Chapter 3: Phantom Visitors at Catalina State Park
Officer Melrose’s directions were straight-forward and the Fitzsimmons soon found themselves approaching the entrance gate at Catalina State Park. A Ranger stepped out of the Station before they had reached to Stop sign. “You must be the Fitzsimmons. Welcome to Catalina State Park. Cousin Brian called ahead and we have a place set aside for you. It’s Site 67 in our “B” Campground and has full hook-ups for your rig. I reserved the Site for five days, but if you’d like to stay longer, just let me know.”
“Thank you. That sounds great. What is the fee for those five days?
“Well. You folks must have done something really special for the Troopers. The Site has been completely paid for as well as any additional days. I’m to send a note to Phoenix with the details and the Park Service will be reimbursed. Brian was kinda vague, but he made sure I understood to give you the VIP treatment. Anyway, enjoy your stay and let me know if you have any questions or need anything.”
It was easy to find the designated Site on an outer loop backing up to a stand of trees. Bob backed the RV into place and set about connecting the electric and water sources. He unhooked the Soul and parked it out of the way at the end of the Site. Before long, they were sitting under the RV’s awning in their lounge chairs enjoying a tall cool glass of lemonade. “I think it will be an early evening, said Bob. Even though we could probably pick up some local TV stations, I’d rather we didn’t. I’m on news overload anyhow.”
“I agree. There are a few things in the refrigerator we can snack on. I’m sure you don’t feel like setting up the camp stove and cooking a large dinner.”
Bob and Elaine Fitzsimmons sat in their lounge chairs for a long while, occasionally dozing. It was dark and the sky full of stars when Bob woke and realized it was time to go inside and sleep.
Bob was up early and went outside to make coffee. It was his favorite time of the day, watching the sun come up and savoring his first cup of coffee. He heard Elaine stirring about an hour later and prepared a fresh cup for her and a second cup for himself.
“Bob, it is delightful here, so peaceful. I just want to sit here a while and enjoy the scenery. We can have breakfast later. OK?”
“No problem.” There had been too much excitement the previous day and Bob didn’t want to upset Elaine right away. Maybe he was just being paranoid, but he had noticed a man walking past their Site several times. Each time, he seemed to slow down and stare at the RV then move on. About thirty minutes later, the man returned, again staring at the RV for a few minutes before moving on.
About ten o’clock, Bob made pancakes and took them inside where Elaine had set the table with some fresh fruit. They were enjoying a final cup of coffee when Bob noticed a man standing outside the window. He was almost certain it was the same guy he had seen earlier. Bob went outside.
“Can I help you?”
“I hope so. Sorry to interrupt and I didn’t mean scare you earlier by checking out your rig. I noticed your plates and the Phantom decal. I just gotta know; are you Phitz the Phixer, the famous F-4 Phantom mechanic?”
Bob actually blushed. From inside, Elaine called out. “What is it, Bob? Is everything OK? What does that gentleman want?”
“Everything’s OK, Elaine. I think my secret identity has been discovered.”
Elaine stepped out of the RV to see what was happening.
The man stepped back and stood ramrod straight and saluted. “Pardon my manners. My name is Jack Erskine, Colonel Erskine, United States Air Force, retired. I am honored to meet you personally, Sir. I was on the original committee of former pilots who dreamed up this whole idea of a suitable retirement gift for you.”
Bob extended his hand. “Bob Fitzsimmons and pleased to meet you as well, Colonel Erskine. This is my wife Elaine.”
“Pleased to meet you as well, Ma’am. I didn’t notice you folks here yesterday. Did you just arrive? Are you planning to stay long? Where are you headed?”
“Actually, we just got in late yesterday and we really don’t have any plans for the next few days. At some point, I was hoping to drive over to Davis-Monthan and see a few folks there.”
“Well, Phitz, some of us have been tracking your travels for some time. It looks to us like you’re on some sort of tour down Memory Lane. We know you’ve been to Tyndall and MacDill in Florida, then over to Holloman in New Mexico. Have we missed anything?”
“Not really”, said Bob quite embarrassedly. “I was just trying to visit as many Bases as possible to say Thank You to everyone who was part of this wonderful gift.”
“The real thanks goes to you, Phitz. Many of us are certain we wouldn’t be alive today if it weren’t for your Fix-It skills. Anyway, look, I have to get back to the Group Site. A bunch of us guys are gathered here for an informal reunion of sorts. I’ll try to get back later so we can talk some more, maybe even share some war stories.”
Colonel Erskine turned and left almost as quickly as he had arrived.
Elaine was still somewhat confused by what had happened. She was aware that her husband had been in the military during the Vietnam Era and had a long career with McDonnell Douglas and later Boeing. She had always respected Bob’s privacy and seeming unwillingness to discuss many details about his service. She was understandably stunned when Bob was presented the keys to a brand new RV motor home as a retirement gift. She always knew he was well-respected, but this was overwhelming. Hopefully, now that Bob acknowledged his secret identity had been exposed, he would be a bit more forthcoming.
Instead, Bob suggested they go for a walk around the campground to explore Catalina State Park. They were gone for several hours and arrived back at their Site just before lunch time. Bob still hadn’t commented on the morning’s events or Colonel Erskine’s visit. They had a light lunch and were sitting outside and had begun reading.
Elaine decided to see if she could prompt Bob to talk a bit. “I have to admit I was a bit surprised when that gentleman showed up this morning. He certainly was pleasant and seemed really glad to see you.” She paused for a few minutes. “I knew you were working on those fighter planes at McDonnell Douglas when we first met, so I was aware of the Phantom decal. And you told me your experience at work had a lot to do with your military service. I was always thankful you weren’t drafted into the Army and had to serve in combat. I don’t mean to pry, but I suspect there is a lot you’ve left out. Just know I’m always willing to listen as long as you feel comfortable talking.”
