Your Stories is a collection of memories we have received from our readers and adapted as articles to share on this website. If you are interested in sharing your own memories or stories with us, please contact us HERE.
The TV Show That Changed My Lifeby Jay Bess
Growing up in the 1970’s, I had an interest in WWII and airplanes from a very early age. No one really knew where or how my interest started, as my parents hated flying and my relatives were either too young or too old to serve in WWII, outside of contributing to the Stateside war effort.
Little green plastic soldiers waged great battles in my childhood bedroom, as they must have done in so many other households in my youth. I found biographies on Patton, MacArthur, Eisenhower and others in the school library… and then came September 21st, 1976. I tuned in to a TV show that would change my life forever, Baa Baa Black Sheep! WOW! A bunch of wild, hard-drinking pilots, flying and fighting their way through the skies in the “Slot” with their tough leader, Pappy Boyington! Scheming ways to outwit the “brass”, ready to throw a punch and flying these amazing blue planes with bent wings and shooting down “Zeros” left and right. I couldn’t wait to see the exploits of the Black Sheep each week!
At Christmas that year, I learned that the “real” Pappy Boyington was going to be at an air show, in a place called Oshkosh. My Great Uncle Vern and Aunt Sis were members of something called the Experimental Aircraft Association, and they would drive their Winnebago motorhome to Oshkosh every year and ‘camp’ for a week. After begging and pleading with my parents over the next year, plans were finally made for me to attend Oshkosh with them, but with one caveat – NO FLYING! I would be gone over my birthday, so I was given a Kodak Instamatic camera with a few rolls of film as an early present.
The day finally came, and we loaded up the motorhome and headed to Oshkosh! If any of you spent time as kids with 70+ year olds, driving in a motorhome through Chicago – you quickly learned most of your four-lettered language and hand gestures from the Greatest Generation. Just like today, we arrived at “Oshkosh” in advance of the event and camped with a large group of friends. A courtyard was setup – and all the cooking, eating, bluegrass music and drinking was to take place right there! A great bunch of pilots turned up who’d loosely formed their own group which they dubbed the HOOO (Horny Owls Of Oshkosh) – somethings haven’t changed!!
Since my birthday fell on a Thursday, I wanted to wait to meet Pappy. But I couldn’t stop myself seeking him out in one of the exhibit hangars and deciding what I was going to purchase, as he not only had his book, but a spoken record album and numerous reproductions of pictures and paintings – I wanted them ALL! Thursday finally arrived, and I could hardly wait to get to the airfield and finally meet Pappy! We made our way to the exhibit hangar and up to his booth. I watched him sign his books and prints for the people ahead of me, and when it finally came to my turn – well, do you remember Ralphie from the movie A Christmas Story when he met Santa? Yep – I could hardly say a word! I picked out his book and a large picture of Pappy standing next to a Corsair. He asked how I would like it signed and I gave him my name… but my great aunt spoke up and said it was my birthday! That changed everything right there! Pappy lit up and asked how old I was and started a conversation with a very shy (that sure changed) 11-year-old. Whether true or not, he said it happened to be he and his wife’s wedding anniversary that day too! The Kodak Instamatic came out and Pappy invited me behind his table and the moment was immortalized. He signed all of my purchases wishing me a Happy Birthday – this kid was on cloud nine!
We headed back to the Winnebago with all of my newly-purchased treasures. My aunt then brought out a chocolate birthday cake and I dug in! As we finished up, my aunt made the comment that we had plenty left over and it was too bad we didn’t think of it before… but we should have brought some cake to Pappy. So going back to A Christmas Story, do you remember when Ralphie suddenly crawled back up the slide to tell Santa he wanted the Red Ryder BB Gun rather than the football? – well, this was my version of that moment! A large slice of cake was wrapped up on a paper plate and I set off on my lonesome to bring Pappy a piece of my birthday cake! I reached his table and waited my turn. He recognized me from earlier, and I presented him with the cake – he apparently liked chocolate cake as much as I did! He asked for me to come around the table and sit with him for a minute as he ate the cake. I wish I could have remembered what we spoke about, but it was right up there with Ralphie finally getting his Red Ryder! This set the routine from 1978 to 1981.
My uncle had one more surprise for me that first year. A friend of his worked for a restoration company, Kal-Aero, and knew just about every owner or pilot in Warbird Alley. What airplane did I want to sit in? What airplane did I want to fly in? – Guess what bent-winged plane was sitting there just begging for me to get into?? While I couldn’t negotiate out of the “No Flying” caveat – “sitting” was not banned, so I climbed my way up into my first Corsair! And I soon came to find out that there was another Corsair I could visit at the Kalamazoo Air Zoo near my hometown!
