But my comment “a stranger who became a friend” goes much deeper.
My first venture out to Reno/Stead Airport after joining the CAF and the High Sierra Squadron was an invitation to join a small group of Colonels for breakfast before going to the hangar for a morning of work. The Hometown Café is archetypal country with the waitress tossing barbs through a wide smile and the cook tossing fresh delicious potatoes and eggs and the coffee pouring freely. Here I was introduced to Mr. C. who offered his hand and his iconic smile in greeting and welcome. Breakfast conversation varied as expected between squadron business and banter about experiences and backgrounds. Mr. C., always low key, always on point, was easy to talk with. Like an old and trusted friend. I figured him for a few years older than me, with both of us senior to the rest of the group.
Let me interject here that I’m using “Mr. C.” and leaving out much of his involvement in the Squadron on purpose. All that is not the point. The point is the man’s impact on me that’s driven a real change in my attack on the last chapters of life. A rare impact indeed.
Over the next few months and sessions in the hanger for work and social events at out Commander’s home, my conversations with Mr. C. grew more detailed. But his stories were always about the work we do with the Scouts and other kids. And about those who have gone on to be great adults. One who is now an Air Force pilot, another a US Navy jet engine mechanic, both mentored by him as young boys. Mr. C. moved a little slowly but was always at events from hanger cleanups to the glider training given the youngsters, encouraging, teaching, sharing. He did the same for me as the newbie Colonel.
I gave a lot of thought about his immediate impact on me. Also had conversations with our leader, and friend, Rick, about him. Discovered early that what I saw was Mr. C.
My career was built on understanding Cognitive Behavior, teaching and counseling on same. Our Mr. C. was a package of trust, genuine openness, integrity, generosity, and calmness that enveloped anyone in reach. Me included. I began to understand his focus and personal mission of spreading the good works done by the Commemorative Air Force and our small extension, the High Sierra Squadron. The “gospel” of honoring the service of Military Aviation and aviators, of teaching the history of same to the younger generations, of instilling in them the sense of service, honor, dedication and self-reliance that was ever present with them. Our WWII aircraft were the textbooks and classrooms for this mission. The youngsters were never told “don’t touch”, but rather encouraged to jump into that historic seat and listen to the story about who sat there before you and what they did for the cause of freedom.
Watching and listening to Mr. C., and the others of our group, and I caught the fever. Then I found out the Mr. C. was ill, fighting a long-time lung ailment. The others had watched over time. One day the Squadron was scheduled to bring an aircraft to the Susanville, CA Airport Days. As usual with military-type operations it takes a line of logistics to make it happen. The Commander’s wife drove the pickup load of signage, tents, and miscellaneous equipment. The check pilot and Commander flew up in the U.S. Marine Corps L-19 “Bird Dog”. Mr. C. and I flew up in his Cessna 206 with a few items. This was my first “roadshow” and it lived up to the promise of sharing our world – and words – with lots of eager folks. Also special for me because of my long history with that airport and a steady stream of old friends to greet. Then toward the end of the day, Mr. C. asked if I was ready for the return flight home. As he pre-flighted the 206 I noted that a couple of our folks asked him if he was okay. Of course, they got that smile and quiet reassurance. Then I was quietly asked to keep an eye out and help where needed. No need to answer that—that’s what a co-pilot does!
We took off into haze of the California fire’s smoke and headed south down the Honey Lake valley. Having lived there for twenty years the terrain was familiar—even the mountains on both sides concealed in heavy smoke. As we reached altitude and began to set headings, I noted that Mr. C. was concentrating on flying and making small but critical errors in navigation. Errors he quickly corrected as I asked small questions designed to give him that awareness. No way was I going to “correct” this man, master pilot and friend. Just play the role of copilot. Well aware of his growing hypoxia—not to a critical state—we worked through two more errors and greased a beautiful landing at home base Reno/Stead. Climbing out of the airplane, Mr. C went directly to a seat in the hanger and sat down, working his way back to higher o2 levels. He was familiar with the routine and I knew now how ill he was. I moved the airplane into the hanger and secured her.
A couple of weeks later we said goodbye to our friend, mentor and benefactor as he succumbed to the illness. A giant hole in the hearts of many, many folks. Mine included.
Only later at a memorial we held for Mr. C. did I learn of his many life accomplishments around the world. This unassuming man who only was concerned about others could have chosen any life style he wished for … the mansion on the hill if desired. He chose what we saw, and we were blessed. Can’t add to that.
Godspeed, Mr. C. I’ll treasure my role as your second-to-last copilot. Happy to give up my seat to God, who greased your final landing as you rested a well-deserved rest.
Footnote: Mr. C was ten years younger that I am. I’ve traveled to the Dallas TX headquarters of the CAF and found that Mr. C’s influence extended all across the country. That day he received a unique Award of Excellence from the CAF, not originally intended to be posthumously. It was accepted by our Squadron Commander and his extended family.
During my stay the candle that Mr. C. lit in my soul became a blowtorch of dedication to the mission he held, and I now humbly hold as a gift from a stranger, now a missed friend.
Future blogs and musings will expand on the CAF and the historic home of the High Sierra Squadron, and much more.