The Tuskegee Legacy...

I received word recently that yet another of the original members of the “Tuskegee Airmen”, as they have become known, has “gone west” in aviation parlance. Lt. Col (ret.) Chuck Dryden was a man of many accomplishments, and I’m pleased to say that I had the chance to spend an hour with him last summer, at the invitation of a mutual friend. My friend (and accomplished author) Mary Ann Siegel was a long-time friend of Col. Dryden, and knowing of my interest in aviation and that I’m a veteran, she invited me on a visit to his home last summer, on the west side of Atlanta.

Situated in a middle class neighborhood off a very busy road, the home was unremarkable from the outside. It was clean and well-kept, but alas not much different than that of its neighbors. The green grass was struggling to survive the summer heat and lack of consistent rain that we’d been suffering with for quite a while. The day was warm, probably the mid 80’s I’d say, but not really hot, like it can easily become in the deep South. We parked in the driveway up next to the house, and were met as we reached the back door. (In the South, it’s normal for friends to go to the back door…only strangers use the front!)

We entered the kitchen, just off the carport, and I immediately felt right at home. He was home alone, and apparently had been anticipating our visit. I was unaware that he’d had a stroke several years earlier, thereby loosing the use of his right hand, so we shook with the left, and sat down to chat. As many men become as they age, he was slight, yet purposeful. It quickly became evident that he was still sharp mentally, and we began a many-faceted conversation. I noticed that all the lights in the house were off, except for the kitchen table, and there was no air conditioning.  It was pretty comfortable nonetheless…

Being a new acquaintance, I didn’t really say much, so I just listened. It became quite clear to me that although he had faced terrible discrimination and personal trials throughout his life (not to mention two wars, WWII and Korea), he was a man at peace with himself. He was very proud of his family, and of the role that he and his fellow pilots had played in breaking down the race barriers in the military. By all accounts he had served his country with distinction.

One of the really fascinating things though was his concern for young people. He mentioned to me a terrific idea, one I’d never heard before. If it were up to him, all high school seniors would be required to register for the vote, before becoming eligible to graduate. What a simple, sublime idea, and yet what it would mean to these new ranks of “citizens.” Why our politicians, and we as citizens, don’t insist on such policies will forever escape me. But I digress.

Col. Dryden had written a book about his time in the military, called A-Train: Memoirs of a Tuskegee Airman, after a popular song of WWII. It was also the name of his P-40 fighter plane. He had a copy there for me, and although it was difficult, he signed it with his left hand. I’m told that he had been doing so for many years since the stroke. He was undeterred nonetheless, as it seemed important to him to “personalize” the book for the reader. I was both impressed and humbled that he would go to such lengths for a stranger, although it seemed perfectly in keeping with his character.

Yet that is probably what impressed me the most about this man. It was evident that he was a man of great character, born of the crucible of his past, and yet that did not deter him from being a decent human being. To me, that spoke volumes, and I’m sure I am not alone in thinking as much. If this country continues to forge men of such character, then perhaps there is a future where we can all be judged on this trait alone.

Blue Skies, Col. Dryden!