Swashbucklers and Black Sheep

When I reached the outskirts of St. Louis on Monday, October 15, I stopped for about an hour to visit one of the last surviving members of the famed Black Sheep squadron. Of the original 49 pilots and two ground officers who served with Greg “Pappy” Boyington in World War II, only five are left. The Sweet Chariot tour provided me with an opportunity to visit four of the five; however, one individual has been reclusive for decades and his exact whereabouts are unknown, and another is suffering from advanced Alzheimer’s. Call me selfish, but I decided not to attempt to meet with the latter, since I preferred to remember him the way I last saw him—as a vibrant, talkative gentleman rather than someone who would neither recognize me nor recall my visit.

I did stop to see Ed Harper in Lake St. Louis. Now 92 years young, Ed was badly wounded during the war. He’s been a friend since we first met in New Orleans, almost 20 years ago, and his wife Jane is one of my favorites. She’s also one of my biggest book proponents, helping to push dozens of sales whenever we’ve participated in events together. I still get Christmas cards from the Harpers, so it was great to visit with them again during my trip across the country.

Visiting with Ed Harper, one of Pappy Boyington’s original pilots, and Jane Harper at their home in Lake St. Louis, MO.

Earlier, during the outbound leg of the tour in mid-September, one of my scheduled events was an evening presentation at the Pritzker Military Library in downtown Chicago. I called up another Black Sheep survivor, Jim Hill, who had previously declined an invitation to join me at the presentation. Fortunately the weather was fine that Thursday night, and Jim was feeling pretty good, so he decided to attend the event at the library and even joined me onstage. We shared an interesting and informative exchange, with Jim providing first-hand accounts of flying the F4U Corsair during the Solomons campaign.

Another of Boyington’s originals, Jim Hill of Chicago, at the Pritzker Military Library on September 20, 2012. Also pictured are Jim’s son Jeff Hill (at left), along with staff members Ken Clarke (President and CEO), and Nancy Houghton (Program Director)

And in northern California, I had the similar privilege of presenting a program on the new book with the assistance of a former Swashbuckler, Drury “Mac” McCall. We gave our presentation to a small but enthusiastic audience of about 15 people on a Monday night at Copperfield’s Books in Napa. I had exchanged numerous letters and phone calls with Mac, but had never actually met him until about five minutes before our presentation began.

I’ve known Mac McCall, an original Swashbuckler of VMF-214, for about 15 years; but we had never met face-to-face until we gave a presentation at Copperfield’s bookstore in Napa, CA.

After visiting with the Harpers near St. Louis, I continued my journey east, generally following the path taken by Jack Kerouac in 1947. He rode a bus from Los Angeles as far as Pittsburgh before his money ran out, and then used his thumb to hitchhike the rest of the way home to New York City. I took a slightly different route from Pittsburgh in order to spend a few days with my mother in State College, PA. And, as luck would have it, the decision resulted in a serendipitous encounter with yet another of my high school classmates!

My drive to State College, after an overnight stop near Cincinnati, was a fairly long push of more than 7 hours. I was low on gas by the time I got to Happy Valley, and out of laziness I decided to drive a few miles out of my way to the village of Boalsburg, where a Quik Mart gas station provides full service. (At the end of a long day, it’s a luxury to let someone else pump gas rather than unload my wheelchair from the car at a self-serve station.)

The attendant commented on the Mustang and asked where I was from. I told him I was from Florida, but had grown up there in Boalsburg. “Really,” he said. “Me, too—I’m a Gingrich.”

I hadn’t looked at him very closely before he said that, but suddenly everything clicked. I somehow even knew his first name, more than 35 years after high school.

“Are you Ira?”

“Yep,” he said.

It was a real OMG moment, especially considering that we had barely known each other back then, among a graduating class of more than 600 students. I was struck by the vast differences in our two lives. I’ve traveled extensively and was just finishing a coast-to-coast road trip; he has rarely, if ever, been out of central Pennsylvania.

After a few pleasantries, I pulled out of the station and headed for my mom’s place. I looked forward to visiting with my extended family for a couple of days before heading home to Florida. No, I didn’t plan to finish the Kerouac tribute by driving to New York City, although I was only four hours away. I felt extremely fortunate to have gotten the Mustang into Manhattan at the beginning of the trip without damage—and that was enough.

Besides, I still faced a two-day drive to Florida. I had another thousand miles to go, and would be at the wheel for more than nine hours each day—plenty of time to contemplate how odd life can be.

If Ira Gingrich watched me pull out of the gas station, I’m sure he saw me scratching my head.


