Tuesday, July 25, 2017  

The Art of War


Near the mouth of Dymer Creek strange and wonderful creatures stalk the shallows. On stilt-like legs they seemingly bob and pirouette—abstract forms of canvas and driftwood sporting elongated beaks, arms, feet and hands painted in bright crayon colors—pleasing contrasts to the monochromatic background of water and sky.

A red and white striped snake slithers along a deck railing; a thunderbird with outstretched wings perches on orange and yellow legs; a montage of sea creatures and whirligigs set against a backdrop of fishing nets greet visitors and boaters alike to the small A-frame cabin perched on the very edge of the creek.

The creator of this delightful menagerie, artist Richard C. Kirkland, along with his wife Maria, have called Dymer Creek their second home for more than forty years. “Except for an old fish processing plant, there was nothing here when we bought the property,” Richard recalls. “When folks saw how close I was building to the water, they told me I was crazy; that the next big storm would take us out. But I was determined to prove them wrong.”

He dug a deep trench parallel to the shore and poured a massive concrete footing, atop which he poured yards and yards of concrete forming a thick pad upon which they erected their cabin, which has withstood the worst nature has thrown at it with barely a scratch. It’s a challenge hard fought and won, but Richard is no stranger to a fight.

Growing up in the rural Tehachapi Mountains of Southern California during the Great Depression, Richard always knew he wanted to be an artist. Surrounded by the beauty of canyons and meadows, creeks, hills, and an abundance of wildlife, he was inspired to capture that beauty on canvas.

Despite the economic hardships, Richard managed to attend Bakersfield College, a small two-year institution where he intended to pursue a career in art. Sears & Roebuck had already expressed an interest in employing him as a window dresser so his immediate future seemed assured.

At the same time, his college also offered a flying course, a unique curriculum even to this day. Once in the air, Richard discovered his second love – flying. When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and when he turned eighteen, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps, ready to earn his wings.

As a member of the “Flying Knights” Fighter Squadron, Lt. Kirkland flew 103 combat missions in the Pacific campaigns, piloting P-38s and P-47 fighters over New Guinea, the Dutch East Indies, and the Philippines. Along the way he rubbed elbows with, or met the likes of, men whose names resonate through the annals of history—General Douglas McArthur, Charles Lindbergh, flying ace Dick Bong, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Howard Hughes. The consummate artist, Richard’s fingers itched to document his war experiences on canvas during his down times, capturing his war moments in vivid detail.

Following the war, then Captain Kirkland was assigned to a top secret project in the Marshall Islands, ferrying scientists to and from the tiny Pacific atolls during our country’s above ground tests of nuclear bombs. He observed their raw power up close and personal, exposed to high levels of radiation, and quickly realizing the next war could mean the annihilation of civilization. It was a sobering experience.

When the Korean conflict broke out, Richard had his eye on learning to fly the new jet fighters, but while waiting for the jets to arrive, he was introduced to and fell in love with helicopters. He quickly dropped the idea of piloting jets and instead was assigned the harrowing duty of rescuing downed pilots from behind enemy lines, snatching pilots from the sea who had been forced to bail out, and delivering the badly wounded from the battlefield to the 8055 Mobile Army Surgical Hospital and home to the infamous surgeon, “Hawkeye” (of television’s long running M*A*S*H fame).

At the conclusion of his military 
career, Richard had a chest full of medals—the Distinguished Flying Cross, 
five Air medals, the Air Force Commendation Medal, and the US and Korean Presidential Unit citations. With his war days over, he returned to college to complete his art degree with intentions of becoming an art instructor.

When those plans went awry, he completed a degree in business administration and went to work for the Howard Hughes Helicopter Company flying demonstration helicopters. During the Vietnam conflict he helped train helicopter pilots before they deployed overseas. It was while he was assigned to Hughes’ Washington DC office that he met lovely Maria, a widow with five young children. It was love at first sight. Between them they have nine children, seventeen grandchildren, and one great grandchild.

