night he told me all about Amelia and her co-pilot Fred Noonan, and how they’d taken a Lockheed Electra 10E ( Dad knew his planes) and attempted to circumnavigate the earth. I’d heard adults bump into each other unexpectedly and say, “Small world,” but I still figured it for a very big place. In school we were learning about exotic lands, and it seemed unbelievable that this smiling woman, this Air-heart, had attempted to fly around the whole kit and kaboodle.


Planes were Dad’s passion. He first got to ride in a plane during the war. He was in the Navy at eighteen and had been shipped off to the island of Guam. Dad was there with the Seabees to build runways and barracks to prepare for the invasion of Japan. When I was young, I misunderstood him and thought he was saying the island of Gum, which to a kid sounded like a terrific place. I imagined an azure sea surrounding a tropical paradise composed of chewing gum and bubble gum, licorice-flavored gum and cinnamon gum. No wonder there was a war out there—who wouldn’t fight for a place like that?


During the war, Dad was temporarily removed from duty when he hurt his hand. I used to fantasize that he got hurt while helping remove the wreckage of a Japanese Zero that had kamikazied into their camp, but his injury occurred while moving a latrine. Nevertheless, he was allowed to go up in a B-24 Liberator with a few of the guys and treated to a spectacular aerial view of the island that he never forgot. He must have gazed out at the limitless Pacific and wondered about his beloved Amelia, lost in all that water.


Many times when Dad and I would be walking together, my little hand in his big one, I’d look up at him and see his prominent Adam’s apple, his head tilted back as he studied a plane flying overhead. When I was small I was terrified that one day he might get into an airplane himself and disappear like this Air-heart person.


I was miserable when Dad decided to learn how to fly. My mother didn’t approve of the costly lessons but didn’t complain. Dad seldom asked for anything. I went with him when he took his first flying lesson. My brother David rarely accompanied us; he was too busy playing sports and filling his trophy case.


The flight lesson departed from Airport Village, a small extension of the San Jose Airport. I watched Dad and the flight instructor climb into a tiny plane and take off, the plane getting smaller and smaller until it disappeared into the haze. I waited nervously on a small observation deck until Dad and the instructor returned.




Dad after his solo flight in 1965


Several months of lessons followed, and before long Dad took his solo flight. When he returned, there was a ceremony; his instructor took a pair of scissors and cut the tails off Dad’s shirt. I remember being startled by this, but Dad assured me everything was okay. In fact, he’d worn that old shirt for just that reason.


He explained that pilots always got their “tail-feathers” clipped when they first flew solo. Dad looked happy about it so I decided it was okay, but the whole thing seemed off putting to me. We once had a pet parakeet named Chipper, and Dad paid extra at the pet store to have the bird’s wings clipped so it couldn’t fly away. It seemed strange that clipping a bird’s wings prevented it from flying, yet pilots symbolically submitted to similar treatment to celebrate the fact that they could.


I liked accompanying Dad in our old Packard when he drove to the metal building beside the airport where he rented a plane. The building smelled of grease, gasoline and body odor, a pleasant smell I’ll always associate with Dad. There was a candy machine, and he would give me money for a chocolate bar. There I’d be, with a big circle of chocolate around my mouth as my father disappeared into the wild, blue yonder. One day I was rewarded for being Dad’s airport buddy—he invited me to go up with him. I panicked at first. The little Cessna Dad rented looked pretty rickety. But the lure of flying over rooftops overrode my fear. Before long I was champing at the bit to be soaring like an eagle.


Dad was extremely methodical. Although he never said it, you always knew what he was thinking: “If you’re going to do something, do it right.”


He began his pre-flight checklist. To my horror there were nearly twenty items on the list.


I watched him pull back the engine cover and pull out the dipstick to check the oil. I should have been grateful that he was so conscientious—after all, our lives depended on it—but I wasn’t. In my head I screamed, Enough already. Let’s goooooo!


We didn’t go. Dad examined the plane like a surgeon looking for a lump. Then he pressed a button and the plane pissed a small stream of gas onto the gravel; he said something about clearing air from the fuel hose. I stood beside the plane and tried to be as patient as possible. I was pondering how long eternity was when Dad suddenly dropped the hood back over the engine and informed me we were ready to depart. He lifted me up and buckled me into the co-pilot’s seat. He turned the ignition switch and the engine roared to life. The little plane trembled, and then purred like a living being.


