Friday, March 13, 2009

A Legendary Flyer and Unsung Hero

In 1977 my brother Dave was approached by a gentleman named Ed Lawler who commissioned him to build a model replica of a Spad XIII. Mr. Lawler wanted to give this to his dear friend as a Christmas gift. The irony here was much like the Pope approaching Michelangelo, who was primarily a sculptor, to paint the ceiling in The Cistine Chapel. My brother was not so much an artist as he was a musician. And I was more the person who was into history and military aircraft.

To my brother it was a way to earn some extra cash. So he took the job on, and enlisted my help in building the model. My brother probably wouldn't have minded if I built the thing myself, so long as he got the dough. And to be honest with you, I would have been more than happy to just have had the pleasure of building the model itself.
I had to pretty much hold myself back from not working on the model without him. Otherwise I would have had this thing done in a few days. It was absolute torture for me. But since my reputation was not on the line, I had to just bide my time and wait.

One of the cool things Mr. Lawler did for us was to provide us with the actual squadron pin from his buddy, ( without him noticing of course) so that we would have an idea of how to paint the insignia on the side of the plane. I also did my part by digging up pictures from the library so that we would know how to paint the camouflage scheme.
So between my brother and I,... we finished it, ...and did a really top notch job. Mr Lawler was pleased and thanked us both, of course only my brother got paid! But I didn't mind, for me the reward was in the building of it.

Shortly after the New Year, Mr. Lawler, stopped by our house to drop off an envelope. In side were two photos of Mr. Lawler's friend holding the model in his hands. His friend inscribed the front and autographed the back of each photo, thanking my brother and I for our beautiful handiwork. I thought it was very nice of him.

As with most things, you tend to forget them, with the passing of time, and in some cases fail to realize the significance of them until it is too late! This be came foremost in my mind many years later.....

In 1989 I was sitting in my first apartment with my room mate, and we were watching some cable TV. The program in question was World At War. The episode we were viewing was on WWI Flying Aces and aerial combat. During the program they started to talk about a man named Capt. Arthur Raymond Brooks. This for some reason got me thinking. I immediately got up and left the room and began looking through my things.

A few moments later I emerged with the photo, and wouldn't you know it, the man in the picture was Arthur Raymond Brooks. I was completely in awe of this, and how I had just realized my tiny brush with glory! So I thought this was too cool. I had a photo of a guy who flew planes in WWI. Of course keeping in mind, I missed the whole program, because as soon as I heard his name, I was off in search of the photo.

Nine years later, (2008) I am sitting in my present day apartment, watching one of my favorite TV shows ( Dogfights) really cool program if you get the chance. History Channel does a series of these, using 3-D animation to reconstruct aerial combat. And of course for the sake of this tale, they are doing an episode on WWI Flying Aces. They even devoted a whole twenty minutes to my man, Capt. Arthur Raymond Brooks.

And not unlike the Hollywood movies, this man went up against eight opponents, (German pilots in Fokker D-7's) single handed, with his plane riddled with bullets, only one gun working, and not a friend in sight. He managed to shoot down four of the enemy planes and live to tell the tale.

Through out the years I have done a lot of research and have learned many things in my studies, as to what these daring young men in their flying machines were up against.

For starters your are in a flimsy machine, that is constructed out of wood and canvas. You are strapped into a cockpit atop of a 20 gallon fuel tank. And if that wasn't enough, there was no room for you to have a parachute. If the plane went down, you simply rode it into the ground.

They did however as a small courtesy issue each pilot a revolver, so they could spare themselves the agony of burning alive in the crash. Oddly enough there were several accounts where pilots used these to shoot at the enemy when their guns were empty.

But the biggest threat to these young pilots beyond enemy fire, was that often enough the engines would fail, or the plane would catch on fire, or simple just come apart in mid-air. Not to mention you are flying high up in the sky in an open cockpit with no heat, where the temperatures are freezing. which tended to make the machine guns jam, and if the cold didn't do it, bent bullets would render the guns useless.

It takes a certain kind of individual to volunteer to go up in one of these contraptions and risk being shot out of the sky. But many men did, and very few of them survived the war.

Now as a grown man, I look back at rather unfortunate missed opportunity. Mr. Brooks lived only 15 miles or so from where I grew up and he lived a long life. He died in 1991. Had I known this then, I am most certain I would have tried to track him down. And I would have just sat at his feet like a little kid in front of a living legend, listening to tales of what it was like to have survived through all of those circumstances.

But I console myself with the fact, that I was able give something back to a man who risked his life to serve his country! And the fact that I have a signed photograph with his thanks!

1 comment:

  1. I LOVE this story Greg!!!! See how good it looks in print!?!