“Thanks, Elaine. I haven’t been keeping any big secrets. I was fortunate to be at McDonnell Douglas during the development of the F-4 fighter and I learned a lot about the plane as it was initially being built and tested. When thing began to heat up in Vietnam, the F-4 was deployed extensively on aircraft carriers in the area. The Navy came to McDonnell Douglas and requested their best mechanic to be assigned to F-4 maintenance. Apparently, in the rush to get the plane into service, a number of issues had arisen that required attention. McDonnell Douglas was only too happy to please the Navy and it was also a great opportunity for me. My number had just come up with the St. Louis Draft Board and I would have ended up in the Army Infantry. Anyway, a few weeks later I was aboard the USS Enterprise in the South China Sea assigned to Aircraft Maintenance.”
“That was certainly a fortunate turn of events for you.”
“It gets more interesting. Based on the success of the F-4, the Marines and Air Force both wanted a version developed for their specific needs and uses. After some high-level, inter-agency negotiations, or bickering, I found myself on a series of rotating assignments to the various Services, all related to F-4 maintenance. And, that’s how I spent my time during the Vietnam Era.”
“Well, I am most thankful that you were considered valuable enough to keep you out of harm’s way. There were too many of our young friends in St. Louis who weren’t so lucky and did not return.”
“Absolutely! When I got back home, there was still a high demand for my services. For a long time, the F-4 saw extensive service in a variety of ways. The Air Force’s Thunderbirds and Navy’s Blue Angels flew it for many years. It was even used in what was called the Wild Weasel Program during the first Gulf War. I guess that about brings you up-to-date with my career with the F-4 Falcon.”
“There must be a story behind the RV. I don’t mean to diminish your abilities or contribution, but it seems a bit over-the-top for a retirement gift.”
“I’m sure there is, but I was just as flabbergasted as you when I was presented the keys. If Colonel Erskine wanders by again, maybe I can ask him.”
They spent the remainder of the afternoon in their lounge chairs reading and just relaxing. Actually, Elaine was reading, Bob was napping.
Late in the afternoon, Elaine nudged Bob. “I think you better wake up. We have visitors. It’s Colonel Erskine and three other men. I assume they are all military by the way they’re walking.”
“Afternoon, Mrs. Fitzsimmons, Phitz. Let me introduce my cohorts in crime: Major Bill Douglas, Navy, Captain John “Buck” Rogers, Marines and Charley Wilson with the Department of Defense. We four are the current Officers of the Phantom Phlyers Association, an international collection of former F-4 Phantom pilots and crew. It just so happens we were having our annual get-together here at Catalina when you folks stopped by. It is most fortunate indeed. I hope you don’t mind us dropping by. We also served as the Steering Committee to arrange your retirement celebration and these guys wanted to see where their money went.”
Bob was taken aback. “It is an honor to meet all of you and I want to express my gratitude for your support over the years. And, I cannot tell you how much Elaine and I have enjoyed this motor home.”
“Actually Phitz, we are the ones who are indebted to you,” said Major Douglas. “I can speak for all the Navy pilots who flew all versions of the Phantom that many of us owe our very lives to you. We knew that if our plane had received the Phitz Phixes, we were much more likely to return from the mission.”
“Same goes for all the Leatherneck Pilots,” added Captain Rogers.
“Let me try to put this in the proper perspective,” said Charley Wilson. “Early on, we at DOD realized there were some major issues with the Phantom. We were receiving numerous reports of fuel leaks and some structural cracks. Unfortunately, the Phantom had become the major work horse in Vietnam and there were hundreds of aircraft already deployed in the field. We couldn’t just send them back to St. Louis. It would take too long and we were afraid McDonnell would analyze the issue to death. We needed an immediate solution. Fortunately, the Navy was experiencing fewer problems and when we dug into it, the common factor seemed to be you. Apparently, you had listened to the pilots when they debriefed after a mission and took it upon yourself to figure out what was happening. You simply addressed the problems without a lot of fanfare. If you worked on a plane, you signed “Phitz” near the Spook decal and it didn’t take the pilots long to notice. Your reputation grew and eventually made its way to DOD. That’s why you received all those assignments to each Service. So, when Boeing decided to retire you, the Phantom Phlyers Association stepped up to provide a way to express our gratitude. I’m pretty sure we heard from over half of everyone involved. Thanks again to you.”
Everyone was quiet for a few minutes. Finally, Captain Rogers spoke up. “This calls for a toast! I just happen to have a bottle of Del Bac Whiskey which is a local Tucson product. It’s made from malted barley and smoked over mesquite. I’ve switched from single malt scotch it’s so good.”
Elaine got out glasses from inside and everyone enjoyed a small taste.
Noticing the reaction on Elaine’s face, Rogers said, “Yeah, it’s an acquired taste, not for everyone. Anyway, welcome to Tucson.”
Erskine could see that Bob was somewhat embarrassed by all the attention and motioned to the group that it was time to leave. “Thanks again to you, Phitz and I’ll repeat Buck’s sentiment, “Welcome to Tucson.”
With that, the men all shook hands and walked toward the Group Sites where their respective vehicles were camped.
Bob was still standing and Elaine walked up to him and embraced him warmly. “I’ve always been proud of you, Bob, and you’ve always been my hero. It was truly amazing to hear about the ways in which you helped so many during a very difficult time. I love you.”
The remainder of the afternoon was quiet and Bob and Elaine resumed their reading, or napping in Bob’s case. Later, they worked together to prepare a simple dinner with Bob grilling some chicken outside and Elaine preparing a salad and some vegetables. After diner, they were sitting outside watching the sun set over the Catalina Mountains.