I’m pretty sure the bride-to-be sent my mom the invitation just as a courtesy, never dreaming she’d actually be there. After all, it was a midweek wedding–on Block Island. Even the “local” East Coast guests had to carve at least a few days out of their calendars for travel. And my mom lived in Kentucky. It was just too far.

Located off the New England mainland, Block Island is much smaller and less chic than nearby Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. But it’s equally idyllic in its own way–and the midsummer, late afternoon wedding would be on a bluff alongside an old sea captain’s house overlooking the harbor filled with sailboats. What a beautiful way to begin a marriage.

Mark Phelps with mother

Taking Renie to a wedding on Block Island? Only by GA.

But…as I said, Mom lived in Kentucky, the same little town where the bride grew up. Though that was a lot of years ago, the bride stayed connected to my parents with a special bond. Here’s how that might have happened.

In 1989, my dad retired after a 32-year career as a cardiologist at Boston’s Lahey Clinic, and he and my mom moved to Kentucky from the suburban home where they raised us kids. His ancestors had settled in Kentucky along with Daniel Boone, so for Dad it was more than a homecoming. They built a modern tree-shaded house next to the creek on his family’s old settlement. From this “empty nest” on Oaks Road in Jamestown, they slowly branched out, becoming well known and loved around town.

Though my mom’s given name was Irene, she only answered to “Renie,” and that’s a clue to her personality–informal and spunky. Though my dad never flew with me, Mom was fearless, and I even turned us upside down a couple of times with some mild aerobatics.

Even with her background as a city girl from Philadelphia, she soon made her mark in the rural Kentucky society with her energy and a constant willingness to help out anyone in need. My dad’s persona was the compassion he displayed in his part-time shifts in the local hospital’s ER. Word also soon spread about his enthusiasm for what he recognized–even back then in the mid-1980s–as the unlimited potential of computer technology and the Internet.

Anyone with an interest in computers soon heard about Dad and his “hobby.” Even if they didn’t have the money for a computer of their own, he somehow found a way to make sure they got one. He’d tell them, “Say, I’m getting a new computer, so why don’t you take my old one. I’ll bring it over on Thursday and set it up for you.” Knowing well that pride was important in this part of the country, he’d add, “Just pay me a little every month, when you can.”

After a few months’ payments, he’d protest, “Oh no, no, no; you don’t owe me any more money. You’re all paid up.” (When Dad died in 1999, they found a stash of empty computer boxes in the crawl space under the house. I think someone figured that if all the computers he’d given away actually were his hand-me-downs, he would have bought himself a new one about once-a-month.)

Besides peppering the local population with computers, Mom and Dad were also well known for offering all manner of encouragement and support to young people who showed an interest in the cultural world beyond Russell County. The Block Island bride was one of those. She’d graduated from college, moved to the Northeast years before, but kept in touch with Renie. I’m sure that’s why she sent the invitation to the wedding.

N3473B

N3473B delivered a flight to remember.

As it happened, the date intersected with Mom visiting me, my wife and her two grandsons here in New Jersey. She showed me the wedding invitation one night, laughed, and said it was too bad she couldn’t be there to surprise the bride. I laughed, too. Then I sneaked a peek at the long-range weather forecast.

For mere Earthbound mortals, getting to Block Island from New Jersey (never mind Kentucky) involves a five-hour drive, plus traffic–and there’s always traffic–followed by waiting in summer-swollen lines for the hour-long ferry ride. Count on a long day’s journey into night just to get there. I had a video conference at work the morning of the wedding, but thought I might be able to slip out the office unnoticed around lunchtime. It would take an hour and a half to get home, pick up Mom, get to Somerset Airport, preflight my V-tail Bonanza and go. Figure flying time to Block Island at a little more than an hour.

Over coffee that morning, I cautiously told my mom, “I’ll let you know around 10 if we can do this.”

The stars aligned (with help from a cold-front passing through the night before), and I called her from the office to say, “Get your glad rags on, Ma. Looks like you’re using that invitation.” Her smile beamed back at me through the phone line, and we got the wheels up around 2:00.

