I saw a sad thing last week.
A group of six children was at Kenney Field in the Town of Tonawanda, checking out the new veterans memorial with people who looked to be their grandparents. The children, whose ages appeared to be in the 6- to 10-year-old range, began walking toward the blue airplane, an F9F-6P Cougar, which has been at the park for 50 years.
The children approached the wing on the right side, reached up their hands to touch it, then pulled back. They walked around the wing, took a look back, and were on their way.
A year ago, I bet they would have climbed on. Why wouldn't they? Thousands of kids before them did. But they couldn't.
There are a pair of signs next to the plane. On both is this sentence: "Please do not climb or play on the aircraft."
With nine words, the Town of Tonawanda -- bowing to pressure from a bureaucracy far away -- did away with a rite of childhood and transformed the airplane from the coolest piece of playground equipment around into just a thing to look at.
The airplane has been a fixture in the town park on the corner of Colvin Boulevard and Brighton Road since 1959. At the time, the Navy was giving old planes to communities that wanted them, no questions asked. For the next 50 years, generations of children pretended to be fighter pilots or just climbed on the wings and jumped to the ground below.
But this year, town officials said the Navy told them that if they wanted to keep the plane, they had to agree to keep people off. Hill Goodspeed, the artifacts-collection manager for the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Fla., said the notification reaffirmed one the town agreed to in 1997 when the airplane loan agreement was handled by a different naval agency called Inventory Control Point.
"The way [the agreement] reads is: 'Borrower agrees to use the loaned aircraft for display or educational purposes only and to protect the aircraft from vandalism by suitable means to deter easy access.' "
Goodspeed said this was done to ensure that communities display the aircraft in the best manner possible, to reflect the important role it played in naval and aviation history.
Fair enough. But none of that diminishes the fact that for a half-century Tonawanda somehow managed to both enjoy the plane and honor the Navy.
The 1997 agreement was news to Councilman Dan Crangle, the Town Board's point man on recreation issues. Crangle oversaw the new veterans memorial and the refurbishing of the plane, both of which were completed in the past month. He said that the Navy wanted the plane repainted and cleaned up and reiterated that it was no longer to be treated as a toy.
Town officials believed they had a choice: Agree to the terms and keep the plane, or take a stand and risk losing it. They chose the former, which is probably the pragmatic decision, but I would have liked to have seen the reaction if the Navy had tried to come and take back its property.
Lori McPhail was at Kenney Field with her two daughters and her niece last week, pushing them on the swing set a few steps from the plane. The girls used to climb on it, just like she did when she was their age.
"It was part of what this park was all about," she said.
I once wrote that being at the corner of Brighton and Colvin on a summer day looking at kids playing on that plane made it seem like time has stood still. It's comforting to at least know that the town has managed to preserve a link to its past.
If only common sense didn't have to be a casualty.