Grandpa Frank was fearless. Born in 1902, Frank McLaughlin was of rugged Scotch-Irish stock, descended from the founders of New Hampshire. His genteel French Canadian mother tried to tame him, but never succeeded.
He ran away at fifteen, and with a friend rode the rails to Quebec where his kindly Uncle Pierre took them in. Uncle Pierre was a wealthy, deeply devout Catholic who only allowed himself one indulgence: a wine cellar full of priceless vintages.
So naturally, while Uncle Pierre was away, Frank and friend decided to sample the goods—all of them. Upon returning, Uncle Pierre found them sleeping off their bender on a mountain of bottles. They were spared the guillotine, but were instantly sent packing.
Frank grew restless again. He lied about his age, joined the army, and was shipped off to fight The Great War in France. Almost immediately the sky called to him. Compact and fearless, he was built for the cockpit of a biplane, and quickly became a new kind of warrior: a flying ace.
He returned home in 1919, but soon ran off to join the circus–the flying circus! Performing as a barnstormer in death-defying Roaring 20s airshows, he developed an avid female following. But only one won his heart: a pretty filly from Texas named Johnnie Belle Reed.
Johnnie Belle had her sights set on Hollywood. So, although Frank considered the movie biz unmanly, he agreed to move with his new bride to Los Angeles.
They bought a house on 2nd Avenue. Frank continued barnstorming for a while, cementing his local hero status and acquiring the nickname of The Baron of Second Avenue. But after several near-fatal crashes, and the birth of two daughters (one of whom was my mother), he quit. (Johnnie never became a movie star, by the way, but she performed on radio shows and in local theatre, and had a decided impact on me.)
Frank’s opinion of Hollywood changed when, on a storm-drenched night in the Sierra Nevadas, his Model A veered off into a flooded ditch. Fearing for his family’s life, he finally flagged down two hunters in a lone truck. Working in the darkness and pouring rain, they managed to hook their winch cable to the flivver and tow it out.
It wasn’t until an hour later, while celebrating over beers at a mountain pub, that Frank realized the two hunters were the legendary character actor Wallace Beery and his buddy Clark Gable–widely considered the greatest film star of all time.
Frank never missed another of their movies, and even consented to perform on the radio shows Johnnie Bell wrote, produced and starred in.
Frank McLaughlin remained a showman to the end. I still remember watching a crowd gather as he ripped the shirt off his muscular, grey-haired chest, and performed gravity-defying gymnastics at a local park…
Just weeks before he died.