Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Tale of The Old Club Tie

It’s that season that starts with Veterans Day (Nov.11) and reaches a crescendo on my mother’s birthday (Nov. 23) and ends with my father’s birthday (Dec. 5). And since Hawkeye and Munner (as in my parents) were such a hit on FB on Veterans’ Day, I’m taking my friend Jill’s advice and running at the keyboard about them for a bit.

My parents were World War II veterans. Yes, both of them.  Full-fledged members of The Greatest Generation. I was the youngest of the Bryant brood, so most of my friends had younger, hipper folks. What mine didn’t have in the young and hip (and, truth to tell, happy) department, they more than made up for when it came to color. By comparison, some of my friends’ parents were about as exciting as watching someone unload a Safeway truck.

The AFLAC duck visits with my grandparents, my mother,and my uncle Meade, 1939.
My mother came from solid stock. Her parents were wonderful people; self-made, hard-working, generous, civic-minded and church-going. But… a little boring. Sure, my grandfather had a wooden leg. And it’s true that my grandmother, a teetotaler and card-carrying D.A.R. member, drove her Cadillac is if she were Dale Earnhardt (not Jr., but the real deal, The Intimidator himself). But these quirks only served to make them more human. They were the best grandparents ever, but they didn’t push any needles when it came to outlandish.

My grandfather, Willis W. Bryant, Sr. (on left) en route to Sumatra, Dutch East Indies, 1929
The Bryants, on the other hand, of which my father was a sterling example, wrote the book when it came to colorful. The family history was filled with stories of our descent from Cherokee twins (just one, actually), murder, selling whiskey to the Indians (no, not the Cleveland Indians) life in the Wild West not to mention the Far East, drinking, womanizing, guns, more drinking, and let's not forget the a cameo appearance by Miss Barbara Stanwyck. The family motto is “never let the truth get in the way of a good story” and so it’s best to take our oral history, especially when recounted after several beers, with a grain of salt.

My mother receiving her commission, Fort Hayes, Ohio 1944. The letter sent by the Army to my grandparents said, "Mrs. Castner's unselfish devotion to the Cause of Liberty and her indomitable spirit, is an inspiration to us all."
My parents met and were married in France late in the war. My mother had joined up after her first husband—with whom she’d enjoyed scarcely a month of connubial bliss—was killed in action. The B-17 on which he served as a bombardier, Liberty Bell, crashed returning to England after a bombing raid over Germany. After my mother received her commission, she went to Europe on the liner-turned-troopship Nieuw Amsterdam and served as a dietician at an Army hospital in France. To say she wasn't fond of French men is putting it mildly. I never asked her where she met my father, but my guess is at the bar in an officer's club someplace.

My father, who grew up in the Far East and California, was a glamorous Army Air Corps fighter pilot. Not just any fighter pilot, but the world’s best, if you were to believe him.

That's my father, Willis W. Bryant, Jr. on the far left. The guys in the barracks look as if they know some show tunes.
Years later James Dean adopted this very look.
He also had many social adventures, most of which involved women, something that you'd never glean from these practically suitable for Grindr photos. As far as the war itself was concerned, he believed, like a mid-century William Tecumseh Sherman, that the only good German was a dead German.

He named his plane, a P-47, Old Saucerass, after a dog his Uncle Jack owned. The dog had a spot on his butt that looked like, well, a saucer. Leave it to a Bryant to name a dog Old Saucerass, and leave it to another Bryant to name his airplane after that very dog. (I consider myself fortunate that I wasn’t named Old Saucerass.) In my father’s telling of story, my mother wanted him to call his plane Miss Betty but he thought a name like that was too common for words. Hence, Old Saucerass.  My father’s commander, a straight arrow type, made him erase the final S in Saucerass so the airplane became the even more ridiculous Old Sauceras.

He earned some medals, though he was completely dismissive of them. He claimed not to need some desk jockey at “Fort Fumble” (i.e. the Pentagon) to validate his skill and valor. However, he was proud of one bit of military recognition; his membership in the Caterpillar Club, a “club” for people who’d bailed out of an airplane in order to save their lives—as in pilots of disabled planes rather than paratroopers. He’d say it was his kind of club: no meetings.

The club allegedly took its name from the silkworm, since, in those days, parachutes were made from real silk. Then again, perhaps the name came about because silk caterpillars drifted from one mulberry leaf to another on a strand of silk. As Winston Churchill might have said, it's a metaphor wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

Hawkeye proudly wore his membership pin—a little caterpillar crawling across a red white and blue field—on his blazer lapel.

One day in May 1983, I read an article in Esquire by John Berendt—who would later go on to write Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil—about neckties. Back in the 1980s, Esquire, a magazine for pre-ironic and manly-yet-fashion-conscious future doofus hipster-wannabes, contained page turning articles about neckties. Oh and political exposes, sports pieces, crime stories and other guy kinda stuff. I read it for the necktie articles.

The article noted that while in America, a necktie was just a necktie, in Great Britain; a necktie was filled with more meaning than you can shake a stick at. Public schools, universities, clubs, and associations had signature neckties and you had to prove you had the right to wear certain ties before purchasing one. I’m sure every red-blooded slightly-to-the-right-of-center American guy who read the article thought to himself, “It’s no bloody wonder that those limeys lost their empire if they had time to worry about who was wearing the Royal Victoria Lawn Darts and Freestyle Quoits Association necktie! And they drink warm beer, too! Bah!

