"I once put on this grudge match at Norton Field in Columbus—it's a housing development now—and it was between Joe Mackey and Harold Distlehorst. There wasn't no real grudge, but we wanted a crowd. I recall Mackey was falling behind and right there in midair in the middle of the race he jumped up out of the front cockpit and scrambled into the back cockpit because he thought that would give him more speed. It didn't. Distlehorst won.
"Later on, I had a stunt man name of Jack Fink. He'd hang from a trapeze and pretend he couldn't get back up, and he'd drive the crowd nuts. He'd also hang by his knees and pick up this hanky from the ground, and he did parachute jumps. Fink was a little fellow, maybe 4' 7" tall. He was a masterful parachute packer. He packed all the chutes for Doolittle's raid on Tokyo. "In those early days Roscoe Turner was the darling of the land. Roscoe Turner had showmanship like few men did then—and none do now. He'd come blasting in in that Golden 57, The Golden Bullet, and he would jump out with that pet lion cub he had, Gil-more. That Roscoe Turner would make Joe Namath look like a hambone. Those were real stars in aviation then. Joe Mackey would wear ascots and white suits, and he never used profanity. And Harold $. Johnson—use a dollar sign for the S when you write Harold's name—he had that great act where he would first do snap rolls and loops and things with a tiny plane, then he'd taxi it in and park it under the wing of his 14-passenger Ford Tri-Motor. Then he would take off in the Tri-Motor and do exactly the same stunts that he'd done in the little biplane. Harold would wear this baby-blue uniform with a Sam Browne belt. I paid Harold $. Johnson the most money I ever paid for an act—$1,750 for one afternoon's work.
"The flashiest guy I ever had, not the best pilot maybe, but the loudest and the dressiest, was Johnny Skyrocket. I won't tell you his real name because he's a big success in Las Vegas now, I believe. But this was in the '50s, and Johnny Skyrocket flew this De Havilland jet. He named it the Golden Vampire. He would wear a cape and a golden flying helmet covered with dazzle dust, and he had a big golden J on the chest of a blue uniform. And he had a mask. He would get into town before a show and go jumping into all the TV studios and the newspaper offices and the hotel lobbies wearing that damned outfit. The suit itself cost him $1,600, he told me. Then he'd fly a show, maybe a few little rolls and stuff in that jet, and when he was done he would drive it inside a tent and put a stepladder up to the cockpit. He charged $1.50 a head to go in and look. People hadn't seen many jets in those days, and Johnny Skyrocket used to make himself a bundle. I'd give a lot for a Johnny Skyrocket these days.
"I'd give a lot for a Cyclone O'Neil, too. He was a parachute jumper in the '30s. I'll never forget it. I ran into Cyclone for the first time in Lancaster, Ohio. He had bought himself this set of white coveralls and he had his name across the back. He had a helmet and goggles and he would carry them around in his hand all the time like a lunch pail. He told everyone in town he was a famous parachute jumper and he would be jumping with our circus. He told everyone he had made 200 jumps and they all believed him, even the minister, because Cyclone O'Neil was a nice fellow. So I told him he could jump for me. About five minutes before the show Cyclone broke into a horrible sweat and confessed to me that he had never jumped at all, not even once. He was sweating something terrible, but he jumped that day. He waited almost till he was on the deck before he opened the chute, but he made it. And he stayed with the show. He was a fine piece of advertising for us because he would brag so much in every town. He'd had maybe 25 jumps, but he'd be saying 1,000, and he would carry his helmet and goggles all over and get us free meal tickets from the best local restaurants. Sometimes, though, Cyclone O'Neil would hit bad days and break into awful sweats and then he'd RJ—refuse to jump. It got so we were prepared for it. When Cyclone would RJ we'd take up a dummy in the plane—we called it Elmer Bloop. We'd throw the dummy out and I'd be yelling at the crowd about the jumper coming down and maybe it was a faulty parachute, and Elmer Bloop would be falling and falling. And then he would hit the ground. I'd pretend I was grief-stricken and hurry to my car and drive out onto the field where the dummy fell and pick it up and just drive right on to the next town where we had a show booked. The pilots would fly out and those people in the crowd would be left with the conviction that they had just seen a man fall to his death before their eyes. We finally had to stop that act because women would faint and men would get sick to their stomachs. It was pretty mean."
There was a time when Bill Sweet took his pay in chickens or shoats or produce from farmers, and most of the profit came from passenger hops. But now a Sweet-produced circus—10 acts, including car-to-plane transfer, comedy, parachute jumps and "world championship aerobatic exhibitions" of various kinds—will pull $2,500—no rides of any kind.
In the old days Sweet did his announcing through a four-foot megaphone. "I had to say everything two, three times so they'd hear me in all directions." Now he has a tiny but immensely powerful system of loudspeakers that he transports and erects himself.
So one Saturday afternoon this summer, a sticky-warm day, near the hamlet of Smyrna, Tenn., Bill Sweet went to work to put on another air circus, somewhere around the 1,600th in his life. His cast included Eddie Green for the jumps and stunts, Hal Krier and Charlie Hillard, the pilots. All had arrived separately and with no fanfare of any kind. Instead of holding the show on some level farmland as they used to in the past, it was staged on an incredibly vast acreage of baking-hot cement, the vacant runways and landing aprons of what was once Sewart Air Force Base outside Nashville. On the brink of this massive cement plateau (perhaps a mile square) a few thousand people had gathered to witness events built around the third annual Nashville Aviation Days, a Rotary Club affair to raise money for a chapel at a hospital. At first there were only oddly disembodied sounds—bird songs, crickets, the distant buzz of a plane or two, low conversations in the crowd. Then, suddenly, from four loudspeakers set on the edge of that enormous concrete table came an electrifying cry:
"Watch the skies!"
As one the crowd looked up. A plane was drifting along at about 3,500 feet. Two others, piloted by Krier and Hillard, were circling at either end of the runways. And that powerful rasping voice boomed again:
"Watch those pearly blue skies! We may be going to—yes! We may and we could and we should and we might and we ought to—he going to see a parachute jump at this time. He'll fall from those pearly gates over Tennessee, ladies and gentlemen, little Eddie Green, with Old Glory furling out beneath him. Bombs will burst. Our champion of champion pilots will paint a rhapsody in smoke. Watch the skies. Ooo-o-o-o-ohhhhh, My-yyyyy!"