The green fields, most looking as if you could land a 747 on them, stretched off into the distance, where they became low, gently rolling hills. It was Butler County in northeast Nebraska, and I was on the way to Columbus to scratch a long-time personal itch: I wanted to say thanks to an old pilot to whom I owed a lot. Except, when I knew him, neither of us were pilots. He had been. I would be.
Most of us see our high-school years as a mixture of memories and emotions, most good, a few bad, some more vivid than others. Some of them had long-lasting effects that stayed with us regardless of the years between. I'm class of 1960, so there are a helluva lot of years between high school and me. Still, for all those years, I've had a nagging urge to thank one of my old teachers, Fred "Bud" Deeds, for what he contributed to the path that eventually became my life.
Thanking Deeds was one of those gonna-do-it-someday types of things that flitted around the edges of my mind, but somehow never got done. Every time I thought about it, something came up. You know how that works. Then, I heard that Fred Deeds had passed away—he would have been a little past 80 years old—and I kicked myself.
Dammit! I'd done it again. I've let another thank-you slide down the drain because of unimportant excuses.
Fred Deeds was important to me, not because he was my science teacher all the way through high school, but because he had been a Mustang pilot in WWII, and through him, the sparks of my interest in aviation were fanned and grew into full-blown flames. Plus, it was through his connection with historical events that my ingrained interest in all things historic was inadvertently ignited and nurtured.
Deeds had been a member of the famous 354th Fighter Group, the Pioneer Mustang Group, that first took the Mustang into combat in 1943, and we often talked about those dramatic years.
One of the most memorable times was when he brought out his 354th yearbook. It was like a high-school yearbook, with photos of many I recognized, including Don Beerbower. He was the leading ace of the Ninth Air Force, when knocked down by AAA during a strafing run. Deeds was on his wing at the time. The memory is seared in his brain.
The mothball smell of the yearbook; his words about this pilot or that; his comments about the P-51B; his retelling of how, as a wingman, he came to be credited with half a kill, the other half being Beerbower's—all stuck with me through the years. But then I heard he was gone, and I couldn't thank him. Dammit!
A few months ago, I asked a writer who's doing a book on Beerbower to do an article on the triple-ace for my magazine, Flight Journal. A couple of weeks after that, he hit me with some incredibly surprising news:
He had called the number listed for Deeds and was talking to Dolores Deeds, Bud's wife, asking her questions about Bud's military service. Partway into the conversation, she said, "Why don't you ask my husband? He's right here." Bud Deeds was still alive! And in amazingly good health, considering the miles and the years! You could have knocked us both over with a feather.
Within minutes of getting that news, I decided that no matter what, I wasn't going to let this opportunity slip through my fingers again: I made airline reservations to head for Nebraska. I returned from that trip only a few days ago.
When I pulled into the little retirement village and parked my car, Dolores and Bud Deeds were already out on their patio. The short walk across the grass from the parking lot spanned 51 years, and I once again shook the hand of Fred "Bud" Deeds.
We spent the next two or three hours covering a wide range of subjects, but right up front, I said what I had come to say. "Thank you for taking the time to talk to me at a time when I seriously needed talking to."
In high school, I had been a whole lot less than a serious, or easy, student. Although I wasn't necessarily a delinquent, my fast mouth and don't-give-a-damned attitude toward schoolwork and authority didn't endear me to the faculty. Or anyone else, for that matter. I had a lot of growing up to do. Even so, for whatever reason, I was obsessed with aviation and, in fact, started taking flying lessons 30 miles away, while still a junior. A lot of bus riding, scooter driving and hitchhiking were involved.
Deeds must have thought me salvageable because he took the time to talk to me about something he also loved: flying. In fact, even then, I could sense that he really missed those years and, through his talks with me, he could reconnect with them just a little. Even sitting there in their tidy living room, a half century after our last conversation, his enthusiasm for his years as a fighter pilot was clearly evident. Right then, I realized that it's entirely possible to be an ex-pilot, but I don't think it's possible to be an ex-fighter pilot. At some level—in your soul—once you were a fighter pilot, you still are.
As our morning drew to a close, I once again tried to thank him, but the lump in my throat made me fumble the words. I can't exactly explain why, but it was an emotional moment for me. Maybe because it had been so long coming. Maybe because I was standing there, revisiting a time back when my life was just beginning to sprout. The concept was just a little bit humbling.
So, now I've said my thank-you, and I can't tell you what a load that is off my shoulders. It doesn't totally make up for those thank-yous that I didn't get to say to others, but it sure helps. There's a lesson here for every one of us, and I mention it often: Second chances to say thank you don't come around often. So, do it the first chance you get.