The blog has been somewhat neglected for a few weeks, while writing a booklet: “Men of the First War in the Third Dimension” (now available at greatwarstories.com) about the Vintage Aero Flying Museum and how it got that way. It was fascinating to realize the museum is a result of three generations of a family that took opportunities most people had at the time but didn’t bother to take – opportunities to talk to the people who were there, who made the history. Below is an excerpt from the booklet, about museum director Andy Parks and his father Dr. James Parks.
Not everything exciting happened before Andy’s time. In 1968, while working at the University of Munich, Dr. Parks had taken the family to Czechoslovakia when the Soviet Union suddenly closed the borders and invaded. This was only a few years after the Berlin Wall went up literally overnight, cutting off people from friends, jobs, and even family. While the Parks family waited to see how or whether they could get out, Dr. Parks, ignoring the risks, took movie footage of the Russian Army moving in. One risk was that Communist border guards might discover the footage. A more immediate risk was that his wife would go crazy watching him put his family in danger. Yet the family stayed both alive and sane, crossing the border just behind a Mrs. Black, the ambassador to Czechoslovakia who was and is better known as Shirley Temple.
In the early 1980s Dr. Parks arranged several WWI aviation reunions. Two were especially memorable: the 1981 Aces of the First War reunion in Paris and the 1983 Final Reunion of the LaFayette Flying Corps in Denver. It was a memorable time for Andy, who was now the age of a WWI pilot, and also had learned to fly. Though he lived with effigies of these men, and met some over the years, Andy had never seen so many of them in one place at one time. Even in their eighties, the pilots had a special quality that impressed him; he could see why they were pilots. Daredevils, yes; adventurers, yes; but not stupid. They were extra-ordinary. He saw how they lived life to the fullest in every way.
They also respected each other. During the 1981 Paris reunion, Andy watched a diminutive Allied pilot go up to a tall German, whom he poked in the stomach, accusing the German of shooting him down. Sixty years after the fact, the German wasn’t sure how to take this. Then his former opponent stuck out a hand, saying he just wanted to shake the hand of the man who had managed to shoot him down. The two became friends.
The hotel for the reunion was sponsored by a Saudi prince. When the prince had to leave early and neglected to pay the bill, it was presented to Dr. Parks. To a Saudi prince after America’s oil shortage, $50,000 may have been small change. To Dr. Parks, a father of college-age children, $50,000 could pay for four years at an Ivy League university. Somehow Dr. Parks made ends meet until the prince remembered to send the check – a year later.
The 1983 reunion in Denver was for all the Americans who flew for France before America entered the war. But no surviving member of the original LaFayette Escadrille made it to this reunion. Knowing that the time for reunions was ending, the LaFayette Flying Corps asked Dr. Parks to preserve their history, and made him Honorary Member #9 of the LaFayette Flying Corps. It was an honor indeed: the eighth honorary member was Charles Lindbergh. One day Andy would be #24.