Born for the Skies
video shot in 1985 - age 74
James Robert Haun was born to a struggling Memphis, Tennessee lawyer (Yandell Haun) and his wife on September 21,1911, the first of three children and only son. Because his mother died five days before his ninth birthday, young James -- while being swapped among assorted mid-South relatives -- early learned self-reliance. Gifted with adventurous energy, by age 22 he had gone from Eagle Scout to Western Union bike messenger before working his way to Europe via hopped freight and tramp steamer -- then (to his father's frustrated amazement) becoming a pilot and building his own airplane powered by a motorcycle engine!
His remarkably varied Air Force career literally covered the globe and included personal encounters with Patton, Vandenberg, Truman, and Nixon. He flew fighters, bombers, and transports -- rising to become Chief Pilot of MATS and Commander of the Presidential Squadron in Washington. After retirement in 1965 he built an EAA biplane in his garage, wowed audiences at local air shows in a Snoopy outfit, and instructed hundreds of students (many of whom now pilot for the airlines). He died April 2, 2001, loved by all who knew him.
from the Foreword to the Colonel's autobiography, by elder son, Jim Jr.:
Here are two definitions of STATURE:
1: natural height (as of a person) in an upright position. 2: quality or status gained by growth, development, or achievement.
So says Webster.
How about adding, 3: an innate gift of noble character ?
In any case, the word is tricky. Old Goliath had stature #1, but the lad who laid him low embodied #s 2 and 3!
My father, whose air adventures you are about to join, had only a high school diploma. He never claimed to be a hero. Despite his barrel chest and stout biceps, he wasn’t a full inch over six feet. He played a seemingly minor role through the midst of ‘big doings’ on the world stage. (Once, while discussing people who might have a global impact, he said, "I’m not that big.")
Except with a playful grin, he never sounded his own horn. Even in his short Preface he modestly denies any notable effect on his chosen field, aviation.
Yet without exaggeration I can say I was blessed to have as ‘Daddy’ a man of true – and truly unusual – stature. Nor am I alone in what sounds like a son’s prejudice. Many who knew him sensed an unassumed ‘greatness’ in his jaunty stride and ready wit. My Mom always said, "I hitched my wagon to a star." When Dad wasn’t there to hear them, I’ve heard friends and fellow officers honor him as "Big Jim." Typically, one of them addressed him recently in writing as "The best pilot I ever knew."
I would go so far as to say that most people live their entire lives never having personally known another human possessing a thimble-full of this elusive quality called "stature." Generals, congressmen, prime ministers, presidents and kings sometimes lack it. Often mere actors portraying historical characters capture more of this indefinable ‘impressiveness’ than those we assume they model. Certainly Washington, Lincoln, Churchill, JFK, and Reagan ‘had it’ – but exactly what ‘it’ is can be hard to pin down. At least we can say such men stand out from the crowd for ‘soul qualities’ beyond simple intelligence or ‘cleverness’. I believe it springs from an unassailable integrity, welded to self-control, that tends to make these individuals the same alone as in public. Short on guile, their word is their bond. Old-fashioned as it sounds, these are people who, despite superficial flaws, act in reference to a steady moral gyroscope. On a deep level, they know better than to mock words like truth or justice.
It can be scary to live close to one of these, often war-tested, males – who can pin you to the wall with a look! You might not always like them but you can’t not respect them. (In my Dad’s case, mix one part each Errol Flynn, John Wayne, and Yul Brynner.). Gifted also with tremendous will, he had a determination that could ignore pain. I never heard him whimper.
Nor did the Colonel ever abandon that steely sense of right and wrong regarding essentials. Once, when I was twenty and failed to show up for my part-time job flipping hamburgers, when Dad heard about it, his rebuke included the amazing demand that the next time I couldn’t be there I was to call him so he could take my place! On the other hand, in those days he also told me flat out that if I was ever guilty of a capital crime he would ‘pull the switch’ himself.
I never doubted either commitment!
But neither was he ‘moralistic’ – some snooty paragon of virtue. His boundaries were wide enough to allow a disarmingly free style. For example, rather than set up my rebel nature for a future hankering toward alcohol as ‘forbidden fruit’, he always invited me, at age nine or so, to take a sip of his VO and water – held behind his back as if no one would see. (If that was reverse psychology, it worked; that vice never attracted me!)
Although this Command Pilot preferred to be thought of as ‘the strong silent type’, that often gruff exterior was more a military uniform worn over the deeper man – the gentle and good-humored character you are about to meet in his writing. Likewise, whatever his momentary role, in social relations he displayed a genius for the ‘common touch’. Instinctively knowing that our inhabiting a body – while giving potential for tragedy – also yields comic scenarios, his sense of humor gravitated toward ‘less polite’ absurdities of our physical makeup. (He understood first hand, for instance, that our digestive tracts produce a flammable gas!) Unfortunately or not, his book shows admirable restraint in this area.
