15 May, 2012

Final Flight - Don S. Bryan

That's Don Bryan, devoted husband, lovable crank, brilliant philosopher and WW2 ace.  And that's a little girl in a crowd at a 352nd Fighter Group reunion a few years ago.

I'll let you in on the back story.

We were at a Georgia airport where the Veterans had gathered to see P-51 Mustangs decorated in their signature blue-nosed markings.  Like many of these events, a crowd of "groupies" showed up, hoping for autographs and handshakes...and Don loved to play along.

Now... there were two things about Don that I had noticed.  One, for all the back slapping, joke telling and roaring stories, that he could attract, he was smart - whip smart.  How I learned that is another story but for now, imagine an Old Western movie where the bad guy draws on a distracted sheriff only to have his gun suddenly shot away by the sheriff's lightning-like reflex; "Son. You'd better know who you're trying to shoot before you shoot."  That sheriff would be Don.

The other thing about Don was that he defined the phrase "straight shooter."  Though cat-clever, he had no guile. If he said it, he meant it.  I got the impression that to him, anything less than "the way it is" was somehow not completely true and therefore, a lie.

Bah...I could write forever on Don Bryan.  For now, I'll just state this - he's awesome.

Anyway, back to the picture.   Don had made his way around the Ramp, shaking hands, laughing loudly and eventually came upon the little girl.  In "Grumpy Grandpa" character,  he put his hands on his hips, narrowed his eyes and roared, "And who are YOU?!"

Don had been carrying that video camera and as he pretended to start recording, (and put a little good-natured fright into the kid)  the girl got on her toes and growled, "I'm Abbie. And I'm going to be an Astronaut.  Who are YOU!?"

"You're...'  He stammered, voice crackling with incredulity. "You're what!?"

She admonished with a slap of disgust, "I'm going to Mars and you know who I am!" See, she'd met Don the night before at the Reunion hotel.  Was even tickled.  And Don, in his gregarious glad-handing, momentarily forgot that kids have even less tolerance to BS than he did himself.

She simply stopped the man cold.

"Yes.  Yes you did, Abbie." The character came off.  "Here.  You film me."  He gave her the camera.  "I want to be filmed by an Astronaut."

That's about when I took the picture.

It's really just a cute story that probably has little worth to anyone outside of me and my wife because the little girl is my daughter.

But I have to say this - over the years, Don remembered, "His little astronaut" at Christmas, in emails, letters...encouraging her to rise to her dreams and achieve her goal.  He let me know in no uncertain terms.  "John, she's in a world where she can be an astronaut!  And if she can, she must."

Don's encouragement hasn't been lost on Abbie.   Hanging in her room, there's a box-shaped spaceship that, a couple grades ago, she made for a school project.  It looks about what you'd expect a home-made spaceship made from a cardboard box would look like except it has a blue top and is named "Little One...IV"

Don was one of the first WW2 pilots I interviewed,  My ancient art of his P-51 is below - "Little One III" - and named for his wife, Francis.

Don died today.

But he will live forever.  And quite possibly, ride into space, too.

Blue Skies, Don...

And for those of you who are wondering why he's a hero...