Dad, our hero, our protector |

Dad, our hero, our protector

When my 40th birthday descended last summer, I opted to skip the party and take to the car. I’d forever romanticized coastal Maine but somehow never quite made the trip. Figuring it was time, my four kids and I boarded our minivan and drove from San Francisco to Bar Harbor ” an odyssey in our Odyssey, you might say. From Cheyenne’s rodeo scene to Colorado’s incredible Rockies, Niagara Falls to Old Montreal, and Vermont’s riotous sea of green to the glory Maine proved to be, every stop along my six-week birthday tour was spectacular. We each had a favorite, but the stop that consumes me still is North Platte, Nebraska, a town I’d dropped in on 32 years earlier while flying from Vail with my dad.

It must have been 100 degrees the day our van coursed Interstate 80’s linear path through Nebraska’s endless rolling plains, a welcome smattering of trees here and there juxtaposed with the ubiquitous corn fields and cattle. My giddy urban progeny asked me to lower the windows and leave them there, thrilled to take in the Midwest’s offering of honest, unsullied air. Soon, North Platte reared its head, the memories rushed in, and I remembered I had a pretty darned good tale to tell. “Hey, kids,” I crowed, “This is where I almost fell from an airplane …”

My dad was Clint Eastwood-cool: beloved town dentist, Harley aficionado, sturdy Renaissance man of the Minnesota varietal. Thanks to his passion for flying and alpine skiing, our modest suburban existence was garnished with a single decadence: ski trips. Minnesota doesn’t boast the most challenging downhill terrain so during the ’70s my dad and a posse of other tooth-concerned professionals began trekking to a place called Vail, an up-and-coming ski resort in Colorado. (The clever ones bought real estate.)

Vail would become heaven to us kids, our true second home. We weren’t exactly jet-setters but we knew we were lucky. A few times each season dad got the itch, we’d ditch school, pile en masse into the old Piper Cherokee 180-D (the “Dog”) he shared with a pal and off we’d go, visions of Mid-Vail’s saran-wrapped brownies and our beloved Flapjack-to-Riva run dancing in our heads. The Dog’s seating couldn’t accommodate our whole brood so it was left to us kids to negotiate who merited a proper seat and who’d be relegated to the rear baggage compartment for flights to and from Denver. I came to prefer the latter, mostly because I could secretly unbuckle the cargo straps, sprawl out in comfort, and nosh on dad’s stash of Nut Goodies and chocolate-covered cherries. Air sickness invariably limited its visits to me, so this arrangement came to suit everyone else just fine.

One February, we were flying from Colorado when the cargo door decided to burst open. A mere 8 years old, there I sat: inches away, a little dumbstruck, unbelted as usual. It happened real fast, as a crisis will, but I can still hear the door’s shotgun blast and see our luggage ” lift ticket-adorned jackets, ski boots, mom’s hot hair curler set, Columbo detective game ” sucked into the grayed winter skies. I can hear the frosted winds gusting through, the door banging open-shut-open-shut, and mom screeching some semblance of an “Oh God” refrain. I can hear her begging my properly belted siblings to “turn around and hold her!” and see her shaking dad’s right arm, as if helping, not hindering his piloting efforts. And I can hear dad calmly and uncharacteristically telling her to “shut up, for chrissake.”

I learned later our situation was pretty dire. In that moment, though, I figured mom was overreacting. I didn’t know freak cargo door outbursts frequently involved the type of plane we were flying and ended grimly. I didn’t appreciate that less seasoned pilots often got distracted, lost their cool, then lost control. I didn’t pause to consider the possibility that I ” or the entire Dog ” might be our next gratuitous offering to the cornfields. My siblings and I were calm. Unafraid. Dad was in control and that was that.

We rolled and bobbed about some but dad kept us aloft, ultimately securing clearance for emergency landing and touching down at North Platte Regional Airport. It was pretty much over after that ” all but the sirens and airport personnel rushing to our aid. Dad, unflappable as always, declared “OK, let’s fix it, fuel, and head back up,” but mom was having none of that. She booked us on a commercial flight and within hours we were home, stripped of belongings but no worse for the wear. Aside from the requisite recitation of events to family and friends, life moved on as usual, tectonic plates continued to shift, our treasured Vail trips continued and, until last summer, the fiasco was mostly forgotten.

My kids greeted this narrative with suspicious smiles, polite nods, and barely audible wows. Apparently unimpressed, they dismissed it as an implausible yarn or, because nobody was injured, a veritable nonevent. “Hmmm, cool,” they offered, at peace in the chauffeured cocoon that is our minivan. “Can we listen to Harry Potter now?”

I think I understand their nonchalance. In the wake of last summer’s drive, I’m appreciating North Platte in ’75 and my peculiar absence of fear in a new light. Kids are born with an innate, hopefully justifiable faith in their adults. It’s the fundamental parent-child bargain. I wasn’t afraid that day because dad was my omnipotent, trustworthy, infallible guardian. In my blissful childhood innocence, I figured bad things couldn’t possibly visit on his watch.

My siblings agree. We’re collectively grateful and awed by dad’s heroics that day. But mostly we’re hoping our own kids are enjoying the same sense of security with us that we enjoyed with dad ” that day in the Dog and every other day. What a gift: the unencumbered luxury to feel safe and blase simply because one’s parent is at the wheel. Truth be told, I guess we’re also hoping that somewhere in North Platte someone still tells the story of the day it rained Rossignol ” and someone’s kids are impressed.

Kelly Valen lives in Piedmont, Calif. E-mail comments about this story to

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