Lives & Times of Valley Folks: Jim Nickless
by Steve Sparks, December 2, 2010
I met with Jim at his home on Airport Drive overlooking the Boonville Airport and the surrounding hillsides. His wife Jeanne was busy with chores and after meeting Lucky, the Schnauzer dog, Jim and I sat down to chat.
Jim was born the oldest of two boys in January 1927 in Farmersburg, Indiana to parents Edgar Nickless and Mimi Freed. His mother was visiting an Uncle’s farm and a blizzard hit and the doctor had to drive out to the farm in his Model-T Ford. “I am a couple of months younger than Jeanne, who was born in November 1926, but then I always preferred older women!”
The Nickless family was Dutch/German and were farmers in the Terre Haute area of Indiana. The Freed’s were Scotch/Irish and were from southern Ohio. Jim’s family settled in Barberton, a little city outside Akron, Ohio. The primary industries were tires and rubber, and dirigibles or hot air balloons were built there too, along with engines for ships in World War 2. “I went through all of my schooling in Barberton, graduating from the local high school in 1944. As a kid I had always been interested in aviation and one of my hobbies was building model airplanes. I played a little football but didn’t like being beaten up by the bigger guys. I played some basketball too, but when I was sixteen, with the war going on, they changed the school hours to just 8am to 1pm, after which many school kids, including me, went to work in the factories from 2pm to 10pm at night. I worked on army boots in a factory that also made bulletproof gas tanks for the B24 bombers. It was all piecework and there were no breaks unless you could get ahead of your schedule. I managed to do this quite often and would go across the street in those breaks and have a sandwich with a glass of beer and a shot. My Dad always had wine at the dinner table so I was used to a glass of wine with a meal... With all the war effort going on I had considered joining the Air Force during my last year or so at school but then the Army Air Corps came around the schools recruiting and I took their exam and passed. I took summer classes so I could graduate early which I did, six months early, and on my 18th birthday, January 10th, 1945, I was called up for active duty.”
With the Battle of the Bulge waging in Europe, the army suddenly needed more infantry rather than air corps personnel so Jim was transferred to the infantry and went to basic training in Macon, Georgia for six weeks. “That was a place where I first experienced racism — it had not been an issue growing up. After training, we went to the west coast and shipped out of Portland in the spring of 1945. We landed in Lady Bay in the Philippines and went ashore at the same beach where General McArthur had landed earlier. We did some ‘clean up’ work in the hills surrounding the Bay where some Japanese were still fighting and then everything was concentrated on loading up ships for the planned invasion of Japan. We knew that was going to be hell.”
“However, soon after news reached us that they had ‘dropped the Bomb’ and that the Japanese had quit. We had no idea they had such a bomb. I don’t care what some may think about President Truman for making the decision to drop that bomb — it almost certainly saved my life and the lives of tens of thousands of others. Sure, it was a terrible thing, but the losses that would have followed an invasion would have been far worse, fighting for every inch of Japanese soil against soldiers and civilians. My unit was now sent to Japan a month earlier than the original schedule, to Aomori at the northern most part of the main island. With the war now over, all we wanted to know was when we’d be sent home. They did this on a points system based on time spent there, landings made, etc. - based on that I’d have been there for a few years! However, they wanted to form an amphibious engineers outfit that you could sign up with for eighteen months service but in the meantime you would be sent home for Xmas 1945. A couple of buddies and I signed up and were soon on a train down through Japan. The countryside was very different to back home and the country was not nearly as developed as the States. The same could be said of their military equipment and I think that when they saw all the advanced stuff we had when we landed in the Philippines they realized that they could not win. We carried on to Tokyo and Yokohama, and then on to a ship that would take us home. That ship ran into a typhoon as we went by the Aleutian Islands in the northern Pacific and we had to turn back. Two soldiers were washed overboard and never found. We lost a few days and then finally arrived in Seattle where another delay occurred before I caught a train across the country. Those delays meant I didn’t get home until Dec 27th, 1945.”
Jim spent the next year or so on the west coast training with the marines and the 2nd Army until in 1947 he was honorably discharged. “I was a young kid and had really enjoyed my army experience. I had seen little action, more just mopping up operations in the Philippines. Probably the scariest thing that had happened to me was when some soldier would forget to switch off the automatic fittings on our new carbines and at night something might be heard in the bush and they would fire into the darkness. You would think the Japanese were coming and were scared to death. It always turned out that in the morning there would be a dead cow where he had fired blindly into the night.”
