Bernard Pietenpol’s shop light.

Builders:

Pictured below is the most treasured single item in my hangar:  The light which hung over BHP’s work bench, in his shop in Cherry Grove Minnesota. Yes, it’s really the one, you can see it in the old black and white photos on the family website.

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It was given to me about 10 years ago by Will Minsink, who has made an exact replica of BHP’s workshop in his hangar in Preston Minnesota. You can see pictures in this story: Cherry Grove story, “The long way home” Will knows I consider BHP to the the “Patron Saint of Homebuilding” and he gave me the light, a very gracious act.

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Every homebuilder does it: Before turning in for the night, you pause to take one last look at what you have accomplished with the evening, and then turn off the lights. It’s very easy to imagine Bernard doing this countless times over the decades, with this very light. He lived from 1901-84. Although he turned the light out one last time three and a half decades ago, his reputation as the champion of flight for the working man, his belief that aviation is not a spectator sport, remains undimmed. 

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Today is my 57th birthday.  I share the date with my neighbor Wayne. I was born exactly 30 years after him.  I have lived directly across our grass strip from him for nearly 15 years.  We have shared many great moments, and he is a first class human being, particularly on matters where it really counts. He has accomplished a lot in aviation, and he still flies his RV-7A actively. It’s not really logical, but due to our shared birthday and passion for planes, I have long had him as my personal yard stick of what I could or should accomplish in flying before I turn out my own shop light one last time.

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This birthday, we are planning on marking the occasion with a little more thought a good time. This is brought on by a very hard cancer diagnosis Wayne got a few weeks ago. He is a tough man with a stoic outlook, and he will go down fighting, but the tone and tense of our conversations are different, as we acknowledge that the number of times he will turn out the lights in his hangar is suddenly finite.

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It’s 4 am and I can’t sleep. Too many questions. Will Wayne and I share open beer on our 58th/88th birthday next year? Why do I childishly believe I will get as many days as he has? For all the good things we did in the last 365 days, why did I settle for that little? In 15 years will anyone at the airport feel the way I did about Wayne when I moved here? There are no good answers at this time of night.

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I won’t think about those questions in daylight tomorrow, I’m always optimistic in sunshine. But late at night in the coming year, they will come back. On quiet nights I sit on the front porch, sip beer and look out at the grass runway. The questions all return then, familiar, but unwelcome visitors, tolerated company, because I long ago learned that it is the treasured people who can’t stay, and the questions about what you should have done that never leave.

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