July Fourth has long held extra significance for me, not just as the anniversary of our nation, but as the anniversary of my dad’s return from Vietnam, the very same summer Apollo 11 landed on the moon – 50 years ago? Oh, man! That was just yesterday!
That raccoon-faced, jungle-browned and sun-bleached stranger stepping off North Central Airlines in Minot, North Dakota? Like today!
Why so vivid? Well, having experienced it, there’s nothing like a family member’s safe return from combat. There’s real joy in no longer worrying about the alternative outcomes.
Actually, Dad’s (officially LTC William Bud Skinner, USAF-Retired) official DEROS, or Date of Estimated Return from Overseas, was July 3, but because Vietnam is on the other side of the world, he didn’t step off the plane in Minot until the afternoon of the Fourth.
One time, I told him happy Vietnam anniversary on Independence Day, and he replied, “No, kid, it was 3 July when we departed Tan Son Nhut,” which happens to be the moment most Vietnam veterans remember best. Thereafter, July Third became “Vietnam Day,” another excuse to commemorate good fortune.
So Dad and I were making plans for Vietnam Day and the Fourth. Shoot guns? A spin in the park? “Here, the Collings Foundation is bringing in some aircraft for the Fourth,” including a P-51 Mustang fighter.
Mustangs have always been a bucket list item of his. While Dad flew mostly Convair delta-wing F-102 and F-106 supersonic interceptors, as well as Cessna-built Forward Air Control O-1’s in Vietnam, North American built Mustangs, then produced F-86 Sabrejets and F-100 Super Sabres, both of which Dad flew operationally – a lot, alongside older World War II veteran fighter pilots who had flown and liked the Mustang, a lot.
Several years prior, Dad booked a Collings Mustang ride but got weathered out by a wall of thunderstorms. “Hey, it’ll be your 50th Vietnam Day.” He asked me to check out the airplane’s specs: Factory-built trainer, the best possible option. “Golden anniversary, Dad, drop that gold!” He did. Now what?
“What are you going to wear?” “What do you mean?” “You have a bazillion flight suits in the closet, and I bet they all still fit!” “Pick the best one,” which turned out to be his glowing orange 178th ANG Happy Hooligans getup. Based at Malmstrom after Vietnam, Dad was Air Defense Command liaison officer to the Air National Guard Hooligans at Grand Forks, North Dakota, his final flying assignment before taking command of Kalispell Air Force Station at Lakeside (the radar base on Blacktail Mountain). On top of that, his flight jacket. Snazzy!
“Hey, Dad, this counts as ‘instructed flight time.’ Got a logbook?” “It’s in the Pentagon.” “How about Grandpa John’s logbook?” “That’ll work.” Grandpa John’s last flight was in 1935, when Dad was a 1-year-old.
What else? A camera. Visit an aviation family, and the biggest and best picture isn’t the family at Disneyland. The favored subject is often “ME with the FZ-94 Zoomenboomer.” If the airplane is flying, that adds to the size and placement. Taken from another aircraft? Gilt frame! Upside down? Wall mural!
So, to score enough points, I needed a “chase plane,” and knew just where to find one. Ray Thompson had hit it off with Dad the last time Collings brought their toys. I asked, Ray answered with pilot Frank Hale and the yellow Harvard T-6, another North American product, at a bargain price. We were set to fly on the Fourth of July.
Well, as often happens, mechanicals and weather delayed events a full day. Finally, Dad got Grandpa’s logbook signed, and I got a shot worthy of a gilt frame. It’s great.
But the delays made for a golden Fourth. Dad’s snazzy fashion ensemble got about as much attention as a puppy in a roomful of kids. The “kids” were all ages, of course, hearing the stories I know by heart for the first time. In their faces, I could see how mine might have looked so long ago. In Dad’s, I saw the faces of his comrades, like it was just yesterday.