I didn’t know my Grandfather well growing up. He was busy running Executive Jet Aviation in Columbus, Ohio. We lived in Montgomery, AL. There was the occasional phone call on Christmas, a letter or two, but no real meaningful conversation. Visits were rare. We were all busy.
Then, as I began my junior year of high school, my father started questioning me – like fathers do – “so, what are your college plans”, “have you been thinking about it?”, “two years will fly by!” My parents had instilled in their kids that college or technical school was a must after high school. I was the oldest. And, truth be told, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was deeply involved in a youth service program called Key Club, including at the state level, so service and leadership seemed to be my passions.
One day Dad said, “you know you are into serving and leading, you could do that for a living.” Wise words. His plan was for me to attend the U.S. Air Force Academy, then pilot training, and serve for the minimum time (10 years), get out, and fly for the airlines. At the time – mid 80s – the airlines were booming. A great career.
I was intrigued. I did love serving, and flying sounded like an exciting opportunity. So, I applied. And was accepted in the fall of my senior year at Jeff Davis High School, just across the street from the elementary school I attend some years earlier. I never moved from my childhood home in Montgomery, AL. And now I was looking at becoming an officer in the U.S. Air Force. I had no idea what was ahead of me!
As I approached graduation from high school, one afternoon, the phone rang. My Dad answered, and I heard him say, “you are coming to visit Paul, when?” The conversation was short. My Dad hung up. He came over to me and told me Granddad was coming to Montgomery specifically to talk to me. I couldn’t believe it. Lots of questions came to mind, but the biggest one – why? My Dad said he just wanted to talk. My family was middle class. My mom quit work as a schoolteacher when I was born to take care of me, then my sister Cynthia born exactly one year after me, and then my sister Stacey both exactly 14 months after Cynthia. Yes, three kids in diapers, and everything that follows! It was one busy place. My Dad was a pharmacist and worked to provide for this growing family. As you can imagine, we didn’t have a lot of excess money. We took an occasional vacation, and always drove. We rarely ate out, and mom cooked most of the meals. Every once in a while we would get carry out, which consisted of fried chicken for my Dad and pizza from Pizza Inn for us. That was a treat!
Dad continued, “And your Grandfather is taking us to Mr. Gs for dinner.” I was excited! This was an old-school restaurant, which had been around for some time, and was very nice. I was told they had great fried crab claws, and fish, and steak. It all sounded yummy! So the appointed day came, just a couple months before my departure for USAFA. Back in those days, there were no personal computers, no internet, no email, no cell phones. The only information I had on USAFA was a catalog. Had not visited and didn’t know anyone there. My father was a medic in the U.S. Army Reserves, and served one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer for 30 years.
Therefore, my best guess on why Granddad was visiting was to talk to me about the Air Force, and what it would be like at USAFA. He spent 30 years serving, and retired the year I was born. He certainly knows this business. Since we hadn’t spent much time together to date, I didn’t know his experiences, and hadn’t heard his stories. This could be a great opportunity to get to know him a little better. I was close.
We met at Mr. Gs. It was darker inside than I expected. The tables had white tablecloths, and all the waiters were wearing white sport coats. This was the big leagues. We all sat at a large round table, and I was placed between my Dad and Grandfather. Someone ordered the fried crab claws, and they were fabulous! My Dad ordered a steak for me. Everyone was a little nervous. What was so important that Granddad came all the way from Ohio to Alabama to talk to me about?
Eventually the conversation got moving and everyone shared with Granddad what they were up to in school and sports. Granddad had some difficulty with his hearing, so the background noise in the restaurant made it difficult for him to hear. As I found out a few years later, all those hours in bombers took a toll on his hearing. Towards the end of the meal, Granddad began to talk, and he shared a few stories of his own before turning to me. I remember him saying how much he loved flying, and how the Air Force gave him some wonderful opportunities.
He loved the people he served with, and kept in touch with many of them. About 10 years later I had the pleasure of meeting some of these gentlemen – from the ENOLA GAY, navigator Dutch VanKirk, bombardier Tom Ferebee, and radio operator Dick Nelson – when Granddad was on a book signing and speaking tour with them in Kansas City! I was on my first assignment to Whiteman AFB, MO, home to Granddad’s unit, the 509 th Composite Group, now the 509 th Bomb Wing, flying the B-2 bomber. Finally, the moment arrived. Granddad turned to me and said, “Paul, look, you have a bright future ahead of you. The Air Force Academy will be challenging, but you can handle it. They will be working to transform you from a civilian to an officer in the military, while providing you a first-class education. Don’t fight the system. Everything they are doing there is for a reason.”
As I look back this was great advice. I didn’t know what to expect, but looking back it all played out as Granddad described. The first year wasn’t a lot of fun, but it did have a purpose. And you felt a sense of accomplishment when it was all over and you became an upper classman. You worked hard, and the reward was placing those prop and wings on your flight cap.
But, this was not all.
He continued, “Paul, this is the most important thing I have to tell you. People at the Academy and throughout your career will know your name. And they will form an opinion based on the fact that you are my grandson…the grandson of the pilot of the ENOLA GAY. Don’t let that bother you. None of us have any control on what people think, except through our own actions. You were born into this family, and given the name Paul W. Tibbets IV. Be proud of it, but don’t let it define you.”
Ok, now this was getting deep, and at the time I did not know why this was so important to Granddad. Of course, looking back, it is crystal clear. “Paul, you just be your own man. Do your own thing. Keep me out of it, and everything will work out ok.”
Wow. I get the idea of being my own man, and I took this to heart. But keep Granddad out of it? Wasn’t sure why, but I followed this advice and moved out with my own career. During this time, I was able to spend more time with Granddad, starting with his visit to the Academy, and my pilot training graduation, and Whiteman a couple of times. I also joined him at many of his book signings and speaking engagements. We saw each other at least once a year from 1987, when he retired from Executive Jet Aviation, until his passing in 2007. Nearly twenty years later, now a colonel, I was at an officer professional development course. A friend of mine and I were talking one evening and he asked why I never talked about my Grandfather. I was a little surprised by this comment, and told him I do talk about him when people ask me questions. And he said, “That’s just it, you don’t offer any information unless asked, and then, it is brief.”
This hit me like a ton of bricks. He was right. And it all goes back to that conversation in 1985 in Mr. Gs. My Grandfather asked me not to talk about him. And I didn’t. For 20 years. That day I realized something. For whatever reason Granddad had, it was important to him that I be my own man, and in his mind in order to do so I couldn’t talk about him. After 20 years of this approach, I had proven over and over again I was my own man. And now, it was time to honor him. He had passed away and my father was ill. It was up to me. And I did, and still do today, with pride and honor.
Perhaps the biggest compliment I ever received was from a friend who said, “Paul, it is a pleasure to know you, work with you and call you a friend, not because of your Grandfather, but because of who you are. You have made your own way, and I know it was hard. You honor your Grandfather. I know he is so proud of you!”
Granddad, thanks for the wonderful advice, but more importantly for who you are and what you did for our Nation. You are, and forever will be, my Hero.