Person of the Week
Keith LaFlair: Marking a Special Day
A former U.S. Navy aviator, Keith LaFlair will be a part of the Chester American Legion Post 97 Veterans Day parade and ceremonies on Monday, Nov. 11. (Photo by Rita Christopher/The Courier | Buy This Photo)
Keith LaFlair spent more than 40 years flying in airplanes but not as a passenger. Keith was a pilot and there’s more to the story than that. For the 27 years he served in the United States Navy, Keith was not taking off from land-based runways but rather taxiing down the pitching flight deck of an aircraft carrier to get airborne.
The pilots took off in all kinds of conditions.
“We flew in anything—night, bad weather, 20-foot waves,” he recalls.
At the moment of takeoff, Keith notes, “You hope the bow is not dipping down. It’s much better when it’s up.”
Still, according to Keith, the catapult that helps propel the airplane off the carrier deck is strong enough to get the craft in the air even as the bow of the ship dips.
Now retired, Keith is a member of Chester’s American Legion Post 97. The group is organizing a parade to mark Veterans Day on Monday, Nov. 11. The parade will start at 11 a.m. in Chester. The number 11 has a special significance for Veterans Day. The holiday, first called Armistice Day, marked the end of hostilities in World War I. The fighting stopped on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, 11/11/11. The federal holiday was renamed Veterans Day in l954 and designated to honor all veterans who fought in United States conflicts.
Keith points out that while people confuse Veterans Day and Memorial Day, there is a notable difference between the two. Memorial Day celebrates those who died while fighting for their country; Veterans Day celebrates all veterans who fought.
The Veterans Day activities in Chester include two ceremonies, one at the war memorial on Route 154 and the other at the flag pole in the center of town with a parade marching between the two locations. The Valley Regional High School Band and Chorus will take part in the program and all the students from Chester Elementary School will march to the flagpole at the center of town to be a part of the second ceremony.
The Chester American Legion Post has purchased small flags for all elementary school students to wave as the parade passes by.
The Veterans Day activities are not without some disagreement this year. For the past two years, when Veterans Day has fallen on a Saturday, the parade has taken place in Deep River with the Deep River American Legion also participating.
According to Deep River First Selectman Angus McDonald, Jr., the town would have been happy to host the parade on Saturday this year. The trouble is that Veterans Day is on a Monday and the town felt that it would cause too much disruption during the week.
“Please don’t say we didn’t want the parade,” MacDonald said.
He added that Deep River veterans themselves had wanted the parade on Saturday. Richard Nagot, second in command of the Deep River Post, confirmed that Saturday was the day Deep River legionnaires preferred for the parade. A Saturday parade, he noted, would not conflict with traditional visits to Region 4 schools on Veterans Day itself. The Chester American Legion also does school visits in conjunction with the holiday.
According to Jane Cable, post adjutant of the Chester American Legion, there was strong feeling in the Chester group that the celebration should honor the traditional day and time the World War I armistice went into effect.
“So, we will have the parade on Nov. 11 at 11 o’clock,” she said.
Cable said some individual Deep River veterans have indicated they will march and participate in the ceremonies. Some veterans from Essex are also expected to participate.
Looking to the Sky
Keith knew from the time he started building model planes as a youngster, that he wanted to be a pilot. He signed up to enter the military during his senior year at Siena College. He chose naval aviation because he wanted to fly off carriers.
“A sense of adventure, I guess, and you know what they say, ‘Join the Navy and see the world’” he adds.
Keith saw combat service in Vietnam, tested weapons on fighter jets, and, during his nearly three decades in the Navy, had to eject once from a plane, a single-engine craft, when the engine failed. When he achieved the rank of captain, he was one of only 12 officers in command of a carrier air wing, composed of all the air squadrons on a carrier.
He stayed in the Navy until his late 40s.
“As long as I could still fly airplanes off carrier decks,” he says, pointing out that, “there aren’t too many people still flying at that age.”
Still, Keith’s flying days were not over. After military retirement in 1996, he flew as a pilot for Federal Express for another 16 years.
“You didn’t need quite as quick reflexes for that as you did off a carrier deck,” he says, “but still we flew in bad weather.”
When he finally did retire, Keith thought he and his late wife would end up in California, where she had grown up. They had lived all over the country during his military career including Washington, D.C. during a stint at the Pentagon. Somewhat to his surprise, his wife wanted to come back to Chester.
“She liked the seasons,” he explains.
He lives on the property that his family has called home for some 80 years. Once it was a chicken farm and he points out to some foundations where the chicken coops once stood.
His garage is now filled with both memories of his past life as well as present interests. There are souvenir plaques from the days of his military service, a carpentry area where he says he “putzes around,” fixing things, including a coffee table in front of a couch where he sits to smoke a cigar so the pungent odor does not get in the house.
On the wall, there is a black cloth mask called a face curtain. Keith explains that it was something the pilot could reach up and pull down to cover in case the aviator had to eject. There was a story that if the pilot brought a face curtain he had used in that situation to an officer’s club, the reward would be free drinks.
When Keith had to eject, he saved the face curtain, brought it to the officers’ club, only to be disappointed. No free drinks.
“That was an old wives’ tale,” he says
The pride of place in the garage is a shiny, gray, limited-edition Corvette Z06, about to go into storage for the winter.
“I’ve always loved Corvettes; my first car was a Corvette,” he says.
The car is not a shiny trophy. Keith says he drives it all the time, but carefully.
Keith doesn’t like to fly on commercial airplanes much these days.
“I liked it better when I was in control,” he says.
He does like to play golf regularly but despite the practice, he says improvement is not an issue.
“I’m not getting better; I’m getting worse, but I love to play,” he admits.
As he looks back, Keith sees many rewards in a military career.
“It’s a chance for leadership, training, camaraderie. I’m still friends with people from my first squadron,” he says.
And he adds that his is proud to be a member of Post 97 now.
Keith says some American Legion members can still wear their old military uniforms for the parade. He will not be wearing his, though that has nothing to do with how he feels about the celebration. There is a more practical reason.
“I can’t fit into it anymore,” he says.
The Chester Veterans Day Parade will step off at 11 a.m. on Monday, Nov. 11 at the Chester War Memorial, Main Street, and proceed to the flagpole in the center of town.