On leaving the military Jim went to study thanks to the G.I. Bill. “That made a big difference in many people’s lives. I signed up for aircraft and power plant mechanic and got my license in 1948. I had some money left over from that and applied it to flying school and started to fly out of Burbank Airport while I worked as a mechanic in Glendale nearby. I was there for a couple of years, working for a private enterprise that had a contract with the Chinese government’s air force.”
In 1949, the U.S. Air Force starting work on the B36 bomber in Texas and needed knowledgeable mechanics. Jim had met a girl who was the secretary at the school and they were married in 1949. “She was well-endowed and that’s how she originally caught my eye!” He applied for the job in Texas and moved there while his pregnant wife stayed in Van Nuys, California and had the baby, Michael, before joining Jim in Texas. “I didn’t like the job and wound up living check to check with little money and no savings. I quit and returned to work in Glendale once again.”
By 1950, the Korean War was threatening and two jobs opened up for Jim, one at Lockheed and the other for the Flying Tigers Company. “I took them both. They were at Burbank Airport and I’d do eight hours at one, take half-an-hour break, and then go to the other for eight hours. I did that for several weeks before I heard that they needed a ground crew person in Hawaii for the airlift of supplies as the war heated up. I took the job and was in charge of a ground crew working on the C54’s that were transporting troops, supplies, mail, etc, on their way to Korea. I had two shifts a day but if there were no planes to work on I had the time off. We lived one block off Waikiki beach and so I learned to surf that year! As long as you told the bartender at the Beachcomber Bar where you were and could be found if planes were coming in, then you were fine.”
Unfortunately Jim broke his arm while refueling a plane during this period and could not work or surf so he returned to the mainland, although he had made good money and saved too. “We took a family vacation to see my wife’s family in Iowa and I bought my first new car - a Ford in Detroit for $450. I returned to work at Flying Tigers and they sent me to Brownsville in Texas to work on the ground crew for the planes returning illegal immigrants to deep inside Texas. It was hoped by the government that they could not return so easily if they were dropped all the way down at San Luis Potosi.”
In 1953, Jim was again faced with two job offers. He could work for United Airlines as a commercial pilot or for North American Aviation as a field engineer on the F100 fighter planes. He was having eye problems, a stigmatism, and decided he’d hate to work as a pilot then have to leave for failing a physical exam so he took the job with NAA, teaching the systems to pilots and the maintenance to the crew chiefs. He was to be with NAA for many, many years in total. After three more years in Texas, during which time a second son, Patrick, was born, the family was once again on the move, this time to Florida for two-and-a-half years where he worked on testing weapon systems that included a spell in Alaska for cold weather testing. It was during that spell that a third son, Mark, was born.
Then on New Year’s Day 1959, Jim flew out of San Francisco headed for Korea for a new job as field engineer with N.A.A., this time for the Korean Air Force. After a year there he moved to work for six months as an engineer in Aomori, where he been during the war. “It had been flattened back then, but by 1960 a whole new city had been built, an amazing change. I liked being there, working for the air force, right on the base. In my field I was the equivalent to a Colonel, I guess, and was a member of the officers club, enjoying quite a social life, and doing lots of drinking. After a year or so there we uprooted the kids once more and returned to the States, this time to Buffalo, New York, near to Niagara Falls. That whole time was tough on the boys, very hard for them to develop friendships in such short periods of time. It’s a big part of the reason that I have such a dysfunctional family... That time we settled for about four years before moving on once again, returning to the Los Angeles area in 1964. I was laid of on a couple of occasions before finding work back with NAA in 1966, working on the Apollo space program.”
Jim had bought a house in the San Fernando Valley a few years earlier and had rented it out during their travels. The family lived there during his spell with the Apollo program before selling up and buying another place in Orange County, which he in turn sold and bought a motel in Big Bear Lake near to San Bernardino. He moved there with two of the boys, the oldest was now in college and his wife remained in LA where she worked at Disneyland. “I had been laid off from the Apollo program in 1974 as it began to close down. The motel did OK but I sold it after a year or so. I did finally get my degree at that time. I had studied when in Korea in the late fifties and, following many hours at night school, I had finally graduated in with a BA in Business Administration in the early seventies, and had gone on to get my Masters after another five years in 1976, along with my realty license — all my education came through night school.”
Jim and his wife were divorced and while working for a Ameron fiberglass pipe and paint company back in Los Angeles, Jim met a woman called Jeanne who worked in the paint division and they started to date. Job opportunities in San Francisco opened up with the company for both Jim and Jeanne and they decided to move up, leaving LA in 1979.
