A Bipartisan Friendship…

This is a story about friendship. My buddy, Dennis, and I have known each other for 50 years. We flew Marine fighters, Pan Am airliners, and saw the inside of a lot of bars together. He’s something of a legend among his friends, but to understand our friendship I need to tell my favorite Dennis story. He calls it the “Checkpoint Panzer” incident. I think of it as “Dennis’s Escape from Freedom Run.”

One night after work, before the Berlin Wall came down, our flight crew gathered at the Columbia Club, one of several US military clubs where Pan Am pilots had privileges. On this particular night, there was some drinking involved, a borrowed car, a dark night, and no adult supervision.

Following a round of sea stories and toasts, Dennis left the club and hopped in a borrowed Ford Taunus. The only explanation for what happened next is that his internal GPS failed him. Rather than heading for his apartment he “accidentally” drove around a detour and turned toward the Glenieke Brucke (Bridge of Spies), the East German border on the road to Potsdam. It was definitely the wrong vector.

Encountering no other traffic, Dennis decided speed would make up for other deficiencies. To compound the problem as he approached the bridge he failed to notice the red and white steel crossing barrier, an array of cement blocks, and a cluster of uniformed guards. He hit the barrier with enough speed to shear the top off the Taunus and shatter the windshield but somehow avoid decapitation.

As the car came to a stop in the middle of the bridge he found himself surrounded by armed West German guards and approaching East German Vopos with guns drawn. His good fortune was coming to rest just a few feet short of the midpoint that marks the Eastern border.

I can’t imagine what the guards were thinking unless it was to do whatever was necessary to avoid an international incident. Dennis, by then quite sober, explained to the West German guard that he was a Pan Am pilot.

Incredulous, the  guard had two things to say 1) “Herr Panzer, no one has ever tried to escape into the East before,” and 2) “I certainly hope you fly better than you drive.”  So, having thwarted Dennis’s “escape” to East Germany, they returned him to the safety of the American Sector, ascertained that the car was drivable, and told him it was OK to drive home… “Ja, but very slowly.” The next day he took the car to a body shop, had the roof reattached and later returned the car to its owner (another Pan Am pilot) without explaining the “severance.” And that’s only part of his legend.

If you looked at the two of us on paper you’d think oil and water. East Coast/West Coast, Red State/Blue State, private college/public university, arch-conservative/Berkeley liberal, but as I said earlier Dennis and I have known each other a long time. Lots of similarities and lots of differences but always friends. Dennis was an East Coast guy, born and raised in Yonkers. I was definitely West Coast, but we came together because we were both Marines flying the F8 Crusader in VMF-312.

VMF – 312 Crusader

There were some timeline differences too; I served my time as a Marine before Vietnam heated up and was already off active duty before America waded into it. Dennis, three years behind me and got caught at its beginning. So, while I was in law school and flying A4’s on the weekend, he was flying the F8 out of the Marine air base at Danang.

Checkout our different grooming standards in those years

               The Duke at Danang 1965                      Tequila Jack at El Toro 1962

Following those years in the military we started our airline careers within a year of each other.  We still hadn’t met, but as single Pan Am pilots based in New York, with several mutual friends, we were destined to meet. I moved in to an Upper East Side apartment with two other Pan Am/Marine pilots and that’s where we finally met.

There’s no such thing as an ex-Marine. Once a Marine, always a Marine. and because of that we manage to stay connected. In NY Dennis and I shared a few pub crawl adventures, but it wasn’t long before we took off in different directions. I transferred to San Francisco, near Berkeley where I had gone to school, while he stayed in New York for a while then moved on to Berlin, Sydney, and back to Berlin. He was busy working on the legend, and I always loved hearing of his exploits via the Marine grapevine.

Early in our careers we also acquired nicknames. During his two-year stint in Sydney Australia, Dennis met a woman who thought he looked like John Wayne and started calling him Duke. It stuck and soon he fancied himself as “The Duke of Down Under.” My nickname came under less glamourous circumstances following a late night incident in Berlin. After an evening of tequila shots and trash talk about how screwed up Pan Am management was, I missed a step leaving the bar, stumbled, and fell forward into a cement parking stanchion. Henceforth, I was TJ (Tequila Jack).

Those early years at Pan Am were the golden age of commercial aviation, and golden years for a group of young fighter pilots turned airline drivers. We savored the experience. Four day layovers in Rio, Hong Kong, Tahiti, Tokyo, and Sydney. Shorter but memorable ones in Paris, Rome, London, and Pago Pago. We were young pilots on a tear and behind the cockpit door was a cabin staffed by young women from around the globe recruited for their looks, intelligence, and language skills. For those of us who were single it was a target-rich environment.

My single life ended after a couple of Pan Am years, but Dennis continued on and building on the Warren Beatty-like legend. Pictures of him appeared on ski slopes, in hot tubs, sky diving, and pub crawling from Lake Tahoe, to Sydney, Miami, to Berlin, each with a different beautiful woman and often sporting his signature garment, a Siberian wolf overcoat – living large.

One morning, back in Berlin, I walked into the crew room where a group of pilots were discussing their investments. During a heated discussion, Dennis walked in and the group consulted him regarding his investments. He thought for moment then replied, “I don’t know much about the stock market and I don’t own any real estate, but I can tell you that I’ve invested heavily in pleasure and it’s paid great dividends.” End of discussion.

