The weather was beautiful on the November morning. The city of Fredericksburg, Virginia, passed beneath the left wing of the rebuilt P51 Mustang fighter as I rolled out on a heading of 330 degrees. Ahead was the place I was looking for, the town of Culpepper.
My altitude was fifteen thousand feet. Pushing the stick forward, I started the Mustang down in a hurry. I found the spot I was looking for, then rolled the fighter into a dive. I was at treetop level and headed up the correct country road. I counted three seconds and performed the finest climbing roll of my life.
I realized that I had violated a number of federal flying regulations, including unauthorized low buzzing, flying in illicit proximity to buildings, and performing aerobatics under fifteen hundred feet. And this by an official of the Combat Pilots Association and a play it by the book flying instructor! But I had no regrets about my single outburst of lawlessness. Right or wrong, that moment was mine forever.
I was six when my father divorced my mother and left us in New York City to fend for ourselves. It was 1943 and times were tough.
Mother was working in a defense plant when she married a man who became known to me as Jack. He was a man prone to fits of rage. Life with Jack was a series of large arguments in the night, sometimes followed by sounds of hitting. I remember mother crying a lot.
One night Jack told me that he and my mother were going out and that I was to go to bed and stay there. Then he turned off my light and left.
I had a habit of sneaking out of bed and watching from the window as they drove away. As I was walking across the room in the dark, the light snapped on. Jack was standing at the door holding a belt and a piece of clothesline. He cursed at me, shouting that I had disobeyed him. He threw me on the bed and tied my hands and feet to the frame. Then he beat me until I was bleeding.
I lived under those conditions for the next two years. Then one night my father’s mother came up from Wilmington, Delaware. After a violent argument with my mother, Grandmother whisked me out to a waiting car and drove away. That was the last time I saw my mother.
For the next eight years I lived in Wilmington. My grandmother was a good woman but very strict; she almost never used the word ‘love’ in conversation. Meanwhile, my father had remarried and was living in Texas with his second wife. He came to visit from time to time, but I hardly knew him. I remember him as a man who brought me presents.
Grandmother was a business manager for a large company and had little time for me. I would see her before I left for school, and not again until after 6:00pm. when she came home. At school I constantly got into fights with the other kids, and my attitude was surly and aggressive.
When I was fifteen, I was expelled. Grandmother enrolled me at a military academy in Bryan Mawr, Pennsylvania, which had a reputation for handling problem children. But I couldn’t make it there, either, and I was expelled at the age of sixteen.
Back again at a Wilmington public school, I had weekends to myself and little to do. One Saturday I took a bus to the New Castle Air Base, which was located outside the city. There at the Delaware Air National Guard hanger I got my first close-up look at an airplane. It was a World War II P51 Mustang fighter.
I was hypnotized! I walked around the P51 touching the wings and propeller; then I jumped up on the wing and slid into the cockpit. In an instant a man wearing three stripes on his green sleeve appeared and shouted, “Hey, kid, get out of there!”
I was scared stiff and started to climb out. Then a hand touched my shoulder and pushed me back into the cockpit. Turning, I came face-to-face with an officer in a flight suit. He was standing on the wing; his hair was red, his eyes were smiling.
The pilot name was James Shotwell, and he was a captain. Before I left the field that day he had become “Jim.” Thereafter, I visited New Castle each weekend. Jim had been a fighter pilot in the Pacific during the war. After coming home he graduated from college with a degree in electrical engineering, and went to work for an engineering firm in Georgetown, Delaware.
The week came and went and I found myself drawn closer and closer to Jim Shotwell. I told him about the rotten time I had had so far. He responded with warmth and friendship. I had found my first real friend — and as a result my life was to be forever changed.
Jim and I would sit under the wing of his Mustang and talk about airplanes and subjects like maths, history, and physics. It was wonderful! Perhaps most important, Jim introduced me to the other pilots. For the first time in my life I experienced the feeling of belonging to a group.
One day I told Jim I wanted to quit school and find a job. Suddenly he got quite serious. “Dude,” he said, “you remind me of a blind sparrow. He knows how to fly but he can’t, because he can’t see. Even if he got off the ground he would bump into things that would stop him cold.
