Ron Standerfer, of Gulf Stream, looks over memorabilia and photos from his days as a fighter pilot for the U.S. Air Force. His adventures — and misadventures — were all fodder for his first novel, The Eagle’s Last Flight. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
By Ron Hayes
On the west wall of Ron Standerfer’s sunny Gulf Stream study, you’ll find an impressive collection of music CDs — classical, big band, show tunes, jazz, even some Beatles.
On the east wall, above his desk, you’ll find an array of black-and white-photos, including one of a handsome young man in a flight suit, smiling like he’s just been plucked from the jungles of Laos.
The Eagle’s Last Flight is Standerfer’s first novel.
It’s not about music.
“I played sax and clarinet, but I was a music major dropout from Southern Illinois University when I joined the Air Force at 19,” he says. “By 20, I’d made second lieutenant, but I couldn’t buy a beer in a Texas bar.”
Twenty-seven years later, the college dropout from Belleville, Ill., retired from the Air Force as a full colonel. In between, he’d sweated out the Cold War in F100 fighter jets, flown 232 and a “half’’ combat missions in Southeast Asia, and worked for the Pentagon as a liaison between the Air National Guard and active military.
Along the way, he’d been hit by a nuclear blast at Yucca Flats, Nev.
In 1998, Standerfer and his wife, Marzenna, moved to Manhattan’s Upper West Side. She went to work. He went to a friendly neighborhood bar called Il Violino and sipped his afternoons away with the singers and stagehands from Lincoln Center. They called him “the colonel.”
“I saw myself as another Hemingway, with a comfortable pension,” he says now with a laugh.
One afternoon, weaving home from a long lunch at Il Violino, he found Marzenna waiting.
“You have to get a life,” she told him, “or you’re going to become an alcoholic.”
The next day, he decided that being a writer was cheaper than being an alcoholic, and The Eagle’s Last Flight took off.
“It was thinking about that nuclear test that made the book click for me,” he says.
In 1957, Standerfer was stationed in northern Maine when he was asked to volunteer for a nuclear test in Nevada. The morning was chilly. The nuclear device, capable of a detonation double the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, was on a tower eight miles across the desert. Standerfer stood on a platform with a dosimeter, which measures exposure to radiation, on his chest.
As the final countdown began, he put his hands over his eyes and faced the tower.
“There was a flash of light so bright and blinding the bones of my hands were visible as if by X-ray,” he recalled.
A mushroom cloud rose in the sky, and a shock wave rolled across the desert.
“They collected the dosimeter I was wearing, brushed me off with brooms to remove any radioactive fallout … and sent me back to my squadron.”
Twenty years later, he received a letter from the government reporting that test participants were developing leukemia at two to three times the normal rate.
Standerfer is 78 now, and he doesn’t have leukemia.
“The book describes the dangers of flying, the bailing out, the getting shot down — all that’s me,” he says. “But people were also dying of leukemia, and I don’t happen to have leukemia.”
The Eagle’s Last Flight is a novel, not a memoir. The hero is Skip O’Neill, not Ron Standerfer. But they both “sat nuclear alerts,” waiting in the cockpit of a fighter jet in northern Japan, flying missions in Vietnam and, yes, getting shot down over Laos.
“I spent a year in Vietnam, flying one or two missions a day, supplying close air support, and on April 1, 1969, I got shot down over Laos,” he says.
That’s the “half” of his 232 and a half missions.
“It’s embarrassing,” he says, “but I just got too full of myself, and I got shot down by a little guy on a bicycle with an antiaircraft gun.”
In 2003, Ron and Marzenna Standerfer were perusing The New York Times in search of a summer rental in Florida and came across a place in Gulf Stream. They’ve been at Gulf Stream Manor ever since.
“We just said, ‘This is for us,’ ” he says. “It’s a lovely place, with a lovely atmosphere.”
In 2007, he finished his book, and published a small edition for his military buddies.
“This is pretty good,” they said. “You should promote it on the Web.”
So far, he’s sold perhaps a thousand copies. Standerfer doesn’t expect to become a millionaire, or Ernest Hemingway.
“But here’s what I believe,” he says. “All veterans have two needs: to remember, and to be remembered. My great-grandfather fought with Grant in the Civil War, and I know nothing about it. He was in an Illinois regiment. But for those of us who were there, the Cold War wasn’t so cold, and this is my tiny contribution to the memory.”
For more information, visit www.eagleslastflight.com.