One of the realities of parenthood is discovering, too late, that we lack the training to parent. And yet, we’re called upon to teach our children, to instill values in them that will last a lifetime. Although we often find those defining moments slipping through our fingers (whether out of a lack of confidence, confusion, discipline or the heat of the moment), we may also be blessed to discover that our children have learned from our living example as much as from our words. I know, because I experienced this kind of living example in my father.
My father, Edward B. Walker, rarely talked about his early life. I knew he had been “in the war” but didn’t know exactly what his role had been. I knew he had flown airplanes because I’d seen pictures of him flying propeller aircraft in formation and one day even found a uniform in our attic, complete with silver bars and wings and the words Army Air Force.
I was born in Montgomery, Ala., and in those days we lived on the base at Tuskegee Field. My dad had been stationed at Maxwell field and Tuskegee airfield, a member of the flight training staff of Squadron 458-1. They gave him a battery of tests and to his disappointment, he would never achieve his dream of being a fighter pilot over Germany. Instead, Dad’s assignment was to train the men who became fighter pilots — the men who would do what Dad had wanted to do for his country. Some of these men were what we now know as the Tuskegee Airmen.
It was the summer of 1952 and I was 9 years old. We were living in Charleston, W.Va., and my father had taken me to a minor-league baseball game between the Charleston Senators and the St. Louis Browns. Going to these games together was a special treat for me because Dad, a successful businessman, was frequently away from home.
There we were in the stands along the first base line, Dad on my right. As the game began, a black man came up the aisle with a ticket and sat next to me to my left. As the game progressed, I became aware that this man would periodically turn his attention away from the game and stare at my father. I remember being more than a little puzzled and somewhat uncomfortable at this man’s apparent interest in my father. While I had been taught to accept all races, we knew no black families and I went to an all-white school. As a result, I had never had an opportunity to put my training into practice.
Suddenly, the man stood up and shouted at my father, “Captain Walker! Is that you?” Dad looked closely at him a few seconds before exclaiming, “Lieutenant Jackson!” And there, in front of the all-white crowd, these two military men hugged over me. Dad changed seats with me and they spent the rest of the afternoon reminiscing about training missions. This happened during one of the darkest eras in our history with Jim Crow alive and in full operation. Ms. Parks was 5 years away from her brave action. Emmett Till was still living with his family.
Their animated conversation continued in the parking lot after the ballgame and concluded with a short song that started with the word “Contact.” When it was time for them to say goodbye, my father did something he rarely did with anyone: he embraced Lieutenant Jackson again. This moment of unalloyed respect and affection would frame my cultural and social relations for the rest of my life.
Later in my life, Dad would share memories of his days as a flight trainer: the families he knew, the airmen he trained and some of the funerals he attended. I remember asking questions about black pilots, their abilities and skills. I heard him candidly assess the best and some of the worst, all in terms of discipline, focus, study habits, link trainer time and, ultimately, the ability to fly the plane and protect the bombers from harm. I never heard a social comparative analysis. On the contrary, when, out of the ignorance of youth, I would sometimes reflect the negative social cast of the times, my father’s quick pointed action would serve as the impetus for my rapid attitude adjustment. Those words of instruction and corporal action served simply to reinforce the living example I’d witnessed as a 9-year-old at a baseball game.
We’ve all heard the words, sometimes even eloquently delivered, that speak of fellowship and a love of mankind. What I know is that the living example spoke even louder than words. That my father was an accomplished trainer, was blessing to experience firsthand.
Because of a fire at the records center in Atlanta, Dad never had a military burial. I worked with the U.S. Air Force Records Center and verified his service and they graciously sent me his flag. My wife Sue and I give this flag to all of you as true statesmen and representatives of some of the greatest, dedicated pilots and heroes that have ever flown.
David B. Walker retired to Hickory to be near his daughter and son-in-law. He worked as a business advisor, served as a diversity counselor and is an at large advisor to The DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago. His continuing quest is to meet and talk with a pilot who had been trained by his father, Captain Edward B. Walker, 0792769, Squadron 458-1, Tuskegee Airfield — Army Airforce.