Paul Edward Garber Talks to Deborah Churchman: Paul Edward Garber, 86, translated a lifelong fascination with flying into the most popular museum in the world -- the Smithsonian Institution's Air and Space Museum. Garber was the first curator of the Smithsonian's National Air Museum -- the name was later altered to include space. Garber began his love affair as a 5-year-old, when his Uncle Edward, for whom he's named, gave him his first kite. Garber served briefly after World War I in the U.S. Airmail Service in College Park as "chief slave," where he learned to fly in his spare time. He took military leave from the Smithsonian to spend five years in the Navy during World War II. He developed a number of recognition models -- miniature models of enemy and U.S. planes -- at a time when our military had little idea of what such planes looked like. Garber has spent the bulk of his life -- a full 65 years -- at the Smithsonian, where he started as a preparator, repairing specimens and making models. He was instrumental in obtaining a number of historic aircraft for the Institution, including the Spirit of St. Louis. When the Korean conflict forced the removal of the Smithsonian's aeronautical collection from Illinois, Garber scrounged for land in Silver Hill, Md., bulldozers and supplies to build a storage and restoration facility, which has since been named after him. And in 1967, at his suggestion, the Institution started a national kite-flying festival on the Mall, which Garber still runs each year. Though he saw a bill establishing the air museum pass Congress in 1946 and pushed for its completion, his vision didn't come to fruition until 1976, after his retirement. He is historian emeritus and the Smithsonian's Ramsey Fellow at the Air and Space Museum, where he maintains an office. Garber has been married to his wife, Irene ("Buttons"), for 34 years and has a daughter and two sons by a previous marriage.
Q: I understand you grew up on Connecticut Avenue as a young boy and you had a very famous neighbor who helped you with kites.
A: Alexander Graham Bell. He often went by. A very impressive gentleman. One time he stopped long enough to make a comment about a kite I was flying. Seems incredible to think that I could fly a kite on Connecticut Avenue. In those days there were only horse-drawn vehicles and a few "electrics," as they called the automobiles of those times. A few gasoline.
Q: At one point in your life you built a glider, or were part of a group that built a glider. Was that on Connecticut Avenue?
A: No. Connecticut Avenue was just a little odd for a kite; it would have been quite outrageous for a glider. No, [it was] on an enormous field, our kite-playing and model airplane field. In 1913. I started with my schoolmates the Capital Model Aero Club, CMAC. Our interest was in kites and model airplanes and we extended that to include the beginnings of aviation in this area. We made trips on our bicycles out to Bennings, which was then an airfield, and College Park, which had begun as an airfield back in 1907. And to Bolling Field -- that was . . . World War I. Of course several of us got into that war. After the war we decided we would renew it, and maintain it, which we did until about 1930.
The glider was a growth of our interest in aviation and it was my idea to make it. I don't recall any of the fellows helping me make it. My mother did. She had a large amount of red chintz, I don't know why she had it, but it made good kites and she often helped me. She was a very dear person. I got the idea for the glider when I came [to the Smithsonian] one time back in 1915. I saw here the Wright Flyer,the first military airplane in the world.
I made my glider and then I got my model airplane group together. We carried it over the backyard fence -- we couldn't get it out the front door -- and assembled it. I begged, borrowed and stole all I could find of clotheslines, and my friends made a big V line and facing the wind they ran, and I ran best I could and it raised as a kite. They were so surprised to see it rising that they stopped to look, and it crashed. On its tail and my tail.
I made perhaps a dozen glides in that and then one of the other fellows wanted to try it. But he lost his nerve and his grip. Down he went and cracked up the glider. That got in the papers, how this lad had flown a glider and how great he was and all that. Not a thing about this guy Garber.
Q: You went out to see the Wright Brothers at Fort Myer?
A: Yes. I happened to see [in] the newspaper that there was a flight of an airplane at Fort Myer. I asked my father for the fare, I think it was 25 cents each way. Shakespeare said old men remember with advantages. I'm not an old man yet -- in fact, I'm only 30 Celsius. I don't [measure] myself with the calendar. Heck with the calendar, I use a thermometer.