His day-to-day speech was uniquely colorful. Some favorite phrases, like "a cloud of dust and a blaze of glory" appear in his story. But citing others: Men tended to be either ‘characters’ or ‘jokers’, while women were ‘frails’. "Oh very well" signified stoic acceptance of harsh fate. A beautiful day for flying was always rendered, "Severe clear." He usually addressed preachers as "Doc." If he saw ‘some joker’ driving recklessly, he’d invariably say, "Go, fool – hell’s not half full!" Or if he noticed a person who was, let’s say, ‘esthetically challenged’, he’d be sure to say, "Look at the head on that!" (Not that he was ever overtly cruel to anyone; this was the same man who hated to see a wounded quail suffer needlessly. – Without apparent emotion, he’d simply pop off their heads.)
So, apart from essentials, his ethics were common-sense practical. As you will learn throughout his tale, he wasn’t above playing the system as it presented itself – as when he utilized that C-133 on a legitimate mission to move his little Henry-J auto from California to his next duty station in Minnesota. Or recall his wartime ‘runabout’, a stripped-down Thunderbolt, dashing between London and Brussels. Or during the Berlin Airlift, his admiration for his sidekick Sid Parks’ creative ‘requisitioning’ techniques. But he never ‘played politics’ in the sense of pandering to others, whether above or below his rank – not even in navigating the ego-infested waters around the Presidential Air Fleet at Washington National!
Aside from his being three-quarters bona fide maverick, I have no doubt he didn’t make General because -- when Duty to Country conflicted with potentially disastrous decisions by superior officers -- he simply couldn’t in conscience keep his mouth shut! In a letter written in 1997 to his model, General Robert M. Lee, whom he complements as "the most admired and respected of all Generals I had ever known," the Colonel says, "I realize I said some rather unkind things about some people in my book. I won’t apologize for one word. I merely reported WHAT I SAW AND HEARD."
In short, his priorities were finely tuned.
Two quick personal memories and I’ll let him speak for himself.
I didn’t know this remarkable father until he returned from WW II when I was five. One of my first glimpses into his character came during the time we were getting acquainted in Memphis when he took me with him downtown to get some hardware. I stayed in the car, which was parallel parked close to the curb between two other vehicles. Having returned with his purchase, my Spitfire-jockey old man was wheeling into the street when our bumper barely nicked the left rear fender of the one parked ahead of us. Dad immediately stopped, pulled back into the space just left, grabbed paper and pencil from the glove box, and began scribbling. I could hardly believe it. He was writing down our name, phone number, and what happened! To me, even at that age, this seemed like asking for trouble. Then no sooner had he walked around to leave the note on the windshield, than the car’s sports-jacketed owner showed up, walking curiously towards us down the sidewalk. I watched intently as the two talked, then as they together took a quick look at the scratch on the fender. Finally this perfect stranger starts pumping my Dad’s hand for all he’s worth! I’ll never forget the man’s words, which he kept repeating: "I have met a gentleman! I have finally met a gentleman!"
I’m writing this at age 64. Embarrassing to confess, in 1968 I was 28 and all too obviously one of what Dad in his book calls the ‘Woodstock alumni’. A victim of higher education, I had fallen for the silliness that ‘sex, drugs, and rock and roll’ could usher in a future of peace and joy. Naturally I wanted to help the Old Man understand what a beautiful, profound revolution was underway. (I mean, here he was still into Budweiser by daylight and vodka by evening, while I had been enlightened to a ‘better, more spiritual way’.) So on one of my visits from the Left Coast I boldly gave him four marijuana ‘joints’ with encouragement to – when he got around to it – "See what all the fuss is about."
Other than maybe a sardonic grunt, he didn’t comment, but I watched him toss my offering in the top dresser drawer next to his handkerchiefs. My life choices in those years were, rightfully, a great disappointment to him. Anyway, about five years and a couple of divorces later, I happened to be visiting my parents’ home and for some reason checked that top dresser drawer. There lay the same four joints, apparently untouched. I recall his saying at the time that he never wanted to "not be in command of Old Jim."
As you will quickly learn from this autobiography, the Colonel was first of all a man of action. He flew, swam, sailed, hunted and fished all over the globe. He read and admired Hemingway, a kindred soul – without succumbing to that writer’s fatalistic worldview. (Though Dad took a dim view of humanity in general, he loved individuals as he discovered them.) A gun collector and marksman who could make skeet disappear with the best, he for years loaded his own ammunition and even molded lead bullets for his muzzleloader by melting lead pipe in a skillet on the stove. Every Fourth of July he would rouse the neighbors with black powder ‘sheebangs’ from that same 32-caliber flintlock squirrel rifle. He could make a harmonica weep, and he sometimes strummed a four-string guitar to sing lyrics of dubious origin – like: "She was poor but she was honest – the victim of a rich man’s whim."
He married one woman and loved her for 63 years until death parted them. In the early ‘70s he stopped giving to the United Methodist denomination when he learned they were sending money to Communists in Latin America. He caught marlin off Florida, constructed a hardwood writing desk, built (and flew) an EAA biplane from just plans in his garage, played golf, voted Republican, didn’t swear (often), didn’t squander money, didn’t care for cats, and took his mongrel dog Bud flying.
On April 2, 2001 he died with dignity at age 89 in his own bed attended by his two sons. Shortly thereafter he was among the first four inductees into the Tennessee Aviation Hall of Fame in Sevierville, Tennessee. (visit www.tnairmuseum.com)
This website merely gives an overview of the amazing story his book unfolds.
"Yes, Virginia, you can fly the C-54 solo."
Jimmy Haun, Jr.