We all experience the sleepy morning rush, no time to make coffee at home, so we groggily head out the door and conduct a bleary eyed search for our local coffee house to infuse some morning go juice into our bloodstream. On this early 6:00 a.m. morning it was no different for me, and Starbucks was the target. At this early hour, even Starbucks is just waking up. Few people there, it’s quiet, and the staff are doing their opening routines. Only one other customer was sitting inside when the door opened into the dimly lit sipping and sitting area. That customer was an older gentleman sitting at one of the long elevated tables with those bar stool like chairs. His head was down, a perfectly weathered Navy cap on his head, a dark blue windbreaker jacket keeping him warm, and a walker next to his seat.
His face, not visible, as his eyes were fixed just inches from his cell phone, his hands doing those cell phone tasks we all now perform. He never looked up from his focused efforts. My focus then turned away from the gent and zeroed in on my coffee requirement. Once coffee was in hand, calm came over my thoughts, the cups warmth spreading to the rest of me with that first sip. Checking the time, I had a few minutes to sit and sip my morning elixir.
Quietly, I sat a couple of chairs down from the lone gent, as clearly he did not want to be disturbed from his activities. As more customers sauntered in, one commented on the coolness of the morning air. It was currently a “cold” 41 degrees in Phoenix. I commented back “you realize people back east are laughing at what we Phoenicians call cold”. The gent chuckled at that and briefly looked up from his phone and smiled. I smiled in return and said hello.
He beamed back and replied with a “good morning buddy”. His face was weathered and clearly he was on the upside of his 8th decade, but his eyes were beaming with a laughing twinkle. We struck up a conversation and exchanged some small talk, then out of the blue Carl said “would you like to see the most beautiful woman”. He rifled through his cell phone’s image library and found the one he was looking for, handed the phone to me, and pictured there was his wife, sitting in a chair, smiling back. He was beaming.
I put out my hand and introduced myself, and he came back with “I’m Carl. nice to meet you”. One way or another our conversation migrated to aviation. I let Carl know I was a semi-retired Aerospace engineer that had worked on gas turbine engines for Honeywell. With that comment, Carls focus returned to his phone and he swiped through a myriad of pictures. He said, “I have something I want to show you”. Finding the desired image, he slid over his phone, and there on the screen was a gorgeous P51 Mustang, with a nose art title of Stang. The P51 has always been one of my favorite WWII aircraft. Carl then said “I have a little over 300 hours in that airplane”. My mouth dropped, and all I could say was “Wow!”. So clever on my part.
Carl was a pilot, and a good one at that. Owners of these vintage collectable aircraft let only very trusted and qualified pilots get into their cockpits and actually take them into flight. Carl obviously had that honor from the owner of this plane. He explained how he had gotten to know the P51’s owner, become friends, and how the owner taught him to fly the “Cadillac of the Skies”. It gives you a quick understanding of Carl the person that he was able to gain that level of trust with this owner and his precious aircraft.
Learning more about Carl, turns out he got his aviation chops during the Korean war, where he flew many missions in an F4U Corsair. He was shot down once, fortunately landing in friendly territory. In the telling of these memories, Carl never felt the need to embellish or expand the narrative, he simply told it how it was then and the storyline of that part of his life.
We talked more about his aviation history and his face glowed with pride. After the war, he trained to obtain his jet license, and ultimately flew corporate jets for a number of wealthy private owners. Along the way, he built friendships that allowed him to fly many of his favorite prop planes from his earlier life, including, as mentioned the P51 pictured above.
Later in his life, to keep bread on the table, Carl started a roofing company, and gained the reputation as someone that could be trusted to get the job done right. No surprise there. He talked about a resort owner, who flew Carl over to California on his private jet to personally to fix a leaking roof on his home. He simply did not want anyone else to do the job. He then flew Carl and his crew to Palm Beach for golf and dinner the next day. Carl was not bragging, he was simply amazed that the wealthy man would do that out of gratitude.
The more I talked with Carl, the more I just liked him. He was 100% genuine. A person filled with honesty, integrity, and honor. A simple man, who lived a rich and complex life. The experience of talking with him was like walking into a darkened room with a flashlight and being amazed at discoveries revealed as a little light is shined on new unseen details.
What a pleasure to have the opportunity to meet and talk with Carl. I look forward to our next talk, as knowing more about how he lived will be fascinating and enriching. I have no doubt that each new storyline will provide inspiring tales and guide posts on how to live life. Thanks Carl, nice to meet you too.