Air show

Farm Forum

Bushnell today is a little watch-fob of a town that isn’t going anywhere, but is bound and determined to do it at its own pace.

In the 1920s it was the site of a memorable air show at a time when most people believed growing feathers was a prerequisite to flying.

But right after the Great War, the conflict in which the airplane was first employed, it was the scene of a flying demonstration like no other.

Early in the Roaring Twenties, town movers and shakers wearing fancy suspenders with matching shirt sleeve garters, organized a Saturday picnic and air show to give their little town of 350 a boost. They figured an air show would entice farm families away from a shopping trip to big, bad Brookings.

It was probably the only air show ever in Bushnell. The late Cecil Sanderson of Brookings, then 91, told me about the day like it all happened only yesterday. He was about nine or ten when he rode on a horse-drawn wagon with his parents, E. G. and Mary, to Bushnell that day.

Packed aboard with the tow-headed Sanderson kids was a picnic basket of cold fried chicken, several freshly baked loaves of bread, potato salad and a burlap-wrapped jug of cool well water.

Sanderson, then a retired Cooperative Extension official and WW II war hero, chuckled when he remembers it all.

A little patched, oil-smeared canvas-skinned aircraft was parked near the Bushnell picnic grounds waiting to perform after the families had completed their picnic lunches.

During lunch, a slovenly stranger set about making a darn fool of himself. He was full to the gills with lemon juice or barbed wire, as they called it back then, and was talking loudly as he snatched sandwiches and drumsticks from families’ fare, staggering from one to the other like a bug on silage. A sloshing bottle of something sinister was visible in his hip pocket.

Folks thought about sending for the sheriff to rid the pleasant afternoon of this very unpleasant man with about as much sense as God gave a goose.

They became even more concerned when the inebriate careened out to the airplane and commenced fumbling around with the humming guy-wires and kicking at but missing the well-worn hard-rubber tires. He belly-flopped as he tried to get a wobbly leg up onto the wing to climb into the open cockpit.

Then to everyone’s surprise, the man meandered to the plane’s business end and started turning the propeller. The craft’s engine coughed, sputtered and then, my goodness gracious, it started, nearly decapitating the poor fellow as he flailed backwards away from the whirring blades.

He then walked stiff legged around a wing, bouncing a knee off the leading edge, and eventually worked himself back to where he practically fell into the cockpit as the engine roared.

Bushnell commercial club members, realizing something was amiss hooked thumbs in suspenders and yelled warnings. Some sprinted out to pull him back from sure death. But the plane was airborne in seconds and left the ground in a swirling wake of Dakota dust.

The little craft seemed to struggle as it banked dangerously around the town elevator. Skittish pigeons, jumping from their perches, barrel-rolled in unison out of the craft’s way. It turned toward the picnic grounds, coming in low and fast, bobbing and weaving out of control. Women screamed, children ran for cover under picnic tables and men stood with open mouths, stroking beards and swallowing chewing tobacco in large chunks.

Nearby, teams of horses with hooves as big as pie tins whinnied, stomped and longed for the comforting safety of a barn somewhere.

The plane careened over the crowd. Its prop wash peeled leaves from trees, caused mangy town dogs to hide their tails, and sent picnic blankets flying. It made a sickening loop, then banked sharply and made another run, even closer to the ground. More screams… more beard stroking… more tobacco swallowing.

Surely, the drunk would not survive a crash everyone knew was imminent, and that would be a terrible thing for the women and children to see.

But the plane didn’t crash. It landed safely and taxied up close to the stunned gathering.

Out of the cockpit jumped a stone-cold sober pilot. He bowed majestically and acknowledged his aircraft with a broad sweep of his hand.

Slowly, over the next minute or two, everyone caught on. A few folks started to chuckle and then everyone was laughing and slapping knees.

The sandwich stealing, the near-decapitation, the just-missed town elevator and the low strafing runs over the crowd were all part of the Bushnell Air Show.

It was-no doubt about it-one of the highlights in the life of the little watch-fob town of Bushnell.

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