I had never attended an estate sale before.
Sure I've been to garage sales where someone has sifted through their garage and back closets to fill folding tables with old clothes, bikes with flat tires and their obsolete VCR tape collection, but this was different. A buddy at work, who regularly tracks estate sales, knew about my interests in aviation and pointed out that there was an estate sale this weekend for a retired WWII pilot. That got my attention and after reviewing a few intriguing pictures online I decided to brave the wind and rain and head to Cameron Park first thing Saturday morning.
I may not have been to an estate sale before, but I was the trustee for my Mother's estate, so I do understand the fire drill the family must have gone through to get to this point. It's one of those jobs that has to be done; carefully filtering through your parent's belongings, trying to figure out what to do with them and trying to make sure you don't throw something away that has value.
"Value" is a relative term.
Sometimes precious things have very little actual value. Spend a few minutes on EBay and you will get my drift. A silver comb set from my Grandmother's night stand, a silk ribbon from the Chicago World's Fair, old books with simple childhood sketches scribbled on the back page, all precious in their own way, saved by my Mother, but never put on display. After a while, I felt like I was running an orphanage, trying to match up the perfect loving couple to adopt some random family artifact before it faced the city dump or the shelves of Goodwill. If I was lucky I could find someone who cherished it and preserved it, just like Mom did. In some ways these were artifacts of her life and if I placed them in a good home with someone who recognized their "value", in some ways it would extend her story. When I was succesful it made me feel like I was really doing the job that was entrusted to me as the Trustee.
These thoughts ran through my mind as I drove along under those threatening skies on the winding country roads east of Folsom Lake. I decided that my approach to this estate sale was to focus on looking for small things that I could preserve that would extend the story of the person's home I was about to visit.
That story started to enfold right away.
Edward B. Fitch
Born in Kalamazoo Michigan in 1918, he was a retired Colonel in the Army Air Force who passed away in his home in Cameron Park in October just a few months ago. He served in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. He flew 55 missions in Europe and 65 missions in Korea. During World War II he flew fighters, medium bombers, utility and cargo airplanes. As his career continued he went on to fly jet fighters, KC-135 jet tankers, B-47 and B-52 bombers. In 1973 he retired and went to work for Boeing Aircraft Corporation as the Manager of Plans and Programs which included some time in Iran training aircrews for the Iranian Air Force. In 1976 he retired to his home in Cameron Park to focus on "golfing, model building and restoring a 1955 Thunderbird".
Now I didn't know all this before I made it to the estate sale, but just the Google Maps view of his residence should have given me an inkling that aviation was an important part of the Colonel's life.
I had no idea that there was an airport in Cameron Park.
I was somewhat shocked when I started getting glimpses of an airstrip just off Cameron Park Drive. This had to be a heck of a place to try and land an aircraft, especially on a windy day. Small municipal airports are a dwindling resource in our country and this one is of an even rarer variety. The Cameron Airpark Estates (note the Boeing Street label above) have extra wide streets and hanger sized garage doors to allow residents to actually taxi down their street to the airport. This deserved further investigation, so I drove down a few of the streets and took a couple pictures. The road was easily the equivalent of a four lane highway and most homes had hanger sized garage doors. Airplanes were sitting on driveways or inside garages. I just can't imagine taking your evening walk and waiving at your neighbor as he taxis his Cessna through the neighborhood!
The Colonel's house was not along the airstrip, but maybe a half mile away.
It snugged right up against the golf course. The house had a long driveway that wrapped around a beautifully landscaped front yard complete with swimming pool and a tropical cabana. I'm not sure why, but seeing the cabana and the bamboo made me start thinking about "The Right Stuff" with fighter pilots racing around with their girlfriends in convertibles on the beaches in Florida. Clearly the Colonel had picked a nice comfortable nest and wedged himself between two of his favorite hobbies, flying and golfing. Well done Colonel!
As I entered the house, I was able to enjoy panoramic views of the golf course. As expected rooms were jammed with people, hoisting cardboard boxes carefully combing through things and grabbing whatever caught their attention. The decorator items had an international flavor, reflecting the travelling that the Colonel did in his 34 years in the military. For fans of aviation there was plenty to look at. Tables were full of dusty models, some still with fishing line attached that must have hung from the ceiling at one time. Shelves were stacked with framed pictures on the top shelves and crammed with books about military history down below. His love of aviation clearly spanned all eras because there were books, models and memorabilia from WWI all the way to current era jet fighters.
