Tell me again why I didn’t join the Air Force?

I’m not sure why I never became a fighter pilot because when I was a kid that is all I dreamed of becoming.  From the ceiling that my brother Tommy and I shared hung models of every fighter plane imaginable dating from World War 1.  P-51D’s shared airspace with Fokker Triplanes and F- 101 Voodoo’s.  An F4U Corsair rolled in on an F-86 Saber, a Sopwith Pup diced with an F-4 Phantom and a Mitsubishi Zero dove away from an entire squadron of A-4 Skyhawks in Blue Angels livery flying a tight diamond formation.  My favorite fighter though was a silver North American F-100 Super Saber because that was the type of plane that Mr. Al flew.  Al Baham, like my father was an attorney.  An occupation that at the time I considered was the height of boredom.  All my Dad seemed to do was chase paper.  Briefcases full of the stuff!  Al Baham was likewise an attorney but Al Baham was also a fighter pilot.  Al flew for the Air National Guard, specifically the 159th Tactical Fighter Group, based at Belle Chasse NAS near New Orleans and he flew the North American F-100 Super Sabre.

For me and my brother, a visit from Mr. Al was akin to having Saints quarterback Archie Manning over for supper.  Tommy & I hung on his every word, asking him questions such as what was it like going faster than your own voice, did his F-100 have a name, have you ever shot down any Russians or had he ever had to bail out of an airplane?  Up we would go to our bedroom so Mr. Al could examine our latest modeling efforts.  “You boys have been busy because I think I see a few new ones”, he would say.  Naturally his favorite was also the F-100.  “What color is your Super Saber, Mr. Al?  Do you have your girl friend’s name painted on the nose of your airplane, Mr. Al?”   Eventually Mr. Al would excuse himself because he had to talk boring lawyer business with Dad.  When Mr. Al would leave, Tommy & I would demand to know when he would return.

“Soon, boys, very soon.”

“Will you bring us a picture of your airplane, please, Mr. Al?”

One Saturday morning about breakfast time my Dad tells me and my brother that Mr. Al is coming by that very morning.  “What time will Mr. Al get here?”  We demanded.  Dad looked at his watch and says that Mr. Al will get here at precisely ten a.m.

“Wow, Dad, how long will he be here? Will he have any pictures of his F-100?  Can he stay and tell us some stories?”  Dad said that Mr. Al is only coming by for a very short visit and that he would not be able to stay very long but even a short visit from Mr. Al was better than none at all.

About five minutes before ten my Dad came and got Tommy & I from our Saturday morning routine and suggested that we wait for Mr. Al on the front yard, after all it was a beautiful morning with hardly any clouds in the sky.  As we bounced around on the front yard waiting for Mr. Al to pull up Tommy and I bragged about the airplanes that we would one day fly for the Navy or Air Force.  “I’m going to have my own F-4 and will take it to the grocery store” said my brother.  “You big dummy, you can’t take an F-4 to a grocery store; you’re gonna need a helicopter so you can land it in the parking lot!”  It was about then that Dad looked at his watch and said to us that Mr. Al would be here any second.  We ran to the edge of the street and looked up and down but didn’t see his car.   “Any second now boys” said my Dad as he put his arms around us.  “Here he comes now.”

Imagine you’re standing near a train track as a train approaches.  The train rumbles, its whistle blows, the ground shakes, metal grinds and squeaks and the train looks like it’s moving fast even though it may be travelling a paltry 35 miles an hour..  An airplane moving through a cloudless sky, traveling near the speed of sound doesn’t appear that fast because there is no sense of speed: no rumbling, no squeaking or shaking, until it passes by and all hell breaks loose.

My Dad points to the sky, to our right about 30 degrees above the horizon and there in all it’s polished aluminum glory was Al Baham and his F-100 Super Saber, moving silently through the sky.  Tommy and I are stunned and speechless as only little kids can be when coming face to face with Super Man.  In a blink Mr. Al has flown past and brought with him a hurricane of sound and cascading shock waves that send all of our friends Moms running out of their houses looking around in fright and disbelief.  Mr. Al pulls up, climbs to about 4,000 feet, rolls over and catches the sun on his wings then disappears over the horizon.  Me and Tommy are dancing in our yard, hands up screaming and waving and telling everyone that has gathered “that’s our best friend, Mr. Al the fighter pilot.”  Now from our right Mr. Al is flying past again but this time he has slowed down considerably and has slightly banked to his left and there in the cockpit, bigger than life is Al Baham, attorney and fighter pilot and he is smiling waving at me and Tommy and he’s so low we can see his smile.  He rocks the wings of his F-100 and accelerates as he flies past, flames leaping from the exhaust as the afterburner ignites and in no time the other kids are asking who was that man and is he really your friend and you’re kidding he’s actually been in your room, your very own room!