It was a flight to remember. Not only did the New York controller usher us through his Class Bravo, but his vector took us smack across the middle of Manhattan’s Central Park at 4,000 feet for an incomparable view of the city. Mom was a little embarrassed when she heard herself gasp loudly enough to key the voice-activated intercom. Then we were on our way, due east. With the sun still high in the sky, a quick scamper along the north shore of Long Island had me pointing out Block Island to her, in sight just below the horizon from 30 miles out.

On the beach

Renie, “informal and spunky,” walking on the beach.

I know I’m supposed to be a writer, but I don’t have the words to describe how it felt when the bride started down the aisle and spotted Renie perched on the end of one of the rows of wooden folding chairs. From where I sat, the harbor waters in the background were rippling like liquid diamonds in the late afternoon sunlight. And so were the tears on both their faces.

We got to stay long enough for her to meet the groom and his family; and catch up a little on the years that had passed. Of course, my dad had passed along with those years, and we all shed a few tears for him, too. Mom and I got a taxi back to the airport and took off into the lowering evening light. The air was as calm as the harbor waters, and I made a low pass over the reception tent; just a subtle reminder to the rest of the wedding guests that not everyone had to take three or four days off from work to be there.

Throughout the rest of the flight home, we watched in silence as the horizon darkened and the first scattered lights of Long Island slowly ramped up to the pulsing glow of the city that never sleeps. It capped a memory she would never leave behind for as long as she lived, and I knew it.

My mom is gone, now, too. The house in the woods has been sold. And as sad as it is to say, I don’t even remember the bride’s name from that wedding so many years ago. But I will never forget the look of pride on my mom’s face when she told everyone how she was able to be at the wedding. And for me, the tears I continue to shed today from that memory are more than ample payback for the sacrifices I’ve made for my flying, more than I could have ever hoped for.

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10 replies
  1. Joe Parisi
    Joe Parisi says:

    Thank you for sharing a great story. I was married on Block Island a few years before I got my certificate. I’m lucky now to fly back to this magical island a few times a year where my wife and I rediscover each other over and over again.

  2. Don R
    Don R says:

    I had a similar experience with my Dad a number of years ago. He had endured major surgery to repair an aortic aneurysm. His sister, my mother’s best friend was having a family get together in Pennsylvania, and Dad just could did not have the stamina to to the commercial air travel from Chicago. He and Mom were able to make the trip with me in our Cessna 205. They surprised Aunt Mary and had a wonderful time at the party.

    Weather permitting, you just can’t beat general aviation for medium range travel.

  3. Steve Ayres
    Steve Ayres says:

    Thank you for sharing a wonderful flying memory. I too remember several magical moments in the flying archives of yesterday. Isn’t it great that family memories and flying can merge into tremendously happy
    times. We all need to share more of these great stories! Thanks Again.

  4. Mike Moore
    Mike Moore says:

    When I was living and working in Connecticut I would often fly out to Block before work for breakfast at the little resaurant at the small terminal. Lots of 0500 departures! Wintertime is a great time to vist Block when there are no tourists. Landscape alwasy reminded me of Ireland.

  5. Todd Price
    Todd Price says:

    What a geat story, Mark!

    Light airplanes are the perfect vehicle for travel to close islands. I have fond memories of flying rental airplanes to Great Lakes islands early in my aviation endeavors. Always a thrill for both my pax and me.

  6. Mark Phelps
    Mark Phelps says:

    Thank to all of you for taking time to write comments. And for sharing your own memories. I agree; family memories and airplane stories make a great combination.

  7. Ron Horton
    Ron Horton says:

    You made my eyes leak. Both of my parents are long gone, your tale about bringing this gift to your mother – and the bride – is a wonderful piece of writing. Thank you for sharing your heart with all of us.

  8. David Kurman
    David Kurman says:

    Wonderful story. Block Island has been my favorite destination since Flight Simulator was invented. When I was able to take off in a real plane and fly there…it was a memorable moment. I go every chance I get and having my wedding there would truly be a dream come true. Thank you for sharing.

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