I was 16 years old and a lineboy at Outlaw Field, Clarksville, Tennessee, when all this happened. (The airport was named for its founder John Outlaw and had nothing to do with the pilots who flew there, but perhaps it should have.)
There were airplanes to be washed, fueled, and hand cranked, but there were also some idle times and, for a 16-year-old boy, this could lead to trouble.
I had built a balsa and tissue glider of my own design with a wingspan of 3 feet, and in those idle times I would climb the 40-foot airport beacon tower (which was set by itself off to one side of the hangar area) to launch the glider and watch its flight before climbing down and repeating the procedure.
I was also out of sight of the boss and the hated washing-ramp with its Gunk and kerosene mixture used for cleaning oil and grease off airplanes. Gunk and kerosene smell, and that smell did nothing for my sparse-enough courting life since it would persist through several showers. I had gotten somewhat used to it, but more than one girl would interrupt our dancing to suddenly discover that she had forgotten that this was the very night she had to go home right away to wash her cat. It seemed that every girl I met suddenly had a cat at home that needed washing. (I later found that cats do not like to be washed, and that this excuse might not have been exactly on the up and up.) But I digress.
On one of my launches the glider landed beside a resting toad. The glider had an open cockpit and no passenger....
This could be quickly fixed since the toad would fit into the cockpit. I wondered about the added weight and stress as I fitted the passenger into the proper space and had him seated upright with some masking tape to act as a safety belt and keep him upright.
I was prepared for my first test flight to see what effects the added weight would have on the glide characteristics.
The toad's attitude was that of resignation as I again climbed the beacon tower, being careful not to damage the glider.
The first few launches were successful, and I wondered if I really put some effort into my upward throw, could I set an altitude record for toads? Would the National Aeronautic Association recognize it anyway?
Alas, my stress calculations were remiss, because at the peak of the glider's upward path, one wing folded under the load and the vehicle spun straight down to stop at the base of the tower.
I rapidly climbed down to see the results of my structural miscalculation. I had planned to start college in the fall to take aeronautical engineering, but maybe I wasn't cut out for calculating stress and performance.
The toad was in the midst of the mute evidence of my failed construction and was still strapped in the cockpit, apparently unhurt except that each of his bulbous eyes now stared outboard in a different direction. I loosened him and watched his crablike stagger to escape from that wretched glider and launching tower.
The glider was pretty much beyond repair and I wondered what the toad might have said to his colleagues (if they could communicate). He was apparently abducted by aliens and sent to fly in a strange craft.
Animal lovers are appalled by this account but to a 16-year-old it seemed indeed like a noble experiment, close to that of Ezekiel in the Bible.
How many toads have had the chance to fly? And how many other toads would believe him? Because of his flight experience could he now be called "pigeon toad"?
I threw the glider remains in a trash barrel and returned to Gunk and kerosene at the wash rack, my social life remaining at a standstill.
William K. Kershner was a frequent contributor to this magazine. He died in January after a valiant battle with cancer. We will miss his stories.