I wrote this piece for The Kansas City Star on November 25, 2001. I have edited it for clarity. All the best on this Memorial Day.
* * *
This would be a good weekend for some Kansas pheasant hunting. Not that Chuck would need to shoot anything. No, he and Kent Kraus might just walk the Wichita farm, talk about things, uncle to nephew, hero to admirer. See, Chuck didn’t need to shoot any guns. To Kent, to everybody, he was already so much bigger than life.
Man, every kid should have an uncle like Chuck Jones. That’s what Kent thought, anyway. First clear memory he has of Chuck was a summer day, one of those bright days when everything looks yellow, you know? And Chuck came out of the sunlight, driving in his Dodge Charger, dirt spitting behind, looking like he had driven off the set of “Starsky and Hutch.” He was the essence of cool. An Air Force Lieutenant. Not an ounce of body fat. Was doing all sorts of secret military things.
It was like having a superhero in the family.
“Hey,” Chuck said through the window, “let’s go get some fireworks.”
“OK,” Kent shouted, and he jumped in, and they skidded and swerved along the dirt roads, to a fireworks place in the middle of nowhere. Aren’t all fireworks places in the middle of nowhere? Kent and Chuck loaded up, armfuls of bottle rockets and Roman candles, firecrackers and sparklers, there might have been a cherry bomb in there too, maybe an M-80 or three – who remembers?
The two guys hopped in the Charger, slid and lurched back to the farm in Wichita, where they scorched the sky into the night.
OK, so it started with fireworks. Chuck bought Kent an air hockey table for his birthday one year. Chuck did remarkable things. Kent vividly remembers this one time when Chuck leaped over a barbed-wire fence — had to be five feet high. All of that was plenty to make Chuck a real live hero to a kid.
The funny thing is, Chuck never really stopped being Kent’s hero. Chuck was everybody’s hero. The guy didn’t have a vice. He ran 10 miles every morning. He not only scuba dived, he taught people how to scuba dive. He climbed mountains. He was married to Jeanette for more than 25 years, and even after 25 years, people still envied them, the were so happy. He collected butterflies and bugs. He ate so much they once threw him out of an Italian all-you-can-eat buffet. They thought he was hoarding food in his pockets.
Yes, it might be worth mentioning that Chuck Jones was beyond brilliant. He designed guidance systems for the Air Force when he was 24. He studied aeronautics at MIT. He worked for defense intelligence, studying the Soviet Union during the fall. He worked for the Pentagon too, doing all sorts of secret Pentagon things. He was like a character something out of a spy movie.
“I’m worried about a war with the Soviet Union,” Kent said one day, as they walked the farm, hunting for pheasants.
“The Soviet Union,” Chuck said mysteriously, “is the last of our worries.”
“How about those Chiefs?” Chuck asked.
People remember such plain things about Chuck. Kent remembers walking up to him one day and watching him chomp away on a green apple. It struck him as strange because there were no green apples anywhere around. Then, Kent looked closer. It was an onion.
Somehow, that image of Chuck chopping on an onion stayed with Kent — more than the diplomas and top-secret missions, more than the good looks and dry jokes that always skipped past people for a few seconds. Kent wasn’t alone. All of them, everyone who knew Chuck, had some image like that, of the gentle way he taught a little girl how to scuba dive, how he would eat bowl after bowl of Karen Kraus’s mashed potatoes around Thanksgiving, how he turned over his 90-pound dog, Havoc, and scratch his belly like a little puppy. They remembered how he was a Dodge man, all his life — no Chevys or Fords for Chuck Jones — and how he never looked afraid. They remembered his practical jokes. He took them seriously. One of the best jokes, an intricate prank involving keys, lasted more than two years.
“You’re not going to smoke that,” Chuck said one Thanksgiving to Kent, referring to a cigar in Kent’s hand.
“Well, yeah, I thought I would,” Kent said.
“Oh,” Chuck said, and he shot a stiff look that said everything, a look that 10 years later Kent still remembers as clearly as his favorite song his last summer of college. Every boy remembers those moments when they start to become a man.
“He was a God to me,” Kent says now. “But I still smoked that cigar.”
It might tell you a bit about the immensity of Chuck’s life that only now do we mention that Chuck was an astronaut. That’s how he started scuba diving in the first place. He trained intensely for five years to be on the space shuttle. He could not talk about the mission much. That seemed almost a big enough dream for a Kansas kid who loved the loudest fireworks and the fastest cars and the biggest dogs.
Then, the Challenger blew up. Missions got scrapped. Chuck’s dream ended. Nobody really ever heard him complain about it. There was more to do life. His intelligence work helped American soldiers fight Desert Storm. Chuck became a colonel. He went to the Pentagon. He retired from the Air Force, moved to Boston, worked with computers. He traveled some for business.
Kent only heard Chuck mention space one time. They were talking over mashed potatoes, maybe, or maybe they were out on the farm looking at pheasant. And Chuck, who had traveled the world, who swam with barracudas, who shaped battlefields, who ate mounds of food, who ran it off every morning, who lived life said “You know, I really wanted to see what earth looks like from out there.”
Few people know this. But that Tuesday when Chuck died, he was thinking about giving the astronaut thing one more try.
Kent became a vet in Kansas City. Chuck liked that. He would e-mail his nephew all the time, asking questions about Havoc, what to feed him, how to avoid diseases, how much water to give him. The two men started to move beyond heroes and childhood. They became friends. The last time Kent saw Chuck was on the Fourth of July. Kent put on a special fireworks show.
Yes, this would have been a good weekend to walk the old farm looking for pheasant. A cool Kansas wind. Bare trees. The gray skies provide a nice background. They would not even need to shoot anything. They didn’t the last time they went hunting. Neither one fired a shot. They just talked. Kent tries hard now to remember all the things they talked about that day, but he can’t recall much. He did not know it would be the last time.
He does remember a story Chuck told. Chuck’s father, Kent’s grandfather, was a military man. He let Chuck carry around his gun on the hunting trips. But he never once let Chuck shoot it. He had to carry the gun, and, when the bird was in sight, he had to hand over the gun to an adult.
Kent loves that story. He’s not sure why. Maybe it’s because he loves the image of a young Chuck, before he grew larger than life, carrying around a gun he could not shoot.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, American Flight 11 left Boston for Los Angeles. The plane was hijacked and crashed into the North Tower of the World Trade Center at 8:48 a.m. Eastern Time. There were two pilots, nine flight attendants and 81 passengers on board.
Investigators theorized that at least one man charged at the hijackers. He appeared to have his throat slit. There is no way to know for certain, of course. But they do believe the man may have been Charles Jones, a 48-year-old computer programmer, who grew up near a Kansas farm, loved scuba diving, America, and preferred to be called Chuck.