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Fly Boys

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.

 

In the twenty years since he bumped into Parks, Lawson has assisted the doctor in arranging and caring for his vast collection of memorabilia. Last year, when the doors in Parks's mind began closing and he began losing his memory, Lawson became indispensable, not only as a contact and intermediary for anyone interested in looking through the collection, but as the one person who could quickly find a particular letter or photograph.

Yet Lawson will tell you that the thousands and thousands of hours he has invested in James Parks's World War I collection have paid off for him, too. "These guys are his heroes," explains Andy Parks, "and he's able to touch them through the uniforms they wore."

"We are dealing with a group of individuals who were pioneering a completely new concept in warfare--let alone a virtually completely new concept in technology," says Trevor Henshaw, the British author of The Sky Their Battlefield, a recently published history of World War I aviators. "They were notably brave and courageous to do this, and needed to be very inventive and adaptable as well.

"The ground war in the 1914-1918 conflict still weighs heavily on the world's conscience, even after eighty years," he continues. "It was a terrible atrocity, and the way it reverberates down the years is but a small tribute to the bravery of an entire generation who saw their way through it. The air war was maybe just a little cleaner and a little more dignified. They also had to be much more self-reliant in the air in comparison with other combatants. They fought the war as individuals."

A particular individual planted the seed that would later grow into James Parks's infatuation with WWI fliers. It happened twelve years before Parks was born.

In 1917, Leland Francis Smith was working as a mechanic in an American Expeditionary Force squadron in France. The flying contingent of the AEF was largely made up of old French planes, in particular the fragile Nieuport 28s (the fabric on the top wing had a tendency to rip off during prolonged dives). France had already upgraded to the stronger SPADs, and one day a French ace flew one of the new planes into the aerodrome where Smith was working.

As he looked over the sturdy plane, Smith noticed that a small hole had been torn through the machine's fuselage. Unable to find the pilot to warn him, he left a note on the plane's joystick. The following morning, while it was still dark, Smith was shaken awake by the French airman, who thanked him for saving his life. The pilot removed the military medal hanging from his tunic, pinned it on Smith, kissed him on both cheeks and left.

Smith kept the medal. Fifteen years later, during the Depression, the former mechanic fell on hard times and found himself working as a live-in caretaker at a sprawling, 22-room boardinghouse in Rapid City, South Dakota. The former home of the Episcopalian bishop of the Dakota Territory was now owned and operated by the Parks family. Smith eventually landed a job with Northrop Aircraft; just before leaving, he gave the medal to young James Parks.

Through high school in California, college in Minnesota, and a Ph.D. and M.D. at Johns Hopkins University, Parks kept adding to his WWI acquisitions. He gathered the graceful and polished ash-wood propellers that pulled the delicate biplanes, and the Spandau .303-caliber machine guns mounted on their noses. He collected the brightly colored fabric emblems that emblazoned the planes' wings and identified their squadrons: the 13th Aero's "Grim Reaper," the 138th's "Charging Ram," the 94th's "Hat-in-the-Ring," the 95th's "Kicking Mule," the 147th's "Who Said Rats?" and the 91st's "Jousting Down the Devil."

He piled up box after box of bug-eyed goggles, engraved walking sticks and medals. He snapped up copies of popular films about WWI aviators and stored them in hubcap-sized silver medal canisters. He memorized the dialogue in The Dawn Patrol and We Dive at Dawn.

But in 1967, when Parks took his family to Germany, where he had taken a post as an exchange medical professor at the University of Munich, the substance of his collection began to change. "While there, he had the opportunity to meet many of these aviators," says Andy. "He tracked them down through people he knew, or by reading about them. At the time, there wasn't much interest in World War I, so these guys were always thrilled to have someone so concerned about them."

 

The men impressed Parks, too, and he focused his obsession, gathering items not just from soldiers and airmen and battles of the Great War, but now from particular individuals, men with faces and histories and personalities. He wanted to know what they looked like, what they wore, what they thought and felt. He wanted to talk to them and the people who knew them.

Parks tracked down the son, daughter, brother and squadron mates of Lieutenant Wilbur White, one of America's aces (five confirmed kills make an ace; White had seven or eight--accounts differ). He interviewed them for hours, pressing them for details. Parks's collection contains a photograph of White, a New York City native and classics scholar, with his son, daughter and wife just before he left for France. He had a broad baby face and a wide mouth.

"No doubt you will be somewhat surprised at this letter," White wrote to his uncle on June 24, 1917. "I am applying for admission in the Officer's Reserve Corps of the Aviation Service. We went over the question pretty thoroughly and decided it is the thing to do."