Q: Did you ever meet the Wright Brothers?
A: I saw them, but they didn't know who I was. They'd probably have said get that brat away from here. But I came to know Orville Wright. He was very gracious to me. I wish I'd asked him more questions.
Q: Tell me about how you got a permanent job at the Smithsonian?
A: I joined the D.C. National Guard and became a corporal because I'd been in the high school cadets. I knew the procedures. I got some ground instruction out at College Park but the war ended before I soloed. As I tell the story, the Kaiser heard I was coming and decided he'd better quit. I was the cause of the Armistice.
I got my honorable discharge on the 14th of December, but to be in aviation I joined the airmail service. The airmail was not a paying proposition, economically, on the Washington-Philadelphia-New York route. They changed to New York and on to Chicago, and I didn't want to go to Chicago.
I got a temporary job [at the Smithsonian], three months, as a so-called preparator, one who prepares things. The boss went on vacation and first thing I did on my own after doing what I was told to do was to make a mannequin, use my World War I uniform and put him in the Military Flyer.
Then I made a scale model of Leonardo da Vinci's Man in an Ornithopter. Always admired him. I admire brains. Brains and decency and gosh, why people are crooks I don't know. Idiots. The Ornithopter was a wing-flapping device. I made that model and then went downstairs to put it on display, made a label and put my name on it.
Along came a nice old bald-headed gentleman, looking up at me on the ladder, and he says, "What's that?" "Oh," I said, "sir, this is a model of Leonardo da Vinci's idea for an aircraft back in 1490 or so, about the time America was discovered and he was one of the greatest minds of all time, sir . . . ." Gave him about a half an hour of who da Vinci was. He asked who I was and [did I] work here. I said I had a temporary appointment but that was several weeks ago but I wanted to finish this. So he was nice to me and off he went.
I put my ladder away and looked back at my model and went up to the shop and felt sorry for myself and cleaned the floor for the 15th time, sharpened all the tools once more. Up came the chief clerk of the institution. Said, "Your name's Garber? You built this thing without permission, I understand?" I said, "Yes, but I'm leaving right now, sir." He said, "Can you take a civil service examination?" I thought I was going to get fired or put in jail. He said, "Secretary's orders." I said, "The secretary? Charles Walcott? He doesn't know me at all, I've never seen him." He'd been talking to [me] for the last half hour about Leonardo da Vinci. That was in 1920.
Q: I want to get to a couple of the planes that you got at the Smithsonian. The first is the Spirit of St. Louis.
A: That's one of many. The responsibility of a curator [is] to know his subject. To me [Charles A.] Lindbergh was not just a newspaper find. I had known of him because of my interest in the airmail. He was in the contract airmail. I was in the postal airmail. I knew a few things about the history of flight, and about trans-Atlantic flying. The Navy was first. You forget it.
Q: Right. Four men, wasn't it?
A: It was four airplanes. There were six men aboard. The Spirit of St. Louis was the 13th. When that airplane took off I realized that if it was successful, it would be the first nonstop trans-Atlantic flight by an American because the British had done it back in 1919 with the Vickers Vimy. And he would also be the first American to reach its original destination. And the first solo.
So I then thought we ought to have it. I wrote a cablegram but didn't sign because I thought, well, he won't know who I am. So I went to see the secretary, Dr. Abbot, and I said, "Sir, you've read of the takeoff of the Spirit of St. Louis?" I told him for about half an hour why we ought to have it. Somewhere along the line he interrupted me and said, "Well now Garber, he hasn't gotten there yet. He's up over New England about now." I said, "But he's going to make it, sir, and we ought to have that airplane." He said, "We'll see." But he did send it. It was among the first things that Lindbergh saw when he woke up after that 10 hours sleep that he had coming to him.
