Friday, August 18, 2006
An Oroville man looks back on his life and his love of planes and trains
By DAN BARNETT
"My first memory," writes Robert "Lonnie" Dakin, "is of the 1939 World's Fair in San Francisco. I was 3 years old, and my father took me to see the train exhibit. I had never seen so many trains in one place.
"There were towns, villages, meadows and tunnels on a huge layout. The engines pulled the cars along shiny tracks. They whistled and clanged and little puffs of smoke came out of their smokestacks. I pressed my nose against the glass separating the teeming crowds from the make believe world of trains. I imaged they were traveling through faraway, exotic places. I kept my father there so long that we almost missed the ferry back to my grandmother's house."
Memories seem to tumble out as Dakin tells his own story in "The Flying Conductor" (a paperback published locally and available through I and L Publishing in Oroville; write inlpublisher @orovillecity.com). For a year, Dakin writes, he dictated the book to his wife and gathered old photographs. "In the 25 years we have been married," he says, "she has heard these stories over and over. Each time I relate one I am always told I should write a book. Well, now I have."
Dakin's story is more of an oral memoir than detailed autobiography. The prose is simple, and the emotions are held in check. It's clear, though, that Dakin does better building train layouts or small airplanes than building human relationships. As a youngster he lived with his mother in Hawthorne, Nev., after his parents divorced, and he was neglected. "My mother ... had trained to be a nurse, like her mother, but she dealt blackjack instead. I was alone a lot and came to love the desert."
Dakin writes "When I wasn't running wild in the desert I was forced to go to school. ... At age 9 I was about 6 feet tall. I stuck out like a sore thumb in my third-grade class. Kids can be pretty cruel at that age and they called me names like Frankenstein or Igor."
Dakin loved math and science. As a kid he got a motorized bicycle; not much later he built a small airplane he flew. He continued to build things, including model helicopters he says were used in "Hawaii Five-0". (He was in the Air Force at the time, stationed in Hawaii, and got to meet Jack Lord and Tom Selleck.)
Sometimes Dakin would stay with his grandmother in Oroville. He attended Oroville High School and, years later, after retirement from the military, he returned to teach shop at Las Plumas High School for some two decades. As a kid he would climb nearby mountains and look down on Feather River before the dam was built. A lot of history is now under water.
There have been quite a few bumps in his personal life. In the service he traveled widely and built model airplanes in North Africa, but that was when he received a "Dear John" letter from his wife. His second marriage fared little better. But his third wife, whom he met while he was taking classes at Butte College, made him feel young again and her family gave him roots.
Dakin writes from the perspective of a 70-year-old man, still thinking about those ups and downs, but still a lover of planes and trains.
Dan Barnett teaches philosophy at Butte College. To submit review copies of published books, please send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Copyright 2006 Chico Enterprise-Record. Used by permission.