Of course, the sensory overload of all-things-aviation at Oshkosh was imprinted permanently on my mind, as it must be for almost everyone who has ever attended this magnificent event. And – funny thing – I kept seeing these guys in grey flight suits and cowboy hats around the Warbird section… Little did I know then who they were, nor how I’d become involved with this group of aviators.
As time went by, cars, girls, college and life pretty well obscured my passion for WWII history and aviation. But fast-forward a couple of decades and I’m sitting in my office searching information through this newfangled thing called ‘the internet’. Low and behold, I find out that a handful of the original Black Sheep Squadron members are still alive and will be attending an event called Corsairs over Connecticut at the Corsair’s birthplace in Stratford, Connecticut. I booked my flight and off I went! It was a terrific event, and only later did I get to know the organizers (they have the same affliction I do!). I got to meet squadron members Robert McClurg, Henry Bourgeois, Tom Emrich and Jim Hill along with Archie Donahue and several other WWII Veterans… and all of those beautiful Corsairs! That re-lit the spark!
That led to my taking flying lessons, attending air shows and tracking down a Corsair with a second seat. I had the incredible experience of flying with Steve Hinton in the Planes of Fame’s F4U-1A Corsair – MUCH better than a Red Ryder BB Gun! I was old enough by this point to realize that the TV show Baa Baa Blacksheep portrayed a reality which was very far from the truth and that Boyington was far from perfect, but it still held an important connection for me. I read Bruce Gamble’s excellent books on Boyington, the Black Sheep and VMF-214 (and became good friends with him in the process), along with Frank Walton’s “Once They Were Eagles”, Bob McClurg’s “On Boyington’s Wing” and an interesting book about Chris Magee “Lost Black Sheep”. Chris Magee was a Blacksheep Squadron pilot, and also brother to the legendary John Gillespie Magee who penned the immortal aviator’s poem, High Flight.
Not long after Corsairs over Connecticut, there was a Black Sheep gathering and dinner event in Minnesota and I knew I had to go! I had dug out a large squadron photo that Boyington had signed wishing me a happy birthday, packed it carefully in my luggage and headed north. I booked myself into the event hotel and went out for a big breakfast the morning of the event. I walk back in the lobby and there they were… Tom Emrich, Bill Heier and Jim Hill reminiscing. A lot older and much less shy, I asked if they would mind if I joined them – and I couldn’t have had a more gracious welcome and hearty handshakes. My mind was still spinning like little Ralphie’s – here I was with my childhood hero’s and being treated like an old friend. They turned to me and asked if I would like to join them for lunch!! While the big breakfast I had consumed barely an hour before had not come close to digesting… I of course said yes! We sat down for lunch around 11:30am and didn’t get up from the table until it was nearly time for the dinner event to start! What an incredible day and the stories I heard!! Later that evening, I brought my squadron photo and all of the guys gathered around and signed it for me. BEST. EVENING. EVER!
I kept it in contact with several of the guys until they flew west. It was around this time that I joined the organization that I had seen as a kid with pilots wearing gray flight suits and cowboy hats, what we now know, of course, as the Commemorative Air Force. The next thing you know, 30 plus years on from that first magical visit, I headed back to Oshkosh – not just visiting the Warbirds… but with the Warbirds!
I got involved, volunteered, swept floors, got sunburned, wiped up oil off the floor, polished planes, raised funds, worked air shows and even managed to get around that “No Flying” caveat. I’m truly humbled and honored that I’ve been able to meet so many more of my childhood – and adulthood – hero’s, along with forging friendships in the aviation community that I call my closest and best – as they are the only ones who truly “understand”.
This memory is dedicated to my father, who passed away as I was writing this article. While he wasn’t fond of flying, he sure did like to hear about my aviation adventures…
Many thanks indeed to Jay Bess for this marvelous recollections about how he gained his passion for warbirds, flying and the Blacksheep Squadron. That show likely had a similar effect on many of our readers too! Some of Jay’s fascinating collection of photos and prints are shown below – all of them autographed by ‘Pappy’ Boyington of course.Jay lives in Atlanta, Georgia and is a member of EAA and EAA Warbirds, former Wing Leader of the Commemorative Air Force Dixie Wing and has helped with the Atlanta Warbird Weekend and Dinner with Eagles, WWII Heritage Days, Living History Lecture Series, Dekalb-Peachtree Good Neighbor Day Air Show and numerous other aviation events and activities. He currently serves on the board of directors of the Inspire Aviation Foundation, where he serves with a group of aviation, business and education leaders to create an air & space museum and educational campus in the metro Atlanta area. Your Stories is a collection of memories we have received from our readers and adapted as articles to share on this website. If you are interested in sharing your own memories or stories with us, please contact us HERE.