Tuskegee pilot serves up a side of history at cafe

Tuskegee AirmenCalvin Spann Sr. was working the room.

As the newest employee of the Reel Thing Catfish Cafe, the 84-year-old World War II aviator spent a recent evening table-hopping and swapping war stories with members of the local VFW post.

Spann, a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, is the official greeter at the Catfish Cafe.

As patrons fill their bellies with catfish and crab cakes, Spann, one of the nation’s first black military pilots, fills their ears.

“So many members are not able to do this,” said Spann, as he traded tales with a Purple Heart recipient who was turning 84. “That’s why I do it, to perpetuate the history.”

Jim Brevard, 65, owns the Reel Thing.

He said he and Spann began thinking seriously about working together after a customer noticed that Spann and his wife, Gwenelle, who live minutes from the restaurant, had become regulars.

“Some restaurants have hosts,” Brevard said. “He’ll be a cut above that.”

Spann’s duties are simple ? spread the word about an experiment that changed history, launched at a time many thought blacks lacked the intelligence, courage and patriotism to be pilots.

“Even after they started this experimental program, they had doubts about whether it would be successful,” Spann said. “The whole thing was a tough fight all the way.”

Spann is one of 994 pilots to complete the training and receive pilot wings from 1941 through 1946.

He plans to work at the Reel Thing Thursdays through Saturdays ? generally two hours for lunch, two for dinner.

He has to work around his thrice-weekly dialysis, which began in February.

“I’ll be signing autographs,” said Spann, who’s slender and soft-spoken. “We anticipate that it’s going to go very well.”

This will be Spann’s first restaurant gig since 1941.

As a teenager, he happened to be working at a hot dog stand near his home in Rutherford, N.J., on Dec. 7, 1941.

“That’s where I found out they bombed Pearl Harbor,” said Spann. “I said, ‘Pearl who?’ I didn’t know where Pearl Harbor was.”

He soon learned enough about the ensuing war to fill a textbook.

In 1943, when Spann arrived at Kessler Field in Mississippi, he said he was told the Army Air Corps did not train black cadets. Days later, he was off to Tuskegee, Ala., for the training.

Spann received his wings at Tuskegee, eventually flying 26 combat missions, escorting bombers and doing reconnaissance work.

“That first ride is a thrill, even for a young crazy guy,” he joked.

Yet he doesn’t think of any of his missions as scary.

“We were trained to feel that if something was going to happen, it would be to the other guy, not you,” he joked. He said he was fortified by his faith in God.

“Prayer has always been in the forefront of what I’ve tried to do,” he said.

On a recent Thursday, members of VFW Post 2195 packed the compact cafe.

“He was a pioneer in aviation history,” said Allen resident Jeff Willie, 51, who served in the U.S. Air Force. “He was a pioneer in American history. He was a pioneer in black American history.”

Spann does about 15 speaking engagements a year ? many during Black History Month ? earning fees of up to $2,500 depending on the crowd size.

The catfish gig gives him an audience without the hassle of air travel.

“Every time we speak, we find that some kids have never heard of the Tuskegee Airmen,” he said. “It makes me feel that I have to continue in this job of getting the word out.”

Gwenelle Spann ? the aviator’s biggest fan and the finisher of his sentences ? worked out the logistics of his new deal.

In December they will have been married 30 years. He was 55 at the time, and she was 23. The couple has a son who’s 23, two daughters from Spann’s previous marriage and two grandsons.

Gwenelle Spann sees her husband’s late career change as a happy coincidence.

“He’s doing something that he likes to do and he’s getting paid for it. So it’s a godsend,” she said. “It’s making everybody happy.”

Neither the Spanns nor Brevard would say how much Spann will earn.

“It’s not enough to pay rent, but it’s extra,” Gwenelle Spann said. “And everybody can use something extra.”

With a son in college and grandkids to spoil, the two could use more cash, Spann said. They get by on speaking fees, Social Security and a small pension from Spann’s days in pharmaceutical sales. He took that job after his applications to fly commercial planes after the war went nowhere.

Since he did not retire from the military, there is no government pension.

At the restaurant, diners can pick up autographed photos of Calvin Spann, smiling from the cockpit of a P-51 Mustang fighter plane, the model he flew in the war. Or they can bring their own cameras and take pictures with the flying ace ? after they’ve eaten.

Gwenelle Spann wants to make sure the deal benefits the restaurant.

“Of course we should have an increase in customers coming in to talk to Calvin,” said Brevard, who saw sales drop 15 percent last year. “He does draw a crowd.”

But boosting sales “wasn’t the driving thing behind it,” Brevard said. “What he has experienced is worth keeping alive.”

(c) 2009, The Dallas Morning News. Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.