“‘It was a Thursday morning in January of 1911, I was 13 at the time, and that particular morning I was floating around in my rowboat looking for ghost shrimp in the Spanish Bight.’”
This is Joe Jessop, 96, talking to my buddy Joe Ditler in 1994. “‘Coronado then was barren except for sagebrush, cottontails and jackrabbits. Maybe a few snipe and quail. The fishing was great. I spent a lot of my youth poking around in that bight.’ (Spanish Bight divided Coronado until 1944, when the Navy filled it in.)
“‘I was minding my own business when I heard a voice calling my name. I turned and recognized my friend’s father, Mr. Curtiss, Glenn Curtiss, who was a pilot and inventor of some note. He said he was going to fly his airplane [which he had equipped with pontoons] off the water in the Bight, and asked if I would assist him. I thought he was crazy. But he said if I rowed a small container of gasoline out to him as he needed it, once he got lift-off we would celebrate by eating a fresh apple pie his wife made that very morning. He pointed to a large fuel drum down the beach, and a steaming hot apple pie was sitting smack dab on top.’
Curtiss wanted only small amounts of gasoline in his airplane at any one time to reduce the risks if he crashed.
“So I agreed to help him. We tried for an hour or more. He would rev up his engine, taxi along the water, give it full power, and then nothing would happen. I kept rowing out small amounts of gasoline, and he kept trying. Finally, the breeze came up just before noon, as it still does today, and it began to flow over North Island and into the Bight. Mister Curtiss taxied back around, raced his engine, and headed up into that wind. Within a few seconds he had lift-off and the plane was flying. I couldn’t believe it. He flew over me circling and waving and yelling, what, I couldn’t tell.’”
Records show Glenn Curtiss is officially recognized as the Father of Naval Aviation for that flight on Thursday January 26th, 1911.
And the pie? “‘Mr. Curtiss was a frugal man. He insisted we pour the rest of the gas back into that drum. He was so skinny that the excitement had him trembling like a leaf. He spilled gas all over our apple pie. I was never so mad in all my days.’”
“Joe was 96 when he told me this in 1994,” says Ditler. “He was bright as a button, and still sailing his 50-foot sloop Cathleen around the bay.”
I hear this all from Ditler at the recent launch of his book, Coronado Confidential. The book is basically about growing up in Coronado in the crazy Sixties. An overflow crowd turned up to be reminded.
“Do you see the irony?” says Joe. “Joe Jessop had crystal-clear memories of him and Glenn Curtiss in 1911, and yet when I’m reminding everyone here about the Sixties tonight, they all deny remembering a thing. I guess it means they must have been there.”