Mesa Musings: Center seat leads to lively talk with Tuskegee Airman

This is one of those "Guess Who I Sat Next to on the Airplane" stories.

Recently, I was on a flight from Baltimore to Orange County.

My wife, Hedy, and I had attended our niece's wedding in Boston. We flew from Boston to Baltimore to make our O.C. connection.

Storms were raging up and down the East Coast, and we were late in arriving at Baltimore. We landed, in fact, at the exact time that the Orange County flight was due to take off.

Hedy and I hotfooted it from our arrival gate in Terminal B to the Orange County departure gate in Terminal A.

"We're holding it for you," shouted the Southwest Airlines gate agent as he spotted two desperate passengers — out of breath — sprinting toward him.

We boarded the plane and discovered that there were exactly two vacant seats left, several rows apart. Obviously, they were both center seats.

I could tell that the two large chaps in my row were less than thrilled with my inconvenient arrival. I'd be impinging upon precious elbow space.

I excused myself, sat down and looked straight ahead.

Still out of breath and in no mood to make idle chatter, I pulled out my Kindle and began to read.

Thirty minutes into the flight and 37,000 feet up, I finally glanced over at the elderly gentleman seated next to the window. He wore a shirt and cap emblazoned with a distinctive emblem that I'd seen before.

"Pardon me, sir," I inquired respectfully. "Are you a Tuskegee Airman?"

I'm a bit of a military history buff, and for a number of years before I retired from Orange Coast College, the school conducted a series of luncheons and presentations featuring members of the Los Angeles chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen Inc. In my capacity as OCC's director of community relations, I was intimately involved in those projects.

"Why, yes I am," the gentleman said.

We spent the next five hours in animated conversation.

The Tuskegee Airmen were dedicated and determined young black men who enlisted in the military during World War II to become America's first African American military airmen. They trained at Tuskegee Army Air Field in Tuskegee, Ala., and served their country with distinction.

More than 400 pilots who trained at Tuskegee served in Europe. They flew long-range heavy bomber support escort missions for the 15th Strategic Air Force, and saved the lives of countless American airmen.

I was sitting on that Southwest flight next to Mitchell Higginbotham, a Tuskegee-trained fighter pilot who later flew B-25s.

Mitch had just attended the 40th Tuskegee Airmen National Convention outside of Washington, D.C. Now in his early 90s, he was returning to his Dana Point home.

I attended the Tuskegee convention in Orlando, Fla., in 2005, and remember meeting Mitch there. We had much to discuss on our Orange County flight.

He told me that he and other Tuskegee Airmen have been working with director George Lucas on a film about the airmen. With a story by Lucas and John Ridley, "Red Tails" stars Bryan Cranston, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Terrence Howard. It's in post-production and due for national release Jan. 20.

Mitch recently witnessed a partial screening.

"I enjoyed what I saw," he said. "It dramatically tells the story of young airmen taking to the skies to fight for their country."

Mitch noticed a minor discrepancy, however. He discussed it with Howard, who plays a Tuskegee Airman. Howard is 42.

"I said, 'Terrence, you did a terrific job,'" Mitch recalled. "'Just one problem: We were much younger than you at the time. We were all in our early 20s.'

"Terrence smiled, nodded his head and said, 'Yeah, I know, Mitch.'"

Mitch and the rest of his Tuskegee colleagues are American heroes, and most worthy of the praise and adulation they've received — albeit belatedly! — in recent decades.

I'm thrilled that Lucas is telling their story.

JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Tuesdays.

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