Chasing Uncle Park
by Jonathan Warner
He was a renaissance man of all things cool – bush pilot, motorcyclist, electric guitarist, pool shark, gymnast, mechanical genius, high-diver, general bad boy, and smooth ladies man – he even built a race car for Paul Newman. All the fantastic stories about him that seemed exaggerated were straight true, but that didn’t stop him from growing even more mythic in my young boy mind.
Uncle Park was my dad’s younger brother – the second youngest of “The Warner Boys.” I never met him. The sudden, tragic accident 2 years before I was born devastated my family, but by the time I was old enough to comprehend the talk at our family reunions, my dad and uncles were speaking about him openly again – with fondness and laughter. To me, his death was a clean and pure violence that somehow matched all the anecdotes of how he lived. It was the ultimate legitimacy to his wildness, like a Greek warrior’s glory in finally falling on a sword in battle. I’d sometimes feel guilty for not experiencing a transferred sense of sadness for Uncle Park, but having never known him, it didn’t come naturally. The grief seemed so distant and so past. My family appeared to have made a collective decision while we cousins were still in diapers to be proactive about memorializing Uncle Park instead of mourning him. What grew within me instead of sadness was an intense fascination with him – who he was, why he did things… I think I would have been enthralled with him in any event, but it went deeper than that – my dad had given me the middle name “Park.”
I came to “know” Uncle Park through a handful of faded photographs and the multitude of stories told around the dinner table of our family reunions. The phrase to start them off would be something like, ” Now if Park was here…,” or, “Your Uncle Park would have…” – each story would lead to others and my dad and uncles would start dissolving into laughter and interrupting each other to correct the details of each fantastic account. I could never get enough, often pestering my dad for the details of each tale again and again on the ride home from each family gathering.
There was that time when he was logging flight hours for his pilot license. He’d taken off from the small airstrip outside of Danbury, Connecticut one afternoon before an unexpected ground fog moved in, cloaking everything for square miles in an opaque white cover. Uncle Park circled for hours waiting for the clouds to lift, but it stayed thickly socked in. Running low on fuel and desperate to find a place to put the plane down, he began decreasing his altitude until he was flying dangerously low – in part due to faulty altimeter. That’s right about when his single-engine Citabria crashed through a 22,000 volt power cable, setting off an arc that temporarily blinded him, bent his propeller, and caught the plane’s tail on fire. Somehow he pulled the aircraft out of the impact and eventually spotted Interstate I-84 after some of his vision returned a few minutes later. Taking a guess at which direction was eastbound on the interstate, he was eventually able to get his bearings and land the injured plane sans radio at the airstrip where he’d taken off. The Citabria was salvageable, but in severing the voltage cable, he knocked out power for all of Brewster, New York and pissed off a lot of executives at the power company. The incident was filed with the FAA as an aviation accident, and I remember reading a very eloquent letter that Uncle Park had written to some magistrate in explanation of how it had happened and what he’d learned from the near-death ordeal.
One of my other favorite stories was a real piece of Bonnie & Clyde. Uncle Park had apparently gotten into a big feud with the local Danbury police after a speeding ticket or two. It escalated to the point that they used to camp out and wait for him on the bridge that he had to cross to get back into Danbury on his way home from work each night. On one of the high-speed chases that resulted, he’d crashed his motorcycle whipping around a tight curve, and it had been impounded at a certain gas station/garage while he spent a few nights in jail. When he was released, he and his girlfriend at the time paid the place a visit. While she flirted with the attendant, Uncle Park broke into the garage and promptly stole back his 1000cc BMW, storage and towing fees be damned.
There were so many others too – like when he and my dad had charged 3,000 miles through Central America on a pair of dirt bikes back in the ’70s, how he’d hustle hot-shot billiards players for hundreds of dollars at Brewster bars, or just what he did for work – flying Grizzly hunters and salmon fishermen to the remotest corners of Alaska in an amphibious float plane. The pictures though – they were what really brought him to life for me. There weren’t that many shots really, but my cousin and I would pore over the few we had back when we were little – “look at this one,” I’d say, gripping a small, darkened photo featuring a muscular Uncle Park wringing a towel shirtless after a work-out on the rings. “My dad said he could do an iron cross.” There was one of him smoking a cigarette nonchalantly next to a twin engine Otter (the world’s most bad-ass airplane) that he used to fly out of Barrow, Alaska. Everything about him was just straight cool – it was like he was a movie character somehow playing out his dramatic role in the center of a middle-class American family.
