Friday, August 5, 2011

The Mysteries of Brownie the Airline Captain

My friend Keith's father, Exline Brown, is the big man in the back row, fourth from left. The Browns lived up the street from us in Los Altos, and Brownie was a glamorous airline captain. The newsletter is from 1972, when Brownie should have been 67 years old, though his army record might beg to differ.

Thanks to several readers of my blog I've been able to gather more information about my childhood friend Keith Brown's father, Exline Brown.  One woman wrote to say her father owned a flying service and had taught  Brownie (as he was known) to fly. 

Through another site I met Tom Bailey, a former coworker of Brownie's at Hughes Airwest, who is keeping a website and archive for Airwest families. From him, I found the newsletter, above, that included the only picture I have of my lost friend's father.
I've learned that both the Exlines and the Browns were early settlers in San Luis Obispo County, pioneers in early California. This explains Brownie's unusual first name and the fact that there is an Exline Road in King City, California, where Brownie grew up.

Captain Exline Brown, from a 1972 Hughes Airwest employee newsletter.

I remember he used to wear a certain kind of Western dress boot I had never seen (kids' sizes give them a good view of adults' shoes) and I'm sure that was a style he favored growing up as he did near the farms and ranches of King City.

He was born in 1905.  But, I discovered his World War II enlistment records show the year of his birth as 1913! Certainly it was one of those "paperwork snafus"so common in the military at that time, right? The Army needed pilots and when World War II broke out, Brownie was already a professional who had flown air mail contracts. 

When Brownie enlisted in 1942, his "mistake" about his birth year made him 29 years old, instead of 37, and probably improved his eligibility for flying, for combat and for who knows what else. 

What a funny thing that was to discover. He was already married to his wife Elma (sometimes spelled Alma in the records) and she was born in 1910. His 1913 birth date made him three years younger than his wife.  They must have had a good laugh about that:  if she was laughing about him going off to fly in a war. Anyway he came safely home.

Because Brownie was an airline pilot, he was around his house at odd times during the week, so he was like a second father to me, often home when my own father was not. My mother had a crush on him, I think, and always told my father Brownie was a better pilot because he had a cleaner garage! My poor father.

But Brownie's life was filled with sadness.  He and his wife couldn't have children, so they adopted Keith, who told me very early on after we met that he was special because his parents had chosen him. How sweet his parents were to tell him in that way.

Then, Brownie's wife Elma died. Brownie had been flying for Pacific, but it merged into a larger airline and that year of all years he was gone a lot more than usual. Keith hated all of the people Brownie hired as housekeepers/babysitters/nannies and was really miserable.  Looking back, I'm sure Brownie was miserable too.  But he had to keep working.

When Brownie remarried after a year of mourning, Keith was excited and told us he was getting a new mother. But he wasn't happy for long. His stepmother had a daughter of her own, and wanted a new house across town. Keith had lost his mother, had a father who was gone all the time, and now he was losing his neighborhood. His stepmother probably couldn't help but favor her own daughter.

What a mess.  We were away on summer vacation when we got a special delivery letter that Keith had drowned in a swimming accident.  How Brownie survived those terrible years, I don't know.

But he went on as we all must.  "My heart has been broken for years," says Isaac of York in the book Ivanhoe.  "But it still beats."

Brownie was a kind man and I think of him with such fondness. So it may be wishful thinking that I see him in one of the photos that Christine sent of student pilots at Lyon Air Service in San Francisco.  Her father is John H. Lyon at far right in the photo.  I think Brownie may be the big man third from right. Men change a lot as they grow older: especially if they lose their hair as Brownie did.  But he has that big, broad chest as Brownie did and that big smile. And his Western style boots look familiar to me.  

I wonder if that really is Brownie?

I wonder if he ever told Airwest his real age? 

Is that Brownie, third from right?

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