“We moved up and I was a field engineer once again. Around that time, Jeanne’s older son, Steve McKay, who had graduated from UC Davis, was a teacher at the high school and he and his partner Bert Cohen had bought property off Lambert Lane in Boonville. In the meantime, Jeanne’s father bought the property alongside and we would visit both places for weekends so I began to get to know the Valley at that time. Jeanne and I were married in 1981 — cheap bastard that I am, it meant I would only have to get one present every year — for Xmas, our anniversary and her birthday which is in November! Over the next few years when we weren’t on skiing vacations in Tahoe or Oregon we would visit the Valley. However, I left the fiberglas outfit in 1981 and went to work on the Shuttle program for Rockwell who had bought out NAA. Once again we were on the move as we left San Francisco and headed back to LA for a few more years, but by returning to the company I could use my accrued time towards retirement. We’d also visit the Valley quite often in those years.”
By 1987, the Shuttle work was winding down and so in January, when Jim turned sixty, he retired. “We had bought the property that was to become the Boon Berry Store, which was going to be Jeanne’s art studio, and the house next door. Then I noticed a ‘For Sale’ sign, hanging upside down at a property on Airport Drive on the edge of town. It was just a shell of a building but I’d never dreamed I could buy a house on an airport. The owner had committed suicide and it had been left empty for ten years I bought the property in 1985, knowing I was going to retire in two years. I had some good knowledge of the property business having got my Real Estate license and my broker’s license many years earlier... Jeanne’s son Steve and partner Bert had been using the store for selling the farm produce from the land they had and for a couple of years this had been going well under the name Boont Berry. As a result, when we came up to live in 1987 we felt we could not install Jeanne’s studio and went into partnership with Steve and Bert at Boont Berry instead and Jeanne didn’t get her studio.”
Jim had a hangar built at the house on Airport Drive and from 1987-89 they lived in a trailer on the property while the house was built. “We will have been up here for twenty-four years in January. I had an experimental plane I wanted to work on but the house came first. I got to know some of the neighbors who flew planes. First I think was Larry Lombard whose hangar was always open for his fiberglass company and I’d stop and talk to him and we soon became well acquainted. Then there was Jerry Bowers, Joe Fox, Pete Benville and later on it was Kirk Wilder, Bob Nimmons, Bryant Whitaker, Ross Murray, and of course their wives — that group became great social friends and all of us looked forward to the ‘TGIF’ (Thank God it’s Friday) weekly gatherings for drinks which began around 1992. We have been getting together on most Friday evenings ever since and people refer to us as the Airport Crowd. It was just the guys at first, the airport guys, although in recent times we have been joined by others, the wine guys like Jack Ridley and John Leal. Some of us are in the American Legion and see each other through that group too. We started at the Buckhorn but the group could be up to twenty people sometimes which was too big to sit down for dinner so we would have drinks at the bar and then go back to someone’s home for a pot luck dinner. It is not every week these days, may be every three weeks... We love living in the Valley and at our stage of life it is good to know we have a very good medical facility nearby, although a major emergency could be a problem and I have already been airlifted out of here by helicopter on two occasions.”
Jeanne and Jim have done quite a lot of volunteer work in the Valley since their arrival, although Jim is the first to admit most of his has been connected to the airport. “I am on the Community Services District Budget Committee and Chairman of the Airport Advisory Committee. Also I’m a member of the County’s Search and Rescue, Air Division, but most of my volunteer work has been in the area of getting support for the airport. The runway was much smaller but we have raised money and expanded. We attend many of the Valley’s events and a few of us will fly to other airports for fly-ins or we sometimes host other groups here. It would be good to get more young people involved. The high school used to offer flying classes and I always thought it was great you could graduate and have a flying license too. It’s too bad that came to an end. Of course, many people will be aware that on the second Saturday in August we have the Airport Social that is a party for anyone in the Valley to attend. We have a potluck and all afternoon we take people up in our planes and fly up and down over the Valley, making anywhere between 120 and 150 flights. We have also had t-shirts made for the airport and apparently they have been seen all over the world at this point thanks to the many pilots who have flown in here. Boonville is a well-known airport in flying circles and although may be a back country airport, it is a damn good one because we take god care of it.”
I asked Jim for his responses to various topics that Valley folks often seem to discuss.
