I Remember Dad: The Spark Plugs of the P-51 Mustang

By Richard Mabey Jr.

 Because I grew up in the old Mabey Homestead, it was very common for my grandparents, uncles and aunts, and cousins to descend upon the old farmhouse on Saturday afternoons. In the summer time, on Saturday mornings, my sister Patti and I would help Mom to make tossed salad, potato salad and macaroni salad. Mom would also bake up a big aluminum pan of baked beans. But, she would always buy the cole slaw at the grocery store.

One such summer day is a memory that is etched in indelible ink in my heart, mind and inner being. It was in the midst of the Summer of 1965. I was 11 years old and had just completed Mr. Yurgolese’s sixth grade class. I think I remember it so very well because it was the summer just before I came down with a severe case of rheumatic fever.

Aunt Vi, Dad’s only sister, would bring Grandma and Grandpa. They lived in Towaco, on Route 202, and Aunt Vi owned and managed the infamous Towaco Hill Kennel. They were usually the first ones to arrive at about ten in the morning. Grandma would help Mom with the all the cooking. I remember that Grandma would make this wonderful Amish green bean salad.

I would abandon my role as a kitchen helper, to help Dad and Grandpa load up the old-fashioned outdoor grill with charcoal. I always thought it a big deal to go into the garage and carry out the bag of charcoal, then dump it into the big grill. Dad would soak up the charcoal with lighter fluid and then strike up a match.

“Be careful, son,” Grandpa would say to Dad.

“I know Pop, I know what I’m doing,” Dad would say to Grandpa.

Even that my dad was a grown man, married with two children, Grandpa would still look out for Dad, as if he was still his little boy. And, of course, Dad would instinctively be a bit annoyed.

By high noon, the majority of the Mabey clan would have descended upon the yard of the old Mabey Homestead. My older cousin Earl and I would climb up my tree fort and read comic books and Mad magazines. It was a most odd and peculiar thing to see my relatives from a bird’s eye view.

I had a bucket that was tied to a long rope that could be lowered down to ground level. Dad would put two hot dogs in the bucket, along with two paper cups of lemonade, for Earl and myself. I always thought it the coolest thing to eat a hot dog with my older cousin, Earl, high atop my tree fort.

Uncle Gerry, one of my dad’s younger brothers, worked as a mechanic. I remember this so very well. Uncle Gerry and Dad were talking about how the engines of cars and trucks were changing in design. There, atop my tree fort, I remember Dad saying to Uncle Gerry, “Gerry, you should have tried changing the spark plugs on those old P-51 Mustangs. You’d bust your knuckles changing them. I remember many the time, my knuckles would be bleeding from changing them spark plugs.”

Then Uncle Gerry would look out to the back field and say something to the effect that he wished he would have had the chance to work on even just one of those old P-51’s.

I so deeply regret that I didn’t ask my dad more questions about what it was like to be at Hickam Air Field, in Hawaii, during World War II. My father would look so solemn, so sad, when he would talk about what Hickam Air Field looked like when he first arrived there. As many of you know, Hickam Air Field is right next to Pearl Harbor Naval Station. And, it too, was horribly bombed by Japan on the seventh of December of 1941.

I can’t turn the clock back. There was always the book report to do. The merit badge to study for. Playing baseball with my neighborhood pals. Math homework to do. Reading comic books. Building a model. Watching Batman on TV. Going for a hike with the scouts. Church youth group. Studying my Sunday School lessons. There never seemed time to simply ask Dad about his time of service in the Seventh Army Air Corps. It is something that I so deeply regret.

In memory, I return to the wooden planked platform of my old tree fort. In dreams, I’ll chomp on a hot dog and read comic books with older cousin, Earl. And, I’ll hear the ghostly echo of my dad saying to my Uncle Gerry, “Gerry, you should have changed the spark plugs on one of them old P-51 Mustangs. They were real knuckle busters.”

Oh, to go back for just one day.

Richard Mabey Jr. is a freelance writer. He can be reached at richardmabeyjr@hotmail.com. Please put on the subject line: My Life Publications.

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