In the early 1980’s, we lived in Irvine, CA, halfway between the Tustin helicopter base and the Marine Corps Air Station, El Toro. I did some work out of our garage on motorcycles, cars – you name it, all to make ends meet.
One of my acquaintances at the time had an old Honda 750 of 1970’s vintage, with a Vetter fairing. That was the best setup then for touring. But this guy had an electrical problem that was chronic, but exceptionally elusive I put in several hours troubleshooting with no success. He laughingly suggested that his crew chief once had the same problem with one of his airplanes.
“Oh? Do tell!. said I.
Thus began a poignantly short and quite unlikely friendship with Lt. Col Alexander (A.J.) Gillis, fighter pilot and air ace, having flown in WWII, Korea and Vietnam.
He had several airplanes shot out from under him in active combat and lived to tell the tale. As an editorial, he said the water in the South China Sea was warm and it took some 5 hours to pick him up. He was flying again shortly after.
What he didn’t say then, which came out later, was he downed two enemy aircraft before he was shot down!
He willingly talked while I worked, and he wove tails of jet fuel, hydraulic oil, Corsairs, Panthers, and Skyhawks, and of transitioning from propellers to jets. He was wing commander of VMA225 in 1963-64; he was quite proud!
One day the story was of a reunion at the base, and he checked out in a F18 Hornet and was allowed a “fast taxi.” He was smilingly mad that there were wing locks and a crew chief standing on the wing. “If they weren’t there, I’d have had a very nice flight!” he said, with soft chuckles, remembering his time in this advanced aircraft.
By the way, the Hornet is still a front-line fighter for US Marine Corps aviation.
He told stories of early WWII in China and the Flying Tigers, Greg Boyington (of Black Sheep squadron fame) and walking on the Great Wall. I don’t think he was included in the Tigers but was in China flying the F4U Corsair later. Anyway, I’m not sure about all the military connections, but I think he was temporarily attached there early on.
I knew A.J. for only a year or so. Maybe I couldn’t find that electrical short on purpose. I wanted to know him better–and I don’t remember charging for something I couldn’t fix. I think he appreciated that.
We laughed often. He was a retired old warrior, a more soft spoken man I never met, and he exuded inner strength.
He would occasionally just drop by on a Saturday just to hang out, talk troubleshooting, cantankerous bikes, and his flying adventures.
Then the bike was fixed and we both moved on.
I learned later that he was in the ER for a slight chest pain checkup, and had a massive coronary. He died in the hospital, all within minutes, sad to say, in 1987, at age 65, just past his 65th birthday
Sometimes we don’t know who we meet who will have a profound effect on our lives. The strength he so casually wore, helped me to mature and accept that kind of masculinity. I wanted to be that kind of man. His soft spoken-ness and quiet courage are traits to be admired and emulated.