While visiting a friend on Northern Neck, the couple fell in love with lower Lancaster County and purchased some property on Dymer Creek. “We started construction on our cabin prior to our wedding,” Richard explains. “When the cabin was nearly finished we got married, I picked up a helicopter at the factory in California and we flew cross-country. This cabin was the final stop of our “heli-honeymoon”. We landed out in the yard where construction had just finished up.”
With a small stretch of private beach and lots of wooded privacy, the couple spends 2 to 3 months a year at the cabin. “When I was working for Hughes, getting down here by helicopter was great—it only took an hour to get here. When I left Hughes and had to give up the copter it was bummer! Now it’s a three to four hour drive,” Richard laughs.

After fifty consecutive years of flying, Richard retired at age 69. It was a bittersweet final flight with his copter from a Las Vegas convention to the airport where they parted company. “I got out, walked around it one last time, gave it a pat, and walked away. It was an emotional moment,” Richard recalls. “When you finish up one major part of your life, it’s time to move on to another.”

The majority of Richard’s life—his military career, corporate life, speaking engagements, paintings, sketches, and writing—have been defined by war. So what defines his life outside of war? “Pretty girls,” he laughs uproariously, as his wife Maria nods her head, laughing too. “He’s an artist after all, so he likes the figures,” she quickly points out. It’s an old joke between them, one they’ve obviously shared many times.

Over the years Richard had explored the beaches and coves near the cabin, collecting driftwood he fashioned into the whimsical creatures that surround their property with vibrant color. Inside, the cabin walls are hung with Richard’s and Maria’s paintings of seascapes, landscapes, and memories of their travels. A large, intricate, three-dimensional diorama of a creekside cottage hangs above the kitchen.

In his gallery in the basement of their home in Vienna, the walls are lined with his personal history of his war days. Here hangs his serious works—the art of a skilled painter. Here too are rare artifacts and memorabilia of his combat days and the model airplanes and helicopters he loved to fly. Arrangements are already underway to donate his extensive collection to the Udvar-Hazy Center, a vast air and space museum in Chantilly.

Not content to rest on his laurels, this busy septuagenarian has also authored numerous short stories and magazine articles, four non-fiction books about his wartime exploits and those of others, and most recently his work of fiction. His latest book, “Wide Place in the Road” is a coming of age love story set during the Great Depression and the war that followed as seen through the eyes of young Jessie Rascoe.

Admittedly semi-autobiographical, the protagonist relives many of Richard’s real life experiences.

Franklin D. Roosevelt once said “this generation has a rendezvous with destiny” and journalist Tom Brokaw later described them as “The Greatest Generation”. At the time a few may have sensed they were making history, but for most they just played the hand that they were dealt. With each passing year, their numbers diminish and Richard considers himself most fortunate.

“I’m 91 and don’t have a lot of time left. There are not too many people of my generation who can get up and speak without stumbling or falling down,” Richard says. “So I’m in pretty good demand and I enjoy doing it. I’ve had a remarkable life, a wonderful boyhood, and memorable experiences, so I have a lot of stuff to say and to write about.” He is currently putting the finishing touches on his autobiography that has a NY publisher waiting.

Richard has been a featured speaker at the National Press Club, interviewed on both the American and Canadian History Channels, and featured in numerous newspapers and local television stations. His museum is toured annually by visitors from all over the country.

As sunlight sparkles on the water, an American flag fluttering in the breeze, Richard talks about wars now versus then. “It’s not the type of warfare I remember. Back then you knew who and where the enemy was. You had a battle plan and an objective. There are a lot of mislead people in the world now. Governments must come together and terrorism must be eliminated. And I think it will.”

Thankfully, the battles are over for this still-vibrant warrior who has fought the good fight and found his personal peace on Dymer Creek.

You can learn more about Richard C. Kirkland, his art and writings on his website at www.richardckirkland.com