Family and friends honor local aviator who 'flew west'

July 25, 2009

Editor's note: Each Sunday, The Herald-Mail publishes "A Life Remembered." This continuing series takes a look back -- through the eyes of family, friends, co-workers and others -- at a member of the community who died recently. Today's "A Life Remembered" is about James Albert "Jim" Clinton Jr., who died July 10 at the age of 77. His obituary was published in the July 15 edition of The Herald-Mail.

They came to Morris Frock American Legion Post 42 in Hagerstown last week to honor their friend, Jim Clinton, a professional aviator for 35 years who "flew west" July 10.

But after all of the handshakes and tearful hugs, the conversations soared away into the glide path of former Fairchild planes, wartime exploits and peacetime flying experiences -- both shared and separate.

If Jim had been there, he would have joined in enthusiastically with the nearly three dozen of his peers, said his daughter, Sarah Larrabee.


After all, probably close to 1,000 years of flying experience came together in the Legion's small dining room in Jim's honor.

"My grandfather taught my dad to fly," Sarah said. She grew up in Hagerstown, where first her grandfather, then her father worked at Fairchild.

Born in New Hampshire, Jim worked at least 20 years for Fairchild.

"When he wasn't flying, dad was camping -- he loved both," Sarah said.

Sam Bayer said his late wife, Lois, used to baby-sit Jim when the Clintons went out on the town. Then, Sam also became friends with Jim after a chance meeting at Morris Frock American Legion Post 42 many years later.

Sarah said her father was talking a lot about his old friends toward the end of his life.

"Sam Bayer was one of those he mentioned," she said.

Son-in-law Daniel Larrabee said Jim wanted all of his friends to have a beer on him -- a desire expressed to him during that last week when Jim and Daniel spent a lot of time together.

"He was joking and flirting with the nurses at the VA Hospital in Charleston, S.C.," Daniel said. "Jim said he didn't want anyone to feel sorry for him -- he had lived a full life."

Herb Taylor, 81, said he will miss Jim terribly even though they only had known each other for the last 10 years. They often attended air shows together.

"We shared a love of flying," Herb said. "Jim flew and I dreamt about it." Both were in the military -- Herb in the Air Force and Jim in the Army.

Doug Stine said Jim was two years older. Both worked at Fairchild and both were members of a group called the Quiet Birdmen.

Every summer, that group of pilots gathered for a picnic and it was traditionally Jim's job to cook the corn in a big kettle. Now, Doug said he has inherited that job.

"I got my pilot's license in the 1970s," Doug said as he leafed through several photo albums Sarah brought to the get-together.

Conversations at Jim's memorial gathering often centered around the names of planes and debates over the years they were made.

After his military flying and Fairchild employment, Jim worked for a time at the Atomic Energy Commission as well as Grove Manufacturing in nearby Pennsylvania.

Then, there was a stint with the Saudi Arabian royal family, where he was private pilot to Prince Talal.

"I was in elementary school at the time and remember few other details," Sarah said.

For herself, her husband and children, and for her other sister, Colleen Patridge, Sarah thanked her father's friends for coming to the get-together at the Legion and read the poem, "Flying West," which had hung on his wall.

"I hope there's a place, way up in the sky,

Where pilots can go, when they have to die.

A place where a guy can go and buy a cold beer

For a friend and comrade, whose memory is dear.

Where they like to sing loud, and love a good joke;

There must be a place where old pilots go,

When their airspeed gets low,

Where the whiskey is old, and the women are young."

Daniel then led the assemblage in raising their glasses to Jim.

"He said he wanted everyone who came to have a beer on him," Daniel said.

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