Cloudburst on James Fowler Road

Torpedo Plane_Coral SeaLiving in Santa Barbara, one receives a lot of visitors (he began unpromisingly). For years I’ve been a regular habitue of Santa Barbara Airport (SBA), both in its Petticoat Junction heyday and in its current architectural incarnation as a kind of swollen space age hacienda. The bold suggestion of frontier adobe just where one wants most to be assured of technological prowess  – is that a good idea? And like many locals awaiting the arrival of inbound guests, I’ve aggregated countless hours on the observation patio next to the tarmac, staring with an idiot half-smile at that chiming, sun-faded Rube Goldberg contraption there, rubber balls bouncing and twirling through a baroque maze of rails and bells, all this charming artistry viewed through a mesmerizing fog of jet exhaust.

If you approach SBA from the 101 you’ll need to keep your eyes peeled and quickly veer onto the ‘Ward Memorial Blvd’ exit. Yes, there will be honking. Half a mile later you’ll drift to the right onto the quaintly named Sandspit Road, negotiate a long, nauseating and nervous-flyer tormenting semi-spiral to find your car at a T intersection facing an expanse of unbridled swamp. A more direct route to SBA is that from Fairview Avenue. You cross the bustling thoroughfare of Hollister in the direction of the sea, and soon find yourself driving through that strange Industrial patch of Fairview no-man’s-land, the fenced airport environs on your right with the occasional haunted, rust-eaten hangar half-concealed by foliage, while on your left a series of businesses of uncertain provenance whiz by, strange little shacks with strange little signs, then the cryptic roadside factories whose product you can never quite ascertain, with their zig-zagging conveyor belts, cubist tin silos and piles of gravel.

As Fairview nears the airport, the road bends suddenly right and changes names; Fairview Avenue becomes James Fowler Road. What’s left of Fairview stumbles straight through the turn like a confused sprinter and slows to a stunned dirt road crawl. Having begun its grand conveyance in the lush foothills of The Good Land, Fairview now canters uncertainly along and about 200 feet later tapers without ceremony into a dusty cul-de-sac near a copse of nondescript trees. Never mind. Your carefully negotiated hard right has put you on James Fowler Road (“James Fowler Road?”), and there just ahead is Santa Barbara Airport, former home of a local effort to vanquish a tsunami.

On the evening of February 14, 1944, Santa Barbara High School alum Jimmy Fowler and two other guys, Cecil and John, from Idaho and Minnesota respectively, take off in a TBF-1 Avenger from Torokina Airfield on Bougainville, a jungle-covered, previously picturesque island in the South Pacific. The island is in the smoldering latter stages of its torment, a titanic metalloid deathfest that will have lasted two years and consumed in fire and blunt force 51,000 terrified people from both sides. Tonight Jimmy, Cecil and John are crewing this torpedo plane with orders to fly in slow and low, super freaking low, 800 feet, and drop aerial mines into heavily fortified Simpson Harbor, an enemy naval installation at the eastern end of yet another nearby island called New Britain, Papua New Guinea. 800 feet? Who came up with this idiot idea? But if they can’t drop these mines where they’ll do the job, what’s the point? Right? It’s a beautiful night, dirty with stars, balmy and tropical. The ongoing, unbroken susurrus of explosions going off in the near and middle distance is almost insectoid in its constancy. It’s almost tranquilizing.

5 years earlier Jimmy Fowler had graduated SBHS and done a dumb jig in his gown.  Class of ‘39! Once a Don! They all had the usual wild ideas of where they might be headed, the big old world huge and inviting and teeming with opportunity, fate, the romance of unknowing. That year he’d also earned his Captain’s bars in the Junior Reserve Officers Training Corps. Like most high school kids at that time he was bowled over with the idea of flight and had every intention of seeing how far he could take it. His dad, Laurence (at that time manager of the Crocker Sperry Ranch in Montecito, later site of the Birnham Wood Golf Club), and his mother, Margaret, supported his pursuit. He had an older sister, Barbara, and a pesky little sis, Margaret; after her mother.

