Joe Diedrich (1927-2017)

Yesterday would have been his 90th birthday. He had been in poor health for almost a year and in September when I spoke to him for the last time he acknowledged that the end was in sight. Two weeks ago I sent him an email. His wife responded with the news that he died the day after he received it.

Men aren’t particularly good at grieving though we commonly talk about it when a friend leaves us. Still, Joe wasn’t like anyone else and grieving doesn’t really describe my feelings. Regret is probably better. Regret that I won’t see him in Mallorca as planned this fall, and regret that I won’t hear more of his self-deprecating stories and biting commentary on the world.

Friendship comes in different guises – transactional, familial, social, romantic, and aspirational. My friendship with Joe is complicated to describe. Women connect with each other emotionally. Men form their bonds through activities – work, sports, school, or the military – but pilots, at least in our day, were a different breed. Every day we went to work and every day we added new people to our lives – one or two other pilots, a cabin crew, and a plane full of passengers. Over time we encountered an astonishing number of people. It wasn’t a traditional work environment and relationships were often fleeting. It wasn’t “normal,” but it gave us a diverse and interesting array of people to choose our friends from. That’s how we lived, Joe and I.

German is better than English at differentiating modes of friendship. In German, the word “bekannt” signifies a close acquaintance that doesn’t rise to the level of “freundschaft” i.e. friendship. Ein freund is someone with whom you share a deep friendship. Americans, on the other hand, are fond of using “friend” to signify anything from a person they met on the street years ago to an intimate sexual partner. Of the 2500 pilots on the Pan Am seniority list I probably had 5-10 friends in the German sense. Joe was one of them. I still keep in touch with some of the larger group but there are only a few I consider friends in the German sense.

Joe and I shared something else; we always found it easier to talk to women than men. He married five of them and I married three. Neither of us was garrulous but we liked women and thought their conversation was more interesting than that of most men. He may have been untraditional in many ways, but he was immensely proud of his four children as am I of my three.

In 1976 I was newly transferred to Berlin with Pan Am. It was a small base with only 150 pilots. You got to know everyone. Joe, who was 10 years older, had been there since 1969 and that added an older/younger, senior/junior, mentor/mentee cast to our friendship.

He was raised on a family homestead in Wisconsin, but Wisconsin was too dull and isolated for a restless soul like his. Teachers and friends knew he was bright, and at 16 he was offered scholarships to a couple of Ivy League universities. Instead, he chose Rollins College, a sybaritic party school on a beautiful lake in Florida. He remained connected to the family homestead on Big Cedar Lake throughout his life and it’s where he died, but he never returned except to visit. He was too curious, adventurous and restless to live in America’s heartland.

After college he did a tour as a Navy pilot in Morocco then joined Pan Am in Miami. A couple of corporate furloughs took him to Lima and Beirut as an oil company corporate pilot, but once back on the Pan Am payroll and after a couple of years in San Francisco he transferred to Berlin and never left.

We met there and at first I found him difficult and intimidating. He was older and didn’t suffer fools though he was surrounded by them. At Pan Am he was in a unique intermediate category – younger than the Sky Gods of the old Flying Boat days and older than my vintage of  “new hire” military pilots.

When he arrived in Berlin he set about learning German, which he did well. In 1979, after ten years there and determined never to live in the US again, he and his wife, Jacqui, moved to Mallorca. For the rest of his career he commuted to Berlin. Two weeks on, two weeks off.  Following retirement he continued to live there. He spoke Spanish from his days in Miami and South America. The island was a perfect refuge for this global citizen.

Among Joe’s mysterious assets and acquisitions was a familiarity with accounting principles, and when the Internal Revenue Code was revised in 1976 he dug into it and discovered a loop hole for foreign-based Americans enabling them to save a sizeable chunk of what should have been taxable income. Soon he was preparing tax returns for his fellow Berlin-based pilots.

There are so many unusual things about Joe, so many layers. It was years after I met him that I learned that my friend – this incisive observer of people and places with a wealth of experience – had been writing stories about his adventures. His dry, sardonic style and keen observations made him a superb storyteller and he published several stories in high quality literary journals. So, writing was another interest that brought us together. He was more successful at publication but for 15 or 20 years we exchanged letters and emails about it. Two years ago he told me he’d given up looking for place to send his stories even though he still had a stack of them, unpublished, under his desk. I offered to act as his agent, but he had made peace with the situation and didn’t need my help.

Yesterday, as part of the process of saying goodbye, I reread his story The Lady Who Lassoed Jaguars from Travelers’ Tales Central America. I was struck by the parallel between that story and some advice he gave me years ago. At that time, the young wife of an older Pan Am Captain was letting me know that she was interested in something more than a “bekannt” friendship. She was uncommonly beautiful and the temptation was potent. Joe knew her well and was aware that she occasionally strayed from her marriage. One day as we were getting ready to read the preflight checklist, he turned to me and said, “Be careful, Jack. Frau X is trouble.” He didn’t need to elaborate and the subject was never mentioned again. Years later I thanked him. His Jaguar story has a similar theme and ends with this paragraph:

“I have found as I get older that I can usually live with the memories of things that I have done that I should not have done. It is the things that I did not do that keep me awake, sometimes, in the middle of the night.” 

A fitting epitaph.

Joe Diedrich (1927 – 2017)

RIP

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