He Was a Good Man

February, 2002

I stand before you today to celebrate the life of a good man, my father Hal Keyt. We were blessed to have him for eighty years. My Dad wasn’t a famous actor, rock star or professional athlete, the types of people that the media portrays as heroes to the public. My Dad, however, was a true American hero. He was the salt of the earth, a patriot, a rocket scientist, a pioneer, an adventurer, and a truly nice guy.

One of Hal’s favorite books is “To Kill a Mockingbird.” He admired Atticus Finch, the small town lawyer who does the right thing even though it was not the popular thing to do. But to me my Dad was a man just like Atticus. Hal was just as strong as Atticus and he always did the right thing.

That’s why Dad joined the Army Air Corps the day after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. It was the right thing to do. Hal was a member of what NBC newsman Tom Brokaw calls the Greatest Generation. Dad didn’t hesitate. His country needed him and he answered the call. In our modern world of today, who among us would be willing to quit our jobs on twenty-fours’ notice, leave family and friends behind, and travel to the far corners of the world for an unknown number of years with no assurance that we’d ever return? That’s what my Dad did at age 20. Dad was a patriot, like many others of his generation, who risked their lives for the United States and to prevent the spread of tyranny. Dad flew combat missions over Europe as a B-17 navigator in the 8th Air Force. Because of the risks and sacrifices he made in World War II, my Dad is my hero.

From 1954 – 1958, my family lived at Lajes Field Air Base located on Terceira Island, in the Azores. The Azores is a group of Portuguese islands approximately midway between Europe and North America. We lived in the Azores during the era of propeller driven airplanes, before jets were used in commercial aviation. My Dad was a B-17 navigator in the 57th Air Rescue and Recovery Squadron. I remember my Dad in his Air Force officers uniform. As a young boy, it was really cool to live near an air base and to be able to see airplanes up close. I remember my Dad taking my brother and me to the flight line to climb around inside the B-17s. One Armed Forces day I watched the parade from the pilot’s seat of a B-17 thanks to my Dad. What a thrill that was for an 8 year old boy who loved airplanes.

The Air Rescue squadron’s job was to find and escort to Lajes Field airplanes in distress while crossing the Atlantic ocean. Frequently, the men of the 57th ARS were tasked to find airplanes and ships that had gone down at sea. Many missions were routine, but sometimes the weather in the North Atlantic was treacherous. Like the post office, the men of the air rescue B-17s did not let rain, wind, sleet or snow stop them from assisting travelers in need. I didn’t know it then, but I know now, the men of the Air Rescue squadron risked their lives so that others might live. The men of the 57th Air Rescue and Recovery Squadron were my heroes then and my Dad was one of them.

My Dad and his good friend Bob Watson made an 8 mm movie starring me, my brother and Capt. Watson’s kids. The movie shows the kids getting a phone call from Air Rescue alert informing us that our Dads were needed to scramble a B-17 and rescue an airplane that lost an engine. Our Dads weren’t home so the kids drove the car down to the flight line, got into flight suits, had a briefing, pre-flighted the B-17, started the engines, taxied to the runway, took off, found the airliner and escorted it to Lajes. It was a pretty neat movie.

Dad was also an adventurer. He and two of his friends were the first Americans to climb Mt. Pico, which at 7,713 feet is the highest point in Portugal. Mt. Pico is a volcano, which at the time had lava flows. Portions of the climb were as steep as forty degrees. Climbing on hard volcanic rock was not easy, but my Dad, the adventurer did it.

Hal left flying duty to become a rocket scientist during the pioneer days of the space race. In 1959 we moved to Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. It was time of the Russian sputnik, the first satellite into space. During the 1960s the United States launched more missiles from Vandenberg AFB than from any other location. Vandenberg didn’t get the publicity that Cape Canaveral got because no manned space flights ever were launched from Vandenberg.

The early sixties at Vandenberg was an exciting time. We lived ten miles from the base, but when a missile blasted off, the rumbling of the blast was unmistakable and everybody for ten or more miles from the launch site ran outside to watch the launch. Even from ten miles away, we could clearly see the missile, the long flame coming from it and the long twisting contrail. In the early sixties, the missiles frequently blew up spectacularly. To an 11 year old boy, it was really cool when that happened.

But what was even cooler was that my Dad worked on the missiles and the satellites. Hal was one of the men involved in building the launching pads and launching the missiles. We’re not talking about your run of the mill small fry kind of missiles, but the big intercontinental ballistic missiles, ICBMs. While the rest of the United States was reading about the space race in the sixties, the Hal Keyt family had a front row seat for the live action.