For me, his effect was undoubtedly heightened because he was dead. My dad was basically as cool as Uncle Park, albeit less rebellious – but he was my dad. How could someone who drove me to soccer practice and made me French toast for breakfast cast the same aura of reckless bravado? Uncle Park never had kids or drove a minivan – never lost his good looks or grew old enough to be overtaken by the next generation. His absence too – never being around to represent himself, never giving his own perspective on the wild exploits or altercations with the cops – it left a space that actually made him more approachable for me. I was a painfully shy boy, hiding behind my dad’s leg for most of my childhood (even at family reunions). But with Uncle Park there was no talking necessary, no pressure of a relationship to manage – he was just this unthreatening, awesome rebel that I could claim as a family member and fantasize about.
The crazy stories weren’t exaggerated – he truly was a hellion. But with all those photos and stories in mind, I fashioned a glorious, high-octane superman who was endlessly confident, utterly smooth, impeccably skilled, and forever a maverick. Uncle Park, the idea, was untouchable – his reputation enshrined in the fraction of a fast lifetime that had been his. The idea of Uncle Park dared me. It questioned me. It goaded me into taking chances and flouting norms. It was a big part of why I rode motorcycles, drank Rolling Rock, listened to The Eagles, and embarked on a haphazard year of Central American adventures all alone right after college. I tried to live up to his persona, resisting the safer, more normal tracks of life in hopes of gaining an approval that he wasn’t there to give. Some of it came easily because I’d inherited “The Warner Boys” adventurous spirit and naturally gravitated toward blazing my own way, but I had to admit that I wasn’t made of the same stuff as Uncle Park. It bothered me, but it was true. I wasn’t a rebellious bad boy – I rode my motorcycle cautiously most of the time, didn’t have a record with the police, and I’d even taken a desk job when my student loans caught up to me. Maybe it was less testosterone or a larger capacity for fear, but my grandkids and nephews wouldn’t be telling a similar slew of fantastic stories about me around the family reunion dinner table.
Even though I realized I was different, my fascination with Uncle Park never faded even as I grew into and adult. A few years ago I went skiing with my dad up in Maine, and we ended up talking about Uncle Park on the lift – about his life up there in Barrow, flying shipments of salmon back and forth over the frozen Alaskan wilderness in big DC-3 cargo crafts and ski planes. “I think he was pretty lonely actually,” my dad had said at one point. The comment surprised me. On another night more recently, my mom ended up reminiscing about him too. But her words were uncharacteristic, so unlike the typical fond references at family reunions – it caught me off-guard. We’d been reading a piece my Uncle Chris had written about the family that included a good bit on Uncle Park. I’d made a quick comment about his famous escapades with a chuckle, but after a minute her eyes had filled up with tears. She had known him well. This was back during the years when she was dating my dad in Wilmington, Delaware – he’d been best man at their wedding. “He was more than all that stuff,” she said, “he was the sweetest person – had the biggest heart.” The tears were spilling down her cheeks now. “If you could have seen him with your sister when she was a baby…you know your father was always trying to get him to slow down. We always felt for him – I just sensed that he was unhappy underneath it all.”
