In spirit, a father rejoins the Thanksgiving table

  • Article by: GAIL ROSENBLUM , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 24, 2010 - 8:17 PM

After more than 50 years, an English village helps fill in the blanks about a beloved dad, an "officer and a gentleman."

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Steve Taylor was in junior high when his father’s Air Force plane went down in England. His mother took her four young children back to California and rarely spoke of him again. All those years, Steve, here with his wife, Sandi, has wondered about his father.

Photo: Brian Peterson, Star Tribune

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Surrounded by family this Thanksgiving, Steve Taylor of Bloomington will heap gratitude on a tiny English village for something the villagers did not do. They never forgot his father.

It is a truth that Taylor, 66, longed to believe for more than 50 years. Now, after a serendipitous Google search, followed by an emotional trip across the pond, he can. "He really was a good guy," said Taylor of his father, Earl. "I didn't just imagine it."

Taylor, retired from 3M and a consultant for Mesaba Airlines, grew up in northern California, the oldest of four siblings. When he was 12 in the mid-'50s, his Air Force pilot father, Earl, was plucked for prestigious exchange duty with the Royal Air Force. The family was stationed in Norwich, about 100 miles northeast of London. Taylor attended junior high school and relished the freedom his parents granted him to travel to London by himself to realize that "everything isn't like Kansas."

On July 11, 1958, Earl volunteered for one final exercise for a fellow pilot who had fallen ill. Earl's wife, Norma, wasn't happy; the family was about to begin an eagerly awaited three-week vacation before returning to the States and there was much to do. But Earl loved to fly.

He climbed into the front of his two-seater Javelin, a navigator behind him.

Taylor remembers being called out of his classroom that day by the school headmaster, who was accompanied by a family friend. "There's been an accident with your dad," they told the boy.

On the half-hour ride home, he refused to consider the worst, until he walked in the door. "Earl's been killed," his mother told him. The plane had crashed. Only the navigator survived. Two days later, the Air Force packed up all the family's belongings and flew them home. Grief-stricken, Norma rarely spoke of her husband again.

Taylor became the man of the house, his relationship with his mother strained. "I couldn't be just a normal high school kid," he said. "I had to be home and take care of the kids."

He grew closer to his mother later on, but longed for his father. Far older than his three siblings (one now deceased), he is the only one with memories of his father -- the athlete, who played football and cricket, the fun father, who planned picnics and barbecues. The man who named his WWII P-38 Lightning, "Steve."

"He was just a nice, good family man," said Taylor, himself the father of three married sons. "I got on with my own life. I pretty much let it go."

But he didn't really.

A Google discovery

In sales and marketing for 3M, Taylor took business trips to England and made a pleasure trip there with his wife, Sandi, and their youngest son, Adam, in 2003. On occasion, he'd Google his father's name, but nothing popped up. Earlier this year, as he and Sandi planned a September trip to Stonehenge and the Cotswolds, everything changed. He typed his father's name into Google, but for the first time, added "R.A.F." and his father's squadron. Boom!

Taylor ran upstairs to Sandi. "You won't believe what I just found." His computer screen showed a photo of a memorial plaque, hanging in the Wattisham Airfield Museum, about 30 miles from Norwich. It read:

"In Memory of Capt. Earl Taylor, USAF/Killed while flying with the No. 41 Squadron Royal Air Force/11 July 1958."

"We need to add some days to our trip," Taylor told Sandi. Excitement built. Taylor e-mailed Richard Flagg, who had shot the photo of Earl's plaque and posted it on his website (www.airfields. fotopic.net). Flagg put Taylor in contact with Maggie Aggiss, Wattisham's curator.

"Wow," Aggiss e-mailed Taylor. "I could hardly believe that the son of Capt. Earl Taylor had found us. I have grown up with the story of this incident and have here in my hand a report of that day. To quote one of the paragraphs: 'The loss of this immensely popular officer shocked and saddened the whole Station.'"

Aggiss put an ad in the local newspaper letting the 600 villagers know that the Taylors were coming to visit. She picked the Taylors up at their hotel and drove them to the base and museum to see the plaque, then to the farm field where the plane crashed. People came from all directions, dressed in their finest, which touched Sandi. Most hadn't seen one another in 50 years.

There were two first responders, who were about 18 that fateful day. "Yep, that's the spot right there," said one, named Alfie. "I remember tearing across the field through the crash gate down to the crash site."

Fond memories

Robin Salisbury, who was a 14-year-old working in the next field that day, came to meet Earl's son. Airman Robert (Doc) Doherty, who often buckled Earl into his plane, told Steve and Sandi how Earl treated him with respect, unlike the more class-conscious British. "Your father was, I hate clichés, an officer and a gentleman."

Another visitor brought photos taken at the crash site, which Aggiss presented to Taylor hesitantly. "I was grateful to have the confirmation that he had, in fact, ejected, even though he did not survive," Taylor said. Sandi, a psychologist, went into the field and picked up seven stones to bring home to family members. Steve's brother, Mark, took his stone to the Presidio in San Francisco, and buried it in the earth near their father. Sandi made a memory book of the trip so that Mark and his sister, Chris, could share in the trip.

"It's not going to be hard for me this year to say what I am thankful for," Steve said, his voice breaking. "To have this unfold 52 years later and have this many people who still care. I have confirmation that he really was as good a person as I'd heard he was. Things get cloudy, but you know what? Other people thought he was pretty special, too."

Gail Rosenblum • 612-673-7350 • gail.rosenblum@startribune.com

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