A family’s heirloom, history are reclaimed
As soon as his boys could walk, Francis “Fuzzy’’ Hector took them on airplanes at Air Force bases. He wanted them to stand inside the belly of a transport and get that rumbling feeling in their own bellies.
“Man,’’ Derek Hector was saying, “my brother Chris and I, we went to air bases all over the place when we were kids.’’
They called him Fuzzy because he was fast.
“My dad ran track for Boston English,’’ Derek Hector said, “and he could fly.’’
Then World War II broke out and Fuzzy Hector really did fly. He went to train in Alabama as one of the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of African-American warriors deemed good enough to be part of an elite Army Air Corps unit, but not good enough to be considered the equal of a white man. Fuzzy Hector was a gunner and a radio operator.
After the war, Fuzzy Hector came back to the South End and raised two boys with his wife, the lovely Edna. He went to college and worked as an account executive for a liquor distributor for 30 years. And he kept telling all the other Tuskegee Airmen he would see around Boston that they had to do something, that they couldn’t leave their history to somebody else.
So they formed a local chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen and they would go into the schools and talk to the kids, and they would get together, old soldiers, and tell war stories, and whenever a Tuskegee Airman would die, Fuzzy and the boys would be there, at attention, snapping a final salute to a Lonely Eagle.
Fuzzy and Edna were married for 50 years when he died in 1998. Tuskegee Airmen, old black men in gray slacks, blue blazers, and ties the bright red color of their airplane tales, lined Charles Street AME Church and saluted Fuzzy Hector one last time.
“When my dad died, Chris really was the one who had to take care of things, take care of my mom, look after my dad’s affairs,’’ said Derek Hector, who had moved West in 1992, eventually to Chicago, where he worked as a tailor.
Chris Hector had to take care of himself, too, and that wasn’t easy after Vietnam. He had joined the Air Force, because of and in tribute to his father.
“The doctors said he was exposed to Agent Orange, and he had other problems,’’ Derek Hector said. “When he got out of the service, he had health problems the rest of his life.’’
Chris Hector got a job in the post office and that’s where he was working when Mike Goldstein first met him. Goldstein runs Empire Loan in the South End, and Chris Hector would come in to pawn jewelry.
One day, after his dad died, Chris Hector walked in and said he wanted to pawn his father’s Tuskegee Airmen ring, a heavy gold band with a blue stone.
“He told me about the history of it, about his father, about the Tuskegee Airmen,’’ Goldstein said. “I knew he was just borrowing against it, because in all the years I knew him he had never lost anything to foreclosure, and he certainly wasn’t going to lose his father’s ring. He pawned it dozens of times, over a six-year period, and he always paid back the loan and got the ring back.’’
Five years ago, Chris Hector stopped making payments on the last loan, for $150, that he took against the ring. In fact, he just stopped coming in.
He stopped coming in because he got sick and died. This took Goldstein months to find out. Goldstein was entitled to sell the ring or scrap it, but he couldn’t do it.
“I held that thing in my hand and it felt like history,’’ he said. “I just wanted to give it back to the family.’’
Goldstein put the ring in a safe and tried to find the family. He left a message with Edna Hector, but its significance didn’t register, and so the ring sat in a safe at the corner of Washington and East Berkeley streets for the last five years.
“It was one of those things, I just put it on the back burner and I figured I’d get to it some day, and the months passed and the years passed,’’ Mike Goldstein said.
Then one day he was reading Lena Horne’s obituary, and there was a story about how when Horne went overseas to sing during World War II, German POWs got better seats than African-American soldiers. Mike Goldstein thought of Fuzzy Hector’s ring again. He was sitting in his office and he looked at the calendar and saw Memorial Day was coming up and he knew he had to do something.
Mike Goldstein is a pawnbroker, not a detective, so he asked the people at his advertising agency, Mittcom, if they had any ideas. One of the supervisors, Alicia Pensarosa, started looking around and found Willie Shellman, president of the New England chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen. All she had to do was say the name Fuzzy.
A couple of days ago, Derek Hector went back to the South End for the first time in so many years he couldn’t remember.
“I remember it as Dover Street, not East Berkeley,’’ he said.
Then he walked into Empire Loan and Mike Goldstein handed him his father’s ring. He told Mike Goldstein he had given him a piece of his father back.
“This is the only thing of my dad’s that I have,’’ Derek Hector said.
Edna Hector is dying, and Derek Hector is back in town, taking care of her in her last days. Derek Hector put the ring in his pocket and went to see his mother.
“Mom,’’ he said, “I got dad’s ring back.’’
“That’s nice,’’ Edna Hector said. “You know, Chris has got to be more careful with your father’s things.’’
Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.