Where strange fact and stranger fiction collide
The war with fascism is far away. The boys are across the sea, fighting Hitler a Hiritio’s forces. But we that have stayed behind can help the war effort. The amphitheater is full of women in evening gowns and men in their Sunday best. A man in a tuxedo goes on and on about how important it is that we buy war bonds. Though I know what he is saying is important, I don’t care. I am here to see the Genius Loci of Portland sing.
Visions of her all dolled up like a Lennon sister in a WAC uniform dance through my head. With great anticipation building in the crowd the master of ceremony announces she is on next. When she walks through the curtain she looks shy and timid. She is not the vision of loveliness that I imagined. She looks frumpy, her uniform in threadbare and for some Freudian reason her nose is missing.
She says she is going to dedicate this song to the boys overseas, in an annoying whiny and nasally voice. I am embarrassed, I am embarrassed to be hear. I am embarrassed for her. I get up and I am about to leave, this has gone on too long. Then she begins to sing and I am stopped dead in my tracks.
Her voice is melodic and beautiful. As she sings Danny Boy, you can feel her hope and passion for a boy far away in the trenches. A beautiful boy that she may never see again. She sings like he can hear her from the trenches in France. I sit down again mesmerized.
That is an analogy about my adventure at Lacey’s Lady. The real story kind of goes like this.
The first month or so that I moved to Portland I was really excited about finding exciting things to do in my new city, especially with my nine year old niece and four year old nephew. I had promised them an adventure and wasn’t sure what we were going to do. So that morning I searched the internet and found the story of a B-17 bomber that had been converted in to a gas station in nearby Milwaukie Oregon.
In 1947 a guy named Art Lacey bought a surplus B-17 in Kansas, with the idea of turning it into a gas station, here in Oregon. He crashed his first choice on a test flight, and then bought his second pick. Then set out to fly it to the west coast. On the way home he wrote a bum check in Palm Springs for fuel (He did eventually make good on the check). Once back in Oregon airspace he was forced to fly under a thousand feet because of a snow storm. His co-plot would have to look out for tunnel light so they didn’t crash in to any mountains. Eventually they made it back to Stump Town and mounted it on pylons converting it in to one of the world’s most unique gas stations.
I had found it. This would today’s adventure. Ecstatic about our new plans I ran in to the living room where my sister was and loudly proclaimed. “They have a gas station made out of a World War Two bomber!”
“That’s nice.” My sister said having spent an entire lifetime of me getting excited over seemingly mundane things.
Obviously she was missing the earthshattering importance of such a marvelous thing being in such near proximity. I repeated what I had just told her, this time much slower careful not to leave out the pure utter awesomeness of the Lacey’s Lady. “They… have… a… gas… station… made… out… of… a… World… War… Two…. Bomber!”
She just nodded and smiled, you know that smile you give people who you have designated crazy but harmless. I bundled up the kids and strapped them in to their car seats and headed off to a three dimensional history lesson. I really built it up too, telling stories I had learned from my UCLA days as a history major.
Then when we got there and the only words that I could think to describe it were, ‘ghetto’ and ‘crap-tastic.” The gas station had closed long ago. The plane’s nose, ailerons and engines had been removed. Large holes in the belly had been covered with chicken wire to keep the pigeons form getting inside. I mean it looked bad, it was worse than the B-25, in Sucker Punch after the momma dragon munched on it.
I tried to act all positive so the kids wouldn’t feel I had completely wasted their time. And to their credit they acted like they were having fun. Maybe they just liked hanging with their uncle. Trying to salvage the outing we went to the small museum in the back of the lot.
And everything went from pitiful to amazing. No bigger than a small house, this little museum houses the plane’s nose in full restored and polished glory, as well as artifacts, books, and models. It was small but what it did it did amazingly. An old grey bearded docent, gave the kids a personal tour. He was smart enough to know how much two children could handle before their attention spans gave out.
Everything that the plane was not, the museum is. I have stood on civil war battle fields, I have listened to a pilot who fought in the Battle of Brittan, I have talked to a man who played in the band that played when the Treaty of Versailles was signed ending World War One. And that feeling I had where I could almost touch history, I felt in that little museum in Milwaukie.
When I was younger it was not uncommon to know people who had served in World War Two. I went to church in the same congregation with gentlemen who fought both with the allies and axis. But as time rolls on both the survivors and the relics of the Great War begin to vanish. It slips form our collective continuous.
In addition to that museum, there is a Bomber Restaurant, where you can get meals with names like, Wings Over Brussels (Belgium waffles). The Pilot (two eggs, two sausages, two slices of bacon, and two buttermilk pancakes) or the White Cliffs of Dover (French toast). It basically good old dinner breakfasts in all their artery clogging glory. The back wall has a live sized painting of a B-17. And other walls are decorated with a “Mama Duce” an M-2 .50 caliber machine gun and a mural of Betty Boop in a WAC uniform, and old newspaper clipping about world war Two. Fine kitschy dining, at its best.
Recently I returned to the old lady. She isn’t doing that well. I expect the city will tear it down soon. And that will be a sad day. But as I walked under the Flying Fortress, despite the fact that it is in such ill repair, I real did get a feeling why they were once called “The Queen of the Skies.” I realized how thin the body is, and I imagined how the crew must have felt as Messerschmitts swarmed in on them in al directions. I gained a renew admiration for the planes and crew that flew them.
The concert is over and the Genius Loci’s nose has returned. Her uniform all smoothed out. Loudly she drops her high heeled shoes on the table we are sitting around, making a comment about how they were killing her. I complement her on her singing fishes out a pack of Lucky strikes and lights one up. I want to say something about how disgusting and deadly they are. But I know she will just say how it nothing compared to what the boys in Europe are facing.
As the smoke hovers around her like a halo, I realize there is something classy and amazing about the “Greatest Generation.’