I never recovered from that visit.  I just knew that I would be a fighter pilot just like Al Baham.  By the time I started college however, everyone in my family assumed I would go to Law School.  Working in restaurants to pay my rent eventually steered me to culinary school and a successful career in food; but when an airplane flies overhead, my son and I both have our eyes pointed skyward.

  • Julia Rachel Barrett
    Posted at 12:34h, 09 February

    What a perfect story! Your dad and Mr. Al gave you such a gift!

  • Barbara | Creative Culinary
    Posted at 12:35h, 09 February

    What a charming story and one I can identify with. I might have a fighter pilot hero in my family. My dad:

  • Kevin Hanrahan
    Posted at 13:48h, 09 February

    Great story John. I knew I wanted to be a Soldier the day my Dad returned home from Desert Storm…… I wanted to be just like him!

  • David Jenkins
    Posted at 14:31h, 29 February

    I am moved by your story –

    It was the end of summer in 1958. I had just finished a summer “up North” between my freshman and sophomore years and was getting ready to head back to Florida. I had just turned the ripe old age of 19. I was sitting in the living room of a friend who had been a neighbor back when my parents lived in New Jersey. It was a Sunday in either late August or early September.

    As I recall, our conversation went something like this. “….so, Larry, what are you doing tomorrow? “ “I’m going to take the test to become an Air Force pilot” he replied. “I have nothing better to do”, I said, “I think I will go with you”.

    We went – I passed all three batteries of exams – he didn’t. He became a police officer and I went back to school. About May 1, 1959, I received notice that I should go to a recruiting office for induction into the Air Force – I had been accepted into the pilot training class commencing in late May – and proceed to Lackland AFB in Texas. I didn’t know a thing about how long it would take, where I would go, what I would fly or anything else.

    I proceeded to the recruiting office in Jacksonville, Fl, raised my right hand and said the requisite “I will, I do’ So Help Me God’s” and so on – and then proceeded to Lackland, joined others who had just arrived, and the rest is history. I was in class 60B (Bravo if you prefer), whatever that meant. I was so dumb and naive it almost hurt.

    With the Air Force and the Guard, I flew just less than 3000 hours. The aircraft I flew were the T-34, T-28, T-33, RC-121, C-121 and the F-84. I loved them all in different ways.

    With Pan Am I flew the DC-6, Boeing 707, 720, 727, 747, 747SP and the Lockheed 1011. I Flew as a Flight Engineer, First Officer and Captain. With Delta Air Lines I flew the Boeing 727, 737, 757, 767 and the Lockheed L-1011. Again, I flew as an Engineer, First Officer and Captain. I loved the B-747 for where it went – and the B-757 because it was such a sweet airplane to fly.

    My various bases of assignment were Hong Kong, New York JFK, Berlin Tempelhof and Tegel, Miami, Los Angeles, Honolulu, Atlanta, and Cincinnati.

    My flying encompassed both domestic and international flying with most of it being international. My last eight years with Pan Am were spent in the Pan Am Training Academy where I served as an instructor and check airman on the B-747 and the B-727. I became the Director of Flight Training and Standards and was responsible for all ground and simulator training.

    I turned 60 in August 1998, which ended my flying as a pilot. I remained as a Flight Engineer for a little more than a year and then retired. I miss it all in the biggest of ways.

    My wife and I started a retail gift business, had seven successful stores in the Atlanta area at one point and called it quits after ten years. We love cruising and have been blessed to be able to do so quite often. We visit our kids, attend reunions from time to time and generally are enjoying life in beautiful South Carolina.

    The older I get the more often I look up on a clear day and see the contrails going North and South, East and West wishing I were young again and up there with them. But alas, such is not the case. I just say “Thank You God” for prompting me to say, “I have nothing better to do – I think I will go with you.”

    David H. Jenkins

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