Flight Of Fancy?

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Our column “My Brush With History” is just a month shy of its fifth birthday, and it’s a very healthy youngster. In fact, it has grown to become perhaps the most popular feature in the magazine—not merely because it is written by our readers but because it so perfectly reflects the expansive and inclusive nature of our subject. Currently it is generating more submissions than we can answer—although we are grateful for each of them—and the quality of these little essays tends to be impressively high. But now and again there are difficulties.

Once, for instance, we got a marvelous story told by a man who, as a car dealer in the Depression Midwest, had been working late one Sunday when a group of men came in and demanded a Hudson Terraplane; it was fast, their leader explained, and thus suited their needs. He was Pretty Boy Floyd. They took the car at gunpoint, locked the salesman in the washroom, and fled—but not far. Our correspondent soon got his Hudson back, ventilated by police bullets and awash in brass cartridge cases from the gang’s last stand. He even sent us one.

We hurried this into type, but as Laura Alien, who is in charge of the “Brush” section, looked into the story, it all began to evaporate. None of the local papers had found the car theft and gun battle of sufficient interest to merit mention; Pretty Boy Floyd hadn’t died in a car; the author was too ill to answer our queries. . . . And so, with the greatest regret, we pulled the piece.

We were not quite so perspicacious (or, at least, I wasn’t) with the equally fine story that ran last December. It’s a hell of a tale, and you should take a look at it: Capt. Charles D. Bohon, a Strategic Air Command pilot, accidentally straying with his nuclear-armed B-47 so deep into Soviet airspace in the Cold War year of 1959 that he is intercepted by a Yak fighter; a tense standoff broken by Bohon’s radioing the Yak, “If you shoot us down, you’ll start the war. If you try to force us down, we’ll fight and you’ll have to shoot us down"; the navigator’s desperate inspiration: “Tell them it’s my fault. Tell them if that Yak pilot lets us go home, I’ll give him my watch"; canopy-to-canopy flying (the Yak upside down) to confirm the virtue of the watch—a Timex, a brand looked upon wistfully in Russia—and home safe and sound with the world intact.

What a great story! I read it aloud to my wife. She said she didn’t believe it. I showed it to my boss: “Come on! There weren’t twenty people in the world who were good enough to do that kind of stunt flying back then!” No, no, I assured them, it had the ring of truth. And once we’d checked the story’s plausibility with the Air Force Museum in Dayton and confirmed Captain Bohon’s service records, which he sent after I wrote gently suggesting that some people here thought his story was a bit too good to be true, I ran it.

The response came swiftly, largely from SAC veterans. It ranged from amused to apoplectic, but the gist was, “Hey, we never ran this sloppy an operation.” The outcry triggered an extensive second cycle of research, and in time the Air Force Casualty Office confirmed that the only C. D. Bohon ever to serve had died on May 23, 1993—a month before he sent us his story.

We located his son, C. D. Bohon, Jr., who runs an automotive magazine in California. In time he replied to our queries: “I did not write the story submitted to you. My father did, at my urging. He died before finishing it. I polished it up and submitted it to you in his name, as a memorial. Working together with my father on his memoirs was very special to us both. As a nonwriter he viewed having a by-lined article published in a national magazine as something wonderful. I promised him I would get it published. I would not let his death force me to break that promise. So when your query about its veracity arrived, I responded in his name. That was unfair to you—and, on reflection, unfair to my father too. However, I would not have forwarded you checkable documentation if I did not have absolute faith in the authenticity of the story. I still believe it is true.”

Well, there it is. We found Captain Bohon’s navigator, William E. Foster, Jr. He said that many weird incidents happened during their SAC service, although he didn’t remember that particular one. It did not seem to concern him much, but he did have a point he was very eager to make. Captain Bohon was a fine man and a fine flier: “He saved my life three or four times.”

There could be worse ways to be remembered. And if we have distorted the record, I am of course sorry. But I can’t entirely regret a dustup that ratifies in so interesting a fashion the premise upon which our “Brush With History” feature—and, for that matter, our magazine—is founded: The past matters.