The poor little guy was bawling his eyes out. What the heck………..?
I wheeled my Jeep toward him, a lone little figure about my son’s age, standing with a well-worn paper sack in his hands, ill-clothed and needing a haircut from a real barber, a lad truly matching one’s perception of an urchin. I stopped next to him and killed the engine.
“What’s up, Pardner?”
Through sobs and sniffles, I was able to put together the cause of the lad’s grief. It would seem that he received for Christmas, a model airplane kit for the P-51 Mustang that had raced in Reno every year since the races began ten years ago (I’m pegging this event as being in 1976). In the paper sack was the cover of the model’s cardboard box and the assembly instruction sheet.
He had started last Christmas, now nine months ago, to save his pennies and go to the Air Races the following September, and have Howie Keefe, the owner and pilot of Miss America, autograph the kit’s lid and the instruction sheet. But, upon trudging from his family’s home to Stead and presenting his meager funds at the ticket table for the air race pits – where the airplanes are tied down – he was informed that he was too young to go into the pit area – an FAA regulation and a good, valid one.
He was crushed – nine months of hopes and a dream were instantaneously brought to an end. He walked, alone, back along the fence line separating him from the pits, and broke into tears. His life was pretty bleak to begin with; this visit was his beacon since Christmas, and it was just unceremoniously extinguished. I’ve never seen a kid – or a human – that upset.
Let’s take a few paragraphs and fill in a cast of characters. Howie Keefe owned and flew the P-51 named Miss America, race number One-One. It was totally stock – no clipped wingtips, prop changes nor tail mods – and therefore not terribly competitive at Reno. But it had an easily identifiable and unique color scheme, which rivaled be best of Raymond Leowy, the dean of industrial designers who designed Air Force One. The plane got the attention of Revell Plastics, who paid owner Keefe not a small amount of coin to offer the plane as a plastic model about a foot long. The plane was a beauty, and well known by all.
OK, that said, the owner/pilot was a man named Howie Keefe. I tipped my hat to him as a former WWII Navy pilot with a zillion hours PIC and the respect of all with whom he flew or raced in air races around the country. He was immensely respected, in fact got a call from the NTSB to join the team of investigators of the crash at Stead that killed 11 souls and pilot Jimmy Leeward, who I knew and liked very much.
Yours truly was aboard due to my friendship, away from and prior to air racing, with the likes of Fred Davis, George Vucanovich, Stan Brown, Roy Powers, Jerry Duty and a few others who would form the crux of Reno air racing in its infancy. And my name and often photograph appeared for the next 31 years in 31 air race programs, as “Home Pylon Flagman” and later with “Finish Judge” following. I was in.
I looked at my watch. I had an hour-and-a-half until I needed to be at my post at Home Pylon. Plenty of time until the earliest race. I made a command decision. “Hop in,” I said to the urchin, nodding toward the Jeep’s right, co-pilot seat. He did.
Then I broke a couple, if not more rules – the FAA’s about underage people being beyond the “line” – the fence separating competition from spectators, and the Air Race’s, against bringing unticketed people into the pit. I cruised up to the gate and the look on my visage probably adequately conveyed that the Jeep and all it carried were coming in – leave it alone.
We drove through the pits. I noticed Jeremy (which by the way was the kid’s name) entranced with the whole vista. I found an extra Air Race Operations hat and offered it to him.
Soon, Pay Dirt! In a little shade-shelter very near Miss America, was a tall, elegant figure wearing a crisp red, white and blue flight suit. I stopped and said to Jeremy, come with me.
I was cheery to Keefe and his friends: “Hi Howie; I brought a little friend of mine to say hello; he’s got some stuff for you to sign!” Keefe looked at me askance, at Jeremy, at the official’s insignia on my hat, then said hi. Jeremy pulled the kit’s cover and the instruction sheet out, together with a heavy marking pen he just happened to have in the bag. And believe it or don’t, but Keefe asked Jeremy how to spell his name and signed both articles.