There is another picture of White at Camp Hicks, Texas, where he finished his training. He looks suddenly older, a thick-faced man dressed in a thigh-length leather coat, broad belt and goggles. "Life to me now is a lot more serious matter than it ever has been before," he wrote to his father on January 26, 1918.

"I realize that I've something to live for, and if necessary to die for, and I'm fully prepared to do either," he added. "If God wills that I come through this war with my senses, I'm going to do a lot of things I was never thinking of before. And, if I'm not to get back, well, I will at least have given my life for the right. It is a great war we're in, Father, a wonderful war; a war between right and wrong, and I'm in it heart and soul to the end."

On October 10, 1918, White left on an afternoon patrol. The captain of the 147th, American ace of aces Eddie Rickenbacker (28 kills), later recounted that at 3:40 p.m., the squadron was approached by a group of eleven German Fokkers "flying in beautiful formation." White was leading the 147th in French-built SPADs.

After dropping underneath and then effortlessly machine-gunning down one of the Fokker pilots, Rickenbacker turned his attention to the other planes. "The picture of it has haunted my dreams many nights since," he later wrote.

"The Fokker leader had taken on the rear SPAD in White's formation when White zoomed up into a half turn, executed a reversement and came back at the Hun leader to protect his pilot from a certain death. White's maneuver occupied but an instant. He came out of his swoop and made a direct plunge for the enemy machine, which was just getting in line on the rear SPAD's tail. Without firing a shot the heroic White rammed the Fokker head on while the two machines were approaching each other at the rate of 250 miles an hour.

"It was a horrible yet thrilling sight. The two machines actually telescoped each other, so violent was the impact. Wings went through wings and at first glance both the Fokker and SPAD seemed to disintegrate. Fragments filled the air for a moment, then the two broken fuselages, bound together by the terrific collision, fell swiftly down and landed in one heap on the bank of the Meuse."

On November 20, Captain James Meissner, commanding officer of the 147th, composed a letter to Elsie White in an elegant script on a now-fading and cracking yellow page. "Your husband was the bravest flyer I've ever seen," he wrote. "In all his combats his last thought was of himself...It was a true Spartan's end that must be your comfort. My deepest sympathy goes out to you and your children (whose pictures he had proudly shown us)...You have given everything to your country, and it is because you have sent the spirit of your patriotism across to him that he has been the fighter we all so respected and loved."

A faded and overexposed photo in Parks's archives shows a corner of what appears to be an open field ringed with scrub trees. It was taken by Dr. Wilbert White, the lieutenant's father, in April 1919, when he traveled to Dunsur-Meuse to see if he could find the remains of his son's plane. There is an X scratched onto the photo, identifying for his wife the place where, after four days of searching, he finally found his boy's unidentified grave under a heap of tangled wire.

 

Frank Luke Jr. also died in the war. Buried in one of dozens of Parks's stacked cardboard boxes is an affidavit, dated January 15, 1919, from two French officials who had witnessed his death three months earlier, on September 29. The Arizona-born Luke, known as "the sausage killer" for his fervor for shooting down German balloons, was himself cut down by gunfire while walking away from his plane following a dogfight.

Crammed into one of Parks's two dozen file cabinets are taped discussions with Ken Porter, the 147th's baby-faced ace who was to become the Colorado doctor's close friend, and Douglas Campbell, Rickenbacker's sidekick. Parks traveled to Indiana to interview and tape Elliott Cowdin, a square-jawed man who joined the French before America's involvement. He flew to California to talk with David Lewis, a diminutive, determined man who started the war as an ambulance driver and ended it as a pilot.

He gently drew memories from Alfred Gerstenberg, a pilot and close friend of Manfred von Richthofen--the Red Baron--as he lay in a Heidelberg hospital bed dying of throat cancer. He recorded his discussions of flying with Stephan Koltari and Anton von Boskey, airmen in the Austro-Hungarian air force, and traded stories with Gustave Lefkis, a German ace who--amazing luck--turned out to live down the road from Parks when he taught in Munich.

He tracked down the widow of one of Colorado's two WWI aces, Jerry Vasconcells. (The other was Frederick Libby, of Sterling, who flew for the French and was known as "The Flying Buckaroo.") Following several lengthy interviews with Parks at her home in Colorado Springs, Vasconcells's widow gave him her husband's uniform and medals, flying gloves, helmet and walking stick, as well as personal letters and photos that he'd sent to her and their children. His flight log, a stiff, pocket-sized diary of his day-to-day flying activity, is written in a cramped but neat hand, hinting at a man of supreme organization and detail.

Parks took the men's personal effects home, where he catalogued them. He hung the uniforms on his basement walls. Occasionally, when he attended a gathering of other WWI aviation aficionados, he would wear one of the old outfits himself. That gave him an idea.

