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Time machine

A beautiful sunrise broke over the eastern horizon. I was flying south in my Piper PA–12 Super Cruiser from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, on a Sunday morning in September 1992. To my left, Lake Michigan shimmered behind the shadowy skyline of Milwaukee’s downtown as I turned my attention to the westside suburb of Waukesha and its airport. And to my mother, who was waiting for me. And to a day that would warp time and space for both of us.

Grass strips open the world—and turn back the years—to travelers flying small airplanes. Stories they tell can live forever for those fortunate to be able to use them. 'Dale’s Delight,' seen here in the late afternoon September sun, has transitioned from air operations to haying. Photo courtesy of Greg Anderson.

Thoughts about time travel generally deal with Einsteinian ideas of incredibly fast travel near the speed of light. And of course, jet lag is a real thing in our lives. But on this day, I was to find that airports can be portals to another dimension, and small airplanes can be time machines.

The day’s first wave of nostalgia broke over me as I descended over the airport fence to land. I had grown up in Waukesha, and its airport was where flying made its first appearance in my boyhood dreams. Sunday afternoon drives we made as a young family often included a visit to the airport to park just beyond the fence and watch airplanes take off and land. Mom and Dad had encouraged those dreams, leading to a life richly blessed by aviation. Now, almost 40 years later, my mother was there again, watching me land over the same airport fence, this time waiting for me to fly us even farther back in time.

The day before, a calm and clear weather forecast over the entire Upper Midwest prompted me to look for a destination I had never flown to before. My Super Cruiser’s 150-horsepower Lycoming engine made flights within a 250-mile radius comfortable. Its tailwheel and added flaps allowed the luxury of considering grass strips, which multiplied my destination options.

Curiosity drew me to the small town of Postville in northeastern Iowa. I was born there in 1950, the first of five children born to Roger and Joan Anderson. My parents were just out of high school. We lived in humble circumstances in Postville for only a year before moving to Waukesha. I had never been back as an adult to see the place where I came into the world.

Aeronautical charts showed a grass strip two miles west of Postville called “Dale’s Delight.” I called the strip’s owner, and he welcomed me to land there. Then I wondered who might show me around town. The answer came easily. I called Mom. Dad had passed some years earlier, but maybe she would climb into the back seat and help find our first family home. “Sure!” was her quick reply.

We launched westward toward Iowa. I could tell she was nervous, but excited. We had flown together, but not often. I sensed what she might feel in Postville made her more nervous than the flying.

Calm air and clear visibility from about 2,000 feet made for good sightseeing and intercom chatter over an early autumn countryside. Shadows shortened in the rising sun behind us, revealing shades of green and gold fields with red barns and metal silo tops catching the light. Glassy, blue lakes reflected wispy white clouds high above. Madison slid by our left wing, its high-rise buildings on a prominent isthmus gleaming like Dorothy’s Oz. Our destination was Iowa, not Kansas, but the feelings of travel between existential realms must have been similar. Without ruby slippers to click together, we needed fuel to reach our destination. We were welcomed with a pancake breakfast at western Wisconsin’s Richland Center. We enjoyed a timeless ritual of hospitality that still gives airports a character like nowhere else.

Farther west, we flew over the city of Prairie du Chien, where the 420-mile-long Wisconsin River meets the 2,340-mile-long Mississippi. Mom and Dad both grew up in Prairie du Chien. Mom’s father lived on a farm along the Mississippi that held many memories from my younger years. After he died, it was converted to a trailer park. From the airplane, however, I could still see the path that “Bapa” and I took to the river’s edge with our cane poles and worms to catch a pail of sunfish.

Small towns still proudly announce themselves to travelers with names emblazoned on one of the highest structures around. Early aviators made especially good use of this practice. Photo courtesy of Greg Anderson.

We flew on to Postville, some 20 miles farther west into countryside planted with row after row of the corn that Iowa is known for. Bright sunlight illuminated church steeples and water towers that grew out of the landscape to identify towns. In the days before modern navigation aids, aviators could fly beside the water towers to see the names painted on them. Whenever asked about my birthplace, I proudly claim “Postville, Iowa,” but I like to add, “…just up the road from Strawberry Point, home of the world’s largest strawberry!” To the raised eyebrows, I explain that years ago, residents of nearby Strawberry Point painted their water tower to look like one.