The article noted that even the Caterpillar Club had a necktie.

There it was: the perfect gift for my notoriously hard to buy for father. I wrote John Berendt in care of the magazine and asked where I could buy a Caterpillar Club tie.

He promptly wrote back on his very nice stationery and gave me the name of the store in England. This was before well before the age of email, so I typed out a letter to T.M. Lewin & Sons, Ltd; 106 Jermyn Street, SW1Y 6EQ telling them that my father was in the Caterpillar Club and asking how to purchase a tie. In the letter, I described my father’s lapel pin, assuming that was all the documentation I’d need.

T.M. Lewin in the person of P. A. G. McKenna (Miss) wrote back in nearly impossible to read longhand quoting me prices for two different ties but telling me that due to their agreement with Irwin G. B. Limited they could not sell me a tie without a copy of my father’s Caterpillar Club ID card. Just before she closed with “yours faithfully” she indicated they’d be grateful if any form of payment could be in a pounds sterling bank draft rather than in dollars. Longhand. Yours Faithfully. Bank Draft. Oh my. It was practically like getting a letter from the counting house of Scrooge and Marley.

So on July 5, 1983 I wrote to Irwin G. B. Limited, Icknield Way, Letchworth, Herts 596 IEV to see about getting the proper ID Card. I described the pin and noted that it had the legend “W.W. Bryant AAF 5-24-44” on its back.

A week later, on blue Caterpillar Club stationery, I received a note from Mrs. B. Elsworth, the secretary of the Caterpillar Club.

We have checked our records thoroughly and cannot find any trace of your father’s membership here. However, the description of the lapel pin you give in your letter gives us a clue to the mystery, since it does not bear any resemblance to the lapel pin which we have always issued to members. Our pins are just a gold Caterpillar with the rank and name engraved on the reverse—we do not feature the date of bail-out and there is no background of red, white, and blue. We believe that in fact your father may have been enrolled into a “Caterpillar Club” which was set up during the middle years of the Second World War by a “pirate firm” in Canada.

I’m afraid in the circumstances we cannot provide you with the authentication you require. However your father certainly looks to quality for membership in our Caterpillar Club. If he would like to complete the enclosed form and send us some documentary evidence… we could be happy to present him with our lapel pin and membership card which would enable you to obtain a tie…

She very kindly enclosed a mimeographed sheet of information about the Caterpillar Club and its history since its founding by Leslie Irvin, the developer of the parachute. Jimmy Doolittle and Charles Lindbergh had used Irvin parachutes more than once—Lindbergh four times! The information included testimonials from members that are right out of P.G. Wodehouse:

Dear Sir: Will you please enroll me as a Member of the Caterpillar Club? I bailed out over Holland on August 15th from a blazing Kite and made a wizard landing.

God bless you brother Leslie on behalf of my wife and children, as yet unknown.

Dear Leslie, I’d like to thank you for the sweetest moments in all my life, when my parachute opened and I realized I was not going to die. Your ‘chutes are so good I am going to name my son (when I have one) Irvin as it was due to one in particular that I am alive enough to woo, marry, and get me a son. 

My father wasn’t a pack rat but fortunately he still had his pilot’s logbook from his early days in the Army Air Corps, so we knew that he bailed out from a P-47 whose engine had caught fire near Harding Field, Louisiana, on May 25, 1944. So I contacted the public library in Baton Rouge to see if they might be able to help. I wondered if there had been something in the newspaper about it.

Lo and behold there was!  The incident was newsworthy enough to rate a small blurb on the same page as an ads for the Pelican Club and The Katherine Davis School of Dancing. A library staffer whose name is lost to history sent a copy produced by the microfilm reader.

Pilot Parachutes from P-47 Near Engineer Depot

Second Lt. William W. Bryant of Harding Field escaped with minor injuries when he parachuted from his P-47 fighter plane at 12:45 p.m. today five miles west of the Engineering depot, air officials announced today. The pilot was on an operational training mission when the accident occurred. His plane crashed.

Nine months after getting the application I sent it back to B. Ellsworth on Ikneild Way, Herts.  My father signed the form Willis W. Bryant Lt. Col USAF (Retired).  Rank at time of bale-out 2nd Lt. US Army Air Corps, Service # A0767107.

A week later Mrs. B. Ellsworth, now my chum and identifying herself as Babs, wrote back. 

Since I now see from your application that the bale-out took place over North America, I am sending all the correspondence to our office in Canada, which deals with North American applications. Mrs. Eva Wagner of Irvin Industries Canada should be contacting you in the future about your application.... We have made further checks here and definitely have no record of any previous application by you. 

A little over a week later (Mrs.) Eva Wagner wrote, indicating that she’d received correspondence from Mrs. Babs Ellsworth. She went on to say:

When Leslie Irvin first established the Caterpillar Club in 1922, it was restricted to those who used an Irvin parachute to save their lives from a disabled aircraft. As time went on and other parachute manufacturers started up, it became increasingly difficult to determine whose parachute was responsible for the safe “let down”; especially during the Great Wars. He then revised the clause to accept memberships from those using an “Irvin-type” parachute. 

Therefore I am pleased to enclose an Irvin membership card and Caterpillar pin, which we know you will wear proudly.  

Shortly thereafter I sent the cash to Britain and got the tie in return. It was a lot of work for one somewhat nondescript tie, but since he was the world’s greatest pilot, it was worth it. And in the process, I learned the real reason for the fall of the British Empire...warm beer!