To live is to fly
Pilot’s soaring spirit carries on despite son’s death to heroin
KEENE VALLEY — Jeff Rose would have told his father this was a “CAVU” day.
It’s the kind of “clear and visibility unlimited” morning void of clouds that the 71-year-old Bob Rose grew to adore for a half-century as a military and commercial pilot.
Bob and I crammed into his yellow 1949 Piper Clipper airplane at Marcy Field in Keene Valley late Tuesday morning after his calloused, oil-drenched fingertips finished priming the plane for takeoff and completed a cleanup of its tiny half-storage shed, half-hangar.
Before we left the ground, Bob described what he saw as a “picture perfect” day. There’s perhaps no better way to truly feel the mid-season majesty of the High Peaks Wilderness than from a small plane at this time of year, when the bright hues of fall foliage hang on long enough to mesh with the first visual evidence that our long and hard Adirondack winter is indeed coming.
On this Tuesday, the fresh snow line flirted with 4,000 feet after the previous day’s cloudy precipitation and the previous night’s freezing temperatures.
The Adirondack peaks were in all their multi-colored and snow-frosted glory.
Bob and I planned to fly clockwise into and out of the wilderness from Marcy Field. After climbing, our plan was to turn to the southwest from state Route 73 above the AuSable Club to fly through the AuSable lakes. We’d then hang a sharp right to skirt the south side of the notoriously steep back of Mount Haystack. Then we’d fly above Lake Tear of the Clouds — the first trickle of the Hudson River on the southwest slope of the state’s highest point, Mount Marcy — before we’d hang another right, this time hurtling northeast above Avalanche Pass. It’s a location between the stunning icy western slopes of Mount Colden to our right and what is Bob’s favorite mountain, the gem of the MacIntyre Range and the state’s second highest point, Algonquin Peak, to our left.
Mornings like these remind Bob of the happiness he’s found in his life in recent years in this place where he always wanted to live. He brings up the Meat Loaf song “Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad” when relaying that he’s accomplished the top three items on his list: He lives in Wilmington, bought this Clipper plane a year ago and met the woman he considers the love of his life.
“So, you know, three out of three ain’t bad,” Rose said with a smile.
The Clipper Bob and I boarded is a true relic of American aviation history. Only 400 were ever made. It’s a special one, too, he says, as it’s equipped with a 150-horsepower Lycoming 320 engine rather than the standard 108-horsepower engine.
It’s also much simpler to pilot than the F-16 Fighting Falcons and Delta passenger jets Bob used to man before he retired from Delta a decade ago at the age of 60. Be it practicing back in the 1970s with the Air Force National Guard out of Hancock Airfield in Syracuse, or this flight today with me, it’s been a life in the air for Bob since his earliest memories — like when he built his first plastic model kit airplane at the kitchen table with his father, Ken.
As Bob and I took off north down the Marcy Field runway, the wind stack was limp, ideal to climb within a couple of minutes, bank west and then south over the heart of Keene Valley, and then east over the AuSable Club’s fairways and sand dunes. On this day, from 3,000 feet, they looked more like a neat collection of crumbs atop a green carpet.
This Indian summer provided ample weekends for friends and I to hike the High Peaks. In my time in the Adirondacks, there wasn’t a more humbling experience than looking out the Clipper’s window to view the intimidating and awesome power of mountain after mountain and their corresponding trails.
One moment we were glancing down at the steep Beaver Meadow and Pyramid Peak trails to the top of Gothics, and the next I was gobsmacked at the jaggedness of Sawteeth Mountain and the steep ledges of its Scenic Trail. Weeks earlier, friends and I were down there.
Then as we banked west over Marcy Swamp toward and above Lake Tear of the Clouds, it was time for Mounts Marcy, Haystack, Skylight and Colden to show off their geologic and glacial beauty through the prism of their ice-capped peaks. Weeks earlier, sweat poured from our foreheads in the summit sunlight atop each of those mountaintops.
Finally, Bob and I banked back northeast over Lake Colden, his pilot seat in prime position to look down westward on his favorite mountain, Algonquin.
It’s his favorite because it was Jeff’s favorite.
Through the years, father and son hiked Algonquin a half-dozen times, each at Jeff’s request. When the two planned backpacking trips to the Adirondacks, Bob would ask his son if he wanted to try a different mountain. Ever the artist in the family, Jeff always wanted to return to his summit spot because it epitomized the opposite of “CAVU.”
“He’d say, ‘Dad, I’d rather climb one mountain under all different conditions than climb every one of them crystal clear,'” Bob recalled. “He’d say, ‘I know you’re a pilot. I know everything with you is ‘clear and visibility unlimited.’ But Dad, if the visibility is that great, what does it leave to the imagination?’
“He’s the artist,” the father continued. “He loved it up there.”
Jeff died of a heroin overdose three years ago. He was 40.
The loss of his son’s life has led Bob to volunteer and serve on the board of directors for the Essex County Heroin & Opioid Coalition, or ECHO. Thus far this year, Bob has spoke in front of students and parents at schools in Willsboro, Ticonderoga and Moriah to share his son’s story. He hopes it’ll prevent similar deaths.
“Hopefully we can talk to parents and say, ‘These are the signs my son was having trouble,'” Bob said. “‘These are signs to look for that a child might have an addictive personality.’
“Experience is something you get right after you need it,” he added. “Unfortunately that’s the way life works.”
As we flew past Algonquin, Bob had two items in his pockets. In his right was his father Ken’s old Swiss Army knife. In his left was a vial of his son’s ashes, some of which he also scattered two years ago atop Algonquin.
On one side of the vial, there’s a paintbrush symbolizing his son’s love for art. On the other side, it reads, “Be Free Jeff.”
“I always carry this,” Bob said.
As Bob and I throttled away from Algonquin, Lake Placid and snow-capped Whiteface in view straight ahead, we encountered some crosswinds during a bumpier-than-expected landing. As we touched down, Bob’s ringtone reverberated in the cabin. It was the familiar orchestral trumpet that serves as the theme to the movie “Rocky.”
The song is called “Gonna Fly Now.”
Despite the losses in his life, Bob says he’s not only eager to fly now, on these kinds of picturesque Adirondack autumn days, but to fly until he knows he can’t fly anymore.
“As long as I can,” Bob said. “Until the time comes where I say, ‘You know, I just seem to be losing it.’
“And I will,” Bob continued. “I’d love to think I won’t. I’d love to think I’ll beat the odds and live forever. But I can’t. What’s Dirty Harry say? ‘A man’s got to know his limitations.’ I’m a big believer in that. I want to be the one to decide when I have my last flight. Not to have somebody tell me.”