Jeremy’s nine-month quest had come true! But wait, it gets better:
“Howie,” I said, “May I show Jeremy your office in the Mustang?”
Keefe, as I expected he might, said, well why don’t I take him myself? Jeremy, as one might expect didn’t need a second invitation. They both clambered up the wing – I, by now the ex officio photographer, followed,
Not tall enough to sit on his butt in the cockpit, he scrunched on his knees while Keefe pointed out the “stuff” inside – the throttle, flaps, rudders, joystick, gear, radio, trim knobs. I dutifully clicked shots of Jeremy, Howie, the cockpit, the crowd. My favorite was one with Jeremy and Howie, both with a smile you could see a mile, looking at each other and playing with some control on the panel. A bonding moment, indeed.
Time was fleeting. I corralled Jeremy and thanked Keefe profusely. And he actually thanked me for bringing them together. Jeremy and I returned to the Jeep.
I had already broken a couple no-no’s that as an official I should have been busted for, but on the way out to the ramp, I decided that once your heels are off the ground, it doesn’t matter how high they hang you. I steered toward my duty at Home Pylon. Tower cleared me on my handy-talkie to cross the main runway, and Jeremy was put to work at Home. I sensed that the FAA overseer looked the other way.
Jeremy helped us raise Old Glory on cue, as eight Nevada Air Guard RF-4Cs passed over loud and proud just as the flag reached the top of the pole at the end of the Anthem.. He saw the Blue Angels, (the Thunderbirds?), from the best seat in the house. He saw air races. Some of my firemen buddies took him down to a crash truck. He learned how to cook hamburgers on a grill, the only skill really a requisite for working at Home Pylon. He helped us lower the flag and make a crisp tricorner fold, to fly another day.
Jeremy went to the air races. I took him home to a shabby trailer in Black Springs, to where 35 years before I drove a school bus. My first trip back. Yikes.
He was dead-ass tired – noise, excitement, smoke, seeing Howie – he’d had a day. I told him I’d see him in a couple weeks (I was shooting Kodachrome II back then with a Canon A-1; a bit different than pointing and shooting a digital today!). Roy Powers helped me get 8-by-10 copies of a dozen of the best pictures.
I went back to the trailer with the pictures in a fortnight. He was still on Cloud Nine. A Saturday, I took him to lunch. I wasn’t sure he was getting square meals.
I never saw him again. I sent some cards and letters, with return postage envelopes with my address. Nada. I went to his family’s home – they left, no forwarding address.
I’d like to end this with some Mitch Albom-feel good conclusion, but can’t. Howie Keefe, at 92, banged life’s throttle for the final time in the midsummer of 2013, pulled the stick back and climbed up, up, the long delirious burning blue over Florida where never lark nor ever eagle flew, and touched the face of God. His passing was an immense loss to the air racing and aviation community.
Jeremy? Dunno. He said during the brief tenure of our association that he’d like to join the Navy when he was old enough and work around airplanes. I’d like to think he won his Wings of Gold and is now the wing-king of an F/A-18 Hornet squadron flying off the Ronald Reagan. But I doubt it.
I’m just happy to have brought him that day at Stead. I write about Air Racing ad nauseam, or did a few years ago. But Jeremy’s story stayed within me, until this year. They’ll be back tearing up the skies over Stead in a few weeks. And for reasons unknown, I thought I’d put one last air race tale out.
I’d give anything to get that kid in the Jeep once more….
© Breckenridge 2018
Excerpt of Airman’s Prayer credit to John Gillespie Magee, Jr. “High Flight” 1940
Home Pylon Crew, 1984: from left, my younger son Brent; Dale Tucker, now the home pylon flagman; a fugitive from Reno 911 in shorts; Dale’s parents Polly and Ed Tucker, chief timers; chief judge Fred Hallett, the father of Reno Air Race timing and statistics. The latter three have passed away, Dale’s the head flagman