He wonders through life accomplishing nothing. He has no sense of direction. You have all the tools, Dude. For God’s sake, use them! No matter what you do in this life, you need to develop one thing: a sense of direction! Think about it.”
Away from Jim and the air base though, my life was still unchanged. I continued to get in trouble and my grades were bad. Finally my grandmother decided I should go to California to live with my aunt. I told Jim about this. Several nights later, he came and talked to my grandmother for hours. But it changed nothing. At the end of August 1953, I was on a plane bound for Los Angeles.
My aunt was very kind to me and tried to help in every way she could. I missed New Castle and Jim, but I did my best to adjust to my new surroundings. Letters from Jim brightened my days.
Then one night in March 1955, the telephone rang. My aunt answered. As she spoke I could tell that something was wrong. She replaced the receiver and gently told me that Jim Shotwell had been killed. He had lost an engine while returning to New Castle from a practice mission. He could have ejected, but chose to stay with the plane, steering it away from the populated area — until it was too late to bail out.
Emotions I had never felt welled up inside me. I tried to hold back the tears but could not. Everything seemed fragmented and confused.
Gradually I stopped crying and started to think of Jim and the many things he had said to me. His analogy of the blind sparrow kept coming back. I had always known that what Jim had told me about myself was true. But until that night I hadn’t been able to piece together the puzzle my life had become. Finally, I fell asleep, waking at dawn in a cold sweat. My mind was strangely clear. Instinctively, I was aware that something had changed. Now I knew were I was going in my life and what I would have to do to get there.
That year I enlisted in the Air Force and became an air-traffic controller. The Air Force finished the job Jim had started. By the time I was discharged in 1959, my negative attitude had been reversed and my faith in God and man restored. I wanted to go places!
I hurled myself into an intense year of hard work and study, and obtained my FAS pilot ratings. Employment as a flight instructor soon followed. It turned out I had some talent in aerobatic flying, and through teaching and flying air shows every weekend, I developed a reputation of sorts.
By 1971, I had accumulated thousands of flying hours, flown more than a hundred air shows, and lectured all over the country to flight instructors learning the trade. During those years I flew just about everything, including some experimental and military aircraft.
In the fall of that year, a New York doctor contracted me to ferry a P51 Mustang from Newark, New Jersey, to Manassas. With 180 gallons of fuel in the wings, I calculated I could include an extra thirty minutes of flying time before arrival at my final destination.
On November 21 at 7:30 a.m., I climbed into the Mustang on the ramp at Newark and angled south across Cape May, New Jersey. There I picked up a heading for Cambridge, Maryland. Reaching Cambridge on time, I swung to starboard and headed toward Culpeper.
The place where I violated the federal flying regulations that morning was the Mount Carmel Baptist Cemetery. There beneath a tombstone were the remains of my friend Captain James R Shotwell, Jr. It had taken me 16 years to find the right opportunity to pay my respects to the man who changed my life. And I did it flying the same type of airplane I had been sitting in the day I met him at New Castle. That climbing roll was my cry of triumph and gratitude, the salute of the fighter pilot.
Today my wife still kids me about my flight over Jim Shotwell’s grave. “The day Baron von leftover led the Great Culpeper City Raid,” she calls it. But she knows how much that moment means to me. It keeps alive in my mind two potent lessons: One man can make a difference in the lives of others — as Jim Shotwell proved. And you can accomplish almost anything with hard work, perseverance… and a little help from a friend.
The respect Jim Shotwell showed to Dudley literally changed his life. What higher result of Everyday Greatness can there be?
But notice how Jim did not help Dudley by doing everything for him. No, he did not pull him along and tell him what to do every step of the way. Instead, he helped Dudley by showing him respect — by pointing him toward loftier heights, by speaking of more worthy purposes, and by expressing confidence. He showed respect by listening and by not over judging. And, even well after Jim’s death, the respect Dudley had received was still blooming in his innermost thoughts. Everyday Greatness never underestimate the power of respect.
The story of Dudley A. Henrique by Stephen R. Covey.
Also read: A true life story on self-esteem