Thomas Hanley Curtis – Colonel, United States Air Force

I knew a hero once
Courtesy of Keith C. Burris
Friday, March 13, 2009
The (Connecticut) Journal Inquirer

America is obsessed with heroes and heroines, and long has been — political heroes; cartoon superheroes, from Iron Man to the Dark Knight; Captain Chesley Sullenberger; the firefighters in New York City on 9/11.

We are not always sure what we mean by “heroes.” But we seem to need them.

I know I do.

The story of Sully Sullenberger makes me feel good. Like everyone else, I want to hang on to it.

In an era of incompetence, this was a man who knew exactly what to do.

In an era of indifference, this was a man who walked the length of the plane one more time to make sure no one had been left behind.

This was a man.

I knew a man like that once: My uncle, Colonel Thomas H. Curtis, USAF.

He died last week at 85.

To say he was “old school” would be putting it mildly.

He was so old school he probably did not know the term.

His career was incredible — the stuff of novels, or “The Right Stuff,” if it had been done T.H.C.’s way. He disliked that book. He said it was too cute; the author could not get himself out of the way of the men he was supposed to be celebrating.

Tom Curtis was part of that story. He was a test pilot, one of the early ones, and one of the best ones — from 1948 to 1954. And then he trained test pilots. He was, a decade later, appointed the famous Chuck Yeager’s deputy at Edwards Air Force Base, training both test pilots and astronauts. And he knew them all. I seem to recall he thought John Glenn a bit of a stiff way back then.

When I was 7, Roy Rogers was my hero, and Trigger was not far behind. When I was 47, my Dad was my hero. We do learn something in life, in spite of ourselves.

I think Uncle Tom was my Dad’s hero. I never knew him to have another, except maybe Harry Truman. Tom was not my dad’s brother, but my mom’s brother-in-law. But Tom had only one sibling, a brother who died some years ago, and he and my dad got on. When I was 10 and 11, Dad would tell me about what they did at Edwards, and tell me about Yeager and the breaking of the sound barrier, and explain things about the military, though he’d been a Navy man and Tom Curtis was Army Air Corps, and then an Air Force career officer. Thirty years. My dad bought me a couple model planes that were planes Uncle Tom had flown, which wasn’t hard since he flew about everything at one time or another. He was current in 37 aircraft when he concluded his first tour at Edwards.

I got to know my uncle a bit in his early later years, after he’d retired. He lived in Washington, D.C., and I was spending some time in that city then. He used to make proclamations I didn’t understand at all. Once we were standing on the balcony of his apartment in Alexandria and he said, “See all those cars on that highway over there? Most of those drivers are on their way home from the Pentagon, and none of them are happy. Some of those guys are going to have heart attacks tonight, Little Casey.”

I was 22 or so then and about a foot taller than him. Uncle Tom called me that because my Dad’s nickname was Casey (actually K.C. but it morphed in usage). In the last communication I received from the Colonel, the salutation was “Little Casey.” It wasn’t a put-down. I think my dad was a hero to Colonel Curtis. It was kind of like George Bailey and his brother, Harry. Each man admired, and perhaps envied a bit, the life of the other. My Dad lived his entire adult life in the small Ohio town where Tom Curtis was born. My dad helped build the community where he raised his kids. He managed a business, and ran the local cancer crusade, and went to the funerals of people without friends, and saw to it that a few people known only to himself got shoes for their kids and turkeys at Thanksgiving.

Uncle Tom raised his family on the move — Japan, Germany, Alabama, Pennsylvania, Florida, California, England.

Between his stints at Edwards, Uncle Tom helped found the Air Force Academy (though he was a proud West Point grad), commanded the 81st Fighter Squadron in Germany, and was an instructor and later the director of curriculum at the Warfare Systems School, Air University. After his return stint at the test pilots’ school, he commanded the 319th Fighter Interceptor Squadron; he served in Vietnam, where he flew 106 missions (he was about 10 years older than the average retired NFL player, so please don’t call those guys “warriors”); he had a big job at the Pentagon; and he ended his career as military attaché to the U.S. Embassy in London.