I picked up four things while I was there.
The first was collection of ceramic tiles with nose art from various squadrons. Not a rare item but I thought it would look good on the wall in my office at home.
The second was a metal model of a Spad VII Fighter sitting on a plastic box that was an AM radio. The model itself came from Japan and was very well made. I honestly think it got lost among all the plastic models on the table. I felt lucky to get it.
The third item was something God must have wanted me to have.
You go outside to get items priced by the Loud Guy with the cowboy hat who does the pricing. Then he tells you to go inside and talk to the Crazy Cherokee Woman at the cash register inside the kitchen to pay. She indeed did answer to "Crazy Cherokee Woman" and proceeded to give us historical facts about her tribe. While you wait in line there were some glass cases and table displays of more precious items. The line was long so I had some time to look at the items and I had seen this book of rendered images of World War I planes from 1965. It was lovely, but I had no idea what things cost and decided my metal Spad was enough of a find so I passed it by.
When I got up to the cash register, a rambling Shabby Guy came up with the book in his hand.
Shabby Guy, "How much for this book?"
Crazy Cherokee Woman, "Ten Dollars." I gulped and kicked myself.
Shabby Guy, "Really? I was thinking maybe five dollars." Oh my god, I thought.
I jumped in. "I'll buy it for ten dollars."
Shabby Guy. "Here ya go." And he shoves the book into my hand with a sneer on his face.
So that is how I bought this book. Fate is more interesting than any rational strategy. I guess now I understand how estate sales work.
The surprise was that inside the book, carefully place between the pages were four prints from the Leach Corporation Heritage of the Air Series. The Leach Corporation manufactured relay components for the aerospace industry and in 1959 they commissioned the first painting for an ad they placed in the "Aviation Week & Space Technology Magazine". They received such a favorable response they quickly commissioned another painting, and then another. By 1966 the series comprised of a total of 45 paintings. The images were enormously popular with many thousands of paintings distributed worldwide. The Colonel must have stored them in this book because the page sizes where about the same.
Well I made it home and was feeling quite satisfied at my adventure.
I did more research, found the obituary and some Air Force historical documents that filled in the edges and started to write this blog. Married for 59 years, proceeded in death by his loving wife Evelyn. Two daughters and grandchildren and great grandchildren. Interned at Arlington Cemetery. And then this sentence, "He was a fiercely independent and determined individual". No question about that considering the 55 missions in Europe and 65 missions in Korea. I saw the powered scooter in the garage, 98 years old and still living in his own home. Living alone probably eighteen years after his wife passed, in his dream home between the golf course and the airstrip. It made you wonder what that that time was like. Maybe it explained all those models.
There was one more artifact that I passed over in the garage.
It was in a bin full of odds and ends, exacto blades and needle nose plyers. It caught my attention. I knew what it was for, but I left it in the bin. When I returned home and started to write this blog, it kept nagging at me. That night the winds really howled and I didn't sleep very well. I woke up early and decided, the hell with it, I am going to go back and get it. The storm was even worse for this second trip, but no cars in the street in front of the house. Clearly for the collectors, all the good stuff was gone. My heart raced a bit as I asked if I could go back in the garage. I was worried that it would be gone. I felt some relief when I saw it was still there.
A simple tool, hand built out of rough lumber A 2 x 4, with a 2 x 2 held in place by two brass screws and carefully routed so it could hold a magnifying glass.
This was not fine wood working, but a pragmatic piece of carpentry for a diligent model maker, especially as your eyesight begins to fail. This tool stuck in my head because it was the one item in the estate that he built himself, with his own hands, not from a model or a kit.
As I held it I couldn't help but think that during his forty years of retirement, my whole adult life took shape. I went to college, got married, had two kids, built a career. As I approach 60 years old, friends and family are retiring around me and I wonder what will it be like. If I am so blessed to make it there (knock on wood), what is the right way to do it?
I never met Colonel Fitch, but he clearly was a hero in the first half of his life and it sure looks like he did a good job with the second half as well. He achieved a lot, lived life with a passion and finished strong.
I am going to hold on to that thought and this simple wooden tool. It appears both things might come in handy in the future.