On May 11, local resident and Korean War US Air Force veteran Lyle Whiting will take a trip to remember when he embarks on the Washington D.C-bound “Honor Flight.”
But as the 82-year-old courtesy driver explains, part of the trip requires a guardian along with a $500 airfare fee for the guardian. In Lyle’s case, his guardian would be his son, Russ.
Then came the day recently when Lyle arrived for work at Breaman Ford of Merrill, where he has worked for the last 10 years shuttling used cars back and forth to other dealerships.
“When I got there, Ed (Wayda) asked me to come in the back room. I didn’t know what was going on, but I hoped it wasn’t bad!” Lyle adds with a chuckle.
What Lyle Whiting would soon find in that back room would add a whole new definition to giving back, and mutual courtesy.
“Then he brought me into the back room and then I seen the whole crew! All the employees were there and next thing I know I was given an envelope with five-hundred dollars!” Whiting adds with a laugh. “They raised the money for Russ to come with me and I just didn’t know what to say. I was so shocked…”
As wife Fern explains, Lyle was kept in the dark about the idea, but even she had no idea the extent the dealership went to.
“When we found out he was approved to go, I called down there to see if they could help us a bit. We started saving right away, and I thought maybe they could help with a few extra dollars,” Fern explains. “I talked to Ed and he was more than willing to help. He told me not to worry. He said he and Tim (Baumgart) would take care of everything. I guess I just had no idea this is what he meant.”
The Whitings first heard of the Honor Flight after friends recently returned from the trip.
Lyle and Fern heard great things and took an interest.
“They said to us you really need to go!” Fern adds with a laugh. “I got the information last fall and we started working on the paperwork. I wanted it to be a surprise at first, but with all the information and signatures they needed, I wasn’t able to keep it a surprise for long.”
“I didn’t think I deserved to go,” Lyle says with a solemn tone. “I was never in combat and I felt I should leave that trip for vets, who lost friends and so on, you know.”
“But they convinced us that’s not what it’s all about,” Fern states. “They told him, ‘You served your country and you are a veteran. You deserve it’.”
“I was very impressed with how thorough they are,” Fern explains of the Honor Flight and its organizers. “They know what medications you need to take, how often to take them and what days to take them. They know the veteran’s medical history and everything! That was very re-assuring.”
Lyle’s military career dates from 1951 to 1956. During the years of 1954 and 1955, Whiting was stationed at Laon Air Force Base, France as well as temporary duty at Wiesbaden Air Force Base, Germany. Whiting’s work included Air Traffic Controller, and later as a RADAR Landing Controller.
“They needed operators in Europe to help with incoming and outgoing flights,” Lyle explains. “The bases I was at, were hoping to break the Berlin Airlift record set after World War Two, of the most planes in and out, in the course of a month. We eventually did break the record,” he adds with a smile.
One of Lyle’s fondest memories of his military service is one day when his crew received a message of a B-57 bomber having broken its landing gear, after landing on the main runway.
At the time, Whiting was working as a RADAR Landing Controller.
“The traffic tower radioed us and said the B-57 was down on the main runway,” Lyle explains. “At the same time, two fighter jets had called in ‘MayDay’ because they were out of fuel. My job was to guide planes in once they were close to the field, but since the B-57 was taking up the runway, I had to guide the boys in those fighter jets down to the taxi-way instead.”
Both planes made it down safely, and Lyle is quick to credit the Air Traffic Controller for everything.
“Boy that guy was something,” he adds with a chuckle.
Fern has a fond memory of her own.
“I met Lyle as a pen pal when he was stationed in Virginia in 1954. I was still in high school as a senior. “When he came home from Virginia is when I met him, only because my mother allowed it,” she adds with a chuckle.
“Before I met him, mom and I decided if he was a loser we would tell him he had the wrong address. But he was far from that, he was definitely a keeper!”
“A month later, he was gone to France for 18 months. But before he left, we were engaged believe it or not.”
“We continued to write the entire time. In January of 1956 he came home and we wed in September of that year. Life has been very good to us since. We have raised two very good and healthy children in our daughter Renee and son Russ, as well as three beautiful grand children. Our 58 years have been very blessed.”
Lyle is a Birnamwood native while Fern is from Wausau originally.
Following Lyle’s military service, the two relocated to Milwaukee where Lyle worked for Rexnard Inc. assembling concrete mixers on trucks. After 46 years, he retired and the Whiting family set their sights on Merrill.
“We owned this land for hunting since the early 1960s” Lyle adds, referring to the couple’s property where they currently reside north of the city.
“In 1997, we decided to build our house and move up here. Take one look at the area and the landscape up here and it’s obvious. Why wouldn’t anyone want to retire here?” Fern states with a broad smile.
As for the upcoming honor flight, Lyle and his son Russ will first head to Wausau on Sunday May 10.
There they will stay overnight at the Howard Johnson Inn and enjoy a banquet before departing for Washington D.C early on the morning of the 11.
The duo will return around 10 p.m. on Monday evening.
“I’m very excited!” Lyle adds. “I’m looking forward to it. I had been to Washington back when I was stationed in Virginia. But they didn’t have anything like they have now, like the guided tours and so on. It’s such an honor. I appreciate so much what everyone did to give me this opportunity to see it all first- hand.”