He had a Jaguar in England that he really loved. It was stolen. He was convinced the thief was a Frenchman. He once delivered a rant to my brother and me about the French, which was one of the funniest things I have ever heard. He seemed to consider their lapels and their affection for snails ultimately damning.

The only people he disliked more than Frenchmen were Russians.

When he returned with my Aunt Peggy to the states, he did not buy another Jaguar. He went to white Cadillacs.

Colonel Curtis never got his star, despite the important postings — a blow to a guy who wasn’t fazed by much. I was told, but not by him, that he took a stand that he knew would cost him his career crown.

The Legion of Merit and the Distinguished Flying Cross could not be denied him, though.

When we were kids, Uncle Tom was a mythical figure in the family, so when he came to visit, two things surprised us — first, that he wanted to talk with us, and second that he was so direct. He looked you in the eye and went right to the heart of the matter. It was thrilling and a little scary.

When I was in high school, I attended a boys prep school that was the archrival of the high school he’d attended. Uncle Tom wanted to know all about it — the schedule, the teachers, the coaches, the subjects. But then he asked me something no one had ever asked me. What about my classmates? What kind of guys were they? So I gave him some short character sketches. One guy, I said, was kind of a whiner. “He’ll be like that when he’s 40,” said my uncle. Nowadays many grown-ups try to talk to kids as if they are adults. But Uncle Tom never talked to me like an equal. He talked to me like I mattered. There’s a difference.

Once he and my aunt and two of my cousins were visiting my parents’ home when I was, I think, a freshman in college. Several of us went to a movie one night. When we came in, late, Uncle Tom was in the kitchen to greet us: How was the movie? Who was in it? What was the plot line? How would you rate it? I don’t recall the movie, but I do remember that I was dismissive. It seemed hardly worth a review. He listened, took a pull on his drink, and said, quietly “Did it ever occur to you that maybe you didn’t understand it?” I hadn’t. I probably didn’t. He’d blown my mind.

For a brief period in the early 1980s he gave up calling me “Little Casey” and called me “Little Grasshopper.” I’d met him and Aunt Peggy at a truck stop outside Pittsburgh to hitch a ride with them. They were on their way to Ohio, in a white Caddy, to see my parents. I crossed a median and had to climb up over an embankment to reach their car. The Colonel asked me if I had been wandering in the desert eating locusts and practicing Kung Fu.

He told me once that in the old test pilot days they would sometimes “lose” one or two guys a month. I asked him how they coped. “We used to see a lot of movies,” he said, “musicals, comedies, Bogart. … And we drank a lot of gin.”

As far as I know he stuck with martinis and well-done steak to the end.

During Uncle Tom’s tour in Vietnam, his father died. The Air Force flew him to Columbus, Ohio, for services and my folks drove the two hours from our home to a small funeral parlor on Broad Street, with me in tow. I remember being worried about what to say. What do you say to a guy who is fighting in a war every day and has just lost his dad? In the end I didn’t say anything. I shook his hand and listened. I think the four of us sat in a hotel bar after we left the funeral home. It was a wet, raw, gray night. Uncle Tom was the same guy — hilarious, startlingly direct, gallant. And I remember thinking: So this is what a tough guy is. This is a man.

And, if I may engage in a little of the Colonel’s political incorrectness, it strikes me that women are getting less feminine in our society today while men are losing track of what it means to be men. It seems to me the real men are passing away.

Uncle Tom didn’t tell war stories. He gave me the impression that his children were the most interesting people he knew. He was married to the same woman, my aunt, for 60 years. He gave the impression that he thought her the greatest and most fascinating woman he’d ever met. He called her “Plumber.” And when he had a chance, as a private citizen, to make some large cash if he moved, alone, to Saudi Arabia for a year or more, he surprised himself by saying no. A flat no.

A few years back I heard Clint Eastwood explain his work. “I have a reverence for the individual,” he said.

What an individual Thomas Hanley Curtis was.

He will be buried in Arlington National Cemetery, with full military honors, in June.

Keith C. Burris is editorial page editor for the Journal Inquirer.

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