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On The Wings of the Tuskegee Airmen

My husband and I aren't always good about celebrating Black History Month. This year I wanted to make sure we did at least one thing to celebrate it and not let the month go unnoticed. A young male relative, whom I'll call Trevor, mentioned to us that they didn't do anything for Black History Month in his elementary school. I figured we'd kill two birds with one stone and at least find one Black History Month event to attend together. Mind you, this is no small feat since kids these days have "schedules" -- Tae Kwon Do, skating parties, guitar lessons, etc. Trevor has more of a social life than BMNB and I combined! Luckily, it worked out.

The Aerospace Museum at what was formerly McClellan Air Force Base in North Highlands, California, north of Sacramento, had an exhibit on the Tuskegee Airmen. It wasn't big, but it was thoughtful, filled with blown-up newspaper clippings about them, one of their actual flight suits, and one of the planes they trained on. Trevor, who reads four grade levels above his grade, had no problem reading the newspaper clippings, but the reality of it was this: The Tuskegee Airmen were so remote in time to him that they were, well, unimpressive.

When you consider that Barack Obama was elected when Trevor was 7, and Trevor will turn 10 this year, for almost a third of his life, he's known an African American president. Trevor flies, and it's not usual for him to see a black pilot. To him, the Tuskegee Airmen were pretty much just a group of black guys who flew in World War II.

And that is the beauty of their accomplishment: Because of their excellence and the barriers they overcame, the Tuskegee Airmen made black pilots normal. So normal that Trevor doesn't think there's anything unusual about black pilots.

After reading the newspaper clippings and giving the flight suit and training plane some obligatory attention, Trevor turned to us and said, "Can I go look at the planes?" The Aerospace Museum is in a former hanger, and out on the tarmac they've got all kinds of retired military aircraft, many of which are open for people to climb in. Trevor had me and BMNB climbing in and out of planes, all of us wondering aloud what kind of planes they were and what kinds of missions they flew. Trevor even sat in the cockpit of one of the planes like he owned it.

The museum also has a flight simulator for kids aged 12 and up. Because Trevor is 9, they let him play with a flight simulator video game. Being the smart and somewhat cocky kid he is, he kept telling us and the docent, who was a retired pilot, "I know how to do this! I play video games all the time!" And to my surprise and the surprise of the docent, he was actually quite good at it. Extremely good. So good that the docent said, "You know, he's a natural at this. He ought to be a pilot. A Navy pilot, " he said with a wink. I didn't get it.

When we left, I asked BMBN, "Why a Navy pilot?' BMNB, who, if he could come back for another life would come back as a fighter jet pilot, explained with all the patience of a kindergarten teacher, "Navy pilots have to land on a patch that, from the air, looks about the size of a postage stamp and is moving at about 90 miles per hour. You'd better be cocky if you're going to be a Navy pilot because if you don't think you can land that thing, you better not be flying it."

Oh. I see.

I don't know if Trevor is going to be a pilot, Navy or otherwise, but he has no doubt that he could. Even more, he has no doubt that he would be good at it.

I am certain that before others believed in the ability of the Tuskegee Airmen, they had to believe in themselves. They probably had to be a little cocky, even if they only expressed it among themselves. They made it possible for black pilots to be the norm such that there are little black boys who can't even imagine that black pilots were even a big deal a long time ago. Little black boys who don't see anything wrong with being cocky about their flying potential.

Should Trevor grow up to become a pilot, he will do so because he will be flying on the wings of the Tuskegee Airmen. And no matter how cocky he might become, I won't let him forget it.

Thank you to the Tuskegee Airmen for their sacrifice for our country, and thank you to the Aerospace Museum.


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