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.

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Through the Redwood Forests

With the Mustang running strong again, thanks to the good people who helped put the Humpty Dumpty ignition switch back together, I enjoyed a great cruise through the Lassen and Shasta National Forests to Oregon. My visit to the lovely city of Ashland was a most worthwhile detour from the Kerouac trek, as it gave me the opportunity to visit several relatives I hadn’t seen in decades.

Another benefit came at the conclusion of the visit. On Sunday, September 30, I headed up to Grant’s Pass, where I picked up US 199 for a winding, inspiring drive through redwood forests to the coast.  The temperature was warm enough to put the top down, so I could easily smell the pungent evergreens as I drove through enormous stands.   Shafts of sunlight resembled overhead Klieg lights, illuminating some of the giant trees while keeping others in deep shadow. Route 199 terminates at Crescent City, California, just a few miles below the Oregon state line. And there, after visiting the harbor and watching commercial fishermen unload their catch, I started down US 101 for a coastline cruise to Fortuna.

The blurring of this image was unintentional, but gives a sense of speed. It was a fun drive!

Built and maintained by inmates of Pelican Bay State Prison, the mermaid statue at the Crescent City harbor is a popular attraction.

My schedule for the next day, Monday, called for an evening presentation at Copperfield’s Books in Napa. I had the whole day to get there from Fortuna, a distance of about 300 miles, but you know what they say about the best laid plans…

Thanks to some of my choices, the journey took more than seven hours; and for much of that span, I despaired of driving the poor Mustang to ruin.

The drive started out well enough as I wound through more redwood forests on US 101. I thought about taking US 1 at the famous “Drive-Thru Tree Park,” but was somewhat apprehensive about the warning signs regarding steep, winding roads for 22 miles. The brake repairs in Denver and the ignition repair in Susanville made me question the wisdom of driving a demanding road. So I continued on US 101 and took a different cutoff, CA-20, to the coast.  Little did I realize there was construction underway, which resulted in several stoppages. Also, numerous  tandem-trailer hopper trucks filled with asphalt crept slowly up the highway’s steep hills. It took well over an hour to cover just 30 miles.

Dwarfed by the redwoods–and these were nowhere near the biggest.

Once on US 1, I realized the wait was worth it: the coast of Northern California is mostly remote and wildly beautiful. The rocky shoreline was an attractive nuisance, making it hard to concentrate on the road—a two-lane filled with sharp curves and steep hills. After about 40 miles of following the coast, I realized that the slow pace would make it difficult to get to my hotel in Petaluma early enough to prepare for the event at Copperfield’s. This notion precipitated my second bad decision of the day.

Remote, but worth the drive for the beautiful shoreline scenery.

How many opportunities do we get to drive one of the country’s most scenic routes? There I was on US-1, worrying about my schedule, and I talked myself into crossing the mountains to gain access to US-101. Both my Garmin GPS and my Rand McNally printed atlas showed a connector near Manchester, CA, called Mountain View Road. It looked like a smooth road, so I turned east and figured I’d make up some time. Boy, was I in for a surprise. A few miles inland, I saw warning signs that mentioned steep, winding roads for the next 28 miles. In hindsight I should have turned around, but how was I to know that the warning signs were an understatement? The road snaked through remote and incredibly rugged mountains, with double-digit gradients and numerous switchback turns. I saw one road sign warning of a 16% grade—by far the steepest I’ve ever seen on a public highway. The pavement was extremely rough and patchy in places, and the unseasonably hot temperature, well in the 90s, put an additional strain on the Mustang. I could hear the engine protesting and feel the brakes going soft, and became seriously concerned about the torturous conditions I was putting my 45-year-old car through. I shifted the automatic into second gear for the slow climbs as well as the seatbelt-straining descents. At its most remote center section, the road was more of a goat track than a highway, and by the last few miles I was literally talking out loud to the old girl, coaxing her up each precipitous slope and down the opposite side. When I at last saw some residential properties and the road smoothed out again, I felt tremendous relief. I’m absolutely convinced that the Mustang did, too.

A one-lane bridge over a deep gorge in the coastal mountains of California highlights the ruggedness of the terrain.

We made it to Petaluma, where I had just enough time to get prepped for the evening’s event in Napa. I had a wonderful time meeting Drury “Mac”McCall, whom I had talked with and corresponded with for years, but never met face-to-face. We presented an informal discussion on Swashbucklers and Black Sheep, my new book on his famous Marine squadron, VMF-214, for a small but enthusiastic audience at Copperfield’s Books.

With Drury “Mac” Mcall, a former Swashbuckler of VMF-214, in Napa, CA.

The next day, I stayed in my hotel room to get caught up on work and pay a few bills electronically. But most of all, I wanted to give the Mustang a day of rest after putting her through the wringer. That afternoon, my only trip of the day was to a local carwash that offered hand-washing, drying, and a complete interior cleaning for just $25. The Mustang shined like a new penny, inside as well as out.

And I honestly believe that she performed better, thanks to her “spa day” in California. I’ve written before about the concept of machines having a mechanical soul. Maybe I just project my own emotions onto a hunk of steel–but then again, maybe not. If you’ll spend a few minutes reading my earlier posts and get to know the car’s history, I believe you’ll see the Mustang as I do.

Roll on!