Once A Fighter Pilot, Always A Fighter Pilot

I have a soft spot in my heart for fighter pilots, and that’s why I took more than passing interest in the story of Jeremiah O’Keefe, who passed away recently in Mississippi at age 93.  Jerry, as he was known, flew a Navy fighter in World War Two and, as the news story recounted, pretty much remained a fighter pilot all his life.

Let’s go back to April, 1945.  America and its allies are winning the war against Japan in the Pacific, closing in on the Japanese homeland.  O’Keefe takes off on his very first mission, part of a 24-plane squadron assigned to protect American ships unloading troops and supplies on Okinawa.  Suddenly, they’re warned of a large number of enemy planes heading their way – kamikazes, intent on ramming themselves into the ships below.

Jerry and his fellow pilots intercepted the Japanese planes, and by the time the battle was over, he had shot down five of the enemy, thus becoming – in his first taste of combat – an “ace.”  Jerry’s squadron was named, appropriately, the Death Rattlers.  Jerry kept flying and shooting down enemy planes until the war ended – and won a chest-full of medals for his heroics.

Like most of the young men who served in uniform in the war, Jerry went home, took off his uniform, and went to work in a family business – funeral homes and insurance.  He served a term in the Mississippi legislature and eight years as mayor of Biloxi.

Jerry O’Keefe became a champion of equal rights for black Mississippians.  When somebody at the Biloxi city hall issued a parade permit for the Ku Klux Klan, Jerry rescinded it, and when Klan members marched anyway, he had them arrested.  He got death threats, and a cross burned on his lawn, but he never backed down.  After all, he was a fighter pilot.  Japanese kamikazes or Kluxers, you just didn’t mess with Jerry O’Keefe.

One of my uncles was a fighter pilot in World War Two.  He flew Thunderbolts from England to support the allied campaign in Europe.  Had to bail out once when his plane was hit by anti-aircraft fire, but survived to fight another day.  After the war he finished his college education, went to medical school, and became a doctor.  He was a terrific doctor – smart, creative, compassionate, willing to try just about anything to help his patients.  Personally, he lived a bit on the edge.  I loved him dearly and thought he was one of the most interesting people on earth.  He was always, in my mind, a fighter pilot.

I paid tribute to my pilot uncle in my first novel, Home Fires Burning.  There’s a young fighter pilot in there, Billy Benefield, who is inspired by Uncle Bancroft.  He lives on the edge.  He’s the kind of guy who lands his Army Air Corps plane in the pasture next to his girlfriend’s house so he can take her for a ride.  Later, he battles Japanese planes in the Pacific.  He could have been Jerry O’Keefe.

As a storyteller, I’m drawn to characters who have some edges, some flaws, some texture.  People who are anything but dull.  Sometimes they get themselves into big trouble because they take risks and do outrageous things.  But that makes them infinitely more intriguing that folks who never take a chance with life.  Give me a fighter pilot any day.


The Moment I Became A Storyteller

I’m back home today – Elba, Alabama, the neatest little town on earth – with my new book.  About four thousand people live here, and that’s about what it was when I was growing up in the 50’s.  It was, and I’m sure still is, a village that nurtured its young.  And it was a great place to learn to be a storyteller: a small stage on which the same people interacted with each other day after day.  If you were smart enough to keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth shut, you could learn a lot about what makes human beings tick.  You could see people accommodating each other despite their differences.  And there were just enough oddballs of various stripes to make it intriguing.

As I drove into town, I remembered the exact moment when I became a storyteller.  It happened in the attic of my grandmother’s house, which is still standing.  The attic was a large room, added by my grandfather after Elba flooded in 1929 so his family would have a dry place to seek refuge if the river got out of its banks again.   When I was a kid, it was a sort of family dumping ground.


My father and three uncles were in World War Two, and one of them, Uncle Bancroft, was a fighter pilot.  He flew P-51’s out of England, supporting the Allied march across Europe.  Part of the rich family lore was the story of how Uncle Bancroft was shot down and lived to tell about it.  He was escorting bombers when his plane was crippled by anti-aircraft fire.  Somehow, he managed to nurse the plane back to the English Channel, where he bailed out and was rescued by a British ship.  As a youngster, I thought that was about the coolest thing I had ever heard.

When Dad and the uncles came back from the war, they stored various items of their memorabilia in my grandmother’s attic, and in Uncle Bancroft’s footlocker, I found a parachute.  It had a silk canopy about four feet across, which I later learned was used for a flare.  But in my fevered 10-year-old imagination, I got the idea that this was the very parachute Uncle Bancroft had used when his plane got hit.  I could just see him there in the cockpit, getting the last bit of juice out of the smoking, dying engine, managing with great skill and courage to make it to the coast, throwing back the cockpit, climbing out on the wing, and leaping into space.  Dang!

Propelled by terminal foolishness, I tied that parachute to my skinny shoulders, climbed out on the attic roof, and got ready to emulate Uncle Bancroft’s death-defying leap.  It was at the moment my feet left the roof edge that it dawned on me I had done a very dumb thing, and that I should probably tell stories rather than act them out.  Luckily, I crash-landed in the nandina bush below with nothing more than a few scrapes and bruises.  There was no British ship to pick me up.

In the considerable years since, I have done any number of foolish things.  But mostly, I have written about other people doing foolish things.  It’s a lot safer.