New Picture of Donald Rock

This is the best picture I’ve seen yet of Donald Rock, the rock on Arnold’s boyhood farm that pilots used as a landmark. Many thanks to my Aunt Tere for finding this gem! The boy in the picture is Arnold (is that a tie?) and the woman right behind him is his mother, Bertha. The other woman is his Aunt Mary (his father Emil’s sister).

Donald Rock

Arnold Ebneter: Student Engineer and Itinerant Pilot

Sorry I have taken so long to get the next post up! I have been in the middle of moving from California back to Washington State. I’m now somewhat settled in (although still surrounded by boxes). My internet is running and I got my printer working this afternoon. Now all I need to do is find the espresso machine and I’ll be all set! On the other hand, there is a Starbucks within walking distance, so I’m not going to go into latte withdrawal (after all, this is the Seattle area).

Enough about me! When we last left Arnold, he had just received his private pilot certificate and he was eager to start using it. Let’s pick up at the beginning of Chapter 2, currenty titled “The Itinerant Pilot.” You’ll see why over the next several posts.

After earning his private pilot’s license, Arnold worked as a mechanic for Forrest and Paul at their struggling flying service through most of the fall of 1946. Although Arnold loved working with both of them, the partners had apparently not thought about any sort of business plan – they seemed to hope that people would just show up in Poynette to start flying their war-surplus airplanes. However, if people are going to fly airplanes, they need instructors to teach them, and neither Paul nor Forrest seemed in any hurry to get their civilian instructor certificates. Knowing that Arnold was eager to earn a living flying, they instead  pressured him to obtain his flight instructor rating, but he first needed a commercial pilot’s license. Arnold also needed a mechanic’s license so he could work on airplanes unsupervised, and, although he was game for the additional ratings, he soon had to put his flying and mechanic careers on hold to start college at Rensselear Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.

After Thanksgiving, Arnold took a train from Portage to Troy, arriving in early December. In his first letter home, he dutifully recounted his “refresher” schedule to his parents – Mechanical Drawing, Physics Lecture, Physics Lab, Trigonometry, and Physics Test – and suggested a briefcase as a Christmas present to help him lug around the load of books and drafting supplies he had just purchased for his classes.

Within a few weeks after arriving in Troy, Arnold already missed flying, but flying in Troy was out of the question due to both time and money. The only decent planes available to rent were located an eight mile bus ride away in Albany, and they were too expensive, especially since he could no longer trade his mechanical skills for flying time. When his parents wrote to him that Forrest and Paul had each bought war-surplus BT-13s, he was green with envy and yearned to be back in Wisconsin flying them. He wrote back, “All I can say is some day I’m going to own one [a BT-13] . . .” Then in February 1947, adding insult to injury, his cousin Carl bought an airplane, a Porterfield, so he could start flying lessons as well. It seemed to Arnold that everyone he knew owned an airplane and was flying but him.

By New Year’s Eve, Arnold was adjusting well to college life and enjoying the freedom of being on his own for the first time. He wrote to his parents that people were already noticing his pleasure at his freedom, which he attributed to the “Swiss independence” of his heritage. In line with his growing maturity, he penned, “I figure that if I can learn to handle my problems alone now while they’re not too big, it will make it a lot easier when I do run into some real problems.”

The Pilot’s Rock

Numerous airplanes flew daily over the farm where Arnold lived as a small boy, and this likely fueled, at least partly, his early interest in aviation. That he saw so many airplanes in the 1930s was a coincidence of geography and geology. A straight line connecting the present-day Chicago-O’Hare and Minneapolis-Saint Paul airports passes close to Mount Horeb and the dairy farm where Arnold lived. The farm, owned by a family named Donald, also housed an attractive landmark for early pilots with only rudimentary navigation equipment — a Glacier Age limestone remnant the size of a ten-story building that dominated the surrounding terrain.

