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Even the Atlanta newspapers proclaimed the passing of my old friend Emma Kelly recently, who had become famous as "The Lady of a Thousand Songs" in the book and movie, "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil". I had grown up with her kids in Statesboro, dated one of her daughters, and her husband George had taught me to fly airplanes. We will all miss the happiness and class that her special style of music brought to so many folks around the southeast, especially young servicemen on their way to do battle in faraway places. However, few people, even in Savannah, noticed the absence of another element of River Street folklore........Capn' John.
The afternoon crowd that filtered daily through the maze of cars in the parking lot adjacent to Savannah's river front never seemed to notice the shadowy figure perched on the far end of the concrete with sun-spotted hands clutching the butt-end of an antiquated fiberglass fishing rod. The stare of his clear, blue eyes was continually glued to the heavy monofilament line that disappeared into the churning water below, and he to appeared oblivious to the humanity around him.
For those who looked, the fading light of day exposed the lone angler as an elderly man. An old straw hat covered the thin, white hair, and protected an already weathered face from any further damage of the sun’s rays. An even closer inspection revealed an ugly scar that began at his right ear, ran down his half-shaven lower jaw and neck until it disappeared below the thread-bare collar of an old khaki-colored cotton shirt. More than seventy years of ups and downs had taken an obvious toll on the old man, yet he always seemed content with his fishing.
Though few Savannah residents ever noticed the aged angler, those who had made his acquaintance referred to him, almost reverently, as "Capn' John". Nevertheless, his story is an interesting one.
John was born to a poor, New York City, immigrant family in 1920. Poverty was an accepted part of the neighborhood, and many youngsters of the time quit school to
work, or left home at an early age to seek a better life away from the city. John, however, loved books and learning, and read almost everything available to him at both school and the public library. So, he remained in New York to help his family and acquire an education.
His infatuation with books led him to read many stories, including exciting tales of aerial combat in World War I. He was fascinated by the exploits of American pilots like Eddie Rickenbacker and Germany’ s "Red Baron”, Manfred Von Richtofen. Despite being trapped in mountains of concrete, John dreamed of becoming a flyer.
When Hitler's “Blitzkrieg” viciously overran most of the weaker countries of Europe during the late 1930’s, and England cried out for help, John was among the first Americans to answer their call. He hitched a ride to Canada, and joined a group of young Canadians and Americans who had volunteered their services to Britain's RAF.
Since he had desire but no prior flying experience, John was shipped off to England to be trained. Luckily, his dreams of becoming a fighter pilot were fulfilled when he learned that he would be taught to fly the Hawker Hurricane. His youthful reflexes and uncanny feel for the heavy Hurricane were noted by his superior officers, and when the Germans launched a full-scale aerial attack at the British homeland on 13 August, 1940, John's squadron was one of the first to respond.
The first week of the Battle of Britain was a learning experience for the young aviators assigned to the Coastal Command. They flew numerous sorties against the invading Germans, and though constantly outnumbered, their losses were few. In fact, John was even credited with downing three of the vaunted Messerschmidt Bf 109 fighters during the period. War is cruel, however, and fate is not always kind to young heroes.
During the second week of the air war over England, John's squadron was scrambled to protect a small convoy of ships steaming toward Portland. The unarmed freighters were being dive-bombed by ten Stuka JU-87's, while some twenty Bf 109's flew top-cover for them. Despite the insurmountable odds, the six Hurricane pilots knew what had to be done.
They pushed their control sticks forward and dove into the Stuka's with their guns blazing, knowing that the twenty 109’s overhead would instantly retaliate. Nevertheless, it broke up the dive-bombing, as several of the JU-87's went down in flames, and the rest scattered.
As John powered the control stick back toward his belly and kicked the left rudder pedal to the floor in an attempt to pull up into a climbing left turn to meet the diving Messerschmidts, his world exploded in a blast of light and pain. A 20mm cannon projectile from one of the German fighters had found its mark. Though blinded by the flash, John's other senses took over. He instantly felt the rush of wind that poured in from where his canopy had been, and he experienced the salty taste and warm feel of his own blood for the first time. Consciousness was leaving him fast, and he knew he had to get out or die. So, he rolled the crippled aircraft onto its back, released the safety harness, and plummeted toward the choppy English Channel.
The last thing John remembered was pulling the handle that opened his parachute. His heroics, however, had not gone unobserved. The sailors on one of the ships that he and his fellow fliers had saved quickly dispatched a small boat to pick up the unconscious pilot.
World War II and flying were over for young John, but the wounds were not fatal. His bravery and that of many others like him had saved the tiny island nation, but his recuperation would require a lengthy stay in numerous hospitals.
At his first recovery place, John met and fell in love with a beautiful nurse. She too was an American volunteer, and could see far beyond the disfigured body of this hero. They were soon married, she became pregnant, and when the Americans entered the war at the end of 1941, the two were sent back to the U.S.A.
John continued his rehabilitation, and his wife worked in a nearby Army hospital until their son was born. The trio then moved to a farm in western Iowa to settle down, forget the war, and grow corn.
The quiet country living agreed with John and his family. They spent hours enjoying the outdoors, which included numerous days of hunting and fishing, and almost twenty years passed quickly.
John’s son, however, inherited the love of flying. Therefore, during his college days, the boy entered the Air Force ROTC program, and after graduation, became a fighter pilot like his dad before him.
War was raging in Vietnam, and when the young son's squadron of F-105's was sent to Southeast Asia in support of the ground troops, the old scars on John's body began to ache again. He had an uneasy feeling about his son’s welfare, which continued to grow.
Like his father, the young combat pilot had a sense of duty that blotted out any fear of death. Therefore, when he was called in to make a low-level attack on a group of North Vietnamese Regulars that had some American Marines pinned down and surrounded, he didn't question the order. He came in on the deck and blasted an escape route with rockets and bombs for the trapped foot soldiers, but as he started to pull the big jet skyward, a blast of gunfire hit something vital and the 105 disintegrated in burning pieces.
John's life was shattered by the death of his son, and he began to drink heavily. Nothing seemed to matter anymore. In an attempt to help, his wife would often accompany him to local watering holes on many of his outings with the bottle. While returning from one of those on a moonless night, John’s car left the highway. It crashed into a big oak tree, which destroyed the car, left him with a broken arm and leg, but worst of all, his wife died from head injuries caused by the impact.
For more than a year, John sat alone in the darkened farmhouse. He ate or drank very little, accepted no visitors, and spent his time crying and remembering. The fields where corn had grown in such abundance became walls of weeds. The farming utensils began to rust, but he made no effort to save them.
Then, one spring day after the last snow had melted, John sold the farm, drew his life savings out of the local bank, and rode the big Greyhound bus south. He went as far Savannah, Georgia.
Capn' John spent the rest of his days fishing the bridges and docks in the Savannah area. During the season, he would catch blue crabs or throw a cast net for shrimp and mullet. He once again became self sufficient and satisfied with his life. Though he rarely spoke to anyone, the bitterness was gone, replaced by a serenity and peace of mind seldom seen in people today.
He was a living example of the words written in a song by Jimmy Buffett, "Some of it’s magic and some of it’s tragic, but it's been a good life all the way”. Capn' John and Emma Kelly will be sorely missed!

Living to Fish and Fishing to Live
Bill Vanderford
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