Uncle Jerry

Some would say Elaine Held’s Uncle Jerry led a charmed life.  He was the kind of character that movies are made about. He survived a difficult childhood to become a skilled pilot and marksman in World War II, and later in life he was keeper of the lighthouse in Crescent City, sharing the domicile with a ghost.  Shared Stories is a weekly column featuring articles by participants in a writing class at the Norwalk Senior Center.  Bonnie Mansell is the instructor for this free class offered through the Cerritos College Adult Education Program.  Curated by Carol Kearns Uncle Jerry was my hero.  He was the reason I wanted to be a pilot.  He was the reason for many of my life decisions.  I loved my Uncle Jerry.

When Jerry was nine in 1930 his mother died and his father fell apart.  His father began to drink and he was a mean drunk.  When Jerry was fourteen his father took him to the nearest highway, gave him twenty dollars and sent him on his way.  His reasoning was that a teen age boy cost too much to feed.

Jerry’s passion was to fly so he went west twenty miles to Mitchell, South Dakota, and headed straight for the dilapidated airport used by only two pilots.  He told them he would do anything they needed around the hanger or for the planes if they would teach him to fly.

In those days there were no rules so if somebody wanted to teach a wild-eyed fourteen year old how to fly he just threw him in a plane and said, “Now watch this.”  Jerry lived at the hanger and the pilots fed him in exchange for keeping the hanger and runway clean.  He soon learned everything there was about fixing an airplane and how to fly.

My mother tells that her family always knew when Jerry was flying over because he would be about forty yards over the wheat field and scare them half to death.  He was famous for flying under bridges, telephone lines or anything else he could get a plane under or around.  His excuse was that way he never had to give anybody a ride because nobody would go up with him.

World War II Pilot

When World War II broke out, Jerry joined the air force as soon as he could and could not wait to get into a fighter.  Crushed to the core, he found out he was too tall to be a pilot in the air force even if his skill level was way above that of the instructors.  Jerry was six foot three and broad shouldered.  As a result he was put on bombers.

Jerry was also a fantastic artist.  He painted many of the sexy girls on the planes.  One of the bombers in the Smithsonian institute is one that Jerry painted.

Since he could fix anything and do any job on a bomber, Jerry was a replacement.  If someone was killed on a plane, it was Jerry who would take that person’s place until a permanent replacement showed up.

In the meantime his other job was sniper.  Brought up hunting, Jerry was an excellent marksman.  He tells the story about his time on an island in the Pacific Theater.  There was an enemy plane with a distinctive engine whine that flew over regularly.  The men called him Washboard Charlie.

Washboard was a terrible shot and often missed what he was aiming at, and invariably hit the latrine.  After the third time Jerry had had it.  When someone shouted, “Here comes Washboard,” Jerry ran out with his sniper rifle.  He shot him through the front window of the plane and the men never had to worry about going to the bathroom again.

Through the whole war Jerry was never wounded.  He came close to dying three times but never got a scratch.  His first close call came when he was on a mission over the water.  The men had to ditch when the plane was hit.  Two of the men were dead and the rest parachuted out.

Jerry parachuted last and landed in the water about forty yards away from everybody else.  When the sharks came they were too interested in the group of men and left Jerry alone.  He was the only one who survived.

Jerry’s second close call came when his plane was hit and the pilot and co-pilot were killed.  Jerry took over and managed to keep the plane in the air until they were ten miles from their island.  He had to ditch at that point and all were able to parachute out.  Then they had to swim the ten miles.  Some of the men were wounded so they found pieces of wreckage that floated and managed to stay together.

Jerry was awarded many medals and was honored many times, but he never talked about it.  One day when my husband and I were visiting, Jerry showed my husband his medals and awards.  I was astonished when I turned around and saw the look on my Aunt Nadine’s face.  She did not know about the medals.  Jerry had never talked about any of it except to Bill and me.

Crescent City Lighthouse

Aunt Nadine and Uncle Jerry moved to Crescent City, California, and ran the light house there. The lighthouse was on a rock about sixty yards from shore.  When the tide was in, it was an island under the auspices of the Coast Guard.  When the tide was out, it was part of the shore and under the city police.

When Jerry and Nadine moved in it was not a working light house.  The historical society had a party for Nadine and Jerry to welcome them.  The society asked the Coast Guard if they could turn on the light for the party, and they were given permission.

The next night when the light was off, the Coast Guard came in very upset.  They informed Jerry that once a light has been turned on, it is again considered a working light house and the light can’t go off.  So that was an added job for Jerry.  There was one whole wall in the light house that was a radio to keep in touch with ships and the Coast Guard.