1943; big big year! The stars aligned, sort of. Jimmy graduated from the Naval Air Training Center at Corpus Christi, giddily married Nan Colt at All-Saints-By-The-Sea Episcopal Church on Eucalyptus Lane (he and his grinning groomsmen in full military dress), and he trained in the Avenger Torpedo Bomber until he could fly it sleeping. In December, just like that, just like a finger snapping, he kissed Nan goodbye without ceremony and boarded a huge troop ship headed for the South Pacific.

On that February night less than a year later, he and Cecil and John flew in low, as ordered. Most of the low-and-slow Avengers flying over Simpson Harbor that night were shot down; torn to pieces, really. Was it a suicide mission by design? They had to lay those mines, sure. But really? The young airmen, as expected, flew straight into a storm front of hot flak as solid as a wall. Nevertheless, some reports indicate Jimmy, Cecil and John may actually have made it out, reports that suggest Jimmy called out on the radio for bearings after the attack. Come in! Come in! How do I get back? Where am I? But that’s the last of it. No more was heard, no more is known. One way or another Jimmy fell into the sea, 7000 miles from home.

His Nan died in 2004 at 80 years old. How often in her remaining life did she dream of Jimmy’s last kiss, the one they shared when he said goodbye and shipped out? The question may be clumsily cinematic, but I have to wonder. How did Nan’s life transpire in his absence? Nan did eventually remarry. Young Jimmy’s flying machine, either fatally struck by exploding metal or just out of fuel, plunged into an unfamiliar sea, with the result that another man’s path was diverted, or illuminated, and another story began as Jimmy’s ended. This entire mess is a pageant of unheralded stories. When I think about Jimmy and Nan I think, for some reason, of a nightstand with a lamp, and the lamp being quietly switched off, night after night after night, and a woman lying awake and thinking of things in the dark. To most of us WWII is a vast, momentous black-and-white record of unimaginable doings. To Nan and Jimmy, though, the last goodbye was in ordinary color. Jimmy’s crash into the sea was in ordinary color, blanched by moonlight and fire. Possibly the dials on his airplane’s control panel were dutifully aglow as he and his two newish friends fell into a vast plain of black, unmarked water. What did he think of in the course of his descent? What were Jimmy Fowler’s final thoughts?

In the late 40s Jimmy’s mom began a tradition of bringing fresh flowers to her church, First Presbyterian at State and Constance, every Easter and Christmas in Jimmy’s memory. Jimmy’s sisters, Barbara and pesky little Margaret, assumed the floral duties when Jimmy’s mom grew too weak, and later Barbara’s sons stepped in to make sure their lost uncle Jimmy’s flowers always graced the church on those special days. Uncle Jimmy’s flowers. In 1948 the Santa Barbara City Council named a bevy of streets in Goleta and around the airport after the lost young airmen of Santa Barbara, some 26 streets. In ‘49 the airport was deeded to the city by the military.

Since 1948 how many times must Jimmy’s family have driven that short stretch of road, James Fowler Road, picking up friends or relatives at the airport? And in the years of his high school youth, how many times had Jimmy Fowler bounded down the short steps of SBHS with his scratched-up school books under his arm? On those sunny afternoons off Anapamu Jimmy surely wouldn’t have guessed at his crazy fate. Who would? A deafening, fiery nighttime air crash into a harbor in New Guinea? And what can we feel about it? A guy falling 800 feet into the sea in a broken, flaming machine – it has the unfortunate distancing force of a fable.

But – while only a very few of us have dropped mines into Simpson Harbor, many many of us have sat in a math class at Santa Barbara High School and dreamed away the minutes, watched a bolt of sun move across the desktop while the teacher lectures. You’ve sat in a math class. This isn’t fable, any of it. In a hundred-fifty years some of your descendants will be chatting very briefly about something and your name will come up, but the people talking won’t know exactly who you were, likely won’t get your name right. But you’re vibrantly here now, and you see and hear and apprehend the world. You love and are loved by others. Jimmy Fowler isn’t a flattened sepia tone photo in a Ken Burns paean, isn’t a road named after a legend. He’s you, in your math class, your arm warmed by the sun. Remember that when you hang the hard right at the top, the tippity top, of Fairview.

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Santa Barbara Sentinel – Volume 3-Issue 15

*photo is courtesy of PacificWrecks.com

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