July 1, 2017
Two weeks ago, I was standing out on the ramp at KACC’s Ardmore facility in the hot Oklahoma sun. I was shoulder to shoulder with others from KACC in our standard aircraft delivery formation, showing our respect to the customer and crew that had just entrusted us with their project and lives.
As I stood there sweating and feeling the bald spot on the top of my head cooking, I remembered that it’s been twenty five years since I opened the Ardmore facility on what was once a military base and first stood on this ramp. I began thinking about the others that have stood with me on this same ramp over the years and thought of one of my former employees, Clarence Edward “Alex” Alexander.
I hired Alex around 1984 to oversee the maintenance operation when I was President of Associated Air Center. I got to know him well over the years and loved to hear his stories. He was born in 1920 in a small town in Iowa. His family owned and operated a couple of small general stores. After getting into trouble a couple of times, Alex joined the Army Air Corps. He learned to fly at Brooks Field outside of San Antonio and spent a great deal of his time teaching young pilots how to barely fly to support the World War II effort. Somewhere along the way he got his Airframe and Powerplant license. He showed me his license and it was signed by Charles Lindbergh! He explained that he went into a briefing room looking for the senior mechanic who was authorized to sign mechanic’s licenses. The senior mechanic was not there but Charles Lindbergh was. Alex said, “Lindbergh asked me what I needed and I told him that I needed my licensed signed.” Alex said Lindbergh responded, “Hell, give it to me and I’ll sign it.” This sounds like a made up story but I saw the license with my own eyes and then researched the career of Lindbergh and found that he was at Brooks Field for a time!
I loved to hear Alex’s war stories and I would normally have to pull them out of him. Alex was a test pilot involved in atomic bomb testing at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. He showed me some old photos that he took from a camera mounted on the side of his aircraft. Alex said that he had a Geiger counter strapped to each knee to monitor the radiation level. He was to use the Geiger counter readings to stay a safe distance away from the bomb site. Like a typical young pilot, he said, “I didn’t give a shit. I wanted to get better photos than my buddies. Those things were pegged all the way over but I got some real good pictures.” He told me that after each mission he had to take off his flight suit in a quarantined area and shower before he could leave the area. Alex let me borrow his photos and I made copies of them and had them enlarged. They are hanging in “The Plane Crazy Saloon” at my ranch. The photo with the mushroom cloud shows full size Japanese naval ships sucked high up into the clouds as part of the test!
Alex shared that every few years some government agency had him take a physical to monitor his health. He also pointed out that many of his peers involved in the testing were already dead from what he thought was cancer. He joked, saying, “I’ve never had any trouble with mosquitoes biting me after that testing.” I had forgotten that I had him autograph one of the photos until I recently looked at them for this blog. He wrote on one where he was sitting in the cockpit of one of the trainers: “To Jerry King, One dedicated aviation nut with years of experience and a mean boss.”
After getting out of the military, Alex and his wife Jennie, who he met while in San Antonio, returned to rural Iowa to run a small grocery store. The Iowa winters were too much for his Texas bride so he took jobs at Slick Airways, Zantop and Braniff Airlines before coming to Associated. He told stories how after the war he was involved in the purchase of “mothballed” military surplus aircraft. He would go into the desert to get the aircraft back in service for commercial use. The very first corporate aircraft and freighters were old military aircraft. He would sheepishly admit that oftentimes as they prepared surplus aircraft to go back into service, they would “harvest” parts off other nearby aircraft for spare parts.
Alex worked for me for about ten years when I was at Associated Air Center. When I started KING AEROSPACE, he left Associated and followed me. During the approximately twenty years he worked for me, he quit three times. Twice he quit because he was mad and once to retire. He returned each time. I’ll never forget the time he quit one morning and after lunch he was back outside my office at Associated Air Center. He said, “I’m sorry. Jennie told me that you’re the best boss that I’ve ever had and I needed to come back and apologize and ask for my job back.” The old school generation understood hard work and no excuses and I guess I enforced it pretty good back then as I still do today. I often say, “Feel the love” as I remind people that those who care about them the most will tell them what others won’t.
I recall it like it was yesterday, not 25 years ago, when Alex and I and a couple other people were sweeping the KACC ramp in the middle of the night. We were preparing for an FAA inspection scheduled for the next morning to try to get an FAA Repair Station License. Alex, at the time about 70, cried, “This is wrong making an old man work like this!” We then all laughed.
As time went on, Alex began to slow down. He eventually became the mail and errand person in our home office in Dallas. I recall when Alex, heartfelt and quietly, once said to me, “I wish that I was 20 years younger so I could help you more.” I fondly recall that I once had him go to a seedy part of Dallas to purchase a life-size female blow up doll for a joke gift. I knew that the adult store would embarrass him and give him the appearance of “a dirty old man.” Being a former military man, he was mission ready but red faced upon completion of his successful mission. I got a good laugh and then I asked him, “How did you get over there?” He responded, “In the company truck and I parked it right in front.” This would have clearly displayed our Gold Wings and company name! We all had a good laugh one more time. He got me on this one!
There came a time when Alex’s health was failing and he went to a nursing home in San Antonio. My wife Barbara is a registered nurse and seldom do I ever ask her to do anything for me because, as some would say, “I’m a hard headed Puerto Rican.” When I decided to fly to San Antonio to see Alex, I asked her to go with me. I thought I needed her to be with me. No words were expressed; I just wanted her to go. We walked into the nursing home and got his room number at the front desk. In my normal style, I briskly walked toward his room and Barbara tagged along several paces behind me. I walked into his room and he was not there. I turned around and Alex was behind me in a wheelchair with Barbara. Barbara later told me that when I was walking toward his room, she noticed a lifeless looking Alex down the hall in a wheelchair. She said that when he saw me, he snapped to attention. She went to where he was and wheeled him to his room. I asked him in my normal soft approach, “What the hell are you doing here?” He smiled and mumbled something that was not clear and then it dawned on me that he was not doing very well. I was holding back tears when I said, “Alex, you need to get well because we’ve got lots of work to do.” He nodded his head and then slowly reached out and took my left hand as I stood beside his wheelchair and gently kissed my hand. I again fought back tears and said, “Alex, I’ve got to get going. I’ve got work to do. You get well.” That was the last time I saw him alive. He punched out December 21, 2003.
So as I stood lined up on the ramp outside of our large KACC hangar listening to the large jet engines spool up, I once again tried but failed to hold back the tears. Looking at the large jet painted in a two tone scheme: blue on the bottom and white on the top with a thin gold and black stripe to separate the two main colors and the large words “United States of America” on the fuselage above the windows brought heartfelt memories. I know that one old man who I fondly referred to as “old fart” or “grandpa” would be proud that his efforts 25 years ago have allowed me to continue to serve our country. I am blessed to have been referred to as a “mean boss” from such a good man. God Bless America! I push forward to honor all those who came before me in my service to God, Country and Family and may I not screw up on my watch!!
Written by KING AEROSPACE Founder, Jerry Allan King-Echevarria.