I couldn’t wait to slip the bonds of gravity. Fear and excitement were dueling in my stomach.



Conclusion on Friday



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Your dad was probably a better pilot than Harrison Ford at least. There's a small airport near me where I could get lessons if I had the money and inclination but as you noted there's a lot of stuff you have to keep track of. Still, even the risk of crashing is better than flying United, right?
By: PT Dilloway on April 26, 2017
I never thought about Amelia's last name- but Air-Heart was perfect for her. Love this story about your dad- looking forward to Friday's conclusion!
By: Kathe W. on April 26, 2017
My dad had his license and owned a one engine lower wing Navion. He was everybit as cautious as your pop in his preflight checklist. One day we took off and he immediately turned around and landed, as one of his gauges was not right. Turned out a tube was clogged with a worm. I never objected to his caution. I'm looking forward to part II.
By: cranky on April 26, 2017
I learned to fly in a Cessna like that! I let my license lapse years ago, but this brings back many fond memories.
By: Kelly on April 26, 2017
How wonderful for you!!
By: fishducky on April 26, 2017
I've never had much romance in my mind toward flying around in small dangerous aircraft. I also like how people say Amelia "disappeared." I just think that's a euphemism for, "Her airplane went down in the Pacific and her final moments were horrible as she died." Of course she could have been stranded on an island of some kind and starved to death hobbled by injuries. Yeah, "disappeared" sounds so much better.
By: Michael Offutt on April 26, 2017
I love this one Stephen. R
By: Rick Watson on April 26, 2017
Piloting a plane was not something ever considered by people I was surrounded by when i was growing up. That must have been amazing to witness. I agree that clipping a new pilot's wings (well, tail feathers) is a strange tradition.
By: Mitchell is Moving on April 26, 2017
You were a brave little soldier to take that ride! Even WITH the chocolate bribe.
By: Val on April 26, 2017
Your father was an amazing person, but you knew that already.
By: messymimi on April 26, 2017
I keep wondering what your dad was thinking about your feelings and interest in this adventure.
By: Tabor on April 26, 2017
I got my pilot's license and it was all the excitement and fun you describe. It was too much money too keep up.
By: red Kline on April 26, 2017
I love how excited you look in that shot. Flying is not something I ever considered doing; I don't even like commercial airplanes :)
By: jenny_o on April 26, 2017
Your Dad looks like one of the Beach Boys. :D My friend was a Fighter Pilot for the RAF and now flies for BA, and they do about an hour's work of checks on a plane before they take off, and for that I'm very grateful!
By: LL Cool Joe on April 26, 2017
Fond and cherished memories of you and your Dad.
By: Daniel LaFrance on April 26, 2017
You've got my attention. By the way-wonderful memories of your Dad.
By: Tom Cochrun on April 26, 2017
I loved the picture of your Dad with you in background. This is exactly how I remember him. He was such a nice person to us kids! I do not remember you ever telling the neighorhood kids about flying with your dad! How exciting! What a great memory to have! I am surprised you never took up flying! I wonder if this is where Darwin got his love of flying? Did he ever give him a ride? Have a great day!
By: Linda on April 27, 2017
This brings my memories of my own flying days, short though they were. I had imagined that flying would enable me to travel more places faster, but between Mississippi's thunder storms and only having a VFR rating, it didn't work out that way. I have no regrets though, and it didn't really cost THAT much at the little airport I flew out of and thanks to the fact that I share ownership of my Cessna 150 with five other guys.
By: Snowbrush on April 27, 2017
beautiful story. I had heard of Amelia before. Didn't know she had disappeared, though. Greetings from London.
By: A Cuban In London on April 27, 2017
I am really enjoying this story and am looking forward to more. Never made the connection with her name and Air Heart. Quite clever. You look like you are ready to burst with excitement and your dad looks the confident, handsome pilot. I almost got my license but broke up with the fellow teaching me who was the owner of the plane before I qualified. It really is another world up there.
By: Arkansas Patti on April 27, 2017
This is what I get for publishing a day early. Dang it. Looking forward to the conclusion of your story, Stephen.
By: Mr. Shife on April 27, 2017
What a great memory with your Dad
By: Jimmy on April 27, 2017
I love that picture of your dad and you in the background! And I *still* think that Amelia Earhart was a good-looking woman, even without makeup.
By: Pixel Peeper on April 29, 2017

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