We circled Postville, a handful of blocks nestled beside some railroad tracks that supported a meat packing plant and some grain elevators. A population of 1,500 or so was not much bigger than the recorded population in 1950, when Mom, Dad, and I added three more to the total. And sure enough, two miles west of town, “Dale’s Delight” came into view, a 2,700-foot grass strip edged by six-foot stalks of corn with a nicely cut path toward a hangar and an old brick farmhouse. We eased onto the grass and taxied to the house, there to meet a farm family intrigued by our interest in their strip and nearby town. We learned that the suspendered, blue-jeaned man who met us was president of an association of flying farmers, and his wife was also a pilot. He and his family were warm and hospitable, and they even offered the use of a pickup truck to explore Postville.

Mom only remembered two landmarks in the town, not far apart. We found a railroad siding where my dad worked hauling carcasses onto train cars from a nearby meat packing plant. A few blocks away, she recognized a large white building toward the town center that used to be the hospital where I came into the world. Between the two landmarks, we triangulated our general orientation along tree-lined streets to find a two-story house that looked familiar to Mom.

Mom’s steps slowed as we approached the house on foot. She had never gotten over losing Dad, her high school sweetheart, from an accident sooner than she should have, and she was stepping back into powerful memories. She told me how we lived in a small upstairs room and shared a bathroom with a “cowboy,” which I took to mean an itinerant farm worker. Her hands came to her face as she spotted a second story window above a small rooftop. Wistfully, she remembered how she and Dad would climb through the window on summer evenings with lawn chairs to enjoy the fresh air and evening temperatures with me. I got goosebumps seeing the little rooftop where I had gotten my first views of the world. We were both quiet for several moments. Trees rustled in a light breeze, swaying against a baby blue sky. Beside the peeling, faded window on that old roof, I imagined a young couple laughing with a baby boy, working hard to give his life the best start they could. Life was not easy in those days. But it was good.

We drove back with quiet thoughts to Dale’s Delight and thanked our hosts for a memorable visit. Our takeoff and smooth flight east to Waukesha had the afternoon sun at our backs again, and shadows lengthened eastward. A tailwind and emotional reflections sped us quickly across Wisconsin. Mom had turned grief from her loss into love focused on five kids who all grew up to raise their own loving families. It felt like we were leaving the past behind us, returning to the present and a week with work ahead. In the distance, Milwaukee’s urban skyline held the people and priorities of modern life in which we would abide again.

The farm outside Postville, Iowa, is still in good hands with Ms. Verta Kerr, who welcomed the author and his wife into this old brick farmhouse 31 years after welcoming my mother and me to the farm. Photo courtesy of Greg Anderson.

At the Waukesha Airport, our goodbye hugs lingered a little longer, arms tightly encircled as if to press our day’s memories more firmly into our hearts. Mom’s gone now, too, but those memories remain with me still, an indelible glimpse into the beginning of a life that I hope ends as blessed as it began. As I flew north to Oshkosh, the setting sun was a reminder that another day had passed regardless of where our time travel took us. It held a timeless lesson that every day parents and children spend together can be special. And in the mystery of how our time and lives intertwine, I was grateful that a small airplane made this special one possible.


Some things change with time, others remain the same. A road trip with my wife in September 2023 allowed me to visit Postville and “Dale’s Delight” 31 years after my time machine flight and 72 years since I lived there. I considered flying there again, but the gentleman farmer no longer lives, and the strip is no longer open. However, his widow still lives at the farm, and she warmly welcomed us. The hangar is still there, but the family’s airplanes have been sold. As with airport changes everywhere, the reality of the strip’s closure did not deter us from enjoying old stories and photos. If anything, changes underscore the importance of both safeguarding our memories and making new ones. Our pilot logbooks are an epic of time-traveling tales. Nowadays, I can only fly to visit Postville and Dale’s Delight in my memories. But I can dip a wing, and I can remember.

Photo courtesy of Greg Anderson
Greg Anderson
Greg Anderson is a retired air and space museum CEO, EAA executive, and Air Force pilot with more than 50 years of life lessons from flying. He currently flies a Lockwood AirCam.
Topics: U.S. Travel

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