Nadine handled the museum tours and Jerry fixed everything.  When he didn’t have anything to do he would go out to the airport and get into his airplane.  He had made the plane by hand just for aerobatics.

He was always in trouble.  There was a VA hospital right on the beach and Jerry would entertain the troops.  The guys would be pulling out their IV’s to get to the porch and watch Jerry do his loops and tricks for them.  He finally had to quit because the doctors were so upset with him.

There was a breakwater that ran out close to the light house.  One day Jerry was flying and he forgot his cigarettes so he landed on the breakwater and ran to get them.  The FAA came down hard on him that time.  They often looked the other way because they knew his reputation from the war and liked him.  They also knew he was the best pilot around even though he was older.

There were places a plane could not land because of natural wind conditions, but when it was an emergency they would get Jerry.  He told me about the most difficult flying he had done.  He had to fly straight down and then circle in the tightest circle he could and at just the right moment straighten out and land at the last second with the plane sideways.

Finally Jerry’s acrobatic days were over.  He had flown so many G’s for so long that his inner ear would not take any more so he was relegated to straight flying.  This made his little dog very happy.  Jerry would take him flying and the two of them would stay in the air for hours.  Of course, that was another thing that was against the rules.

One three-day weekend there was a terrible accident. Tourists were everywhere, and Jerry warned one family that they were too close to the edge of the island and the rocks below were very dangerous.  The father yelled at Jerry that he knew what he was doing and he didn’t need his interference.

Later, Jerry heard a woman screaming.  He knew what happened and called the Coast Guard before running out.  The boy had fallen over the cliff and the father had jumped over to save him.  Both were gone in the water.  The Coast Guard was there in five minutes, and immediately found the father, but could not rescue the boy.  The father had all of his skin peeled off from the rocks and spent months in the hospital.  The boy’s body was found the next day.  There were many people who witnessed and testified that Jerry had warned the father.

Videos and commercials were shot on the island, including a DVD for Tim McGraw.  One car commercial gave Jerry some anxious moments.  After filming with one car, the crew started to hose off the paint so they could apply a different color.  Jerry stopped them because the island was on the national historical registry and they could not do anything harmful to it.

The producer explained that this was not paint but a kind of water with color that stayed on the car.  Once Jerry was satisfied with the explanation, the crew shot four other commercials using the same car but with different colors.

Lighthouse Ghost

When Jerry and Nadine were interviewed for the job they were told there was one little thing they needed to be warned about.  Unfortunately there were ghosts in this light house.  Well, you didn’t tell my Uncle Jerry there was such a silly thing as ghosts.  So they signed on for the job.  It didn’t take long for them to become ghost friendly.

They had a cat named Frisbee.  When Jerry picked up Frisbee to take her upstairs that first night, she shot out of his arms and hid under the chair.  Jerry and Nadine decided it was because of the new surroundings and left it at that.

The next night they were seated in the living room talking when the rocking chair started to rock violently.  Nadine could smell pipe smoke.  Jerry got up and stopped the chair from rocking but before he had sat down it was rocking so hard it almost went over.  Jerry silently got up and took the rocking chair down in the cellar with the rest of the antiques.

Weeks later Jerry was in the radio room talking to the Coast Guard when Nadine came in and put her hand on his shoulder and told him dinner was ready.  He told her he would be done in a minute and he continued his conversation.

When he was done he went into the kitchen and told Nadine that when she had told him dinner was ready he was talking to George.  Nadine got that “What are you talking about?” look on her face.  She told Jerry she had not come into the radio room.  He said, “You touched my shoulder.  Remember?”  She said, “Jerry I was not in that room.  I did not touch you.”

Months later Nadine asked their good friends to come stay with them for a while at the light house.  Their friends gladly accepted and were given the tour.  But the next morning when Nadine got up to fix breakfast, the friends were gone.  There was a note on the bed.  “Don’t ever invite us again.  We met the ghost last night.”

Bill and I were never introduced to the ghost but Nadine and Jerry were so matter of fact about it that I never doubted it.  During one visit I took a beautiful photograph of the lighthouse with the sun setting directly in back of it.   I had the picture printed and framed and sent to them, but I never heard back.

The next time we were there Jerry explained about the picture.  He showed me where he had put the picture on the stone wall in the museum section with special rock screws.  He and Nadine were sitting in the living room when they heard a tremendous crash.  When they ran into the museum, they saw the picture on the floor on the other side of the room.  It was in pieces with scratches all over it as if it had been clawed.

Of all the life threatening events in Uncle Jerry’s life he had never so much as flinched, but living with a ghost tested him mentally, emotionally and physically.  That is my crazy wild Uncle Jerry who died last month at the age of 92.



Published: Oct. 30, 2014 - Volume 13 - Issue 29