On a gloriously sunny afternoon in Boonville, and following a brief tour of his workshop and hangar with two small airplanes, Kirk Wilder and I sat down to chat on his deck overlooking the airport on Airport Road.
Kirk was born in Buffalo, New York, in April 1947, the second of four children (three boys and a girl) born to John G. Wilder II and Dorothy Chaplin. “My father was from the southland and had a degree from Georgia Tech in engineering; my mother was a farmer’s daughter from upstate New York. They met in Buffalo during the war where my father worked for the Curtis Wright Aircraft Company and Mom was delivering blueprints — both working for the war effort on the home front. They were married in 1943 and lived in an apartment in Buffalo.”
Following the war, Kirk’s father worked for Cornell Laboratories on designing the first supersonic wind tunnels and was able to purchase 35 acres south of Buffalo where they built a two-story home by hand. “It was a very nice home and a great place to live. The community was primarily farming and we’d get to play in the creek, shoot rifles, and have dogs running around. In 1955, when I was eight years old, my father announced that he had been offered a ‘secret’ job in California and that we were moving. He couldn’t tell us what the job was at the time although eventually we found out it was to work on liquid fuel rocket propulsion. At the time the race was on with the Soviets to get intercontinental ballistic missiles and Dad was going to be one of the rocket scientists leading the way.”
The family moved to Torrance in southern California and Kirk soon forgot Buffalo. “The Pacific Ocean just hooked me.” A year later he moved to the new part of Sherman Oaks where their house had a swimming pool and all the modern conveniences. “Mom raised us kids and Dad worked at his ‘secret’ job, but was still around a lot. There was a lot of love in our family and we did lots of stuff as a family — camping, fishing, traveling, etc. Dad was a stern taskmaster however, and we learned how to get things done. I learned how to fix things, how to troubleshoot, how things worked. Our education was to be taken seriously and good grades were expected. I could be a little asshole at times and was whacked on a few occasions. It was not harsh; I was wrong and learned from my mistakes.”
In 1959 the family moved to Los Altos in the Bay Area, again for John Wilder’s work in rocket propulsion. “The town was small at that time and I enjoyed the four years we spent there. By the time we left I had made many friends, was enjoying playing on the basketball team, and had a girlfriend. It was a hard move for me but my Dad’s work took precedence. It was all still very secretive. We returned to southern California, to Tarzana, where I became a junior at William Howard Taft High School.”
Kirk graduated high school in 1965. A short time earlier, his parents had enrolled him in a Presbyterian Church Youth Group and the day following his graduation party he found himself packed off on a church bus to work on volunteer flood damage repairs in northern California. “We stopped overnight in Marin and when we were fooling around I accidentally threw a Frisbee that hit a very cute girl in the head. I had noticed her earlier and liked her. By the end of the two-week trip we were dating. Oh, look, here she is!”
Our chat had been interrupted as Cindy Wilder came on to the deck to gave us each a refreshing glass of ice water and lemon. She was that young girl Kirk had hit with the Frisbee almost 45 years ago!
Kirk attended UCLA where he studied economics. At the end of his junior year, on June 15th, 1968, he and Cindy were married and soon after the draft lottery for service in the Vietnam War began. “I wanted to be in control of my destiny and over the years a desire to fly had been instilled in me by my father. I tried to enlist in the Air Force but my vision was not 20/20 and so flying high-speed jets was out of the question. Then once we were married Cindy got pregnant almost immediately and my priorities changed. Our daughter, Tamara, was born in April 1969 and I turned to checking out reserve units. I joined the 132nd Combat Engineers of the California National Guard, signing up for six years. That very weekend my draft number came up. This was binding by post-date and it had been sent the day before I had signed up for the Reserve. It looked like I was going to be joining the Army in Vietnam. However, when I told the First Sergeant in the Reserves, he pre-dated my enlistment forms and I avoided the draft. I worked very hard in my job as company clerk for Sergeant Para! Whoever was planning my route through life was doing very well.”
Kirk graduated UCLA in September 1969 and found work as a cost accountant at Litton Industries. He did not like it and looked forward to the weekends with his family and spending time building a plane with his father. In October 1970 Kirk went on a six-month training course for the National Guard and although his unit was never activated for war he attended many weekends and two-week summer training periods over the next few years. In the summer of 1971 his training was complete and soon after a second daughter arrived, Tina. Kirk moved to Dunn & Bradstreet in their marketing information services division and became a field rep. “Basically I was ‘knocking on doors’ trying to sell our services to various businesses. I wasn’t real happy with this job.”
Kirk’s father bought him out of their plane venture. “He insisted on it so I could buy a house but I was reluctant. Dad was very wise. It was a good decision.” With this money and their savings in early 1972 they were able to buy a house in Agoura, California for $27,500. Across the street the neighbor was Dan Lambach, a motor cop for the LAPD. “I was not happy in my current job and Dan told me the police department was hiring. It was a job I had never considered. I would be getting a pay raise too. I applied; they accepted me; and in October 1972 I joined the LAPD. It was the start of my career, the best choice of my life, apart from getting together with Cindy of course.”
