Cattails Don’t Care

By mia Hinkle (2022)

My dad was a natural-born storyteller, so I have a blue million stories about him. Donald Huseth would have been one hundred years old this year. He was born in 1922 and he died in 2009 at the age of eighty-seven. He was one of the lucky ones who made a living at the very thing for which he was created: he was a pilot. He learned to fly the year I was born in 1954 when he was thirty-two. He was a crop duster, then a flight instructor, a charter pilot, a floatplane instructor, then an FAA examiner and expert witness in numerous aircraft accident cases. He flew until he was eighty and died 7 years later.

The sky was my dad’s lifeblood. Flying, teaching people to fly, and telling stories about flying, were his oxygen. The sky was his sanctuary, where he felt like he could put his hand out and touch the face of God.

He sometimes drove his family crazy repeating those old flying stories, but he was – and still is – greatly admired by those he touched in the aviation world. In fact, to this day when we run into one of his former students, it never fails they will recount what a great guy he was, what a good teacher he was, and how life-changing he was in their lives.

My dad came from the school of hard knocks. He had a tenth-grade formal education, but he was a lifelong learner. Experience, after all, is the mother of wisdom. He crashed a Piper Cub when I was a little girl. He broke his back and his nose and spent the winter healing up in a plaster cast from his neck to his hips. But when spring came, he could not wait to get back to the sky. I heard that he crash-landed a small plane in Chicago when the landing gear failed, and he had a variety of other close calls, some involving panicked students at 10,000 feet! However, he had very few weather-related close calls; he was known to flunk a student just for showing up for his solo flight if the weather was questionable anywhere near the airport. He taught his students that the weather does not care anything about your skill level or your day planner. Weather is weather. Physics are physics. Neither care one little bit about man.

One day the phone rang at our Chanhassen home, and my mother picked up. My sister, Holly, happened to be there. It was my dad. “Hey Darlene, if you happen to see something on the news about a plane crash on Rice Lake, don’t worry. I’m okay. I’ll tell you the whole story when I get home.”

That night at the supper table, he recounted the events of that beautiful summer day at Surfside Seaplane Base on Rice Lake, just north of St. Paul.

“So, here’s what happened. Me and this old guy were going to take this floatplane out for a test flight. He wanted to buy it.”

“Wait, Dad, you’re seventy-five. How old was this old guy? And why was he buying an airplane?”

“I don’t know, probably in his eighties. But he wanted to buy the plane. It was a MAULE, probably worth between $150,000 and $200,000. So anyway, me and this old guy, we met at LakeAir, we fueled up, did the precheck, got in, buckled up, and headed out across the lake. Everything seemed to be going just fine. But then we were not lifting off where I thought we should be. All of a sudden, we were at the edge of the lake, the propeller got tangled up in the cattails which pulled the nose down into the marshy bottom and flipped us right over onto the roof. So, there we were, me and this old guy, hanging upside-down from our seatbelts, the plane sinking in the muck and fuel dripping into the water around us.”

“Whaaat?!?! What’d you do then?”

“We couldn’t get our seatbelts unbuckled, so I knew I’d have to cut them to get out of there. I pulled out my knife, looked at this old guy, hoping he wouldn’t break his neck in the fall, and asked, “Are you ready?” And he said, “Yup.”

And I reached over, sliced his seatbelt, and CRASH – he fell to the ceiling and cut his head a little. Then I sliced my seatbelt and CRASH – I fell to the ceiling. There we were, wrestling around trying to get upright, with blood trickling down our foreheads. I tried to open the door but the deeper we sank, the more the doors were lodged shut tight by the water pressure and the mud along the roofline. Finally, with one big kick, I was able to get one of the doors unstuck. But that poor old guy, I felt sorry for him. He was scared, bleeding, and bruised. We struggled to work our way out of the tiny cabin, where mud and water slowly streamed inside.

About that time, we heard a high little voice, “Hello? Hello? Anyone in there?” And here came two little ladies in their canoe carefully paddling through the cattails. They just happened to be nurses and they just happened to be out on the lake and saw the whole thing go down. They used their canoe to help us out of the mud and got us to safety on a lawn at the water’s edge. They tended to our wounds until the paramedics got there. We were fine.

Really. Just a little banged up and dirty, but fine. Everyone makes such a big deal when they see a plane go down. Did you know you have a better chance of getting yourself killed in a car crash on 494 than in an airplane crash?

“Yes, Dad. You may have mentioned that before. What happened then?”

“Well, we were sitting in the grass waiting for the authorities to arrive, when who shows up but the folks from Channel 9 News running toward us with giant cameras and microphones!! They asked for an interview and that was about the LAST thing I wanted. “Must be a pretty slow news day for you bozos to want an interview with me! We’re fine. The plane is tipped over on its roof. That’s about it. Move along now.”

By the time story aired on the Twin Cities Evening News, it had been edited down to a little footage of an up-side-down floatplane in the weeds and a brief shot of Dad’s bare ankles and feet with some narration overdubbed. Because really, everyone was fine. Nothin’ to see here, folks. Just like he said.

It was clear those cattails did not care that there were two aging old guys in that plane. The cattails did not care how much the plane was worth. The laws of physics took over and pulled that floatplane right over onto its roof and that was that.

When I was asking my family about what they remembered about that day, I asked my Uncle Anders, who was also a pilot and an FAA aviation expert, what he remembered about the incident. It occurs to me that there is more than one way to tell the same story and to prove that point, here are my Uncle Anders’ words:

“I think you are referring to the incident where he ran out of water and got into shore weeds and the plane tipped over. In addition to rejecting the takeoff, the flap setting was not appropriate for liftoff. He had been asked to demo the plane for a sale to someone. This plane was different from others he had flown. The flap selector, when UP, actually raised the flap 10 degrees. So, when lowered- the flaps 10 degrees- actually put the flaps in zero degrees, not giving any help in the takeoff procedure. He attempted the takeoff with NO flaps extended, which, lake length permitting, would require MUCH more distance.”

This happened in the late nineties and my dad flew another 4 or 5 years until at age 80 he gave up his license. He would still go up to Flying Cloud and hang around the airport, trading war stories with anyone who would listen.

After Mom died in 1998, his lifeblood slowed to a trickle and soon dementia tightened its icy grip and confined him to assisted living and then the memory care unit. Dementia did not care that the sky was my dad’s lifeblood and that flying was his oxygen. Dementia did not care who my dad had once been or all the things he had overcome to achieve his dream career. Dementia did not care that my dad had made a living out-of-doors, first as a farmer, then as a pilot. Dementia did not care one little bit and slowly closed the door to his hospital room and would not let him outside again. Until he escaped the chains of his physical body and soared back into the sky.

As sad and unfair as his last couple of years were, I know he would say he had very few regrets. “Ain’t many of us gonna get outa here alive,” he would often quip. Many, if not most, people in this world, whether they are hot-shot executives or blue-collar workers or anything in between, work for their paycheck at a job they don’t love. Our dad got to work and live his calling, as an excellent teacher and as a pilot. He made a mark on the lives of his many students and fellow pilots. He raised five good kids with a devoted woman who loved him for over five decades.

And yet, I believe my dad felt the most alive when he was in the sky where he could simply put his hand out and touch the face of God.

High Flight: An Airman’s Ecstasy

by John Gillespie Magee

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air . . .

Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or ever eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

Walker was 10 years old when he drew this picture of his Grandpa Huseth in his float plane

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