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Flying with the Tuskegee Airmen

image-15I’m a sucker for American heroes. That’s why I was thrilled on a warm winter evening at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza in west Los Angeles. As the representative of the Twilight Brigade, I was there for the private showing of Red Tails, George Lucas’ multimillion-dollar portrayal of the first African-American air corps in the United States, the legendary Tuskegee Airmen.

Using canes, walkers and wheelchairs for support, 11 Tuskegee Airmen were escorted by cadets and family members into the theater. These men constituted most of the remaining Tuskegee Airmen from the Los Angeles chapter. I beamed at the site of the heroes and found the Twilight Brigade’s guest of honor already inside—-Mr. Claude Davis.

For much of the week I didn’t know if Claude would attend the showing. He had prostrate cancer, couldn’t walk and was a physical shadow of his former self. Yet, to my great joy, he arrived with his family, decked from head to toe (in smiles) and ready for the show. I tried to say important things, but mostly stammered and dolled out hugs instead of trying to say anything beyond “thank you,” “you’re an inspiration” and “it’s an honor to meet you.” It was good Claude was there, not just for him, but for all of us. Together we shared moments that helped us remember what gratitude, inspiration and honor really mean.

Over 400 people attended the sold out screening, all of whom burst into applause when the Tuskegee Airmen stood at their seats.  Some audience members snapped photographs, and others took a moment to explain to their children “how important this all was.”  And they were right. It was important. Not only because the movie was tremendous but because this was a moment – perhaps the last – to honor these legendary men.

As for me, I couldn’t have been more lucky that night. My seat was on the floor smashed between two wheelchairs with an airman on each side. “Wingmen,” I mused. “Tonight I’m flying with aces.”

I spoke with Claude as the final credits rolled. With tears in his eyes he said something I’ll never forget. “I made it through two wars and never thought I’d live this long. But I’m sure glad I did. I’m so so glad I did.” As he said this I thought about all the movies I’d been to—the pointless shoot ‘em up shows, adventure flicks and all the rest. It struck me that this was the greatest movie event of my life. I savored the thought as Claude smiled and said, “Sean, I think it’s time for me to go.” And just like that, he rolled into the sunset.

One day I hope to tell my grandchildren about the Tuskegee Airmen. I imagine I’ll say: let me tell you about the time I watched a movie featuring P51 Mustangs on a 2D screen. Let me tell you about the men who fought Nazis and racism, and beat em’ both with style and grace. Let me tell you about the forefathers of the Civil Rights Movement.  Let me tell you about the warriors who reminded the world that courage has no color. Let me tell you about that time I flew with American heroes. Oh sonny, let me tell you about that time.


Update: Several months after writing this Claude passed away with his family at his side. This article is in memory of him and all the Tuskegge Airmen who have touched the hearts of Twilight Brigaders. We are so blessed to have been with these incredible men in their final months and days as they made their final flight from this world to the next.

Posted: 1/20/2012

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