My original intent was to participate in the creation of a lasting, cherished book as a tribute to my father and as gift to him and our family, not to publish it for anyone and everyone to read. That was before I spent months listening to his stories one last time and began to see his life with a new perspective. I thought I knew my father, but how much do we really know of the ones we love?
So we began. I would travel to Murfreesboro from my home in Sewanee whenever Dad felt up to working on his book, and he would be ready for me, sitting in his favorite chair with notes on his lap. When I asked him to tell me his stories, his eyes would light up and he would talk for an hour or two straight. He was a fighter pilot, you see, a special breed born to fly. His body was weak, but his passion for flying had never dimmed. As anyone who knew him would tell you, he loved to tell his stories.
Bill Pickron had dreamed of flying from the age of five, when he began building model airplanes out of sticks of balsa wood and rubber bands. He was around ten years old, when a WWII Jenny landed in a field near his home and the pilot offered to take anyone up for two dollars. Dad was poor and had never even seen two dollars, but decided on that day that he would fly somehow, someway. And he did, first in the USAF and later as the Chief Pilot for the State of Tennessee. Much to his amazement, he was even inducted into the Tennessee Aviation Hall of Fame.
The process was slow. He would sometimes become frustrated trying to remember names, dates, and places, but my mother would gently correct him when needed. We would get through a chapter, then after I typed it up, Dad would read and edit it some more. Months passed by, but I wouldn’t trade that time for the world. Not only did Dad and I look forward to our time together, but I also began to see a side of my father I had never truly appreciated.
For years I had heard all of dad’s “airplane stories,” as my family called them, but until I put them together in his book, I had never really understood his passion or even – I’m ashamed to say – been very interested in it. I couldn’t tell much of a difference between a Stearman (the first plane Dad flew) and a P-47 long-range fighter Dad flew in the Pacific during World War II. I was interested in other things as I grew up, and Dad and I butted heads many times. Imagine a bull-headed girl of the ‘60s who teetered on the edge of being a hippy facing down a bullheaded commander in the Air Force. Mother always said that despite our differences, we were very much alike, independent and opinionated! I often thought Dad’s humor was cornball and his values old-fashioned. No, I’m not too proud of those things now, but I’ve learned a thing or two.
You listen harder and better when you know your father is in his last days. Thank God I was able to spend them with him. As I listened to Dad, I was amazed as the stories all came together to form the life of a man I began to see with an increasing awe and reverence. Dad was a hero who survived many battles and at one time was considered the best precision instrument pilot in the USAF. I didn’t know about all of his awards, which he rarely spoke of unless asked, or the shiny performance evaluations and letters of recommendation from famous people like Robin Olds and Alex Butterfield. Wow. He downplayed his contributions to and activities with charitable organizations and his mentoring of many. I even began to appreciate his humor, especially when I realized it was a constant he used to relieve the pressure of those around him – to lighten their loads. He would do anything to help others, and always had a joke or two to tell along the way. I spoke with some of his friends, those who knew him “back in the day” and those who knew him after his flying years were mostly over, and finally understood why they revered him so much, not only for his skill in flying, but also for the kind of man he was.
We made it through Dad’s “flying years” and had started into his retirement when his 90-year old body finally gave out and he passed away in late 2013. He worked on his book until the last week of his life. He knew how much his family wanted it, and I like to think he enjoyed the time he and I spent together talking about the “old days,” but I suspect he knew he was running out of time.
So I finished Dad’s book for him, with the help of my family and a friend or two. After the funeral, my brother and I spent hours going through countless mementos, military records, awards, and other documents we found stored in a guest bedroom. We were touched to find items he had saved for the years, like the sexy old photo of my mother that he had carried in the cockpit of his plane during World War II. My sister helped pick out photos for the book and my mother answered endless questions. My niece wrote a tribute for the book and my nephew located a videotaped anniversary. I authored the last chapter, the one about Dad’s retirement years that he never quite got to. It became a real family affair, and brought a very close family even closer together.
My husband was concerned because I obsessed over Dad’s book, working on it sometimes until the wee hours of the morning. He was wondering if I would ever be done. I began to wonder myself, and realized that it was my way of handling grief, that as long as I could keep writing about Dad, he still felt present and near. I was determined to finish it by what would have been Dad’s 91st birthday in March 2014.
Mother cried when she read the book and said he would have been proud. I wanted to publish it publicly so it could be shared with the world, but she was the one who made the final decision, as Dad was never thrilled at the idea. He thought no one would be interested, you see, because “others have done so much more.”
I hope he would have been proud. Dad’s book, From Stearmans to Starfighters, was completed close to what would have been his 91st birthday. It was my final gift to him, the most and the least I could do. The book and the process were also his priceless and precious gift to me and to the rest of our family.