When I opened the package, I had no idea what the big, hardcover book was or who it came from.
Bobo’s Flying Circus? And then I looked below the title and saw the subtitle: “Autobiography of Gilbert Russell Evans.”
Ah, Capt. Evans.
Longtime columnist. For new readers of Farm and Dairy, Russell Evans is a retired U.S. Coast Guard captain who wrote a weekly column on national defense, Christianity and politics from 1982 until he suffered a stroke in the summer of 2002. But it’s hard to keep a good man down, so he even dictated a column later that fall while recovering in a nursing facility.
Since then, even with ongoing health problems, he’s periodically sent me a column for consideration.
I’ve never met Capt. Evans, but I’ve been his editor since 1989 and we’ve talked on the phone numerous times. In fact, he still gets Farm and Dairy, and his most recent note to me arrived June 30. Still, nothing prepared me for the life I uncovered between the book’s covers: history, love, danger, and heroism.
It’s a wonderful book, a salute by son Sam Evans that is, as Sam says, “65 percent stories he dictated to me and the rest are as I remember them.”
Can you image, Sam added in his letter to me, “dead of winter, coming in for a landing with a B-17 to Washington National at 2:30 a.m., on a final approach just before touchdown, you break out of the ceiling at 300 feet and discover that your windshield is iced over and your defrosters do not work – and your passengers are the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury and his entourage?”
I loved reading Capt. Evans’ life in his own words, and laughed out loud more than once at a sense of a humor I never suspected (and at the footnotes Sam added).
Getting started. Graduating from high school at 16, Capt. Evans was too young to enter the Coast Guard Academy, so he spent a year at North Carolina State. When he took the academy’s competitive entrance exams in spring 1931, he placed second out of more than 2,000 candidates.
(Sam’s footnote adds that his dad almost didn’t pass the physical because he was 2 pounds underweight. “The doctor told him to go over to the water fountain and start drinking. He made it.”)
At the academy, he was at the top of his class academically until his senior year “when the mysteries of electronics got me.”
“Anyway, I had ‘scholarship stars’ on my dress uniforms for three years, but they never got me any more pay, any more liberty or any more girls.”
The next 5 1/2 years were spent onboard ships. “I liked being navigator. We had no radar, no Loran, no Global Positioning System, none of today’s miracles for navigating – only a compass, star sights, radio beacons and fathometer.”
Lifetime of takeoffs. But during his last year at sea on the Mohawk, he was home only 29 days out of the 365. “This was very inspiring for me to seek better employment: aviation.”
And so he took to the air for 7,000 hours of flying during his 34 years with the Coast Guard, took charge as commanding officer of the Coast Guard Air Station in St. Petersburg, Fla., became search and rescue officer of the 5th Coast Guard District in Norfolk, Va., then operations officer for the eastern half of the U.S. and from Greenland to the South Atlantic, among other posts. His last year on active duty was as chief of staff of the 5th Coast Guard District.
He earned two Air Medals, two Coast Guard Commendation Medals and two WWII Campaign medals (Atlantic and European theaters) for his work, which included two confirmed submarine attacks during WWII. He served as commander of a patrol bombing squadron in Greenland during WWII and conducted numerous open sea landings in seaplanes to rescue downed fliers. In the 1950s, he helped design and develop the Directional Finding Radar Network.
He also qualified to solo in Navy jet fighters (Cougar F9F6), was the first Coast Guard aviator to graduate from the Navy War College, and authored the first Coast Guard War Plan in 1950.
Capt. Evans was also an aide and personal pilot to John Snyder, Truman’s secretary of the treasury. The post was considered to be the top job in Coast Guard Aviation.
Bobo? The book, Bobo’s Flying Circus, takes its name from Evans’ two-year stint in Greenland, when the men took to calling their training operations and patrolling flights out of Iceland as “Bobo’s Flying Circus.” Bobo, as in Bobo the Clown, was a nickname Evans earned at the Coast Guard Academy.
Evans writes: “I also later heard that one of the crew said, ‘If Bobo could put a propeller on this generator, he would have us landing with it!’”
That ice storm with the secretary of the treasury? Here’s the rest of the story in Evans’ words:
“This new emergency situation called for me to open the pilot’s side window, which I was barely able to do, and stick my head out as far as the slip stream would allow.
“It was pretty cold, but I managed to make a safe landing.”
The autobiography ends with Evans’ favorite quote, one from Teddy Roosevelt. And after reading the book, it is indeed a fitting tribute to its author:
“It is not the critic who counts – nor the man who points out how the strong man stumbled or how the doer of deeds should have done better. The credit belongs to the man in the arena whose face is covered with blood and sweat and dirt – and who, if he fails, at least fails while doing greatly – so that his place shall never be with those cold, timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”
(Farm and Dairy Editor Susan Crowell can be reached at 800-837-3419 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)