I might more properly have titled this working document Lucky to Have Had a Boyhood Hero until I thought about it a while, and realized there has never been a time when Jack Dwyer ceased being just that for me; a hero whose image and imprint is as real today as the last time I saw him standing in his sharply-pressed Army Air Force “Pinks” in our front yard. All these years after he most certainly passed on from this world I wish there was a way I could say a “Thank You” to him.
I must have been no more than seven years old when Jack – in his early 20s – would have arrived with his parents who came to live in the big old house across the street from our hundred-year old New Jersey family home. I know that Pearl Harbor had not happened yet when I was first invited to tour Jack’s upstairs “private museum” of swords and knives and weapons-of-war collected from around the world. Mr. Dwyer Senior was a senior executive with the Cunard White Star shipping line, and Jack had gotten to work as first a cabin boy and then a steward aboard that shipping giant’s passenger vessels since his early youth.
Along with every shining, jewel-encrusted blade came a story, and Jack was an accomplished collector and teller of tall tales. Along with a Gurkha knife would come a recitation of Kipling’s Gungha Din and a replay of a story known to every child of the day. When allowed to hold in my hands a curved scimitar of rippling Damascus steel, I was able to envision images of knights in shining mail as seen in my favorite weekly newspaper chronicle Prince Valiant, while the iconic twisted blade of the Kris dagger from Java is easily the most easily-remembered of them all to this day. Then too there was an attic room hung with an assortment of military weapons from WWI: a British Lee Enfield rifle, a French Labelle, a German Luger pistol, a “Broomhandle” Mauser and a belted Webley as I still recall; all exciting and memorable for an imaginative kid of my age.
I realize now that Jack was a “one-of-a-kind”, even for the age in which he had grown up, and was obviously – if not a thoroughly spoiled lad – at least one greatly indulged by generous and loving parents. Along with the aforementioned collection of weaponry, he had managed to bring home on his father’s ships an English sports car and an unusual matched motorcycle and sidecar of European manufacture he had acquired from a “bored” Prince (or other person of royal birth.) Both were to add their own chapters to my legacy of hero-worship.
The bright-green sports car was an open two-seater with three headlights, the center one of which was “steerable” for seeing around bends. We took it for an initial spin at dusk so that I could steer the light from my passenger seat on the left. On subsequent trips I made certain to guide Jack down every side street in town on which I knew other kids would be sure to see me; especially Barbara Hummel and Elizabeth Riker. The motorcycle was an even bigger thrill, and my driver knew just how to go around a curve so that the side-car in which I rode rose up in the air just enough. I think we wore matching leather hats, but I could be over-imagining.
When war broke out Jack was quick to join the U.S. Army Air Corps and enter training to become a fighter pilot. (He may have already been a Reserve pilot since he advanced - it seemed to me -quite rapidly.) To begin with he was flying Curtis P-40 fighters, made famous by Clair Chennault’s Flying Tigers and the best we had at the time. Flying training missions from east coast bases, Jack would regularly buzz my house at altitudes low enough to shake my Mom’s upstairs clothes line. Shortly thereafter, Jack transitioned into a P-51 “Mustang”, the plane whose arrival would change the very course of victory, and whose Rolls Royce Merlin engine I could hear coming when still many miles away.
On those increasingly rare occasions today when my ears are “serenaded” by that mystical sound, my boyhood friend comes automatically into view and I feel renewed to realize that I still enjoy the imprint of a boyhood hero who remains larger than life.