In a lot of the pictures of Uncle Park, he’s wearing sunglasses – like on his motorcycle or against the Alaskan snow glare – I always thought those were some of the best, coolest shots. There was this one picture though – it’s of him and my dad down in Costa Rica at a party with friends back when they were riding north on the Pan-American highway atop those BSA Victor 441s. It’s inside and you can see everybody’s faces and eyes pretty clearly. My dad is mid-laugh, glancing away from the camera, but Uncle Park is looking straight into the lens. He’s smiling – not a big smile, but smiling. Maybe it was just one of those times where you’ve had to pose too long for the shot, and the delay unravels the unity of your expression, but as I look at the photo, his smile seems somehow separate from the look in his eyes. There’s a distance in his gaze, almost a weariness or touch of sadness that seems out of place for the party setting in which it was taken. I’ve looked at this picture a lot in the wake of my mother’s words, thinking back and wondering about all the stories – all the exploits and bravado that I’d seen as the beginning and end – the sum of my Uncle Park.
I still love the legend of Uncle Park. He was a rebel, a wild movie character come-to-life that I think of with the same awe and amazement I had as a kid. I wonder about it sometimes though – that side of my uncle that brings my mom to tears – the stuff behind all the flash and bravado. I wonder if he ever doubted himself or grew tired of the pressure of being a slick superman. Did he wrestle with loneliness or fear some nights in the cockpit of his plane high above the Alaskan ice? As the years roll on I’ve started to think that it might be naive to continue worshipping just the legend side of my Uncle Park. It might be doing him injustice and blinding me to the real human that he was. In recent years I’ve asked my questions from a different angle and learned that for all his brash manliness, Uncle Park had a softer, empathetic side. He had a habit of befriending people on the fringes of society – like down-and-out drug addicts. I learned that many of the hot-headed altercations he notoriously got into often started with him sticking up for girls in abusive relationships. And up in Alaska he looked out for the remote Eskimo communities, going out of his way to report the unethical bush pilots who would sell them liquor illegally for a huge profit even though they knew it destroyed their way of life. There was more to Uncle Park than just the steel superman that I made him into as a boy. He genuinely cared about people around him – he wasn’t too cool to have time for them. The more I have honest conversations with my family, I realize that people really loved Uncle Park more for his brotherhood, friendship, and caring nature than for his fast lifestyle. If he was around today I wonder if he might not shake his head and laugh along with my other uncles at the crazy stories of his youth. Maybe at some point he would even have looked us cousins in the eye and shared a different perspective on the fast motorcycles, big muscles, and hot girlfriends we tied so closely to his manhood.
I grew up wanting to be one of “The Warner Boys,” aspiring to be as impressive and manly as I perceived them all to be – especially Uncle Park. Today, it’s true that I can string together some stories that sound cool, maybe somewhat impressive. I have to skip over a few dull years here and there, but some of it is quite good campfire material. Looking back, I’m proud of my own adventures and exploits, but at the same time, I’ve also grown aware of my propensity to be enslaved in an endless and exhausting attempt to be some awesome superman that isn’t me and isn’t even real. Maybe Uncle Park wrestled with the same pressures – I don’t know – but when I consider what it means to wear his name well, I think part of it is being mindful to manage my intoxication with epic adventures and fast reputations.
Today “The Warner Boys” are pretty old and grey. My dad has a cough and Uncle Chris threw out his shoulder trying to spiral a football the last time we went to the beach (he’s younger than Uncle Park would have been). Their physical prime is long past and they know it, but despite their heyday being over, they seem happy and at peace. For me it remains an on-going struggle to manage the feeling that I need to measure up to my roots – to do the impossible and somehow be impressive 24 hours a day. Now and then in my sporadic bouts of introspection I can sometimes identify streaks of new maturity or notice a seed of momentary contentment springing up in my person – perhaps a better management of ego here and there too. It could be that I’m actually getting more mature – or it may just be that life’s course tends to drive us closer to reality as it distances us from youth. But from time to time, now and years down the road, I’ll still revel in the old, faded photos, we’ll re-tell all the outlandish tales, and I’ll never completely give up wanting to be a renaissance man of all things cool like my Uncle Park.
Jonathan Warner lives in a New York studio smaller than your bathroom where he runs his podcast, “Storylines of West 111th Street.” He also writes regularly on his blog The Scrap Journal to try to keep sane between outdoor adventures. Catch him riding the 2 Train late in the evening or connect with him on Instagram @JParkWarner or Twitter @JParkWarner.
Image: TR001 via Creative Commons