Welcome to “The Dead Chicken Dance and Other Peace Corps Tales.” I am presently on a two month tour of the Mediterranean and other areas so I thought I would fill my blog space with one of the greatest adventures I have ever undertaken: a two-year tour as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Liberia, West Africa. Every two days I will post a new story.
When I have finished, I will publish the stories in digital and print book formats.
It’s almost impossible to contemplate life in the jungle without thinking bugs. Think of every jungle movie you have ever seen, documentary you have watched, or National Geographic article you have read; tropical rainforests are creepy, crawly places.
Leeches that suck your blood, ants that march in armies, and mosquitoes that ooze with malaria are all legendary representatives of jungle lore. Anyone who writes about the jungle is expected to…
In this photograph from 1943, WAVES are in the midst of a four-month training course at NATTC, Norman, Oklahoma. They are receiving training that will let them become Aviation Metalsmiths to maintain Naval airplanes.
“She’s the most beautiful thing I had ever seen,” said Old Man Jack in a trembling voice and with very wet eyes.
On March 3, 2003. Truly.
He was referring to the F4U Corsair. I had taken him to the Chino Planes of Fame Museum in Chino, CA. The WWII aircraft there – all of them – fly.
That’s right. They get up in the air.
Planes that were engineered with a minimal lifespan as they were meant for combat were still spinning their props for the men who flew them – or worked on them.
Old Man Jack was one of them.
Do you know what these beautiful planes look like? What they may have sounded like to Old Man Jack 70 years ago? Ever see one fly? A vid I took at the Planes of Fame Airshow:
In case you haven’t figured it out, his Corsair is “on the tail” of a famed Zero of the Imperial Japanese Navy in this mock dogfight. I filmed it almost ten years ago at an air show there at Chino Planes of Fame.
Old Man Jack was an “AMM 1/C” during WWII, or “Aviation Machinist Mate First Class”. He could have re-upped after the war and been promoted to Chief Petty Officer but like Mrs. Johnson, Carol would have none of that.
I am not positively sure as Old Man Jack would only give tidbits here and there but he was responsible for the aircraft. Before flight – and while remembering this was at the front lines on “those stinkin’ islands” – he would get into the cockpit and make sure all essential bells and whistles worked after his crew worked on it all night. I also believe he was to pilot one on occasion to maintain his certs. Very simplistically said on my part.
The pilot was headed off into harm’s way. The pilot’s life depended on Jack and his crew. It’s airworthiness.
But one thing is for certain – Old Man Jack said many times “there just weren’t enough spare parts so we had to make do.”
But back to the story…
Our friendship had begun to solidify by then… I had mentioned to him that I was a member of the museum and that he wouldn’t have to worry about me paying for his entry. But that wasn’t why he hesitated. You will see why. And I found out later myself why he was so hesitant.
Back then, the museum’s WWII hangars were divided into the two main theaters of operation: the European and the Pacific – where Old Man Jack was stationed during the thick of things.
We meandered through the European Theater hangar. He recognized them right away. The P-51. The P-47. Others.
He had brought along his “walking chair”; it was light and when folded up, it was a walking aid. If you press down on it a certain way, it would spread out into a little chair. Well, he was doing good…and I was happy.
To get to the Pacific Theater hangar, you would leave the European Theater hangar and mosey across a tarmac.
It was a hot day. Old Man Jack was in a t-shirt. Blue, of course.
We were slowly making it across the tarmac. I knew a Corsair was in there – pretty as the day she rolled off the assembly line. As the hangar door was cracked open, you could see the wing spar.
Then Old Man Jack stopped. At the white “X” marked in the map above. Dead in his tracks.
He propped open his chair.
He sat down.
I was wondering if he was tired. We were out in the sun. Why’d he stop there?
I walked back to him. His hands that still firmly shook your hands were on his knees. His head was bowed down.
Then I saw it.
His shoulders were shuddering a bit at first, then began to bob up and down.
The man who had a barrel chest…the man who worked on these planes as a young man whose bushy eyebrows had turned white with age …was crying.
Deeply. No sounds. He was holding it in…
I walked away.
The plumbing in my eyes broke too.
I think he cried quietly for about a couple of minutes. Out there on the tarmac. In the sun.
Old Man Jack then straightened up. He wiped his eyes.
“Young man, earn your pay. Give me your hand and help me up.”
Old Man Jack was back.
We walked over to her – Jack’s beloved Corsair. His eyes were still wet.
I remember him saying very quietly while trying very hard to hold back his now visible anguish, “I knew a lot of young boys who flew them,” his voice cracking with 70 years of nightmares tormenting him. “Some of them just didn’t come back. I could never stop thinking, ‘Did a Jap get him… or was it me?'”
Nothing more need be said.
That’s when he told me she was the most beautiful girl in the sky. But like any woman, she was a pain to keep happy.
“We didn’t wear shirts because it was so _ucking hot; I’d burn my stomach and chest on that hot metal.” He pointed at the wing spar (the bottom of the “gull wing”) and said, “We would always slip on those damn spars. You never had good footing.”
He then recollected other things. He told me “We’d stick a shotgun shell into a breech under the cowling and fire it off to turn over the engine.” As I surely didn’t know much better back then, I asked why. “Because the dumb son-of-a-bitch who designed the plane didn’t put in a starter. That’s why.” Oh, boy (with a smile). “And if she didn’t turn over, you only had a couple more tries at it before you had to let it cool off.”
Old Man Jack then smiled a bit when he admitted he fell off the wing while taxiing once. “Like a dumb smart ass kid, I stood up on the wing when the pilot was taxiing. You were taught to lay on the wing to point which way to go but (the wing’s surface) was too damn hot so I stood up. We hit a bump and off I came.” (Note: the Corsair’s nose was long to accommodate the powerful engine. It was so long that it obscured the pilot’s forward view during taxi and landing.)
One more thing he said. “There was nothing better than seeing the flight come back after a patrol at wave top, do victory rolls then peel off.” He was a bit choked up.
When we got home, he said to me, “I didn’t know how I would react if I saw something and that’s why I put you off in going. But I feel good about it now. Thank you, young man.”