Few people might equally enjoy visiting an 18th-century Mission and an aviation museum filled with Migs and cargo jets and Sikorskys, but I was lucky. I spent the afternoon today with Roxana, a 23-year-old Tucsonian who recently graduated journalism school here, a former student of my partner in a workshop held here every two years by The New York Times.
She must have wondered how the day would go, as I did — sort of a blind date between two women of quite different ages who had never met, but two passionate photographers and writers. We had a great time.
The mission, established in 1700, is extraordinary, sitting nine miles outside the city on the reservation of the Tohono O’odham tribe. Its exterior is blinding white plaster on the side that has been restored, with only one tower retaining its cupola.
The interior, restored by a group of Italian and native conservators in 1995, is a riot of carving, faux-finishing, plasterwork and retablos. Two lions with gilded heads guard the altar and there is a wooden statue of St. Francis in one side niche, his lacy robe covered with tiny votos, the medallions that express wishes and prayers for health or a home or recovery. Pinned to his robe was a black and white image from someone’s sonogram, a man’s driver’s license, color photos of people.
There is nothing virtual here. This is faith and prayer made physical and visible, pinning ones hopes, quite literally, to the robes of a wooden statue of a beloved saint.
Roxana and I ate frybread, made fresh under the shade of a nearby shelter by native women, and sat in the sun for a while. We were so still that a roadrunner hopped up the hill to our very feet, then hopped away again.
We drove to the Pima Air & Space Museum, with four hangars and more than 300 different aircraft spread out under the desert sky over 80 acres. If, like me, you love airplanes and the whiff of jet fuel, this is geek heaven. Seven Migs, a B-377SG Guppy, the weirdest thing you will ever see with wings — used by NASA to transport Saturn V parts, the astonishingly sleek SR-71 “Blackbird”, capable of Mach3+, and a B-29 Superfortress with a 141-foot wingspan.
There were planes so enormous and heavy you could not imagine them ever leaving the ground. As we strolled and patted the gleaming riveted hulls, we heard F-16s roaring overhead, training from the nearby base.
It’s hard to understand war until you see, this close, how men worked and sat or crunched themselves into tiny frigid cabins in these battered old bombers and fighters. One of the most chilling artifacts were the hand-written paper tags, Kobe City, Nagasaki, tagged to the bombs rained down on Japan, now preserved in a glass case.
An afternoon of wings — of angels and aluminum. Heaven.