Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Don Thurston builds an airplane

My wife's parents came to visit last weekend. We only get to see them about once or twice a year. And I always find myself playing a mind game of "life is funny" when I think about them.

My wife's father, Don Thurston, is a hall-of-fame broadcaster, who grew up in Gloucester, Massachusetts. , where he learned to hate lobster, I'm told, because he ate it all the time as a kid. He dabbled in electronics, ended up in far northern Vermont where he helped put a radio station on the air, broadcast a morning show from a dairy barn, and eventually scraped enough money together to buy a small radio station in Massachusetts.

Armed only with an endless amount of integrity, a voice that would make you sit up straight and listen, and a unique -- especially now -- determination to serve people, he became a broadcast pioneer and, grounded in what would become a small -- very small -- group of community radio stations, a pillar of an industry. He ran for Congress, losing only because he trusted people in politics too much (he swept the popular vote in Berkshire County, however) -- in this case the Republican Party -- which thought nothing of cheapening the value of its word in favor of an expedient political orgasm of pandering to the nutcases on the very far end of the political spectrum.

Because Don wasn't a nutcase, and never went back on his word -- ever -- he didn't become one of the politically chosen who passed the litmus test of a crank element of the political party. Instead, he kept working every day in a small Massachusetts city, while helping form, for example, a non-profit capital venture firm to help minority broadcasters own their own community radio stations. He served on the Broadcast Music International (BMI) Board of Directors, including a stint as chairman. He was joint board chairman of the National Association of Broadcasters and at one point was nominated to be the leader of the NAB, until he was undercut at the last minute by another slick politician who understood the ways of Washington far better.

When I graduated from college in 1976, he was one of the many people to whom I sent a resume, and one of the many who sent me a lovely rejection letter in return. A few years later, at another radio station, his daughter came to work in the newsroom in which I worked. I didn't like her much ... until I liked her a lot. And several years after that, she became my wife, and Don became my father-in-law.

When he finally retired a few years ago in his 70s, he deserved a lifetime of golf and relaxation. Instead, he got a diagnosis of Parkinson's and cancer.

The cancer is doing better, but there are no happy endings with Parkinson's. The disease has claimed his once-booming "radio" voice. He talks in a whisper, and he is frustrated when people finish his sentences for him.

But, man, can he build an RV airplane!

This past weekend, he helped me build mine.

I've written in the past, you probably know, about the various roles my RV project has assumed. It has been a teacher, a companion, a go-between for my sons and me. It's also the world's largest scrapbook. When people help me, they have to sign their names. But beyond that, all the dings and dents that have accumulated on the project -- often as a result of that help -- are not eyesores to me; they are cherished testaments to moments that will never be relived.

We were working on the canopy on Saturday -- the latch lugs, to be specific. And so I started Don off with a lesson on installing clecos in the side skirts as I refit the canopy for the umpteenth time. Don struggled for a bit with the orientation of the cleco in the pliers, and then with the hand strength needed to expose the spring-loaded prongs, and finally with the eyesight to fit them in the dimpled holes of the side skirts.

But he did it. He did it without help and he did it without me finishing a sentence once. Oh sure, there was the occasional scratch as the prongs triangulated the location of the hole, but that didn't create a problem for me other than to figure out how I would preserve those scratches forever.

I then crawled into the canopy and fit the latch lugs as he made sure the canopy was sealed around me. He helped me get in and out of the cabin five or six times as I fitted, refitted, pre-drilled, and then re-drilled the lugs.

After an hour or two, we were done. Except for one thing. The autograph in the scrapbook (in this case on the subpanel).

"Everyone who helps gets a free ride," I said as we cleaned up around the workshop. I couldn't really hear what he said in return, but I'm pretty sure I knew what he was saying and, while I don't really want it to be true, I know it probably is.

And so, pretending I didn't hear him, I didn't say, "you'll always be flying with me."

Even though he will.

(Postscript: Don Thurston died of Parkinsons complications on October 6, 2009.)


  1. Bob, a few days ago when you were blogging from your seat in the boring safety presentation, you wondered if anyone was reading your stuff. I am sure there are, but you never know until someone tells you so.

    So let me tell you that I enjoyed this account of Don helping to build your plane. Enjoyed is probably not the right word; I was actually saddened by the story, but the pleasure came from seeing how generously you allow many different people to become involved in so many facets of your hobby, and how you allow others to share in the achievement. However small the task, your assistants will always be able to say: “I helped Bob build it.”

    My compliments.

  2. Bob,
    What a great story. I always enjoy reading your work and this one is special. I got a little teary reading it, but could feel the joy in your life and your RV journey.

    Best regards

  3. Bob, I've enjoyed reading your posts on VAF and here on your site. But this article was a true joy, and an inspiration. It seems that we're so often reminded these days of all that is seedy, banal, and mean-spirited in our world. This column was a wonderful reminder of the wonderful people that have made our country what it is. Blessings on you and Don.

    David Wright

  4. Bob, that was a great post. I consider you to be one of the 'voices of reason' over at the VAF site and after reading this post I'm beginning to see why.

    Great stuff. Keep up the good work.

    Best regards,