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Hope for problem children - Bullard, Libby, and more

eugene bullard frederick libby

Boys will be boys, and might survive to be men

Perhaps you know, as we do, a little boy who is nice, friendly, outgoing, and also the terror of the preschool. This is the one who makes teachers happy by being home sick, the one who can't sit still, and who could find a way to injure himself or someone else even in a padded cell if he were unsupervised for five minutes. 

So it was encouraging to read how Frederick Libby, of Sterling, Colorado, was described in a book recommended by one of our readers, "Fred's father delegated brother Bud to keep Fred alive until he turned 18, and if he did, their father would give Bud three of his best horses."

Later on, when Fred was 10, "One look at his battered son, and Fred's father revised his bargain: Bud must keep Fred alive only until Fred turned 15." - In the Fields and the Trenches: The Famous and Forgotten on the Battlefields of World War I by Kerrie Logan Hollihan.

As it turned out, Libby not only lived to 18 (without benefit of Ritalin!) but also lived six more decades. He became both a cowboy and the first American ace, though again you have to qualify these "firsts" very carefully - he was not an American citizen at the time because he volunteered for the Canadian army to get into the war. He was a unique triple ace who flew as an observer, bomber pilot, and fighter pilot. After the war he founded Eastern Oil Company and Western Air Express, and lived to 1970 despite being crippled by inflammation of his vertebrae. His score of aerial victories seems to be in dispute: somewhere between 14 and 24, but whatever the exact confirmed number, it was a lot.

Boy, 8, not killed or kidnapped

Meanwhile another little boy was growing up in Georgia and also gaining survival skills: Eugene Bullard, who ran away from home at the age of 8. And learned to live on his own. And found his way across the Atlantic by the time he was 11. And made his way to France, where he was unable to join the war until many of his friends had already been killed, because at 17 he was underage. But he made up for it then, serving in the trenches with the French Foreign Legion, and later joined the Lafayette Flying Corps. Bullard impressed the man who was himself a world-class adventurer, James Norman Hall. In his and Nordhoff's history of the Lafayette Flying Corps, Hall wrote:

Suddenly the door opened to admit a vision of military splendor such as one does not see twice in a lifetime. It was Eugene Bullard.
His jolly black face shone with a grin of greeting and justifiable vanity. He wore a pair of tan aviator's boots, which gleamed with a mirror-like luster, and above them his breeches smote the eye with a dash of vivid scarlet. His black tunic, excellently cut and set off by a fine figure was decorated with a pilot's badge, a Croix de Guerre, the fourragere of the Foreign Legion, and a pair of enormous wings, which left no possible doubt, even at a distance of fifty feet, as to which arm of the service he adorned. The eleves-pilotes [student pilots] gasped, the eyes of the neophytes stood out of their heads, and I repressed a strong urge to stand at attention.
There was scarcely an American at Avord who did not know and like Bullard. He was a brave, loyal, and thoroughly likeable fellow, and when a quarrel with his superiors caused his withdrawal from the Aviation, there was scarcely an American who did not regret the fact.

Having run away from home and traveled the world seems to have been one of the major career paths of the first American pilots. But though Raoul Lufbery, for instance, ran away from home as a teenager, not liking being raised by an older brother and a grandmother, Bullard ran away even though his adored father was still alive. His mother had died while he was little, and his father was in hiding after a white co-worker tried to kill him and the senior Bullard struck back, which is itself a story for another time. All this is from the 1972 book about Bullard, Black Swallow of Death, by P. J. Carisella and David W. Ryan, which you can get for "only" $100 to $200 and seriously needs to be reprinted. For now we'll do our best to tell the great stories from it.

So if you know and worry about uncontainable little boys or an eight-year-old who knows how to survive on the streets, remember that great pioneers of the air were made of such stuff.

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