Lessons learned from one generation to next

Al Stiles is guest columnist.

On the Saturday morning after Thanksgiving, I was on the early bird flight to San Diego. It was a sad journey on which I embarked. I was going there to say farewell to our last uncle.

As we tore through the air at 32,000 feet and 535 mph, my mind traveled back some 65 years to one of those infrequent times all of the family was together.

We had gathered one evening at the home of my dad’s cousin, Helen Clingen, on Mary Street in Coconut Grove, Fla., for an impromptu family reunion.

My family had come to Miami at the beginning of the 20th century and settled on Mary Street in Coconut Grove, one of the city’s neighborhoods. It was there that my dad was raised. My grandparents lived in the Mary Street house until my grandfather was appointed as chief of Pacific operations for Pan American Airways. It was a position that required he and my grandmother to move to California.

She returned to Miami after my grandfather succumbed to a heart attack quite unexpectedly at age 54. Miami then became the center of the Stiles’ family universe.

My dad’s younger brother, Bob, was a naval aviator and their younger sister, Tinker, was married to another naval aviator, Miller Crownover.

As you would expect, those two families were stationed around the world and would return between duty stations to Miami. Almost never would they be in Miami at the same time.

So it was a source of great joy when both families did get back at the same time. All of the young cousins could share stories of their adventures while my brother and I remained in Miami.

Both of my uncles were released from active duty immediately after World War II but remained in the Navy Reserve before being called up for the Korean War. They chose to remain on active duty and both retired after 20-plus years of service. During that brief period of time after WWII, we had many opportunities to be together as a family.

The gathering that I alluded to was a particularly significant one for me. I had always been slightly in awe of my uncles as I listened to their stories. In my eye, they were two dashing young aviators.

But at this one gathering, my uncles took it upon themselves to teach me how to render the hand salute. After that, a 30-year naval career was inevitable for me.

Other memories flooded back as I continued winging my way to San Diego. There was another reason, other than the obvious one, to gather these recollections. My cousin, Jenni Lou, Uncle Miller’s eldest daughter, with the blessing of her brother and sister, had asked me to say a few words about their father as I had done for their mother who passed away in 2010. I was honored and quite humbled to be afforded the privilege of sharing my recollections with the many family and friends who gathered to say farewell.

Since my uncle was a naval aviator, the traditional practice of wishing one leaving on a voyage, “Fair winds and following seas” seemed less appropriate. I decided to end my remarks with the poem, “High Flight,” written by John Gillespie Magee Jr.

It begins:

Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth ...

And ends with:

... While with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod the high untrespassed sanctity of space, put out my hand and touched the face of God.

To which I added as snappy a hand salute as I could render.

At the reception, I sat with my Aunt Jinx, the widow of my late Uncle Bob, and reflected on the fact that she was the last family member of that generation and as such, was the matriarch of the family.

She took that opportunity to observe that with the passing of Uncle Miller, I was now the patriarch. It was a sobering thought for the 5-year-old kid that had just the other day been taught to salute by those two dashing young naval aviators.

Al Stiles of James Island is a native of Miami. He served in the Navy for 30 years and earned his MBA from Charleston Southern University, where he also serves on the school’s Board of Visitors.