In 1940, John Steuart Curry, a prominent Midwestern “artist-in-residence” at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, portrayed the massive rock pillar in an oil painting as a favor to a member of the Donald family. The painting hung, unknown by the art community, in the home of a Donald family descendent for more than sixty years. It is now on display at the Chazen Museum of Art in Madison, Wisconsin[i]. You can see a picture of it on page 74 of the pamphlet in this link (warning, big file):

The land encircling the present-day “Donald Rock” is a county park, but in the 1930s, the Donald family rented the farm to various tenants, including Arnold’s parents – his father Emil, who had immigrated to the United States from Switzerland in 1919, and his mother Bertha. In 2010, Arnold and his youngest sister, Tere Widstrand, sponsored a bench in the park dedicated to the memory of their parents. You can see Donald Rock as it appears today at this link:

[i] Gayle Worland, “Curry Favor,” Wisconsin State Journal (Madison, WI), July 26, 2006.


Mad for Models: Do You Remember Your First Airplane Model?

Do you remember your first model airplane kit? Let me know if you do! Since I grew up around airplanes I don’t really remember building a specific model first, but I do have some vague memories of a plastic fighter airplane with lots of decals. I always wanted models with lots of decals – I guess decals were the precursor to today’s stickers that everyone (including me) loves to put in scrapbooks. And I loved those tiny paint jars, although I’m not sure how much of the paint actually wound up on the models themselves. My sisters and I could always find other things to do with it.

The picture below is a Comet model I bought about 30 years ago – it’s survived 14 military moves and has obviously turned into a retirement project! If I ever get it built, I’ll post it on the blog – not sure I’ll have enough nerve to fly it. You wouldn’t me to cry when it crashed, would you?


So what does all this have to do with my book? When we last left Arnold, he had just taken his first airplane flight at age eight. However, that flight didn’t come close to quenching his growing thirst for aviation; instead, it was like a shipwreck survivor gulping a cup of ocean water – it only makes one more desperate for the thing they cannot have.

Unable to fly real airplanes, Arnold eagerly purchased his first model airplane kit that same year. Like most small boys, he lusted for one of the expensive Cleveland Model & Supply Company kits that promised to teach the builder “how an airplane works, how it is put together, what makes it fly, [and] why it has to be the way it is,” but at four dollars they were well out of reach.  Instead, he wound up with a ten-cent model that turned into a huge disappointment. Upon opening the box, he discovered four pieces of balsa wood and a set of drawings. He had to transfer the drawings to the balsa wood to outline the pieces, carefully excise the pieces with a razor, and then glue them together. It was just too much for an eight-year-old, and the model turned into a mess.

However, the model fiasco was just a temporary setback; three years later, Arnold bought another kit. This kit cost a quarter, but it promised a flying model powered by a rubber band and small propeller. The more expensive kit also had pre-stamped outlines on the balsa wood, and between that and his improved eleven-year-old dexterity, he assembled the new model with few problems and learned how to fly it. The picture of my model kit above shows how Arnold’s kit would have looked.

The Little Pilots

I’m in the Seattle area for my Christmas holiday, and I’ve spent part of it combing through old letters, newspaper clippings, and other memorabilia at Arnold’s house for part of my book research. I’m very lucky that my grandmother (Arnold’s mother) saved most of the letters he wrote home during his early college years. In addition to being hilarious in places, they provide a wealth of insight not only into Arnold’s personality but describe some of the details of post-World War II life in the United States. My mother also left behind a terrific scrapbook she kept in high school and early college that is another gold mine of information. In addition, I found many of Arnold’s letters from Vietnam and a letter from a deployment to Incirlik Air Base in Turkey during the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Here’s one of my favorite pictures of Arnold from his childhood. It’s a family photo probably taken on a farm, but no one is sure who took it or how the two boys in the picture got their pilot helmets and goggles. The three women in the photo are Arnold’s mother (in the middle) and her two sisters.


Arnold is the “little pilot” on the left and his cousin Carl is the one on the right. Arnold and Carl are about the same age, and five or six in the picture. Both would go on to become Air Force pilots. In fact, the flying bug seems to have infected the whole family. Arnold’s younger brother, Frank, the infant in his mother’s arms, also became an Air Force pilot, and Carl had two younger brothers not yet born who became civilian pilots.

After yearning to fly for many years, Arnold finally took his first flight in an airplane when he was eight. The exhilaration of that short 15-minute flight with a passing barnstormer instantly hooked Arnold, setting him on an aviation course for the rest of his life.