I was once asked what were the 10 most famous airplanes of all time. I wound up with criteria, such things as technical advancement, historic accomplishment, impact -- that's very important. That's the most important thing about the Spirit of St. Louis. Impact. Technically it was not so good. And historically was not the first. But impact was tremendous coming as it did. The world was all flippy floppy after the war, but here came this marvelous flight with this wonderful man, a gentleman.
Q: You were in the Navy during World War II. Can you tell me what a recognition model is?
A: For goodness sake's, yes. It's a scale model of an airplane that enables the one holding it to obtain limitless views of its contours and its profiles, so that he can recognize it no matter how it may be coming at him or going away from him. A drawing or photograph gives you only a few views, whereas a scale model gives you an infinite variety for recognition.
Q: How you were involved in that?
A: The morning after Pearl Harbor I got in here early, I was thinking about the horror of it. Then-commander Luiz de Flores phoned me. He said [he had] been in the museum and seen the display I had prepared and it had in it some information about Japanese airplanes. I had [some] Japanese, a couple of English, a German. They were not always models, some were silhouettes. He said, "May I have that over here at the Navy Department?" Over at the Navy Department I set up the whole display as it had been in the museum. He said, "Can you make some more and keep adding to this?"
About a week later we got from Pearl Harbor some photographs of Japanese airplanes. I looked at these pictures and, of course, they were very hush-hush, but I made some sketches of them and approximate dimensions and that evening I went home and made a scale model of the Japanese Zero. Much more authentic than anything we had had up until that time.
Q: They really didn't know what the enemy looked like?
A: No, they had a very inadequate opinion of the Japanese airplanes. Admiral Towers was impressed and said we need more. So I got in touch with all my friends [who had been] in the model airplane club and got them making models. I was in charge of the project which produced around 400 types. We peeled off into Russian types and we had to have our own also, because you had to be able to say, "This is a Japanese Zero. When you see it, don't mistake it for an F4F." At Anzio we shot down a lot of our own airplanes. A chap in a trench being shot at [is] going to shoot at anything that's coming at him even if it's a friend. We had to know friend from foe. That was our term, friend from foe.
Q: You have been called the Father of American Aviation Heritage.
A: Oh, for heaven sakes, that's ridiculous.
Q: I get the feeling that you were often a kind of voice crying in the wilderness around here. I know you were the plane man for the Smithsonian. Did you feel like sometimes you didn't have a lot of support from above?
A: Oh gosh, yes. I'd been told I had too many airplanes already. That made sense sometime, because after the Knickerbocker Theater roof crashed, they thought that our roof might crash with all those airplanes on it. I was told to get them down. Took down one or two, then the snow melted and they went back up again. I've done what I could. But I'm no father of American Aviation Heritage.
Q: How about the Wright Brothers flyer, how did the Smithsonian get that?
A: It was a long while arriving. It was agreed by Orville Wright that the airplane which he had lent to England with the understanding that the airplane would come back and be in this institution. It was my great privilege to help with that. [In November 1948] it was brought from the museum where it had been on display, in London at the Science Museum, South Kensington.
The director of the science museum escorted it aboard the Mauretania. I was to pick it up in New York. As I got to New York I received [a message]. The skipper of the Mauretania was not going to New York because of a dock strike. He was going to Halifax and I had to go there to get it.
Q: Nova Scotia?
A: Yes. There I received it. I had a truck waiting for me in New York that I couldn't use. I didn't even have a wheelbarrow. So I called up the Navy. I said, "This is Commander Garber, I'm in Halifax, Nova Scotia, with the most immortal airplane on earth and I need some help." The admiral called me back -- God love him -- and said, "The Palau is on maneuvers off Argentia [island]. She'll come and get you but I don't know when." So from crack of dawn until late at night I was there on the wharf with my boxes. [It was] cold, cold as a polar bear's feet. Finally I recognized that silhouette, part of my Navy job to know silhouettes of airplanes and ships, and I recognized the Palau. So in she came, and picked me up.
Q: That plane is the one downstairs?
A: Yes. We've just given it a renovation. Our standard is: May it last a hundred years. The standard I have with the fellas is: Make it so I can fly it and you go for the ride.