Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Interest in Aviation

BOND: Now, you spoke last night, movingly I thought, about these air shows.

THEUS: Oh yes.

BOND: And it's not redundant to repeat what you said. Tell about the entrepreneurs building the plane, building the field, and so forth.

THEUS: Yes, yes.

BOND: How did aviation come into your life?

THEUS: Well, when I lived out there in Robbins, of course, as a youngster, we were first introduced to aviation through our comic books. There was one called G-8 and the Flying Aces, and this was the comic book that depicted a hero, G-8, and his Aces fighting against the bad guys who would do bad things to a community. So that was very interesting. And then there was Mandrake and the Magicians,Mandrake the Magician. And he was always presenting a picture of how the nation, cities would look in the future. And he had airplanes flying overhead and balloons and all of those sorts of things, even some rockets. And so --

BOND: Mandrake, didn't Mandrake have a black companion? Lothar?

THEUS: He did, he did, and I can't remember the name.

BOND: Was it Lothar?

THEUS: I think that is the name, that is correct, yes.

BOND: But in G-8 and Mandrake are white.

THEUS: No, no.

BOND: You're not seeing yourself reflected here.

THEUS: No no, no no.

BOND: So you don't -- so what makes you feel, "I can do this or there's a place for me here"?

THEUS: Yes, I can certainly answer that one. It was observing that some blacks had been able to go beyond what was expected of them. There was no doubt that we were being swallowed up in this world of powered flight and everyone was interested. In spite of the obstacles, some black people were able to acquire airplanes, in some cases even to put them together from kits themselves, to put these aircraft together. And they wanted to fly them. Of course they encountered the expected barriers of using "white only" fields. And so, they came out to Robbins and there was a big meadow -- normally I think a cornfield. But in any case, level enough that they could land their aircraft. They got permission of the local farmer to use this.

And so, we had barnstorming pilots -- these are people who would move from community to community, doing acrobatics, tricks and so forth with their airplanes. We had a group that started to come to Robbins very regularly, on a regular basis. And we kids would go out and we'd sneak as closely as we could up to the aircraft. And we'd work -- we'd talk to these pilots. We'd go and feel these airplanes, and they were then -- to us they were sleek, powerful, modern machines in spite of the fact that the fuselage, the covers on them, was just painted canvas. And the fact that the wheels, the landing -- they were tied to the landing gear with bungee cords. You're familiar with the bungee cords that you use now.

BOND: Sure, right.

THEUS: They were tied to these and these pilots, who, of course, in their sharp leather suits, their leather jackets and goggles, leggings sometimes, boots and so forth. And for a very small sum of money -- maybe a quarter, I think that it was at the time -- they would take us up and fly us around the community and so forth. And of course we were very proud to --

BOND: Do you remember your first time?

THEUS: I sure do, I sure do. I went up and, gee, it was just such an exhilarating feeling to find yourself above the trees and then back over the community where you could look down, you could spot your own home and so forth. And so I felt at that time that this was really the life for me. I said to myself, "Gee, when I grow up, I'm really going to be into aviation, and I'll do the sort of things that G-8 is doing with his Flying Aces. I'll lead a squadron and I'll vanquish all of the bad guys, all of the people who were -- who would do harm, if you will, to our community." And so this was not so much a black thing, it was more a thing of participating in something that had become really sort of a craze throughout the nation, flying. I just really wanted to do that.