Nate Saint: On a Wing and a Prayer

Chapter 1
A Whole New World

Nate Saint turned and waited for his nineteen-year-old brother Sam to give him a leg up into the cockpit. He wished he could have swung his leg over himself, but seven-year-old legs just aren’t long enough for some things. Sam gave him a good heave, and Nate tumbled into the leather seat. He wiggled around until he was sitting comfortably, then reached for the goggles hanging in front of him. As he sat in the Challenger biplane waiting for Sam to finish his ground check, Nate could hardly believe he was actually going to go flying. In 1930, most adults hadn’t been in an airplane, but young Nate had a brother who was a flying instructor.

Finally, Sam climbed into the cockpit behind Nate. Nate heard him flick some switches, and then the engine came to life. The propeller whirled faster and faster in front of Nate until it seemed to disappear. Sam released the brake, and the plane lurched forward. He guided the aircraft to the end of the runway, where he pulled the throttle lever all the way to the “Full” position. The engine screamed louder and louder. The whole plane vibrated in time to its scream as the Challenger began to speed down the runway. Nate could feel his heart pumping fast as the plane skipped off the dirt runway and into the air.

Nate felt cold air rustling through his curly blond hair. He sat up as high as he could in his seat. He craned his neck and tried to see over the side of the plane, but he was just too short. Sam laughed at his effort and then banked the plane slightly to the right. Now Nate could see clearly. They were circling Huntingdon, the town just outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where the Saint family lived. In the distance, Nate could make out the shapes of some of the buildings in downtown Philadelphia. He could also see the two tall, red brick chimneys of the coal-fired power generating plant on the edge of the Delaware River. Nate tried to remember every single minute of the flight so he could tell his friends at school all about it.

When Nate got to school on Monday, the teacher was a little surprised to hear that his parents had allowed him to do something as dangerous as flying. But then, she didn’t know his family. The Saints had a reputation around Huntingdon for being a bit different. In some ways, Nate’s parents, Katherine and Lawrence Saint, were very strict parents to their seven sons, Sam, Phil, Dan, David, Steve, Nate, and Ben, and their one daughter, Rachel, especially about religious things. Sunday in the Saint household was the Lord’s Day, and after breakfast, the whole family went to Sunday school at the local Presbyterian church. After Sunday school, they would all attend the morning church service and then go home for lunch and family devotions, which included prayer and Bible study. After dinner, they all went off to church for another service. They also went to the weekly Wednesday night prayer meeting at the church. Beside the stove in the kitchen was a big jar of pennies from which they could take a penny for every chapter of the Bible they read to themselves.

For seven years, since Nate had been born, his father had spent nearly all his time in church. He wasn’t the pastor; he was much too shy for that. Instead, he was an artist who specialized in reproducing stained-glass windows from the thirteenth century, and he was in charge of making the stained-glass windows for the Washington Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Sometimes he would take Nate and show him his work. And when he did, Nate could look up at the large window in the St. John’s chapel and see himself. Yes, see himself. When Nate was five, his father had used him as the model for the stained-glass window of the boy giving Jesus his five loaves and two fishes.

As strict as his parents may have seemed, in other ways they weren’t strict at all. A lot of things that bothered most mothers didn’t worry Mrs. Saint one bit. Meals at the house were served at all hours of the day and night, whenever enough of the children gathered to make it worth setting the table. The Saints didn’t worry if the children didn’t eat their vegetables or if they had two desserts and no main course. Nor did they care if the children didn’t keep their rooms tidy or had holes in their pants, or even if they were late for school.

Since Mr. Saint was rather forgetful, Nate’s mother took care of most of the practical matters around the house. She was organized but, to most people, in a different way. For example, the Saints’ three-story wood frame house had a large room with hooks and shelves all around the walls. When all the family’s laundry had been ironed, it was placed on the shelves or hung on the hooks. When any of the children needed clean clothes, they went to the room and found something to wear that fit them. It was a case of first up, best dressed! The system gave Mrs. Saint a little spare time to write her poetry and play the piano.

Because her father, Josiah K. Proctor, was an inventor, Mrs. Saint thought it was important to let the children experiment. In the late nineteenth century, he had invented machinery that made woolen mills operate more efficiently. He had started a company called Proctor and Schwartz, which later became Proctor Silex. This had made him a wealthy man. Despite being raised in a wealthy home, Mrs. Saint knew that having ideas and trying new things were more important than having lots of money. It was something she never forgot when she had her own children.

Indeed, more often than not, Mrs. Saint helped the children carry out their wild schemes. When the children came to her with an idea, instead of no, she would say why not? One time when Nate was only four years old, his big brothers Sam and David decided it would be great to sleep on the roof. Their mother thought it was a wonderful idea, too, and she and the children worked out how to make it happen.

Soon the household was buzzing with activity. Mrs. Saint arranged for a carpenter to build a fence around the flat part of the second-story roof over the kitchen. Then she had him build five cots. Extra blankets were found in the attic, and within a week, the family had a new “sleeping room” on the roof. Mrs. Saint and the children all dragged their blankets and pillows out a third-story window and onto the roof. Rachel, who was nine years older than Nate, would read bedtime stories to the younger children by flashlight. Nate remembered the story of David Livingston she read from the book Fifty Missionary Stories Every Child Should Know. Somehow, outside on a starry night, the whole adventure seemed more real than ever. For years afterwards, Nate spent many summer nights up in the “roof bedroom.”

