The odds are good you’ve never heard of Lon Cooper. There’s no reason you would have, really. But you should have. We all should have. At least we should have if life is fair, which it is not.
So working on the theory that being late is better than nothing, allow me to make the introductions.
Lon Cooper is one of the men who did his part when it mattered. It would have been easy to shrug it off, think of himself, and take care of number one. But he didn’t do that. Instead he became an anonymous member of what Tom Brokaw tagged as The Greatest Generation.
Raise a toast to Lon and his peers. They deserve it, even if you’ve never heard of them individually. Collectively, they got us here. And for that we should be eternally grateful.
When World War II rolled around, Lon lived in the quaint little town of, St. Petersburg, Florida. Like so many of his generation, he decided he would volunteer for the service and do his part to preserve the freedom of the western world.
That sounds like hyperbole today. We’ve felt so safe for so long we can easily forget, if we ever even knew, that being free, being able to make your own decisions, live your own life, and do weird things like fly recreationally haven’t always been so easily done. Not in history. Not in the present day, either.
Fortunately for us, when a very bad man popped up intent on doing battle with the forces of good and taking away the freedom we in the western world cherish so much, Lon was one of the men those good forces were made up of.
Blockbuster movies aside, Captain America didn’t wear a mask and carry a round shield in real life. Nope, he wore khakis, a slightly rumpled work shirt, and scuffed shoes. He got up early and enjoyed few creature comforts. He worked hard and put in long hours. He did what had to be done, and he didn’t grouse about it much. And sometimes, he was a she. We forget that too often.
The phrase, “We’re all in this together,” used to be more than just a slogan. It was a way of life.
Like a lot of young men his age, Lon would have liked to fly fighters, or bombers during the war — anything in the action. He wanted to make a difference and leave his mark on the war effort. But alas, Lon had tussled with asthma as a child, and that pretty much ruled him out as a member of the active military.
In those days, giving up and going home wasn’t a particularly popular course of action. So rather than accept defeat Lon slid down to the next line on his to-do list and settled on his number two choice. He became a civilian flight instructor training pilots for the US Army.
You see, Lon never made it into the big show. He never got to point at a newsreel displaying his face and latest exploits as it played at the local Bijou. He quietly went about the business of training young men to fly. When he was done with them, they went on to other assignments flying bigger, faster, more capable machines. Lon did not. He and his students stuck to flying Stearmans over Lakeland, Florida, where they perfected steep turns, lazy 8s, and stall after stall after stall.
It’s a safe bet that many of Lon’s students went on to fly those fighters and bombers he had dreamed of piloting over Europe. They went on to do the work that was deemed important. They got their pictures in the paper, and made the big noise that makes kids dream of doing remarkable things when they grow up. But not Lon. He just saddled up in another Stearman, pointed another young pup to the sky, and led them to a life of purpose and promise.
Lon remained anonymous for the majority of his life — until today.
When 1945 rolled around, the war ended and Lon’s services were no longer needed. So he went back to St. Petersburg where he started out. He raised his family, paid the bills, and worked diligently to make sure his family never saw the sort of poverty he and his peers had experienced first hand during the Great Depression. But Lon didn’t fly again. Not for a long, long time anyway. Not for decades. Building a life was more important, and so he took the hit and gave up his dream in favor of another one that meant even more to him.
You see, flying was never cheap. Sure, we all hear stories about when fuel was 30 a gallon, or you could rent a Cub for $10 an hour. But in 1945 when Lon and his fellow post-war pilots went home, the average salary of a working man was just shy of $2,000 a year. That stark reality tempers the excitement of hearing that a brand new car could be had for barely $1,000, or that the average house was a tad shy of $10.000.
Yep, those stories about P-51 Mustangs being dumped onto the market for as little as $5,000 are true. But it’s not quite as rosy a picture as you might think when you consider that would equate to better than a 50% down-payment on a house.
The average guy is going to have a hard time slipping that one past the wife, I don’t care which era of American history you’re in.
So in the interest of showing respect where respect is due, and having a bit of perspective where it’s needed, let’s all take a moment this year to tip our hats, extend our hand in friendship, and provide a little support where we can for the men and women who got us to where we are today. It’s about time they heard a word or two of encouragement after all these years of sacrifice. We owe them that much at least.
Thank you, Lon. Thank you so much for the life you made possible for the rest of us.
Photos: Lon, on right, presents, Harvey, on left, with his flight certificate. Harvey was a student of the Lodwick School of Aeronautics the same time Lon was an instructor during World War II. 66 years later, Harvey flew Waldo Wright’s Stearman, in a program Lon Cooper helped develop.