Saturday, December 26, 2015

Day Seventy-Five. Influence: Jerome B. Curtis

Everything I know tells me that Jerome B. Curtis lost his life at age forty-five in a crash of a civilian C-46 Commando attempting to land on a road at Mazatlán, Mexico in 1976, probably on November 21. At one time, his mother and girlfriend had copies of the crash report.

He'd taken off from Long Beach alone without informing anyone. It looked like a drug-smuggling flight (presumably on the return leg). None of us wanted to believe it. It had to be some kind of operation for the government, we told ourselves.

Curtis always flew on the right side of the law.

Or did he?

I met Curtis when living in a boarding house called Baker Acres in the Pacific Heights sector of San Francisco in 1962. Here, I also met another lifelong influence, Pierre Messerli. Pierre was a computer programmer for United Airlines, working on an IBM 1401 that filled several rooms.

Curtis was an international adventurer.

A graduate of the University of California at Berkeley in which I had a huge interest in those days, Curtis was one of those Americans always lining up for a civilian job overseas, where income was not taxable and monthly earnings could top $750.00. In the Army (October 2, 1953 to October 31, 1955), Curtis had been a first lieutenant responsible for tug boats in the South Korean port of Inchon (today's Incheon) so his first jobs were in the ship business. But Curtis wanted to fly.

In San Francisco, we hung around in surplus military field jackets—two veterans of post-Armistice Korea looking to find action somewhere.

Hanging around

With his "Terry and the Privates" lust for the exotic East—the women were part of the lure in an era where attitudes were different—Jerome B. Curtis had been born a decade too late — in manner of speaking. He should have been one of the guys we knew like Wally Gayda (my contact in Hong Kong) and Dave Lampard (a roustabout pilot)—who got started in Troop Carrier Command, stayed in China as civilians after the war and flew for the Nationalist Chinese from 1945 to 1950. Theirs were the grand adventures. Dave wrote a book about it,"Last Plane from Peking." The Central Intelligence Agency and its predecessor lay behind nail-biting flying adventures of this post V. J. Day generation.

When we met in 1962, Curtis was rapidly spending every penny he'd saved to go the shortest route from a private pilot rating to a full Air Transport Rating in the Boeing 727, all in just weeks.  He lived across the hall from me in the boarding house and much of our talk was about flying. I made a fictitious character out of him in a men's adventure story in the September 1964 ESCAPE TO ADVENTURE. He's the made-up "Captain Winthrop" named on the cover.

But Curtis's real-life adventures were...well...more adventurous than those in the mag. Maybe Wally Gayda, while in World War II, really had shot down a Japanese Zero from his C-47 using a Browning Automobile Rifle—as Wally claimed all his life and no one believed—but Curtis's generation had Southeast Asia.

Curtis had other jobs included including piloting a DC-4 Skymaster in Libya, But the small, romantic war in Southeast Asia was where were we all wanted to go in the mid-1960s.

Authoring creds

How much did Curtis know about authors? He'd met Robert Crichton and believed that if I could advance beyond the men's adventure magazines I could rise to Crichton's level. No one achieves that, but I tried. Curtis devised a modest scheme where he would lend me a couple of thousand dollars and I would head off to Southeast Asia to cover the war. He came out ahead on this investment.

Curtis's confidence in my potential as a writer led to my January-March 1963, travels to Tokyo, Seoul, Taipei and Hong Kong. By then, Curtis had taken a job in Tokyo—his last non-flying job—so I spent time with him there. My efforts to create a business-magazine article about All Nippon Airways yielded interviews with top officials, but no article resulted. So much for me as a writer about business. In Hong Kong, World War II and post-war pilot Wally Gayda introduced me to people who wanted to encourage a new writer but I never again attempted the Business Week model.

In Hong Kong for almost two months, I received offers that would enable me to continue pounding my Olivetti Lettera-22. There was the offer of a small, script-writing stint on "The Seventh Dawn," then filming on Kuala Lumpur with William Holden and Susannah York. There was Dave's offer to get me to Vientiane in his Byrd and Sons DC-3. But by the time the offers came, I had only a return ticket from Hong Kong, and, men's adventure magazines or not, no money.

I was going to have to return to San Francisco and look for a job. Bill Randol wearing his Pacific Southwest Airlines uniform greeted me on arrival at San Francisco in March 1963. I worked briefly for PSA. Back from Tokyo at abut the same time, Curtis again bade so-long to the Bay Areas as he departed Oakland in his Byrd & Sons DC-3, destination Vientiane. Byrd & Sons, like Air America, was the CIA cover for a new generation of maverick pilots.

I never made it to Southeast Asia.
My international adventures, if you want to call them that, were with the government, my State Department duties beginning in Tananarive, Madagascar from 1965 to 1967. Curtis was amused that in Tananarive (today's Antananarivo) I'd found a more exotic name than those of those where he was flying in Laos. But Madagascar was, alas, a place to miss out on everything—the Free Speech Movement, the draft call-ups, the sexual revolution and the massive Vietnam troop build-ups of two of the most important years in our recent history.

After Madagascar,  I was in Korea from 1967 an 1969. There, before meeting my wife Young Soon, I had a platonic friendship with Wally Gayda's girl friend Kim Kyu Youg (although Wally remained in Hong Kong). A "welcome to Korea" gift from Kyu, a fetching watercolor of sampans at work against a sunset, has been in my possession ever since and is displayed on my bedroom wall today.

During those years—1965 to 1969—Curtis flew for Byrd and Sons, later renamed Continental Air Service, bought by Robert F. Six but always a CIA front just like the very similar Air America.  Six's second wife Audrey Meadows was immensely unpopular with pilots.

Later years

As the 1960s became the 1970s and all romance associated with our nation's adventure in Southeast Asia gave way to harsh reality, Curtis and I remained in touch and met in a couple of odd places. He bought a beachfront condominium in Long Beach. He never mentioned this while alive but he'd placed me in his will. Had his mother pre-deceased him, I would have inherited his estate. I maintained communication with his Mom, Dot Burrell, but did not know his girlfriend when she telephoned with the news that Curtis had been lost in a plane crash. I was then working at the State Department in Washington and received those 1976 tidings in the room where I'm sitting now.

Today is Day Seventy Five of my experience with a primary brain tumor. As I contemplate those who've influenced my life, Jerome B. Curtis (May 19, 1931-November 21, 1976)—first upon my closest friends to have been born and first to die—represents a roads I might have traveled but didn't.There was a hankering in me to become an adventurer-pilot. For me, my outlet instead was to write about it. Throughout our long friendship. Curtis urge me to write, write, write,

It's difficult in my present circumstance, learning to use a keyboard all over again. Be patient with my typos.

Today, I can locate no civil aviation record that corresponds to Curtis's crash. I could have the aircraft type wrong or the date wrong, Maybe someone who follows aircraft mishaps can help.

Jerome, what the hell were you doing out there on that Mazatlán flight?

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