Tuesday, May 26, 2009
Some characters we simply remember; others leave an indelible mark
|At the risk of making this page an obituary for passing friends, let me say this: There’s absolutely no way we can let the passing of Harry Shepard go without saying something, if not profound, at least irreverent. Because that was Harry—a little profound, a lot irreverent and massively talented.|
READY, PULL! Harry in his element, leading the Redhawks on the backside of a line-abreast loop.
At the risk of making this page an obituary for passing friends, let me say this: There’s absolutely no way we can let the passing of Harry Shepard go without saying something, if not profound, at least irreverent. Because that was Harry—a little profound, a lot irreverent and massively talented.
Harry was something of a wildly cultured, wildly talented junkyard dog. And a fighter pilot through and through. He also was my first introduction to an aviation giant. We were in our very late 20s or early 30s when we met. He was just out of the Navy and flying 74s for Pan Am. But the job was nothing more than something that kept him away from what he truly loved and excelled at—edge-of-the-envelope aviating, especially formation aerobatics.
He had been an F-8 Crusader pilot and, as is the case with most Crusader pilots (“when you’re out of F-8s, you’re out of fighters”), he sorely missed it. He was so anti-authority, however, that I can only imagine how he struggled within the constraints that squadron service represented. But he put up with it so he could look down that catapult rail and know that he was one of only a few who could claim the title “Crusader pilot.” He lived to get the gear in the wells; everything else was a major annoyance. And that’s pretty much how I saw him: He was grossly out of place on the ground because he didn’t belong there. Nonaviators around him knew it; he tolerated them, but barely.
Harry was perfection personified—in the way he lived, in the way he flew and in the way he saw the world. Which was both a good thing and a bad thing. I always was afraid I’d leave a fingerprint on his Marchetti SF.260 while helping him push it out. When he came over for BBQs, he brought his own wine and his own hamburger. He owned only the best and did his best not to associate with anything less. Still, somehow, he didn’t come off as an elitist. He had his own way of seeing things, but didn’t expect anyone else to agree. He lived the way he wanted to live, and just wanted to be left alone.
To some it was annoying, but to those who knew him and flew with him, his annoyances were a form of entertainment: When you’re that good at something, people overlook your foibles. It was entertaining to see him careen down the dirt road at the end of the runway in his hopped-up Z-car, jump out, slam the door, his eyes on fire, his head down as he stomped to the hangar where he pulled his airplane out and went ripping down the runway. He was obviously pissed. He had just returned from an airline trip and needed an av-fix to clear out the mental dirt that associating with the world had left behind. The Harry who got out of the airplane a half-hour later was a different Harry—warm, congenial, relaxed.