The wineries and their impact on the Valley? “I have seen it evolve from apples to grapes and most people do not realize exactly how many vines there are unless they go up in a plane. I think they are a definite asset to the Valley apart from some detrimental effects of taking so much water.”
The AVA newspaper? “I remember hearing that when the editor, Bruce Anderson, used to walk along Mountain View Road people would drive by very close to him! He used to call me the bad guy for spraying poison on the runway to keep the weeds off. We do like it when we see it, particularly the local news and events, and are thinking about subscribing again.”
KZYX radio? “Jeanne listens but I prefer to watch television. I watch Fox News and that makes her mad. She is a Democrat and I’m an independent. It can cause problems!”
The school system? “In our early days here Jeanne was involved because her son was a teacher. I am of the opinion that two years of military service would be a good thing for the kids’ development into adults but these days with the various wars and terrorism going on who knows where they would end up?”
The Changes in the Valley? “Well they have been good overall. One thing that has not changed is those terrible buildings at the south end of downtown — the Blight I think people call them. It is a wonder to me that nobody has burnt them down. I was sorry to see the Buckhorn Brew Pub close a few years ago, the tasting room at the Brewery is not the same, but I believe the Buckhorn will be re-opened soon so we’ll see how they do. The Boonville Lodge closing earlier this year was too bad also. It had turned things around and then the landlord stepped in.”
I posed a few questions from a questionnaire featured on TV’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton” plus some I added.
What excites you; makes you smile; gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? — “When I see a nice airplane coming in to land. My ears are attuned to the sound of an incoming airplane and I have the radio here that is set at the frequency for pilots to inquire about weather and runway updates.”
What annoys you; brings you down; turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? — “Democrats!... No, actually all politicians — they are a bunch of crooks. Nothing locally annoys me — I love the whole ambience of the area and enjoy the wonderful people who live here.
Sound or noise do you love? “An airplane engine. People complain but say nothing about logging trucks. I don’t mind that either actually.”
Sound or noise do you hate? “The screaming of tires when they do wheelies.”
Favorite food or meal? Your ‘last meal’ shall we say? “Filet mignon, medium rare, with a delicious glass of red wine.”
If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that person be? “I’ll miss Carroll Pratt, a local resident and World War 2 pilot and friend who died a couple of weeks ago. I know that. President Truman. I’d like to thank him for saving my life.”
If you were sitting at home and a fire broke out in the building, what three things would you make sure you took with you? “My money, a pair of pants and a shirt, and that 1904 piano over there. I did have quite a gun collection but gave most of them to my son.”
A smell you really like? “Meat on the bbq.”
Favorite word or phrase? “Shut up!”
Least favorite word or phrase? “How much does it cost?”
Favorite hobby? “Playing the stock market — with my fingers crossed.”
Profession other than your own you’d like to attempt if you were given the chance to do anything? “I would have loved to have been a captain for a commercial airline. The decision to not accept the offer from United Airlines is something I regret more than anything, I think. Two years after that my eyes were fine. As a child my father was a mechanic and therefore blue collar. I grew up with that mentality, thinking further education was for others, and it was not until many years later that I learned you could better yourself through education. I also realized that drinking in officers’ clubs was not all there was and that college courses were available to me.”
Profession you’d not like to do? “Cleaning out toilets. In the army I had to do that whenever I was in trouble, which was quite often.”
Happiest day or event in your life? “When I married Jeanne.”
Saddest? “When I worked as a field engineer, I was sent to investigate about 40 accidents over the years. That was tough. The burning flesh smell from airplane crashes is the worst smell imaginable. At one air show, I remember a pilot I knew as a very good friend crashed and was killed. I found a glove with his hand in it and his helmet containing his head.”
What is your favorite thing about yourself, physically, mentally, spiritually? “That I enjoy a good glass of red wine. I was a womanizer, a bad guy in some ways. I chased women all the way up until the day I met Jeanne. Now I just look and do not touch. I am the dirty old man of Boonville. I am a quiet person, more a listener than a talker. Sometimes I want to tell someone to shut up but it doesn’t come out even though I think hard about it.”
Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “I’m not sure I’ll be at those gates; more likely I will be faced with Satan. I suppose I’d like him to say, ‘You’ve been a good guy and a bad guy. I forgive your bad stuff, now come on in.’ That would be fine with me.”
(To read the stories of other Valley Folk, visit the archives at www.avalleylife.wordpress.com. Next week the guest interviewee from the Valley will be the man behind www.AndersonValley.net.)