With his ‘policeman’ (not police officer in those days) badge proudly displayed, Kirk began his probationary period (P1) of five months training and seven in the field. He was soon a P2 officer and then a P3, which was a training officer, teaching the P1s, one of whom was the first female police officer on the force. As a P3 policeman he was transferred to the Metro Division which had no fixed area and covered everything from SWAT teams, dog teams, plainclothes, undercover, etc. “We were a crime task force and were loaned out to various divisions depending on their requirements. It was exciting and often dangerous but although I drew my gun many times I never had to shoot anyone. I was initially issued a .38 revolver and later a Beretta 9mm semi-automatic, a much better pistol. I practiced all the time. I wanted to be fully prepared as the average distance in an officer-involved shooting was just seven feet!”
After a very rewarding nine years, Kirk decided he wanted a change and in 1981 joined the motorcycle cops, working in Central LA and the Hispanic northeast section of the City, primarily enforcing traffic laws and investigating accidents on the surface streets of Los Angeles. “I had so much fun over the next ten years. I loved it — the freedom, a great new bike every two years, the smart uniform. I feel I did a lot of good and in three years of working a drunk driving task force, I had put over 2700 people in jail. I feel good about that, having seen a lot of suffering and death as a result of drunk-driving.”
For the last five years of his time with the motor cops, Kirk was on a Special Enforcement Unit dealing with commercial trucks — “They caused some really ugly accidents.” — assisting SWAT teams, and escorting VIPs and dignitaries when they visited Los Angeles. “I met, and sometimes got to talk to, all sorts of dignitaries: The Pope, President Reagan, a wonderful guy, Bush Sr., Prime Minister Mulroney of Canada, Dan Quayle, Prince Andrew and Fergie — I have a picture of her on my bike — and many more. It was an exciting job. We worked closely with the Secret Service and our own SWAT teams.”
After promotion to Sergeant in 1991 Kirk moved back to patrol division as a field supervisor. “I had a great bunch of young cops working with me on the late night shift and we were solving a lot of crimes and putting a bunch of ‘bad actors’ in jail!”
By the late 80s, Kirk’s older daughter Tamara was living in the Mendocino area with her husband and the younger Tina was about to attend Sonoma State. “Cindy and I were planning for our retirement and I just wanted a house near an airport where I could have a hangar .We started to look in northern Sonoma and Mendocino County but there was little of interest. It was disappointing. Then around Christmas 1989, our realtor called to say a property was for sale next to the Boonville Airport. We had not looked in that area. We came up and looked at the house here on Airport Road. It was a great location and without knowing anything at all about the community or the Valley we bought it on that first visit! I inquired about work as a deputy up here but ultimately it made more sense to stay in LA for the time being.”
In 1991 Kirk was told he had to move to Internal Affairs. He initially did not like the decision but had no choice as apparently his superiors felt he was the right man for the job. “It was just after the Rodney King incident and there were numerous issues facing the department and an officer with my experience was required. I had to wear a suit. I didn’t have one. I’d been in uniform for almost 20 years. There were a few bad apples. In a department of 10,000 there are bound to be. We investigated everything from cops being late for work to accusations of excessive force and even rape and robbery. I was the Assistant Department Advocate and I soon found out that this was a very demanding and stressful job. Nevertheless I realized it was important work, not just in prosecuting the bad guys but also in finding many of those accused to be innocent. It taught me a lot and exposed me to many new aspects of police work. Our motto was ‘The Truth of the Matter.’ It was a very interesting tour of duty but the politics in the department became very disappointing. The Chief always had the final say in each case and he overturned many good cases. Having said that, I never saw any corruption or fraud and I firmly believe that the LAPD was one of the few major departments that I would have worked for.”
In 1994 Kirk’s in-laws had moved to Cloverdale but on New Year’s Day 1995 Cindy’s mother had a stroke. Cindy decided to move up to be close to her mother and help out where she could. As a result they sold their large house in Chatsworth and Kirk moved into a 21-foot trailer inside a hangar at Whiteman Airport in the San Fernando Valley. About eight months later he bought his first plane, a ’47 Bellanca, and could get to Anderson Valley in less than four hours. “Cindy never asked me how much it cost. She was just pleased I could get up here that fast.”
After two-and-a-half years in the Advocate’s Officer, Internal Affairs, Kirk decided to seek out another position for his Sergeant-2 ranking. He moved to the Devonshire Station in Northridge where he was Assistant Watch Commander, dealing with the roll call, supervision of the police officers, and generally running the station. “I was very busy but I enjoyed it and it was very close to where I was living. I made good friends at the Airport and it wasn’t so bad really. I had everything I wanted in many ways, except Cindy. But I managed to work out my schedule so that I could get up to Anderson Valley for about one week every month.
“I retired from the Police Department on July 4th, 1998 with very mixed feelings. I had been planning for that day for years but it was still tough. I never lost a partner or a subordinate, and I believe that I did a lot of good work and hopefully left the communities in which I worked a little better than when I found them.”
Soon after Kirk’s move to the Valley in 1998 the house next door on Airport Drive became available. They bought it and moved in, renting the first house out. In 1992 they built a hangar on their first property across the street from the airport. Kirk’s dream house and its all-important location had materialized.