Of course, Nate’s friends loved to spend time at his house. The house was set on an acre of land, and every bit of it was jam-packed with possibilities. Behind the studio where his father did his glass work was the Saint family’s private, double-track roller coaster. The huge wooden structure had curves to swoop around and drops to plunge down. Mr. Saint had built it in his spare time with the boys. A few stray nails had gone through the roof of the house and caused leaks, but no one worried too much about that. Nate’s parents thought it was more important for the children to have fun and to learn something than to keep everything in perfect condition. Some of the adults in the neighborhood thought the Saints were a little odd, but there was always a line of kids wanting to ride the roller coaster or play in the fifty-foot swing that dangled from the tall elm tree.

Nate and his brothers also loved to make models of anything that moved: trains, boats, airplanes. Nate built a six-foot-long glider from a photo in a book, and he and Philip and Ben made a huge model railroad, which they continued to add to for several years. They called it the B and T and P Depression Railroad, for Ben, Thaney (Nate’s nickname), and Philip, and because the country was in the middle of something called the Great Depression. Plus, the words sounded long and important to the boys.

Nate was always getting ideas about how to build things better or stronger. He won prizes at the nearby Abington hobby show for some of his inventions. One of his winning entries was a miniature train he made from scraps of metal left over from one of his father’s window frames.

When Nate was ten years old, he got his second airplane ride. Sam landed a shiny, new 1933 Stinson aircraft at a nearby airport. Nate could hardly wait to climb aboard. Best of all, though, this plane had an enclosed cockpit with the seats side by side and two sets of controls. Nate sat down in the right-hand seat and tightened the lap belt as far as it would go. The belt still hung loosely around his small waist. Sam, sitting in the pilot’s seat on the left, pulled some levers and flicked several switches. The propeller began to turn and the engine kicked in. The cockpit of the Stinson filled with a powerful hum. Nate watched the needles on the gauges of the instrument panel in front of him and Sam. The needles vibrated gently to the throb of the engine. Sam adjusted some more levers and set the flaps for take-off. He looked around to make sure no one was in the way before releasing the brake lever and touching the throttle to get the engine revving a little faster.

The Stinson aircraft rolled forward. Sam guided the plane all the way to the end of the runway, where he turned it around to face into the wind. Nate watched as Sam pushed the throttle all the way forward. The engine roared, and the Stinson leapt forward. As its wheels pounded up and down on the dirt runway, the plane jerked and twisted. Then the twisting and jerking stopped. Nate looked out the side window of the plane and watched the ground fall away below them. They were airborne.

They flew east across the Delaware River and out over New Jersey. Sam pushed his foot on the right rudder pedal and turned the control wheel. Nate again looked out the side window. He watched as the aileron on the Stinson’s wing flicked up and the plane banked toward the south.

After they had been flying awhile, Sam motioned for Nate to take the controls. Sam showed him how to position his feet on the rudder pedals and how to hold the control wheel. Nate had to stretch to get his feet all the way to the pedals, but he made it. Then he put his hands on the wheel. It was amazing. He could feel the throbbing vibration of the engine through the control wheel. He pulled back gently on the wheel, and the nose of the Stinson began to climb. He pushed the wheel forward, and the nose dropped toward the ground below them. It was more thrilling to Nate than riding the roller coaster in the backyard.

A whole new world opened up to Nate that day. From then on, he knew without a doubt that he wanted to be around airplanes for the rest of his life. And everyone around him knew it, too. Airplanes were all he talked about. He drew pictures of airplanes, read about airplanes, and made countless airplane models. And Nate dreamed of the day when he would fly his own plane, just like Sam.

Chapter 2
Nothing Would Stop Him Now

It was springtime 1937, and fourteen-year-old Nate was stuck in bed. His mind was active, but his body wasn’t. His right leg ached so badly he couldn’t get out of bed, not even to go to the bathroom. Mrs. Saint liked to give her children vitamins and healthy food to make them better, but when she took Nate’s temperature, she called the doctor right away. Something was seriously wrong. Dr. Allen examined Nate’s leg. He paid special attention to a small cut Nate received when he had fallen off a sled the week before. Nate was puzzled. The cut was nearly healed, so why was the doctor paying so much attention to it?

After a few minutes, Dr. Allen closed his bag and went downstairs to have a serious talk with Mrs. Saint. He explained that Nate had osteomyelitis, a bone infection, in his right leg. Bacteria had traveled from the cut on his leg into his bone. Dr. Allen wished there were drugs he could prescribe to help fight the infection, but there were none. All he could do was give Nate some painkillers. The only thing that would help Nate was complete rest. The doctor hoped that with his body at rest, Nate’s immune system would fight off the infection. If the infection spread to his knee or ankle, it would lock up, and Nate would be lame for life. But Dr. Allen told Mrs. Saint that even if everything went well and Nate’s body fought off the infection, Nate would probably be in bed for months.