I missed my first opportunity to meet a hero when I was in elementary school.
Throughout my childhood, I lived across the street from Albert Einstein. I passed him on the sidewalk almost every day while walking to elementary school.
But as I was baffled by multiplication and long division, I was too embarrassed to say a word to a man I knew was a math genius.
However, I am proud to have known another hero, Douglas Campbell, the first American trained air ace in World War I.
His obituary in The New York Times recounted how, when he graduated from Harvard in 1917, just after America entered World War I, he immediately joined the American Air Service.
He received some training in the States and was soon sent to France as a pilot with the First Pursuit Group of the 94th Aero Squadron. On his first day of combat, he shot down a German plane. In the next month, he shot down five more planes and earned the title of ace.
My mother met Campbell in 1915 when he took a summer job as a companion to her invalid brother. The Harvard sophomore, handsome and personable, really impressed my mother who was twelve years old at the time. She followed his wartime career with breathless interest.
Though she had told me Campbell’s history, I didn’t meet him until 1957 when I married and moved to Greenwich, Connecticut where he was living.
Greenwich was a formal town, if not downright stuffy. When we went out, we had to get a sitter for our firstborn, except when the Campbells invited us to “come over and bring your baby.”
Doug must have been in his sixties then.
After the war, he had joined Pan American Grace Company and spent years flying in South America where he learned to make the hot sauce he poured over eggs for dinner. After many years in Peru, he’d returned to Manhattan to be general manager for Pan American Airways.
That first evening, we talked mostly about children, his three and our infant. Nobody mentioned World War I.
I was only reminded of Campbell's age when we asked him to a party with some thirty-ish friends.
He sat right down at our rickety piano and pounded out, “I paid a dime to see the tattooed lady,”’ a World War I song that ends, “and over on one kidney, was a bird's eye view of Sydney. But what I liked best, right across her chest, were my hills of Tennessee.”
He was a bit hit.
One reason Campbell never seemed stifled by East Coast propriety may have been that he was raised in California. His father was the first president of the brand new University of California at Berkeley. I asked him why all the Campbell boys went to Harvard. He smiled. “At the time it was the better school,” he said.
When we moved to California, the Campbells visited whenever Doug was speaking to alumni of the 94th Air Squadron here.
He used to say, “I tell ‘em here’s what happens when a young eagle turns into an old crow.” By now he was in his eighties and willing to talk of wartime days, of dogfights and facing off with the Red Baron.
Still handsome and sharp, the World War I ace was never old and always a hero in my eyes.
Captain Campbell died in 1990 in Greenwich. He was 94.