The old and jolly, white bearded, red and white clothed black boot wearing Santa Claus isn’t always the one tasked with the delivery of Christmas gifts, and a reindeer drawn sleigh streaking across a cold and clear late December sky may not be the only mode of transportation driven by the bearer of much needed gifts. But Larry, even in his wildest imagination, could have never envisioned that events he witnessed during the Christmas month in 1965 would serve to leave a lasting memory in his mind and a tale for him to later tell many times over.
“Hi, we’re here to pick up some boxes that Nick said he left with you. The boxes have clothes and toys that he was unable to load into his airplane,” the smiling driver of the red station wagon bearing Arkansas license plates parked in Larry’s driveway said as he stepped from the vehicle. “Well let’s go out to the barn, that’s where the boxes are” Larry replied. “I didn’t know what items were in the boxes but considering the holiday season the items you mentioned seem like appropriate things to be transporting,” remarked Larry. “Nick gets dressed up like Santa Clause every Christmas eve and passes out gifts to the local less fortunate boys and girls. He puts on the suit, black boots and wears the white beard and really looks and acts the part. The families really need and appreciate the gifts, and the kids almost believe Nick is really Santa Claus. You know how kids are” the driver of the vehicle continued. “That’s for sure”, the other young man remarked as he also left the wagon.
Larry and his brother Bob first met Nick two days earlier while Larry, his wife Nancy, and Bob and his wife Jeanne were traveling from Noel to Anderson. As the group traveled along the southwest Missouri Ozarks winding narrow two lane road known to locals as the Noel to Pineville Road and by those souls not fortunate enough to be indigenous to the area as Highway “H”, they talked about their families and how much everyone was glad to be together for the holidays. After all, Christmas was only three short days away.
As the group talked and enjoyed the scenery offered by the rolling, tree covered hills, Bob changed the topic of conversation and said, “Look, there’s a plane and it looks like it’s coming down”. Larry, the driver, took his eyes away from the roadway and saw a small, one engine plane flying very low. “I see it”, Larry acknowledged. “It looks like it’s going to land over there, beyond that group of trees”.
Larry had lived in the area since he was a young boy and knew there was no suitable place in the direction he and the others were looking for the plane to make a landing. Suddenly Larry lost sight of the small plane, “I think that plane may have crashed over there”. It was the type of observation one often makes with the anticipation that someone, anyone, will find fault in the account, but no words were uttered. Everyone just watched and waited. “Let’s pull down this dirt road and take a look”, Bob suggested. Larry didn’t say a word but nodded his head and turned off the paved road and onto an unnamed dirt path.
As the group traveled slowly down the rocky road Nancy blurted out, “There it is, over there by that row of trees”. Larry maneuvered the car toward the trees and saw that the nose of a small, single propeller fixed wing airplane was engulfed by the branches of several trees. To everyone’s amazement the pilot, an older looking gentleman, was climbing out of the wreckage.
The man with long gray hair was dressed in coveralls and wearing a red and black plaid shirt. He reached the ground and, while rubbing the top of his head gingerly, walked toward the rear of the airplane. As the car came to a stop a short distance from the plane and a row of trees Larry called out “Are you alright, do you need a doctor”? The obviously shaken old man responded “I hit my head but I’ll be alright”.
The disheveled pilot said he became lost and attempted to bring the plane down when the landing went disastrously wrong and he crashed into the row of trees. The man didn’t appear to have any broken bones and he was not bleeding. He told the group of rescuers that he was from Mena, Arkansas and was going home. He said his name was Nick.
Nick asked if the four would help push the injured plane out of and away from the trees. Everyone agreed to help and, after several minutes of pushing and pulling, the plane was moved away from the trees and fallen branches. Nick, Larry and Bob walked around the plane and saw that the tail dragger was broken off and one wing had sustained damage to the leading edge.
Bob offered to drive to the nearest town, Pineville and report the incident to the Sheriff’s office but before he finished his sentence Nick interrupted him saying, “No, please don’t report this to anyone”. A moment or two of silence passed then Nick said “I think I can fly this out of here”. Larry glanced at the damaged plane, then at Nick and said, “There is no way this plane can be flown in its current condition. I live nearby and if you would like you can stay with us while we try to make some repairs”. Nick nodded his head and with a sigh of relief said “Thanks”.
Larry returned to his home, hitched a small flat-bed trailer to an old truck and returned to the row of trees and the plane. With the aid of a winch, the group was able to maneuver the plane onto the trailer. As darkness approached the plane was taken to Larry and Nancy’s home.
Nick was extended all the hospitality Larry and Nancy had to offer. The group talked, ate a home cooked dinner and laughed about the plane’s botched landing. Nick didn’t talk much about himself and none of the four inquired into the details of his personal life. The time passed without notice when Bob eventually remarked, “We better get some sleep if we’re going to get that plane fixed tomorrow”. All agreed, said goodnight and prepared for a night’s sleep.
The following day was spent working on the damaged airplane. With some drilling and welding the tail dragger was reattached. Nobody would speculate how long it would remain on the underside of the plane but for now, it seemed sturdy enough. There was no way to weld or apply fasteners to the wing so after a long discussion the three unanimously agreed to apply several rolls of duct tape to the wing. There were no aeronautical engineers to consult and everyone agreed that duct tape fixed just about everything imaginable.
The later part of the afternoon found the three standing silently alongside the patched plane. Larry and Bob were silently skeptical about the ability of the plane to fly but Nick said “I need to get home this afternoon, let’s take it to the blacktop and I’ll fly it out of here”. The three unloaded the boxes of cargo as it was decided that the reduced weight would give Nick a better chance of taking off.
The two couples and Nick drove the trailer to a relatively straight piece of roadway on the Noel to Pineville two lane road and unloaded the crudely repaired plane. It was decided that Nancy and Jeanne would drive a short distance down the road and there stop any oncoming traffic. Larry and Bob would do the same at the spot where Nick would attempt to get the plane airborne.
The road there was as straight as any on Highway H but several utility lines crossed the blacktop, there was a dip a short distance away and on the other side of that depression the road curved sharply to the left while a tall row of trees brought an end to the relatively straight and narrow patch of asphalt. Larry and Bob helped Nick position the plane and stood by as Nick started the engine. Nick opened the plane’s side door and as the engine noise became greater and the propeller spun more rapidly, Nick waved and yelled, “Merry Christmas”.
The bright sun lit up the cold December day as the plane began to move slowly forward. After a moment the plane left the road and began to rise. It barely missed the overhanging power lines and as it neared the road’s depression Larry and Bob lost sight of Nick and his airplane. For a moment they feared the worse but suddenly the plane reappeared and, almost beyond belief, rose up and over the tall trees. It was as though the small plane with the lone solitary propeller could somehow, and enigmatically, defy Newton’s gravitational law.
While continuing to hold his hand above his eyes so the bright sunlight wouldn’t interfere with his last glimpse of the plane Larry quietly said, “Merry Christmas”. As the tops of the trees finally obscured the view of the plane Jim replied, “And the same to you, I hope that duct tape stays on”. “Me too, me too”, replied Larry.
Christmas Eve day found Larry and Bob aiding Nick’s two friends and helpers load boxes of Christmas gifts into an old station wagon. It seemed important that those gifts arrived in Mena, Arkansas before Christmas Eve
What a rare commodity today, the love and caring for those in need. Giving happiness and hope to someone and asking for nothing in return. Santa, it would seem, and the very idea of someone like him may sadly be merely a myth but for Larry and his brother Bob, The Christmas of the plane crash will be one they will always remember.