WOSTER: Not-so-tall tales about McGovernMcGovern said he was casually watching the pilot handle the airplane when he noticed the oil gauge had dropped almost to the lowest peg.
By: Terry Woster, The Daily Republic
Finally out raking leaves, twigs and small branches from last week’s major-league wind storm on Sunday afternoon, I had more time to think about former Sen. George McGovern’s life and death and some of the events that happened during the four decades or so that, as a news reporter, I had occasional contact with the man.
It doesn’t always pay to have a no-mind task like raking and a sunny October afternoon to reflect on things.
In the middle of remembering one or another McGovern moment, I suddenly wondered if I had misstated a political yarn I spun for a Saturday column in The Daily Republic, the paper in the late Senator McGovern’s hometown. What a great platform for telling McGovern stories.
On Saturday, I related a McGovern story about holding the wing of an airplane down while the pilot of the small craft gained a little airspeed to fight a fierce wind. In midrake on Sunday, it occurred to me that maybe former Gov. Dick Kneip was the one who held the wing.
I suppose many news people are completely self-confident. In more than 40 years, I was never that way. No sooner do I wonder if I was wrong in a piece of writing than I assume I was and I start clawing my way through memories, looking for clues to truth or falsehood.
In the case of the McGovern wing-strut story, it would have made sense if Kneip had been the one telling the story. It was 1975. He and McGovern were swapping campaign yarns and the governor was quite a bit younger than the senator. Presumably, he could have more easily trotted alongside a small airplane and then hauled himself into the cockpit. But I have always had this vivid memory of McGovern describing how his neck tie was hitting him in the face as the wind whipped it around.
I have no notes to confirm or refute what I wrote. It was three people sharing a drink and some stories.
On the off chance that I misstated the wing-strut story, I will make it up to trusting readers with another story from that afternoon. This one I know is McGovern. I can’t guarantee it is entirely true, but I can guarantee he told it pretty much this way.
McGovern and his wife, Eleanor, were trying to get from the northern part of the state to Mitchell for a campaign event. I don’t recall the year or the race. Seems like it was early in his political career.
Anyway, they’d chartered a small airplane to carry them, and when they reached the airport, they learned the chartered craft had developed engine trouble. The charter service had a somewhat more compact substitute.
The McGoverns crowded into a tiny plane the senator described as a sort of cropduster. McGovern was seated by the pilot. Eleanor was in a small jump seat behind them.
McGovern said he was casually watching the pilot handle the airplane when he noticed the oil gauge had dropped almost to the lowest peg.
“Well, I’d flown before, and I asked the pilot ‘Does that gauge work?’ ” McGovern said.
“Yeah, this baby eats oil a little,” the pilot said. “We’re going to have to put her down and add some.”
Supposedly, the pilot landed in a grassy spot along the James River somewhere near a highway (S.D. 34?) and crawled out to rummage through a compartment for cans of oil.
McGovern said he counseled Eleanor to sit tight and they’d be on their way soon. The way the senator told it, his wife shook her head and told him she was climbing out, walking to the nearby highway and thumbing a ride into Woonsocket, where relatives would take her to Mitchell.
What I remember after that is the senator saying the pilot topped off the oil, cranked the engine and they made it to Mitchell. What I don’t remember (can it be that I didn’t ask and Kneip didn’t, either?) is whether Eleanor stuck with them or actually did hitch a ride into her home town of Woonsocket.
So, there’s the bonus story, mostly true, I think.