Since moving here Kirk has been involved with several local groups including the Volunteer Ambulance, the Community Services District Board, the American Legion (Treasurer), and now he is the Manager of the Airport earning the princely sum of $1 a year. The pilots in the Valley are a close-knit group who socialize together frequently, the so-called ‘Airport Crowd’ as locals refer to them. “The airport is in great shape and we pass the inspections by CalTrans and the FAA with flying colors every year. Everyone is a volunteer and just last week at our annual party open to everyone we gave 155 free plane rides up and down the Valley. I’m not sure if people realize how important the airport is to our rural community. The Ambulance helicopter service uses it often to get people over the hill to Ukiah in emergencies and during last year’s wildfires it was a main fire attack base. It would be a vital resource in the event of an earthquake and is an integral part of the County’s Disaster Plan. Because we maintain it so well a C-130 Hercules could land on our runway and evacuate 100 people at a time. We are all getting on though, and new younger members would be great. Given our location alongside the High School, it’s too bad that the school no longer provides pilot training for its students. Several graduates of that program are currently airline pilots.”
“The airport is what brought me here but since moving we have made some of the best friendships of our lives. We love the people here with the variety of different backgrounds and stories. Living in such a small community results in a large percentage being involved in community affairs. The weather is great, the scenery spectacular. I do think the marijuana production is way out of control. There is an absurd amount around. The commercial growers with their armed gangs and those producing methamphetamines appear to thrive as a result of ineffective prosecution of existing laws. I think the arrival of new Deputy Craig Walker is a great move, but we may lose him in the budget cuts. I hope not. I would rather see the Supervisors take a pay cut before getting rid of a much needed resident deputy.”
I asked Kirk for his brief opinions on various ‘hot button’ Valley issues.
The Wineries? “Apples and sheep no longer work. The winery economy does. I have no problem with them and believe that change is not always bad.”
The School System? “I am on the periphery in that I judge senior projects and, with the Legion Board, decide on scholarships for graduates but other than that I’m not involved. I do feel that the ‘white flight’ among the student body is not good for the school’s future.”
The AVA Newspaper? “When I arrived in 1990 I thought it was pretty vile. They wrote about ‘this cop building an industrial complex at the airport’ etc. Hey, I built a hangar. They never even spoke to me. It seemed as if there was a lot of hurtful stuff written about local folks and several residents told me they were disgusted with the paper. Time has passed and things have improved. I interact with the paper’s Mark Scaramella at CSD meetings. David Severn toned the vitriol down and upon his return to the Valley Bruce Anderson has been much more positive. Suffice it to say we now subscribe.”
To end the interview, as I have being doing each week, I posed a few questions from a list devised by French Interviewer and Culture “Expert” Bernard Pivot, featured on television’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton,”
Favorite word or phrase? “Difficult. How about ‘Clear prop’? It means I am about to start the engine so get out of the way! Time to go fly!”
Least favorite word or phrase? “‘I can’t’ is something I don’t like to hear.”
What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally? “Solo flying; twisting an airplane and doing stuff I can’t do with Cindy on board. My woodworking is also very important to me.”
What turns you off creatively, spiritually or emotionally? “People who continually complain about things they perceive as wrong but make no effort to change it.”
Sound or noise you love? “The sound of airplane engines, big round engines.”
Sound or noise you hate? “Unnecessary harsh noises: boom boxes, loud exhausts, dogs barking late at night.”
Favorite curse word? “I rarely curse. I guess ‘Oh, shit’ would be the one I do use.”
Film, song or book that has greatly influenced you in some way? “A film that stuck with me is called ‘Pay it Forward’ about doing something for people first, not just a repayment. I love history books and many have been memorable. Truman’s biography, Lindbergh’s biography, ‘1776’ by David McCullough, ‘Crossing the Delaware’ by Louise Peacock.”
Favorite hobby? “Well, as flying is a disease, I would say my hobbies are my woodworking and reading, particularly military history.”
Profession other than your own you’d like to attempt? “Commercial pilot or military fighter pilot.”
Profession you’d not like to do? “Elephant cage cleaner. Any pencil pushing job trapped in an office.”
Happiest day or event in your life? “Meeting my wife.”
Saddest? “The passing of my father on November 7th, 2001 at the age of 81. We were close and did so much together over the years, including lots of flying of course. We had many wonderful times. Fishing, hunting, camping. My mother is 87 and going strong. I love her dearly and we speak a few times every week. She is in Sedona, Arizona. I can get there in my ’59 Bellanca in 5-1⁄2 hours.”
What is your favorite thing about yourself, physically/mentally/spiritually? “That I enjoy meeting people and am comfortable in social situations. I am also good at processing information effectively and hopefully then making the right decision.”
Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “I’d like Him to say, ‘Kirk, I forgive you for all your screw-ups because in the end you left the world a little better than when you found it.’ I guess I hope to have made a positive difference.”
To read the stories of other Valley Folk, visit the archives at www.avalleylife.wordpress.com. Next week the guest interviewee will be Rodolfo Ibarra, originally from Michoacan, Mexico, now of Philo, USA.