Fly Boys

James Parks has assembled the world's finest squadron of pilots. They flew their last mission eighty years ago.

When Andy Parks was growing up, once or twice a year his family would leave their home in Parker and fly to California or Florida or New York or Germany. Parks's father, James, a busy obstetrician and gynecologist, was flexible on these vacation destinations. Anywhere was fine with him--with one important stipulation. Wherever the Parks family traveled, there had to be a World War I pilot nearby.

By the time the family arrived at their destination, James Parks had already set up a visit with the local airman. Most were in their seventies and eighties, and so he--either alone or with his son Andy--would stop by the house or hospital bed and chat. And chat and chat and chat.

"We would sit down, and he would begin right away," Andy recalls. "'How did you get into the war? Why?' Because you have to remember that for most of these guys--the Americans, anyway--fighting was voluntary. The U.S. didn't get officially involved until very late in the war.

"His bedside manner as a physician came through. He was always polite and considerate. And he had studied up on these guys. He would basically know the complete history of the person; he had an amazing mind, and if he was interested, he could recall huge stores of information. So they could begin talking on very intimate terms almost immediately."

James Parks taped the conversations on an old Wallensak reel-to-reel recorder. They varied greatly in length. Derek Jason, a former mechanic for the 138th Aero squadron, talked for about twenty minutes. Henry Forester reminisced with Parks over the course of both sides of two long-play tapes. (When he died in 1989, Forester was the last remaining member of the famed Lafayette Flying Corps, Americans who joined the war effort before this country officially entered.)

In all, Parks's collection would grow to 63 audio tapes, carrying the scratchy and distant voices of 200 of the world's first pilots and air observers. They had flown for America (Cecil Fauntleroy, who served with America's deadliest ace, Eddie Rickenbacker) and Germany (the grimly efficient Josef Jacobs, with 48 confirmed kills; off-duty he preferred wearing fancy furs), as well as for Italy, Canada and Britain.

Often the pilots would become fast friends with James Parks. At the very least, the doctor gained the trust of the old aviators, and as the years went by, many willed their war souvenirs to him or simply gave him the stuff when their conversations were over--photos and diaries and flight logs and personal letters to their fathers and mothers and girlfriends; the French Croix de Guerre and the American Bronze Star and the German Blue Cross medals; their long woolen jackets and flappy jodhpurs and high leather boots, and the stiff, thick leather helmets that passed as a pilot's head protection a half-century earlier.

At first the mementos hung in a large, wood-paneled room in James Parks's basement, a quiet, private place where he would go to read and study and simply wander among the memories, revisiting a photo or letter, running his fingers down the front of an old uniform. But then the doctor got the idea of reincarnating the pilots he had met and befriended, resurrecting from the past the eighteen-, nineteen- and twenty-year-old boys who'd stepped into the frail, biwinged Nieuport 28s or versatile Sopwiths, the box-nosed Fokkers, the stout SPADs.

He would manufacture them from the outside in, from the things they'd left behind.

In 1978, after a tour of duty with the Army in Germany, Stephen Lawson returned to Denver. His plane touched down at Stapleton. As he entered the terminal, he spotted a sky-blue Fokker D-VII biplane, the magnificent aircraft built by the Germans too late to help them at the end of the war. James Parks, who'd constructed the replica from scratch over the course of eight years, was giving an interview next to the plane. Lawson introduced himself and offered his services.

Today Lawson lives in a small single-story house in Littleton, a couple of miles from the Federal Correctional Institution, where he works as a prison guard. Most of the walls in the house are dedicated to photos and mementos of Lawson's family. But at the foot of the stairs to the basement is his own personal wall of fame: a cluster of awards and plaques and ribbons he's earned for his model-building hobby.

Next to this is his private desk, eight decades and worlds away from family and work. It is topped with a complete collection of Cross & Cockade, the magazine of the First World War Aviation Historical Society, and three miniature busts: of Ernest Udet, the highest-scoring ace who survived the war (62 kills), Rickenbacker and Richthofen.

It was Richthofen who got Lawson interested in WWI aviation--via Charles Schultz. "'Peanuts' was about kids at first, but then suddenly here was a beagle with goggles," Lawson says. "I wondered who this Red Baron you never saw was." First as a teenager and then as an adult, Lawson pursued Richthofen, absorbing all he could learn about the pilot; later, he studied about other aviators who pioneered flying in the Great War.

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