Slides are blinking on a screen at the Air and Space Museum, flashing faded images of ancient aviators: Eddie Rickenbacker, 26 kills; Rene Fonck, 75 kills; Reed Landis, 9 kills.
"Poor Reed," says 86-year-old Henry Loomis. "He was my commanding officer. He just died."
"I'm looking for Vaughn," says Ray Brooks, 82, who logged 3,100 hours of flying in World War I and is one of 55 World War I overseas flyers here this week for a reunion.
He is not disapointed. The image comes up quickly: George Vaughn, 13 kills.
Vaughn's wife puts her arm around the 81-year-old ace and says, "Gee, what a handsome fellow he was."
Vaughn himself swivels away from the projector and walks off toward a life-size WWI diorama.He mutters one word: "Spooky."
If museums are the repositories of our past, then it must be spooky indeed for the living to find themselves ensconced within a part of their own personal history that is almost universally asociated with the dead.
"I tell you," said Ray Brooks. "They're got my old Spad 13 (a French biplane) in a basement at the Smithsonian. They keep trying to hold the thing together. The fabric is falling apart; the wings are drooping off.
I expected to die in that war. I can't believe I'm still alive. I've been in the hospital 17 times. So I said to this guy at the Smithsonian, 'Let the thing fall apart, just like I am, and turn into dust. I survived several crashes eith that plane and came out alive. Your figure that out. But don't keep trying to truss up things that aren't meant to fly.'"
It has been 60 years since most of these men donned their brown-leather jackets and long silk scarves to drop converted 75-mm anti-personnel shells over the countryside of France and Germany. The advanced the art of flying, but came home to other lives: patent lawyers, electrical engineers, bluidling contractors. They settled into different parts of the country, and only seven one of them up with the idea.
Their Mayflower Hotel banquet on Thursday night was different from the gatherings of most conventioneers: a lot of canes (the youngest of them is 80); plenty of berets; the absolute absence of leisure suits; faces worn deelpy with lines; a generous offering of perfectely trimmed white mustaches. And when a silver-haired flyer with wings in his lapel thrust up his champagne glass for a toast, it went, "regardless of what you may think of him," to the President.
It was also a short gathering: two nights and one day.
"When you get this old," said Ira Jones, "you can't do too much partying."
When the flyers emerged starryeyed from the aerial film "To Fly" at the museum, group leader Ira Milton Jones announced that they should "form squadrons of four" and proceed to the WWI galaery in room 209.
"Two-oh-nine" said one flyer heading up an escalator. "The two-hundred and ninth. Wasn't that the Bartley Naval Cammels with the RAF?"
"I'm not sure," another answered. "But I'm sure that I should have stayed in Paris and gone to law school there. Boy, those girls were pretty. We were getting $220 a month. That was good money then."
Flyer Jenkin Hockert pulled out his wallet and displayed a bogus two-inch by three-inch single.
"This is the size of the dollar bill today," he said.
The Kitty Hawk Flyer was hanging down from the main ceiling and one fellow spied it.
"There's the old Wright plane," he said.
"I didn't realize it was as big as that," came the answer. "Never paid much attention to planes this side of the ocean."
"I get no thrill out of flying now," said Ira Jones. "I know some people who have a twin-engine Cessna, and when you want to go to 35,000 feet, you just push a button and it goes to 35,000 feet and levels off. That's no fun."
"After I got back home, I used to miss it every once in a while," said Rob Oliver. "A two-cycle motorcycle would go by and it would be burning castor oil and I'd remember the smell of the engine you'd get in the cockpit."
"Ahh, that old castor oil in the engines," said Tom Galbreath. "I've still got my old flight boots. Got so much castor oil on them then that they're still soft."
If the Wright Brothers' plane looked small, the Skylab Workshop seemed almost too mammoth to believe. Glancing at an air lock, one of the flyers observed that "they've even got a safe deposit box on the thing." And craning up at the Lunar Module, Ray Brooks said. "It's just too amazing to believe. In 1910 I made my models with carved balsa wood and rubber bands. I got my engineering degree from MIT in 1917. But the idea that that could land on the moon is staggering."
The son of one of the flyers decided to head down to another gallery with his wife.
"We're going down to World War II," he said. "The big war, not the small one."
"They all start out small," said Rob Oliver. "I was trained by a British officer at Cornwall. He told us, "This was just a friendly war, then some bloody fool fired a shot at us."
"What training we got," said Frank Roberts. "You were sitting in those little Curtis JN-4s in front of your instructor and you couldn't hear each other. We came in for a landing one day and he thought I had the controls and I thought he had the controls and somehow the thing sort of landed itself."
"We were all so young," said George Vaughn. "At 20, everything is exciting. We were never really worried when we were up in the air. The only time you realized the danger was when you were back at your base and the bombs started dropping on you."
"People always asked me if I still fly," said Roland Richardson. "I tell 'em, 'Sure, I still fly.' You know where I fly. Right there in a nice confortable seat on a commercial jet. Three hundred and forty hours in the war was enough."
"Hardly a week goes by," said Ira Jones, "that I don't get a letter that begins, 'My dad has passed away.' We started off seven years ago with 800 people in our group. Now we have 400, and half of them are in nursing homes and don't even know who they are. They'd be better off dead."
Yet looking back on it all - the bi-planes, the dog fights, the girls in Paris and his first solo flight after 4.3 hours of instruction - Ira Jones does have some fond thoughts.
"The cliche is that age dims one's memory," he said. "It really embelishes what one remembers."