We didn’t know it then, but we found out many years later when it was declassified that what Dad and his associates were doing was launching top secret spy satellites into orbit around the earth. The satellites were an important piece of our national defense system during the cold war.

Dad loved boats. He said many times that he wished he had been the captain of a navy ship. The last time I heard him say that was two or three weeks ago. Boating was in his blood, but he never got enough of it. When my brother and I were teenagers in central California, my Dad bought an 18 foot ski boat. We frequently took the boat to the lake on the weekends and camped out under the stars. We’d water ski with friends all day. That was the life.

One of our best family vacations was a week on a houseboat cruising the Sacramento river delta. It was a great time for family bonding. Of course we played a lot of cards, but never bridge. Hearts was our game and the competition was fierce. Mom and Dad played a lot of bridge all their lives, but they never pushed my brother or I into the game. We learned to play bridge as adults. Hal even gave a series of bridge lessons to my brother and me and our wives and some of our friends. We had a nice rubber bridge group for a while thanks to my Dad.

After he retired from the Air Force and worked as an aerospace engineer for General Electric in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, my Dad bought his first of three big boats. My parents kept their boats in a marina on a river that fed into the Chesapeake Bay. They got away to the boat most every weekend and just hung out. Dad loved those boats. He was a tinker so he had a lot of things to tinker with on the boat. There was always something that needed fixing, cleaning, painting or replacing. Dad just liked being on the boat on the water, even if the boat was tied to the dock.

My Mom and Dad liked to take trips in the boat exploring the northern Chesapeake. I remember how much fun those days were on the boat. There’s nothing quite like putting some meat on a hook, drooping it over the side and catching a crab for supper. One thing I know Dad loved about his boats was the sheer pleasure of sitting on the stern of the boat after supper and watching the sun go down over the water.

My Dad was a wonderful father. He always supported and encouraged my brother and I. He was always there when we needed him. Being a military man, Dad was a strict disciplinarian. My brother and I were taught to say yes sir and no sir. Dad gave us everything we wanted when we were growing up. We wanted a pool table, but didn’t have room in the house. No problem. Dad bought a beautiful slate pool table and put it in our one car garage. We were never able to use the garage again for the car, but my brother and I and our friends spent countless hours inside that garage playing all kinds of pool games.

When I was in high school, Dad bought a two seater MG sports car. Dad taught me how to drive a stick shift in that car. One year when I was in college, he loaned me his two seater Triumph sports car. Dad and I loved that little car. When I was a senior in college at Penn State, he loaned me his Mustang coupe.

Dad loved baseball and he passed his love for the game on to his sons. I remember Dad taking me to see a Washington Senators baseball game in Washington D.C. when I was very young. I also remember going to see minor league baseball games with my Dad when we lived in Denver. Dad took us to see the Hollywood Stars semi-pro baseball team play in Hollywood. When the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles, we would drive three hours one way to watch the Dodgers play in the Coliseum and later at Dodger Stadium. Dad had the misfortune, however, to be a life-long Chicago Cubs fan. He loved to watch the Cubs play on WGN and when they came to Mesa for spring training.

Of course when we got the Arizona Diamondbacks, Dad became a died in the wool Diamondbacks fan. We have had Diamondback season tickets since their first year, but unfortunately, Dad was only able to attend one game in person. The task of getting from the car to the seat and back was too much for Dad. He elected to stay home and watch the Diamondbacks play on TV, but he rarely missed a TV game.

One of Dad’s unaccomplished dreams was to attend a world series game. When we were selecting our playoff tickets last year, Dad got mad because my Mom’s first selection was for tickets to a divisional playoff game rather than to a world series game. My Mom did get two tickets to game seven of the World Series, but Dad’s health was too frail for him to go. Instead, my son Ricky took my Dad’s place with my Mom and they watched the Diamondbacks win that miracle game seven. Dad loved the 2001 World Series and his Diamondbacks.

But most of all, Dad loved his family. He loved his wife, his children, his daughters-in-law and his grandchildren. My Dad idolized my mother. Mom and Dad were married 56 years. That fact alone says a lot about my Dad’s life and the kind of man he was. He always took care of Mom. Even as his health failed, his main concern was that he did not want to be a burden on my Mom. He worried more about my Mom than he did about himself. That’s the way he was. He was a good husband, a good father, a good father-in-law, a good grandfather and a good friend. Hal Keyt was a good man.

I thank God that we had Dad for 80 years. We love you Dad and are proud of you and we will always miss you.