Jack’s Thumb

In the summer of 1947, Jack Kerouac left New York City with $50 in his pocket and a dream of exploring America. But Jack didn’t have much of a plan. Anxious to visit friends in Denver before heading to California, he spent half his cash on a bus ticket that took him as far as Chicago. Continuing west, he took another bus to Joliet in order to get through “the impossible complexities of Chicago traffic,” but from there he had to hitchhike the rest of the way.

As I mentioned in the previous post, my buddy Al and I spent three days getting from New York to Chicago. Kerouac made it by bus in 24 hours; but thereafter, almost broke, he was slowed by the need to stick out his thumb. He rarely slept as he hitched ride after ride for another thousand miles to Denver via Cheyenne, WY.

I looked forward to tracing this part of Kerouac’s journey, accompanied by another friend, Lewis Watt. A retired Marine Corps colonel, Lewis and his wife are my mom’s neighbors. We share another thing in common, in that Lewis’s career crossed paths with one of the original Black Sheep Squadron veterans, Col. Ed Harper, a gentleman I’ve known for almost 20 years. An avid outdoorsman and traveler, Lewis had been eagerly anticipating the trip ever since I shared my initial idea with him years ago.

I met Lewis in Chicago on Thursday, September 20, after an outstanding event at the Pritzker Military Library. Joined by Aaron Rosell, the Zenith Press publicist for the Sweet Chariot Tour, we dallied over dinner and drinks at the Palmer House Hilton. Lewis and I stayed overnight before starting our trek to Denver the next morning.

With the aid of a GPS (Kerouac would have been astounded), we found the Chicago traffic uncomplicated but terribly slow as we headed out of the city. Finally, at Naperville, we ducked south to pick up US 34 for a two-lane cruise through the Illinois countryside. Although the terrain is mostly flat, we were treated to a great ride through America’s breadbasket. One of the most unusual sights along the roadside was a farmhouse lawn filled with zombies. The Halloween display featured dozens of cleverly displayed mannequins in a life-sized Fright Farm!

After crossing the Mississippi at Davenport, Iowa—one of Kerouac’s notable stops—we followed US 6 again most of the way to West Des Moines, where I had a scheduled event at a huge, two-story Barnes & Noble bookstore.

Saturday morning was clear but chilly as we headed out of West Des Moines. We did not slavishly follow Kerouac’s route, which took him through the small town of Adel, but soon rejoined his track on US 6, based on clues found in On the Road. Hunger pangs prompted us to search for an authentic small-town breakfast, which we found in The Farmer’s Kitchen, in Atlantic, Iowa. The décor could have been from Kerouac’s time, and the food was delicious.

The day’s big adventure occurred while we cruised through Nebraska on US 30, the Lincoln highway, which parallels Interstate 80. Traffic on the old two-lane was almost nonexistent, so we cruised along at 5 mph above the posted speed limit of 60 mph. One local cop ignored us, but a half-hour later a Nebraska state trooper passed us in his blue-gray Crown Vic going in the opposite direction, and immediately spun around to get on my tail. I pulled over when his roof lights came on, and he approached my window with the usual “license and registration” request. He said little other than informing me that I had exceeded the speed limit, and went back to his cruiser to run my data. Upon returning, he handed me a warning and sent us on our way. Lewis and I just shook our heads. Really? Five over? We chalked it up to boredom on the trooper’s part.

Lewis proceeded to commemorate the excitement with one of his patented rhymes:

Red Pony
22 September, 2012
Damn, we are havin’ fun!
Feelin’ this Red Pony run.
Life can’t be wrong,
As we rocket along,
Don’t want this trip to be done.
Yup, This Pony will go.
Stopped, it is an instant show.
The gear-heads are staring,
It’s fun to be sharing.
Folks don’t know what they don’t know.
But Smokey was not impressed,
As our pace he grimly addressed.
Just over by five?
Well, sakes alive!
Just a warning? Okay, we confess.
We’re on the Pony Express trail.
This Pony ain’t carryin’ mail.
No Indians chasing,
As westward we’re racin’
Piecing together our tale.


That afternoon, after a brief stop in Gothenburg, Nebraska for a photo op—our red “Pony” next to an original Pony Express station—we pulled into Ogallala for the night. Dinner at The Golden Spur, attached to the town’s Best Western motel, was every bit as excellent as our meal two nights earlier in Chicago—but a far cry cheaper.

From Ogallala, Kerouac’s route took him to Cheyenne, Wyoming before he headed south to stay with friends in Denver. Lewis had a flight to catch on Sunday morning, so I took him directly to the Denver airport, then proceeded to the Wings Over the Rockies Air & Space Museum for a scheduled event.

After the hard push from Chicago, I was looking forward to a day of sightseeing with my brother Larry, who lives in Estes Park.  Unfortunately, a new adventure with the Mustang would dictate other plans—but that’s for the next post.