By Anita Messina
Ted Eiben recalls the first time he came to Port Byron to visit one of Port Byron’s gifted artists, Lindy Burke. He drove through town and noticed “the most beautiful building, the school.” A slight shake of his head speaks words of incredulous disappointment at its present state with weed trees growing on the roof, loose bricks at its corner and windows boarded over. “The school is a spot you don’t go to anymore,” he said.
Lindy listed the village’s retail vitality as it was then when the school was young and filled with life: two butchers, about 30 busy stores. Slowly Port Byron became a crossroads village for people hurrying nonstop to east, west, north, south places.
He and Lindy were – as people said back then – “an Item” when they were both students at Cornell. Then life’s unexpected detours sent each in different directions. Ted was just a thesis short of a PhD, studying wildlife conservation in 1941when his detour took him to Pine Camp in Watertown as a second lieutenant in a tank battalion. “Draftees got $31 a month, but as a second lieutenant I got $100,” he said.
December 7 changed everyone’s orders. Ted’s battalion was on its way, dodging German U-boats that silently and unseen scoped our east coast, assessing the possibility of attack sites. Ted’s convoy floated through the Panama Canal and crossed the Pacific to New Patagonia where Ted was made tank commander.
Not long after he arrived at New Patagonia, the colonel called Ted into his office and told him orders had just been received from Washington, and Ted was to pack his gear immediately and report for flight training in California. What wisdom was this? Tanks to planes? He boarded a P63 King Cobra for the flight back to the states. He had to laugh: the miserable P63 with its 37-mm cannon in the middle and 4 machine guns mounted here and there was Ted’s first time ever on a plane, and here he was headed to California to learn how to fly combat planes. There must be some mistake. If there was “some mistake” the military didn’t fess up to it and Ted reported for training on the B26 Widow Maker. He learned to fly anything with wings even a 4-engine cargo plane. “Holey moley,” Ted said, “I can walk faster than that plane can fly.” He earned his wings in 1943 and was ordered to Tulsa, Oklahoma to train on A26 attack bombers.
Attack bombers were diametrically opposed to wildlife conservation, where Ted thought he would spend his working days. Instead flying a plane – any plane – was Ted’s post-war choice of the career he most wanted to pursue. Although he has continued to appreciate wildlife and animals in general, instead of returning to the profession Cornell had prepared him for, when World War II ended he continued to fly, ending his sky-high professional years as a glider instructor in the Southern Tier.
Now, his feet planted firmly on the ground, Ted settled down here in Port Byron to spend joyous years with Lindy. He served his new community as a member of the school board before starting a quiet life devoted to memories of happy days with Lindy. His days now are comforted by caregiving step-daughter Suzanne Burke McBath, his three-legged dog Molly, Molly’s veterinarian, Dr. Schnabel and Suzanne’s dog, Yada, “the dog that rules the yard,” Ted said. Near the kitchen table Ted keeps a framed picture of a Spitz named Prince, a greatly loved pet during his younger years. Riding in sultan comfort on Prince’s back is a rescued kestrel, the feisty falcon once called sparrow hawk. When Suzanne learned that Mabel Clark’s dog, a crippled three-legged dog needed a home, she thought of Ted. Mutual devotion was instant. When asked what breed she is Ted said, “Molly is not pure any one thing. She’s a pure combination.”
Seemingly insignificant coincidences weave through a person’s life, sometimes reflecting what once was; sometimes what’s yet to be. In the 1930’s Curtis Aircraft built the F96, a small fighter plane called Sparrowhawk. Funny how history repeats itself in small ways.