In his 97 years, Frank Macon has overcome dyslexia, was one of the original Tuskegee airmen, spent a career working at a military facility, raised a family, cowrote an autobiography and was awarded one of the nation's highest honors. But he said he might be proudest of being inducted into the hall of fame — at his high school.
"Oh, my teachers would be rolling in their graves,” said Macon, of Colorado Springs, Colorado. “In the early days, I could barely get an ‘F’ in recess."
Macon has a lot of stories like that. His life is one of learning struggles and curiosity, of service and stubbornness, of reward and disappointment. But more than anything else, it is a series of fascinating life tales.
He shared some of those in October, when Wish of a Lifetime from AARP granted his request to help “all kids to live with purpose and conquer their challenges.” He held a videoconference with students from Denver Academy, an independent day school for diverse learners, where he answered questions about his Tuskegee service and the challenges he faced with dyslexia.
Macon has many more life tales. Take, for example, his Tuskegee training during World War II. He was one week from graduating from the prestigious program in Alabama that trained African American aviators when his turn to fly in a T-6 trainer planer came up. He also had a serious head cold. This was a bad combination.
"Well, I did a power dive: Pop! — both eardrums,” Macon said. “They sent me to Scott Field [in Illinois, near St. Louis], to the hospital. I was there recovering when the war ended, so I was never in combat."
His recovery took a year, but Macon eventually received his commission in the Army Air Corps Reserve. It was a major accomplishment for someone who was born poor to a teenage mother, who grew up before and during the Great Depression, and who, admittedly, had a troubled childhood.
'Full of devilment'
"I was full of devilment as a kid,” said Macon. He suspects this was a combination of his curiosity about mechanics and his difficulty in learning because of the dyslexia, which went undiagnosed in his childhood.
"Back then I had no idea I was dyslexic. I just knew I couldn't read or do math. But I could tear anything apart and rebuild it. ... The mischief is how I learned stuff, because book learning was not for me."
Macon struggled with reading, but he had an aptitude for mechanics and design. His autobiography, which was written for young readers, is filled with his drawings and designs for toys and science experiments.
"I got in some ‘deep yogurt’ when I was a kid because I tore stuff apart and built new stuff with the pieces. Today I will tell you, every spanking was worth it. That's how I learned about gears, struts, engines — anything mechanical,” he said.
An example: He and a friend tried to build a rocket out of a hot water tank. For the propellant, they used calcium carbide, which emits a highly flammable gas when exposed to water. The “propulsion” part of the plan didn't work so well, though the rocket did a fine job of shooting flames out of its exhaust.
"Yes, we almost blew up the neighborhood, but we learned a lot about thrust, mechanics, force,” Macon said. “We didn't even know what those things were as kids, but when we were trained as adults it all made sense."
Military service takes flight after high school
By the time he was in high school, he was designing simple airplanes — and getting occasional flying lessons at a Colorado Springs-area airfield. The U.S. entered World War II when Macon was a senior. He joined the Civil Air Patrol, and it was there that he was taught to fly a plane. That was also where he first heard about Tuskegee.
Macon applied and was accepted into Tuskegee's prestigious Civil Air Patrol program – then was tossed out a few weeks later when officials learned he was 18, not the minimum age of 20, as he had claimed. He briefly returned to Colorado, entered the Army Air Corps and then went back to Tuskegee, this time in a military role where his age was acceptable. He progressed from primary to advanced flight training before the accident that damaged his eardrums.
"We learned fast not to compare or put each other down. We learned to use what we knew and our best skills to help each other succeed,” he said.
After his recovery, Macon pursued and received his commission in the reserves. He then returned to Colorado Springs. There he worked at nearby Fort Carson, retiring after 23 years as the head of aircraft maintenance. He also raised a family. In 2007 Macon and the other Tuskegee Airmen were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal – the highest civilian recognition given by Congress.
When asked what he would tell someone considering a military career, Macon responded: “First I would say, go find someone who is currently in the military. Pick their brain for information. It is a tremendous option, but you really need to know it's a good choice for you.
"The military is full of opportunity, but the opportunity comes with sacrifice,” he said.