In 1929, Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy became one of the first proponents of the "Six Degrees of Separation" concept when he wrote his short story titled Chains. In the theory, any two people in the world can be linked through a series of "friend of a friend" relationships. Many of us are now familiar with the pop culture spin-off game, "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon", in which Kevin Bacon can be linked to nearly any other star in six steps or less. We now even a have crazy website to make the linkage easy: http://oracleofbacon.org
The USAF is a microcosm of American society, and the smallest it has been since its inception in 1947, typically making it easier to link to someone in fewer than Frigyes six links. I enjoy getting to know people and learning about them. Given my interest in interpersonal relationships I am as guilty as anyone I know when it comes to playing the "hey, do you know ____?" game (which I should mention is despised by some). But in the process of meeting someone new, I frequently stumble upon a common acquaintance or friend.
Nearly all of these connections are made to contemporaries or peers. I did have one chance encounter, however, that spanned to a family member in the earliest days of the USAF.
I attended Squadron Officer School (SOS) at Maxwell AFB in Montgomery, Alabama in April and May of 2004 as part of what the military calls Basic Developmental Education (BDE). As part of the curriculum, the school had regular lectures given by a leader in with a background airpower. Some were current or former USAF general officers, others were leaders in industry, and my favorite, Airmen with a story to tell. Occasionally, the speaker would offer to meet with a small group of students after his or her lecture.
The schedule for the day before graduation included the last of these talks and we were informed that the guest speaker was one of the last of the original Tuskegee Airmen. I was chosen to be the officer from my Flight to have the privilege of eating lunch with the speaker after his presentation.
During his speech the Colonel mentioned flying RB-47s at Lockborne AFB just south of Columbus, Ohio. I knew that my great-uncle Vance Heavilin also flew RB-47s and was at one time stationed at Lockborne. What were the chances that these two aviators knew each other? The Air Force was HUGE in the early-50's and I decided the chances were very slim.
After lunch I immediately wrote a letter to my grandmother describing the encounter with this interesting man. I've posted it below and I think it does a decent job of capturing the meeting with Col Ford.
17 May 04
I hope this letter finds you feeling well. It was good to talk to you on Mother's Day.
As you know, I was recently in Montgomery, AL attending Squadron Officer's School at Maxwell AFB. The day before we graduated, three men came to speak to the class of 450 Air Force Captains. These three guys were some of the famous Tuskegee Airmen who trained in Tuskegee, AL in the early 40's. As you know, they were the first black American pilots and they came to speak to us about their experience in the USAF. Two of them were fighter pilots and one was a bomber pilot.
About 15 of us were given the opportunity to eat lunch with the men. I chose to eat with the bomber pilot, Col (Ret) Harry Ford. I noticed during his speech that he had flown RB-47s and I wanted to ask him if he had ever heard of or knew Vance. The Air Force was much bigger back then so I did not think there would be much of a chance of that. Part of the way through lunch I told him my great-uncle flew RB-47s and that he was stationed at Lockborne at one time. He looked at my nametag and said "Didn't know any "Wallaces." I told him that his name was Vance Heavilin and saw his face light up. It was obvious he knew Vance. He looked at me and said "he had red hair too!" He went on to ask about him and told me he (Vance) was a 'good guy.' I told him about the flight Vance flew over the Soviet Union and he said that he remembered that, and that he had flown with Hal Austin on that flight. He told me that I "made his day" and that it brought back a lot of good memories. He said Vance was not in the same squadron as him, but they knew each other.
I asked to get a picture with him to send to you. I knew you would be interested in hearing this story!
Talk to you later,
My grandmother's brother, Vance Heavilin, also had an exceptional career as an Army aviator in WWII and then the USAF after it's birth in 1947. One of Vance's flights remained classified until the 1990s and was later made into an hour-long Discovery Channel episode. Here's a link to the flight that Col Ford mentioned during our lunch: http://rb-29.net/HTML/31HAustinB-47/31harb-47.htm Another coincidence- Col Ford and I met nearly 50 years to the day after uncle Vance's epic flight.
I put Col Ford's name in to a search engine a few years and learned that he died on 26 Feb 2009, just five years after our photo was taken. At the time of his death he was one of two remaining Tuskegee Airmen in the state of Alabama. http://www.alabamaaviator.com/news.asp?record_no=15975
The heroes of the WWII generation are leaving us at a rapid rate. If given the opportunity, I encourage you to take the time to get to know these amazing men and women and hear their stories. You may even make a surprising connection to your own story.