Sometime in the early 1970s, Parks decided to reconstruct the former pilots from the accumulated stuff of their lives. He contacted a friend who dealt in used mannequins. Parks would send him photographs of a pilot, and the man would search for a mannequin that resembled him. An artist in Wyoming, also working from Parks's photos, painted the faces to match the young pilots.

Then Parks would re-create each pilot he'd interviewed, 45 in all, dressing the mannequins in their original uniforms, decked out in their original medals, their lives as young men fleshed out by photos and letters and logs and diaries. Parks called the effigies "my boys."

During the years that followed, some of the old pilots would visit Parks's basement, and when they walked into the room they would see themselves across a distance of a half-century and shake their heads and say, "That's me! That's me."

In 1981, in Paris, and then again in 1983, in Colorado Springs, Parks called on his connections developed over a quarter-century and arranged reunions for surviving WWI pilots. Andy Parks remembers meeting the men, most of whose backgrounds he had already memorized, like a spy absorbing the details of a dossier.

"By the time I was able to meet these men, they were very old," he says. "But there was still a certain character that was consistent amongst all of them that carried through. Even when I met them, I knew why they were pilots."

Stephen Lawson wanders slowly through Parks's mannequins, straightening a hat, picking lint off a jacket, smoothing the ribbon on a medal. He can recite the personal and martial histories of every pilot represented--the epic sky battles they fought, the number of enemy pilots they shot down, where they died. Who they left behind.

But Lawson's quiet tours through the collection are becoming increasingly rare. Two years ago his youngest son was diagnosed with leukemia. "Do you want to know what it's like to be told one of your children has cancer?" he asks. "It's like someone had reached down your throat and grabbed on to your insides and then just yanked. It's the worst feeling in the world."

Insurance hasn't come close to covering all of the medical expenses, so Lawson has taken a second job to pay the bills. After leaving the penitentiary at midnight, he returns home for a quick nap. A few hours later he heads to a nearby department store, where he unloads merchandise at the dock until 10 a.m.; at 4 p.m. it's back to the prison.

 

When life seems particularly difficult, Lawson says, he turns to his family--wife, four sons and one daughter--to keep him going. "They are the better part of me," he says. But he also summons inspiration from Parks's pilots.

"These guys were real," he explains, "and what they did was more than just killing someone else. The characteristic they had that I find lacking today is integrity--they wouldn't lie to you to sell their souls. Today we don't want to be responsible for our actions. I see it every day in my job: 'I didn't do it, it's not my fault, I wasn't there.' Where I work, people don't take responsibility for what they do, and integrity is scoffed at. A person with integrity pretty much stands alone.

"But these pilots did their jobs and came back home and became teachers and businessmen again. They built a moral foundation for the next generation. When my life seems difficult, I think of them.

"The men represented in Dr. Parks's collection faced nerve gas on the ground, and in the air they were in constant danger of getting shot. They lived through one of the worst atrocities man could inflict on himself, and they came out intact. I find here individuals who faced danger and who came home and led decent lives. There were no gangsters, no pathological crazies.

"Don't get me wrong," Lawson concludes. "There were people who came back from the war and who weren't successful, who turned to drugs and who committed suicide. But they're not represented here. You won't find any of them in this collection."

Two years ago James Parks's wife of 47 years died. Recently, he has developed symptoms similar to those associated with Alzheimer's disease; he relies on his son and Lawson to pass on his stories. Last year, after selling his Parker home, he packed up his war collection. It took seven people a week and a half to move the accumulated material from the basement museum.

Those who study WWI artifacts believe Parks's assemblage of pilots is unique in the world. "The fact that each of these models is an individual person is extraordinary," says Neal O'Connor, president of the Foundation for World War I Aviation, which is based in Princeton, New Jersey. "Not to mention that it's probably the largest privately held uniform collection in the world."

"He has as complete a collection of uniforms as I've ever seen," agrees Larry Soll, curator for the History of Aviation Collection at the University of Texas at Dallas. "And the fact that so many things he's gathered are about particular individuals is unique--these are not just anonymous artifacts. I know of no other collection like that in the world."

Years ago, as his basement filled, Parks envisioned his collection ending up at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. But a succession of different commanders there made negotiations difficult, so Parks approached Wings Over the Rockies, at the old Lowry Air Force Base.

"We were a backup," concedes Ronald Smith, the museum's president. "But we feel very fortunate to have gotten it. All the uniforms are original, worn by representations of the people who actually used them and fought. It's a world-class exhibit."

At first the museum dedicated a single room to Parks's assembled memories. Now, after grasping the full size and breadth of the collection, it has set aside two other rooms, plus storage space upstairs that is crammed with unorganized papers, photos and artifacts that will someday be open to researchers.

The exhibit of James Parks's World War I pilots is scheduled to open this June.


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