Tommy Hayes almost shook Lucky Lindy's hand. Almost.
Born during the last year of World War I, 10 years old in 1927, he was at a parade in Oregon to celebrate Charles Lindbergh's historic transatlantic hop.
"Jeez! It was a big parade," said Hayes, now 82. "I almost touched him. He was a big hero of mine. . . . I went to go shake his hand and then the police got me."
But the experience remained with him, as did his fascination with airplanes--especially those used in combat.
"Oh, boy, I was really into World War I, and that's where the fighter plane was first used," he recalled, entertaining questions in the den of his home at Falcon's Landing--a Sterling retirement community owned and operated by the Air Force Retired Officers Community (AFROC).
As a 5- and 6-year-old, Hayes would draw pictures of fighter planes for his friends, willing his dreams to come true. From that early age, he said, "I was bound and determined. I wanted to fight."
In 1936, not long after graduating from high school among "trees, lots of trees" in Portland, Ore., Hayes went to a Navy recruiting office only to be told that he needed a college degree to sign up. A disgruntled Hayes enrolled at Oregon State University to do his time.
"Three years later, something happened," he said. Germany was on the offensive in Europe, and the U.S. military began stepping up its pilot training program. Hayes, one year away from his bachelor's degree, found out that he was eligible to enlist.
"I said, 'Hell, this shoulda happened a year ago.' And I signed up," he said. College, however, had not been a total loss because it put another, very different kind of hitch in his plans. As a sophomore at Oregon State, he met the girl--Louise Hayes--who already shared his name and would become his wife.
He trained in California, and by Dec. 7, 1941--the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and drew the United States into World War II--Hayes was a second lieutenant who had logged 300 hours in fighter planes.
On Dec. 8, he had his orders, and by February, Hayes's company was in Java on a base at a converted sugar mill, stationed there to secure the South Pacific against the Japanese as they worked their way to Australia.
"Life was pleasant on the sugar mill," he said. "The bad part was the mission."
When they got word that the Japanese were landing on the island of Bali, east of New Guinea, Hayes and the other pilots were sent to "interfere."
To do more--to defeat them--would have been impossible, he said. "We were poorly trained compared to the Japanese," who had been fighting in China the previous four years, he said.
On Feb. 20, fighting erupted over Bali.
Hayes crouched in his wooden chair to simulate his position in the cockpit, raising his eyes to see again the acrobatic Japanese pilots dancing overhead. He jerked forward slightly as he described how his plane was hit by a Japanese Zero fighter, which counted him as a kill and went back to the melee.
"He got me pretty good in the tail," said Hayes, who tried to fly his damaged plane back to the base in Java several hundred miles away. He crashed just short of the base.
"I went through a bunch of coconut trees," he said. "Tore the damn wing off."
Hayes was lucky. Of 15 pilots on that mission, five were lost. He was still in the military hospital in Java with a concussion a week later when the island was evacuated as the Japanese approached.
After less than a year in the South Pacific, Hayes was sent home to train fighter pilots. It was the end of 1942, and the Japanese had lost a decisive battle at Guadalcanal.
In 1943, he went to England as a squadron commander ("It's the greatest job"), flying missions with 80 to 90 planes into Germany. After fighting in the Pacific with "little experience and little equipment," he found it almost a luxury to be in Europe where they had so many bombers.
After 10 months in England, he had flown 85 missions there and downed at least eight German planes and two Japanese Zeroes. When the war ended in 1945, Hayes knew that he wanted to stay in the Air Force because he loved flying.
Then a lieutenant colonel, Hayes was offered a permanent commission and a career, which he began by finishing college. He studied international relations at the University of Oregon and went to work for the War Plans Division at the Pentagon while living in Falls Church.
"There were two stores there--a service station and a grocery store, and that's all--the roads weren't even paved," he said. "I don't even know if there was a stoplight there."
Hayes was later stationed in Paris; Colorado Springs, Co.; North Dakota; Spain; and Germany during the 1950s and the first half of the '60s. In 1966, he was back at the Pentagon, arranging shipments of supplies and materiel to Vietnam. He retired as a brigadier general in 1970.
"And along the way, I got to fly."
On each new assignment, he was accompanied by his wife and five daughters--Suzanne, Marilyn, Carol, Jane and Dorothy. While they were stationed in Spain, he fell in love with painting and met an artist named Eduardo Cobos, who took him on as a pupil. Later--on the very day he retired from the military--he enrolled in a master of fine arts program at American University for a degree in painting, which he completed in 1973.
At Falcon's Landing, where he and his wife moved two years ago, Cobos's works adorn the walls and Hayes has just put the finishing touches on his first painting in 23 years: a bucolic old country house. He said he stopped drawing fighter planes decades ago, although someone else's painting of a P-51 in flight hangs on the den wall.
"That plane," he said quietly, "was the greatest."
CAPTION: Tommy Hayes sits in front of a painting of his P-51 fighter in his Sterling home. "That plane was the greatest," he said.
CAPTION: In his home in Sterling, former fighter pilot Tommy Hayes recounts the story of a dogfight he had in his P-51 against the Germans during World War II.