Lawrence Rebman had a crow while growing up.
“It was a smart bird,” he said. “It would walk up and down the clotheslines, taking the clothes pins off the line while my mom was doing the laundry. I could come home and see my crow and my mom yelling at each other.”
The crow was something he had found when he was walking in the woods as a kid, something he had always done alone. And he probably took it home because it could do what he always wanted to do: fly.
Rebman is someone who is at home when he’s taking a silent, slow stroll in nature or in the cockpit of a plane, flying faster than his crow could have ever managed.
He’s had more than 100,000 landings in his career and flown more planes than he could count. And each and every time he was up there in the sky and above the clouds, he describes himself in the same way he would describe that crow.
He caused trouble on the ground because he wanted to be in the air.
“When I was in a plane … it felt like freedom.”
Rebman was born June 27, 1934, in Akron, Ohio, to Rudolph and Roxanna Rebman, a mechanic and former schoolteacher, respectively.
Rudolph had emigrated from Germany years earlier, and had met Rebman’s mother in between stints of her traveling to rural places around the United States and working in their small-town school houses.
Roxanna, who also spoke German despite being born in Pennsylvania, is remembered fondly by her son as a loving and caring mother, but also someone who commanded respect.
“She was an exceptional woman and a fantastic storyteller,” Rebman said, noting that his mother, maybe in another life, would have published a children’s fairy tale story. “But what I’m most proud about her for was she showed she could be independent.”
Growing up in Ohio, Rebman and his younger brother could not have been more different: while the younger of the two would do well in school and be seen as a gregarious classmate, Lawrence could be spotted causing trouble or hiking off alone into their town’s surrounding fields and woods, or trapping muskrats for pelt money.
“I knew every foxhole and tree,” said Rebman. But, much like his mother in her younger years, it wasn’t that her oldest son held a disdain for society or people. Rather; the outdoors provided him with the independence he so deeply desired.
When he was at school, Rebman was known for pulling pranks or amusing himself through less conventional methods, such as the times he strapped an airplane air compressor to an airhorn, and blew it during football games.
“It wasn’t until I blew it at an (indoor) basketball game that I got thrown out of games for it,” Rebman said.
And when he wasn’t daydreaming of the hike he would take later or the next prank he would be pull, his head was still in the clouds, literally.
“I started flying when I was 15, after I exchanged mowing the (airport’s) grass in exchange for lessons,” said Rebman. “I never told my mom about the flying.”
During his eight-year career as a member of the U.S. Air Force, Rebman moved around from base to base, station to station, as fast as the plane he was flying could take him. But after enlisting on May 7, 1954, Rebman was told he would first need to head to San Antonio, then Georgia, pass a number of tests and physicals. Only then would he receive his wings.
After passing the academic, physical and awareness standards set forth by the leaders of the most recently established branch of the U.S. military, Rebman was sent to Maine to become a member of the 75th Fighter Interceptor Squadron.
It was there he developed his skills as a fighter pilot, flying out of the alert hanger and closing in on both civilian and military aircraft until they identified themselves and hitting maneuvers at maximum G-forces so as to avoid accidental encounters. And while he continued to grow as an airman, he kept being the same troublemaker he had always been.
“I met a girl while I was driving along and she was hitchhiking,” Rebman said, noting they got to know one another and he learned where she lived. He decided one day, on the way back after being scrambled to identify an aircraft, to fly by her house — but very, very low.
“Her parents thought it was the end of the world … their house was just down the street from the police station, and the police station was just down the street from the base. They were not happy.”
After a month of “sweating it” following that stunt, Rebman was transferred to Thule Air Base in Greenland, the northernmost base in U.S. Air Force history.
“When I got there, I saw that it was a massive air base but I couldn’t see anyone. It was a land of darkness,” Rebman said.
However, a naturalist by nature and being so close to it, Rebman used the opportunity while stationed on the base to jump in a jet with a Canadian pilot to see what only a few people in history have ever seen: the North Pole.
After leaving Greenland, Rebman bounced around from job to job, flight school to desk job back to flight school, saying the whole time he “hated it” because he wasn’t in the air.
“I was there to fly airplanes, and if I wasn’t going to be able to do that, then I didn’t see why I was still in the Air Force.”
On Nov. 6, 1962, after nearly a decade of service, achieving the rank of 1st Lieutenant, Rebman would be honorably discharged from the Air Force.
“I got out, and it took about a year for me to (acclimate) once I got back,” said Rebman. “I took me, my wife at the time and three daughters to San Jose, because at that point, my parents were managing a hotel out there.”
Bored and looking for work, he missed the challenge associated with being a pilot. Cutting through the air at hundreds of miles per hour, reaching heights in the sky where you’re truly all alone, making decisions for yourself that determine if you will live or you will die, he said.
So, knowing he could never become an airline pilot due to his failing eyesight, Rebman made the only other obvious decision to him: become a crop duster.
“People don’t really understand crop dusting,” Rebman remarked. “They always say, when they hear you’re a crop duster, ‘Oh you’re one of those.’”
According to Rebman, he made the jump from flying the world’s most technologically advanced aircrafts to flying planes he described as having basically “no instruments.”
“You have to make decisions at 125 mph, sometimes with the rain hitting you in the face at that speed, how to make turns, dodge telephone lines, fly low through gulches if it’s the only way. I mean, not a year went by where I didn’t know a guy who was a crop duster and died. You decide everything up there.”
Once, while he was spraying a field in Woodland, California, he almost became the “guy” that year.
“One of my wings stalled … and I crashed,” said Rebman. “It took the surgeon six hours to piece my head back together, and I broke my knee … It wasn’t a very good plane.”
After working till the age of 55 as a crop duster, Rebman shelved his wings for good. His hearing and sight had been wavering for long enough. He once again bounced around from job to job on the ground, as he always had done when he wasn’t in the cockpit.
He kept up with his fascination and love for all things mechanical and fast, though, purchasing for himself a number of race cars through the years. He even competed in amateur rally car races against other speed hounds like himself.
But after all that was said in done, Lawrence, who grew up alone in the forest staring up at the sky, returned to the forest to stare up at the sky.
After getting divorced, with his three daughters having grown up and left home, Lawrence would spend his days walking, hiking and hunting.
“I moved to a ranch in Oregon … so I could be totally independent.”
And he cherished this independence most, he said.
“I was never a follower or leader,” he said. “I always wanted to be independent, to have control over my situation. That’s what it felt like … that’s how I would describe flying.”