The perfect gift

Jigsaw puzzles were a big deal in the Dubois Clan when I was growing up. We did them frequently, and it was serious business with specific rules of engagement set down and enforced by my very Victorian Father. Each member of the family got to study the box cover art in turn. One time. For sixty seconds. Then the box was hidden away. Next, the pieces were all spread out and flipped right side up, then the border had to be built before any other construction took place. Lord help you if you found two pieces that went together before the border was complete.

Actually… those are the only rules I can remember, but knowing my father, there must have been others. Most likely, these traditions came from his father. In respect for the past, I try to enforce the same rules in my family, but I live with a pack of anarchists, so it doesn’t work out very well.

Despite that, I find puzzle building fun, and the process brings the Fam together in a unique and social way. Still, it seems we do them most often when we are snowed in, which tends to happen around the first of the year each year. Of course, being a flying family, we have a weakness for aviation-themed puzzles. Last year at Christmas we did a puzzle of Santa loading up a Piper Cub in lieu of his sleigh. The year before that it was a puzzle of an antique airplane poster.

But this year we had the ultimate puzzle, and the story starts a good ten weeks before Christmas when, after writing a rather large check to get repairs started on the family plane following a hard landing, I was having a moment of quiet desperation with my checking account. I emailed both my sisters to cancel holiday gift exchanges. My eldest sister, who’s also having a tight year agreed at once, but our middle sib wrote to say, sorry, but she’d already gotten something for us.

I was annoyed. Who on earth has their Christmas shopping out of the way in late October, fer crying out loud? “If I don’t get it done early,” was her reply, “I don’t get it done.”

Anyway, the promised box showed up shortly before Christmas, neatly wrapped in holiday themed paper, with a card that read, “To Tessie and Family.” I dutifully deposited the package under the tree—after giving it the traditional inquiring shake that told me that either the post office had completely and utterly destroyed my sister’s gift, or that the gift was a jigsaw puzzle.

It was a puzzle. But not just any puzzle. It was mypuzzle. A personal puzzle. A puzzle of Tessie. A montage of pics of my favorite plane taken from various online magazines. Tessie flying. Tessie on a snow-covered taxiway. Tess, a.k.a. Race 53 making a “race takeoff.” Tess in her art-filled hangar, Rio and I proudly standing on either side. It must have been a lot of work.

I was blown away.

And sure enough, right after Christmas we got a huge snow storm and we broke out the puzzle. We spread the pieces on the table, starting flipping them right side up—all 1,014 of them, and then I hid the damn box. It was a diabolically delightful puzzle. Tess, according to Rio, is “Fifty shades of blue,” to start with, and the light was different in each of the photos of our baby. OK. Clearly, this is part of the nose bowl, but from which image? Ah ha! This is the landing gear. But is it the landing gear from the race footage or from the picture of the plane parked on the snowy taxiway?

Oh, and not only are there fifty shades of blue airplane, but the puzzle also featured fifty shades of blue sky. It ended up being, by far, the hardest—but funest—puzzle I’ve even built. My sister really knocked it out of the park with this gift.

But in addition to putting together a machine I love, piece by piece, I had another first. I got to pick up the pieces of, well, me!

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An aeronautical feast for the eyes

A stubby Gee Bee Sportster, all engine. A green and yellow Laird Super Solution, a biplane so aerodynamically clean it looks poured from water, not built from wood and fabric. Ahh…. The Curtis R3C-2 that Jimmy Doolittle used to capture the Schneider Trophy. A Travel Air Mystery Ship in iconic fire engine red, black racing scallops on the leading edges of the wings and cowl gracing the plane with the illusion of streaking motion, even while parked. A Curtiss Jenny, so ugly and ungainly it’s beautiful. A sleek Spartan Model 7, a sexy Staggerwing, and a pudgy but oddly endearing Culver Cadet. Then, glistening like a mirror, the bullet-like Hughes H-1 Racer. And in a place of honor, the plane that started it all: The Wright Flyer.

No, it’s not the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum.

It’s the SXU Christmas tree.

And it’s an aeronautical feast for the eyes, its plastic branches covered in airplanes: A complete collection of all twenty-two Hallmark The Sky’s the LimitChristmas ornaments. Since 1997 the card giant has been churning out amazing replica airplane ornaments, featuring one new civilian airplane per year. Have I been collecting them since the beginning? No, and like everything else aviation around here, it all started with an Ercoupe…

Back in 2013, when we were shopping for a real Ercoupe, Debbie found The Sky’s the Limit‘Coupe ornament on eBay. Being the cheapest Ercoupe we’d seen up to that point, she bought it for me.

The diminutive, but highly detailed, resin model sat on my desk to keep me inspired during my lengthy plane buying odyssey. But—as often happens with our family—one thing led to another, and Rio and I became obsessed with hunting down every last one of the annual miniature planes; and since then, we’ve purchased each year’s new issue. In Year One of our airplane ornament hysteria, the family Christmas tree in our house was all airplane. Debs tolerated that.

The next year, the airplanes banned by the mistress of the house in favor of more traditional holiday decor, I decided to put up a Christmas tree in the hangar to share the holiday spirit with Tessie.

Of course, the problem with a hangar Christmas tree is that, unless you have the good fortune to live in one of those airpark communities where your hangar is connected to your house, you only see the hangar tree a few times during the Christmas tree season.

Still, I gamely put up the hangar tree each year since. Until this year. Because this year I had an epiphany. (Appropriate, given the season.) This year I decided to put up the hangar tree in the newly “renovated” terminal, so that not only would we enjoy it on our flying days, but so too could all the passing pilots who land for fuel, snacks, and a clean bathroom.

So armed with eggnog, Bourbon, a plate of cookies, and one of our Red Bull Sky Lounge Boxanne Bluetooth speakers (when you turn it on, you hear Jim DiMatteo’s voice say, “You’re cleared into the track, smoke on!”) the entire clan descended on the SKU terminal.

Yeah. It was a Plane Party. Plane and simple

With Grandma Jean “supervising,” we put up the three-part white faux tree. Then Debs fluffed up the branches while Lisa and I untangled the lights. I always wrap the damn things into a neat coil at the end of each season, but during the year of storage some sort of black magic intervenes to turn the bundle into a tangle. What’s up with that?

The tree up and the lights finally strung without stringing myself up, my responsibilities were discharged and I kicked back to enjoy the vibe of family, friends, music, and aviation. Debs and Rio took the fleet of planes from their cardboard hangars, setting each one on the table as if parked on a miniature ramp, then flew each one to the tree and carefully taxied them into position.

When they were done, we set up the O Gauge Plasticville Airport terminal and hangar buildings under the tree, and then argued about how to arrange the pair of tarpaper runways. Should they look good or be true to the compass?

Only aviators have these kinds of problems.

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Then, finally done, the cookies reduced to crumbs and the eggnog running low, we turned off the overhead lights and sat warm and cozy, bathed in the cold blue taxiway-colored light of the terminal tree, and soaked in the sight.

The un-racer-looking Howard DGA-6 “Mister Mulligan,” whose long legs won the 1935 Bendix Trophy, white against the white tree. A silver and blue Cessna 195. The bird of prey-like twin engine Cessna 310. Lindy’s iconic Spirit of St. Louis. The big radial Monocoupe 110, a long-winged Stinson Reliant, a Christmas red Lockheed Vega, and a humble Cessna 172 Skyhawk—a miniature of the one Rio is flying out of Santa Fe.

And of course, an Ercoupe. An Ercoupe in a Christmas tree that my true love gave to me.

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