Sunward he climbedRead Now
His life story is the stuff of dramatic fiction. But you can't make this one up--it would be too unbelievable. It’s a story of sadness, loss, pain, survival and ultimately triumph. Of someone who made it through hardship to live a long life beyond their modest childhood dreams. Someone who packed a lifetime of heroics into a few years in his early 20s, then settled down in 1950s Florida with his family and a supervisor's job at the phone company.
He came from a generation that learned hard lessons of life and death in wartime. But he had a jump on all of them: he had learned those lessons long before December 7th, 1941.
Born in an Indiana farm-house in 1921, he was an only child. If the twenties were roaring, he never heard them.
He lost his father in a house fire when he was just six years old. Then his mother died when he was 13. That meant he not only had the Great Depression to face, he had to face it without parents or siblings.
He lived for a time in an orphanage, where bread dipped in molasses was considered a meal.
When they could afford it, he lived with family members, but he was required to do his part. He talked of leaving school during the lunch hour to work behind a candy counter—passing on every nickel earned to the relatives providing for him. He had another job washing a rich doctor's car.
He was working when John Dillinger was shot, remembering it allowed him to sell more EXTRA! newspaper editions on his bicycle paper route.
Without the time and resources to do team sports, his fondest memory of high school was a model plane he built in a shop class. But when it came time to test that model, he missed it, because he was working.
After a whirlwind 6-month courtship carried out mostly by letter, he married his wife Janet at 20-years-old. In a Mississippi courthouse where he was stationed, they signed the paperwork that sealed a marriage that lasted until her death 63 years later.
With only a day's leave, the honeymoon was a drive down to New Orleans for a Po-boy wedding dinner.
So when December 7th came, this farm boy was already in the service. It just meant a longer stint in uniform.
With Jan in tow, he spent the early war years going from base to base qualifying on a number of planes. From workhorses like the T-6 Texan to marvels of engineering like the P-51 Mustang. He was an instructor, then later flew transport and dive bombing missions.
During the war, he trained Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) who towed targets in dangerous live fire exercises. Nearly forty of them died doing their jobs.
He knew the power, value and strength of women 70 years before people needed a hashtag to remind them of those basic truths.
He told his grandsons what it would take the Air Force 50 years to figure out: that those women would have proven just as good as any male pilots if given the chance to go into combat.
(Later, he lamented the fact the WASPs weren’t officially designated veterans, and therefore weren't allowed proper military benefits or burials when they passed on. Congress eventually figured that out too, 30 years later. But to the end of his life, he marveled at and saluted women like WASP founder Jackie Cochran. When one of his grandsons later came across her exhibit in the National Air And Space museum, it brought to life all the stories he'd been telling for years.)
Never was a man more qualified to raise three daughters, and it was no surprise they turned into three very strong women.
He was in the Pacific preparing for the invasion of Japan when the bomb was dropped.
After reaching the rank of Captain in the Air Force, he came home to Indiana. He later moved his family to sunny South Florida, and spent his career with the Bell phone company, pre-cursor to AT&T.
He continued working hard, raising a family, teaching his girls to play softball, singing in the church choir. Jan was at home, a Girl Scout leader and Sunday school teacher. They traveled the US when the girls were young, then went around the world after he retired.
Of course he never fully retired, instead proudly working into his 80s, picking up jobs like greeting cruise ship travelers.
Regrets—he had more than a few. And he mentioned them more than once. He wished he could have kept flying. He wished he’d been able to go to college.
He wished he could fully teach us what his experiences taught him.
Oh, he tried. He repeated many of these stories over the years to grandchildren who rolled their young eyes, until they were old enough to listen to those same stories anew with widened eyes.
He knew hardship, and it made him grateful for what he had. He knew death and darkness intimately, so he appreciated the light of every day he had.
He wasn't ready to stop loving when Jan died. He married again in his 80s, spending 14 years with Charlene, the woman he doted on and bragged about endlessly, who cared for him until the end. He thanked her over and over again for being there when he needed her most.
After he turned 90, he said, “I wake up every morning, look over at my wife and think, ‘Hey! I’m alive, one more day!”
That didn’t happen this past Friday. He passed away on Thursday, January 17th.
In Mark Maynard Wilson, we have lost one more witness to the utter destitution faced by his generation alone. The generation that overcame that destitution to beat back the darkest forces the world had even known.
But to his wife, three daughters, six grandchildren, four (soon-to-be five) great-grandchildren, we lost Dad, our grandpa, great-grandpa. Mark.
The big burly man who was still going to “Los Angeles fitness” well into his 90s.
A strong-willed but sensitive man who called us “dear heart,” picked worms up off the pavement hoping to save them from the Florida sun, and told us and taught us to love, love, love our families. And our pets.
To be happy with everything we had, no matter what.
One of his favorite poems was of course about aviation. It was written by a fellow World War Two fighter pilot named John Gillespie Magee, Jr.
He too had signed up to fly before Pearl Harbor. But he didn’t live to see the end of the war, or even his 20th birthday.
Mark Wilson knew men (and WASP women) who met that fate, and no doubt thought of them whenever he’d read this poem. Endlessly thankful that he was able to grow old and surround himself with the family that now misses him so much:
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds,—and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of—wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air. . . .
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark nor ever eagle flew--
And, while with silent lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.
-John Gillespie Magee, Jr.
1/20/2019 04:58:56 pm
Your grandfather saved everything you have written and shared with him-he would have loved this/thank you for your tribute/ beautifully done
1/21/2019 10:00:01 am
My goodness! What a moving tribute! Our nation owes so much to people like your Dad, Marcia. The Greatest Generation is called that because of people like him. Though he has passed on, I hope you take comfort in the good fortune to have had him for a father! To you and your family: Please accept our deepest sympathy in the loss of your Dad. - Steve & Karen
Linda and Vic Yerrill
1/21/2019 12:40:06 pm
What a wonderful man your father was, Marcia. We were so glad to be able to read so much about him, and look forward to hearing more. We send our deepest sympathy to all the family.
Barbara & Doug O’Connor
1/22/2019 06:11:56 am
What a wonderful tribute to your dad. So sorry for your loss.
1/23/2019 04:38:16 pm
Thanks for the great tribute to grandpa, he will always be a great man....One of the last real men of our country. He lived a long prosperous life and we will miss him
1/23/2019 05:33:24 pm
Very beautifully written. I am so thankful for the memories I have with great grandpa and that he was in my life as much as he was. I will never forget him, his stories, or about the honorable life he lived. I cant wait to someday tell my own kids, and eventually grandkids, about his life too. He will live on through all of us.
1/24/2019 06:57:08 am
Thank you for writing and sharing this beautiful article about Marc's Life.
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I'm Marc McAfee. I write news stories for a living, but every once in awhile I write a little more than what makes it on the air. Thanks for taking a look.