Just like most kids of all ages, I don’t particularly like to do some of the chores required to give the illusion of a neat, orderly house. But since society frowns on living in one big junk heap all of the time, I find it necessary to occasionally tidy up a bit. While doing just that recently, I picked up a couple of old army aviator caps (AAF spec. AN-H-15) and found beneath them an old white cotton summer flying helmet I have treasured for years. Not being in a rush this day, I had time to sit, study, and reflect on this relic of my introductory experiences in flying. This helmet came to me very early in my aviation career from a very influential pilot friend.
The old helmet is not much to look at now, because time has frayed the edges and the front is a speckled, mottled color from oil stains and perspiration. There are a couple of sewn up places and one where additional cloth was needed to make the repair. The chin strap is still functional as are the two snaps on the back to hold the goggles in place. Evidence in the form of a faint brownish stain around the helmet proves that for untold hours the elastic band of the goggles was actually secured in that position. That old tattered cloth helmet, slightly yellowed with age and the stains of experience that water can’t wash out is very much like our lives. The experiences of life leave their marks on each of us that time can fade, but never completely obliterate. Because that old helmet has become a symbol to me of such thoughts, I hang onto it.
The previous owner was a man I met while I was in high school and earning my flight instruction. He befriended several of us who were working at the small grass strip and very soon in our eyes he became one of our local heroes. Claude was in his late 20’s, olive complexioned, with dark curly hair and matching dark eyes. In my memory he resembled Errol Flynn, a popular movie star of the time. Others must have shared my impressions, because he dated some of the most beautiful women in the area. His swashbuckling good looks were betrayed by his personality because he was quiet and mild almost to the point of being shy around strangers. Once he became familiar with those around him, the inner man would emerge revealing a keen sense of humor and a propensity for having a good time. His grin displayed bright white teeth that sharply contrasted with his tanned skin.
Even though he was ten years our senior, he still enjoyed the activities of youth. His involvement in touch football, target shooting, motorcycle riding, and girl chasing lead us to believe there really was life after high school. The one shared interest that made him especially important to us was that he just plain enjoyed flying. Claude wore the raccoon-like badge of his profession with distinction and he represented what we aspired to be. From wearing goggles all day long in the sun, the area around his eyes was much lighter than the rest of his sun tanned face, so he was a marked man. He was a cropduster!
To him, it was a job of long, hot summer days with endless hours of flying in a Stearman behind a Pratt 450 in a series of spray runs, reversal turns, and more of the same. It was a job that the boredom of long flying hours and chemicals could lull the unwary into the insidious fringes of complacency. To us, his job was the epitome of romantic adventure. He had all of the fun flying he wanted for six or seven months in the summer and the rest of the year to relax, hunt, fish, travel, or do whatever he desired. The pay was good too, because Claude always drove a late model auto and that was the gauge of wealth at our stage of life.
Over several years of casual association, weather days in the hangar, and minor social functions, Claude came to know our small group of fledgling aviators fairly well; as we did him. As time passed we novice pilots made small, but steady gains in experience and achievements accompanied by the congratulations of our friends. Working up the rungs of the ladder of aviation was agonizingly slow, but Claude was there with his encouragement also. Upon graduation from high school and the advent of separate colleges, our lives began a slow drift apart in spite of our promises to “keep in touch”. That slow drift apart was accelerated into explosive proportions in one summer day.
My construction foreman knew that my heavy manual labor job each summer was to help finance my college work, which would allow me to obtain my real goal — aviation. So as we were knocking off work one long, hot, but productive afternoon, he told me of a radio news report he had just heard. An aircraft had just had an accident not very far from where we were. As curious as anyone else, I arrived at the scene right behind the emergency vehicles. The wreckage was a jumble of parts barely recognizable as a Stearman spray plane. The fabric and some of the wood parts were still burning along with the chemical and gasoline mixture spilled around the wreck. Someone had pulled the pilots body out of the fire and it lay to one side as a grim testimony to the unforgiving nature of that type of work. The body was not badly burned, but it was discolored and swollen. The spider webbed pattern of cracks at the front of the hard helmet indicated the pilot had probably died of head injuries during impact. When the helmet was removed a moment later by one of the rescue workers, I involuntarily caught my breath in a short gasp at the sight of the hair. I knew even before the wallet identification verified my worst fears, whose name would appear in the back pages of tomorrows local newspaper. Claude was at my feet and I had not recognized him! The wave of nausea that swept over me caused me to turn away and depart immediately. Even now I can recall the scene vividly as though that fire had seared every detail into my memory. Time has dimmed the emotion, but the memory is still there.
With Claude’s departure, we each went our separate ways as if he had been the bond that caused us to remain together. Possibly because his absence was so conspicuous in our group or that we reminded each other of our loss, was the reason we each turned our backs and pursued our own directions in life.
A couple of years ago, I was flying a Stearman to Willard Duke’s “Last of the Season Stearman Fly-in” at Jennings, La. Intentionally, I flew a little off course toward Elton, La. Elton is not a very big place on highway 190, so the big church was easy to find. Behind the church is the cemetery. The Stearman responded easily but slowly as I dropped the left wing to point at the spot where we buried Claude. The unexpected steep banked circles caused the helmeted and goggled head in the front cockpit to turn to face me through my windshield in a questioning manner. My wife then turned to look off the tip of our left wing at the cemetery, paused a moment, and slowly nodded her head in understanding. She had never known or even met Claude, but through my stories knew this had to be the place and this airborne gesture was my salute of respect.
In my generation, grown men were expected to control their emotions and to a degree hide their feelings. There were only a few situations or circumstances in which it was really acceptable to display ones emotions. So I was relieved to know the white cotton helmet I was wearing held my goggles in place and the excess moisture in my eyes was known only to me.