I’m not a fan of surprise parties, but when Bonnie Moon called me to say she and daughter Taylor were planning a surprise party for husband Ed’s 80th birthday I knew I didn’t want to miss it.
I snapped this on Saturday night as he was arriving at the party.
Ed and I met on January 2, 1967, our first day as Pan Am pilots. Ed was the third African-American pilot hired by Pan Am. We’ve been friends for 52 years. Through work, marriages, divorces, the birth of children, bases in New York, Berlin, and Miami, promotions, furloughs, stolen pensions, a company bankruptcy, illnesses, and unwanted retirements we’ve stayed connected. On Saturday night I saw Ed through different eyes – in his other world – surrounded by friends I had never met.
I had never given much thought to the path Ed and his friends traveled, though I knew it was different and more difficult than mine. He and I have never seriously discussed race, although it’s always been in the background. We were just friends. Years ago, he invited me to dinner at his parents’ modest home in Miami where I met his father, Hoyt, a chef at Mike Gordon’s upscale fish restaurant in Miami Beach. I was shocked, at the time, to learn that Mr. Moon, as a black man, had to show ID to cross the causeway to get to his job on Miami Beach, but I still didn’t appreciate the hurdles Ed, himself, endured to get where he is.
At the party, Bonnie told us of a friend, Jay Jenkins, who first met Ed in a “Colored Only” train station waiting room on their way to college. That story triggered a memory of my own…when after arriving in Pensacola for flight training, I was upbraided by a white couple in Dillard’s department store for drinking from a “Colored Only” drinking fountain. I still remember the confusion and embarrassment it caused. At the time, Seattle had its own version of segregation and racism – the Central District ghetto, the white’s only Rainier Club, Seattle Tennis Club, Women’s University Club, and others – but I wasn’t directly affected and it was more subtle than the out and out back-of-the-bus racism I was seeing in the South.
Flash forward…Ed graduates from Tennessee State University, is commissioned a second lieutenant, and becomes an Air Force pilot. After a Vietnam tour flying the F-100 he returns to the US to consider his future. In San Francisco he visits Perry Jones, the first African-American pilot hired by Pan Am, and Perry introduces him to O.B. Young, Pan Am’s second African-American pilot. Both men encourage him to apply to Pan Am, but the Thunderbirds aerial demonstration team is flying F-100s and Ed wants to tryout for the team. He tells Perry if he doesn’t make the team he’ll apply to Pan Am.
Even though one of 12 finalists, his hopes are dashed when he learns the team has rejected him. He learns later that it’s because “they aren’t ready for an African-American Thunderbird.” As a result, he leaves the Air Force, joins Pan Am, and our friendship begins. I’m sorry he didn’t get that Thunderbird slot; they missed out on a great pilot and team player but we wouldn’t be friends today if he had been selected.
Ed’s upward mobility didn’t stop when he was hired at Pan Am. In the ‘80s he was a founding member of the Organization of Black Airline Pilots (OBAP) and served as its President for several years. In that role he was asked to testify to Congress on the future of aviation and discrimination in hiring. In 1991, when Pan Am declared bankruptcy and we all lost our jobs, Ed was hired by United Airlines and started at the bottom of the seniority list again. When age forced his retirement at United, he moved on to the Transportation Security Agency where today he serves as Command Duty Officer in the operations department dealing with airport disruptions around the country.
Saturday’s event, in a banquet room at the Marriott Suites in Bethesda, Maryland, was a lovely sit down dinner for 50 with a DJ and open bar. In that room I was aware that my friendship with Ed was built around our work and friends at Pan Am, and though I’d met his family I had never met any of his other friends.
On Saturday night, Marilynn and I were seated at a table with three United Airlines captains (all African-American), three lovely former Pan Am (now Delta) flight attendants (all African-American), and Brigadier General Julius Johnson (left) a friend of Ed’s who fought in the horrific Vietnamese battles at Hue and Khe Sanh before commanding units of Army Special Forces. It’s difficult, in that setting, to believe that as recently as 1963 an African-American pilot (Marlon Green) had to take his case all the way to the US Supreme Court in order to be hired by a US airline. I guess that shows progress, but as Bob Dylan wrote, “Yes’n, how many years must a people exist/Before they’re allowed to be free?”
It’s clear that Ed is a trailblazer with an impressive resume’, but wife Bonnie is no less so. She began her career as a United Airlines flight attendant, became a UAL supervisor, then transferred to Pan Am where she became a Purser and flight attendant recruiter. While”air-lining” full-time she enrolled in law school, earned her degree and gave birth to their daughter, Taylor. She still hasn’t stopped; today she practices law in the District of Columbia with a specialty in guardianship – protecting those who have difficulty protecting themselves. We feel lucky to count them as our friends and to have met some of their other remarkable friends.
It may be age, or simply an awareness of how rare and valuable friendship is that’s led me to write more than one essay about friendship in recent months. It’s also a reminder of how the duration of some friendships, like the 52 years with Ed, that prompts me to search for the right words to celebrate those relationships. Whatever it is, I’m appreciative and aware that even though we’ve known each other for so long, there are always surprises and new friends to be found in these relationships.
In 2016, we visited Washington DC during the week the National Museum of African-American History and Culture opened, but we couldn’t get tickets in the rush of the Grand Opening. Last Sunday, following Ed’s party, we did. It’s a sobering experience… one that makes me both uncomfortable and proud. Uncomfortable to be white and acknowledge the unimaginable hardships black Americans have suffered, and proud to know so many of my friends who have succeeded in spite of that history.
P.S. – Last year I sent Ed a blog I’d written about a childhood experience I had with an African-American classmate named Corky White. We were 7 years old. One day, after school, I took Corky home to play. When my father came home he told me never to bring a black friend home again. Ed liked the blog and sent it out to his network. William Clay, a former Congressman, read it and responded by telling Ed he knew a Corky White who lived in Maryland but grew up in Seattle. Bill Clay checked and it was indeed the same Corky White. Thanks to Ed, Bill, and this six-degrees of separation, Corky and I reconnected 73 years after our childhood play date. In March of 2018, Corky, his wife Patsy, Marilynn and I, and our neighbors, George and Marianne Holifield, who knew Corky in high school, all had lunch together in Seattle. Small world and a tribute to Mr. Moon’s very large and varied network.