  TJ in an Amsterdam pissoir (1970)    Duke (and Mom) with Siberian wolf (1975)

Dennis and I bounced around the system for a few years and managed to cover a lot of the bases – New York, San Francisco, Berlin, Miami and Sydney – but eventually we ended up back in Berlin. I spent the last ten years of my airline career there, until a medical problem brought it to an end,  and Dennis stayed on until he was transferred to Delta as part of the 1991 bankruptcy/merger.

While based in Berlin, Dennis met and married Jane Arnoldi aka Jane the Dane, a beautiful, stable, intelligent, London-based Pan Am flight attendant who is his anchor and the mother of their two talented daughters – Tess and Alexandra. I’ve been equally blessed with Marilynn, a childhood friend, and the six talented children we share and of whom we are enormously proud.

It’s fun recalling the early days at Pan Am and our dubious adventures, but as we aged we did settle down. It sounds misleading to say settled down; we have to acknowledge five marriages between us, but we’ve both ended up in happy long term unions. We share a love of adventure and so do our wives. A few years ago we did a week long float trip down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, and we all still ski and bike. But more than anything we’re grateful for a 50 year friendship, for good marriages, and a job that was like no other.

Good vibes notwithstanding, we have one area of disagreement, but at this point it’s more fun than acrimonious. We are extreme opposites politically.  I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Berkeley liberal, and Dennis remains a unrepentent right-wing nut case. After all, while The Duke was flying sorties over North Vietnam I was writing a position paper for the law school in support of the Free Speech Movement. You got a problem with that?

My friend, The Duke of Down Under is a passionate person. He loves his family, his country, and his friends. We just happen to disagree about the future of America. I’m equally passionate – and I know I’m right – about our democracy. So, we banter and boast, posture and post, but after all the bullshit we are still friends.

Semper Fi, my friend.


  1. TJ, Do you think that anyone had a more fulfilling, exciting, crazy ass fun career than we did? The word that comes to mind is LUCKY. I will never forget the Corps or walking through the door on the first day at Pan Am. Semper Fi, old friend. Duke

    PS: Check your six and Blue side up.

  2. Boy, would I love to add a few notes to this, I guess we have about the same relationship with Dennis so I won’t belabor that. Coincidentally I was involved with the Panzer Brueke incident via an early morning phone call, Union Reps aren’t entirely worthless. No quibble with the details but could have sworn it was a beetle. Funniest legend ever. I was also tippling a few when you and Mitvalsky traipsed out of the booze hall we were in and joined everyone outside trying to rescue you, no more on that as it hurt just to look at your damaged face, ouch. Nice tribute to a friend, and thanks for not roasting me too bad in your farewell Berlin letter. Poor Conrad Smith is still wondering what hit him.


  3. Of course I’mean familiar with these legendary stories, but hearing them a new always brings a smile to my face. Good work Jack, and “go Trump”….

  4. I loved hearing the story about my dear friend Denny! We met recently after almost 60 years and, being the gentleman that he is, wanted to hear about my (dull in comparison) life. I heard very little about his. Thanks for this story. It gave technicolor, to use an old term, to a black and white picture! I expect we will meet again!

  5. Jack,
    I love this guy too. I know him a bit longer (college) but somehow, in spite of all his deficiencies, love him a lot. This last election cycle has been especially difficult for me and my view of him. How in the world could he even support a turd like Trump??? But he did and does. So, I am stuck with him as he is and lucky for it.

    Berkeley, CA

  6. It’s not been easy being the brother of a two legends but a pleasure. Oldest brother Henry cut a path through the snow for us both to follow. Being 12 years younger than Hank and six younger than Big Den it was a while before I could sit on a barstool between them and sort out the truth from fiction, PS the truth was stranger than the fiction. We get together to infrequently but when we do we lift a glass of scotch, with cigar in hand, to our Pop, Mr P and our Mom, aka Nellie and thank them for the gift of our life. Family and friends, can’t beat then..

  7. I flew with Denny, aka Melon, in the ‘Checkerboards’ (VMF(AW)-312 at Danang in 1965-’66. Those were the days of ‘Unit Rotation’ so, when the squadron disbanded, Denny was officially tasked to return the squadron’s color (flag) to MCAS Beaufort where the squadron was reforming. Several months later, I was the Beaufort Base Operations Duty Officer and got a call from the flight line that, “Some guy got out of transient aircraft-ran into the weather center-gave the duty forecaster a bag with a flag in it-said to give it to Captain Mavretic-ran back to the transport-and left.” Next time I saw him was 2005 and he remembered the event. The flag did get delivered.

  8. What an unbelievable story from the unbelievably absurd world of West Berlin. I stumbled across your blog while searching for the whereabouts of Conrad Smith, whose brilliant photos of Pan Am planes skirting the rooftops on the approach to Tempelhof anno 1975 I found at my parents’ place during our stay there this summer. Do you know how to reach Conrad Smith by chance?

    And how is your son Doug doing? We were in the same class at JFK for a while.

    Best regards form Berlin,

    Peter Rigney

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