“NOW THIS IS MUCH BETTER THAN THAT OTHER FILM.”
And George Hickman is off and running. “This” is Red Tails, the CGI and explosion-heavy George Lucas–produced movie about the Tuskegee Airmen that opens in January. “That other film” about the segregated squadron of black pilots who helped chase Hitler from the sky in World War II, creatively named The Tuskegee Airmen, aired on HBO more than 15 years ago. It’s late November and the 87-year-old just watched the trailer for Red Tails for the first time on an iPad in the Museum of Flight. Now he wants to tell the real-life tales that inspired it.
Today Hickman ushers at UW basketball games, but 60 years ago he flew with the Tuskegee Airmen. He’s one of a handful still living in Seattle, but one of only two who speak publicly, and he’ll take any opportunity to spin a yarn about the war. So as he sat on a bench near the museum’s Tuskegee exhibit, swallowed whole by a brown bomber jacket, he recounted moments like the night he arrived by train near the Tuskegee Airfield. He’d barely stepped onto the platform, covered in ash from sitting directly behind the coal car, when his new commanding officers began barking orders at him. But instead of cowering he stood a little taller. These were accomplished black men, dressed sharply in pressed uniforms. And despite what society had taught him, he could join them.
Other visitors to the museum stopped to gawk as Hickman posed for a picture in front of the museum’s P-51 Mustang—the plane his squad flew—and a docent answered their whispered questions. And even after the photographer put away his camera Hickman was still smiling, not because of the attention but because somebody wanted to know how he and his fellow airmen contributed. If they learn more from Lucas’s movie, all the better. But what he really wants them to know is what so many whites in the military refused to accept: that a black man could fly a plane. “I believed I was going to be somebody,” Hickman says. “I was going to make something out of myself.”