BROWNSBURG – The marriage started with a lie.
Jim Graham was a senior at Danville High School, a football and track star, when he saw her. It was Christmas, and Jim went with a buddy to hear the Canterbury College chorus sing Handel’s Messiah. She was running up the bleachers to her seat. He’d never seen her before, but his buddy recognized her. Said she lived on a farm near Lizton.
It took Jim Graham three months to muster the courage, but this is what he did on a March day in 1950. He drove to her farm in Lizton, left the 1937 Chevy in the road, went to the house and said he was having car trouble.
“That’s how I met Roberta,” he says near the front door of their home in Brownsburg.
Roberta is standing there in the doorway, shaking her head. All these years later — they celebrated their 60th anniversary last September — she still can’t believe the nerve of this guy. And she still remembers what she told her family when Jim Graham, that cheeky schoolboy, drove away.
“He’s not very big,” Roberta said, “is he?”
* * *
Jim was going to fly a plane, and he was going to fly it in the U.S. Navy. Some kids dream of playing for the Cubs. Jim? He was an all-conference left halfback at Danville – led the Mid-State Conference with 13 touchdowns his senior year – and a hurdler who won the 1951 sectional at Washington. But he wasn’t very big, was he?
Certainly not big enough to be a fighter pilot in the Navy … but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
First, meet Jim’s father, Gordon Graham. Longtime member of the Danville Town Council. News director of WIBC, then Channel 13 when it went on the air in the late 1950s.
Gordon Graham owned four planes, kept buying them even as the bill collectors were calling, threatening to repossess one of the damn things. He made extra income by starting the weekly radio show “Wings Over Indiana,” highlighting local airfields. In 1956 the Indiana aviation and aeronautical associations made him Hoosier Aviator of the Year.
“He was plane-crazy,” Jim Graham says of his father, who died in 1981.
Runs in the family. Jim Graham took his first flying lesson at 15 at the airfield in Brownsburg, hoping to fly solo after reaching the minimum age of 16. It cost $11 a lesson, money he earned delivering The Star in southwest Danville, first on his bike and then a 1½-horsepower scooter. He made $6 a week. Every two weeks he took another lesson. Made his first solo flight on his 16th birthday.
Jim Graham wanted to enlist in the Navy. He wanted the free college education, and he wanted to fly. In those days the minimum height for an officer was 5-6.
Jim Graham’s Navy career started with a lie. And a medieval torture device.
* * *
When the doctor said “5-5-and one-half,” it was all gone. Enlistment into the Navy. Scholarship to Purdue to study chemical engineering. Jim Graham’s commission as an officer to fly planes.
This was Dec. 7, 1950 – nine years to the day after Pearl Harbor – and Graham was at the old Indianapolis Naval Armory, a depression-era WPA project built on the White River. He was taking his enlistment physical.
He was too short.
Graham, a senior at Danville High, asked to be re-measured when the doctor returned in two weeks. Who knows, Graham was postulating, he was only 17. Maybe he had one last growth spurt coming.
“There’s no way you’ll be a half-inch taller,” the doctor told him, “but suit yourself.”
Graham called his grandfather, a doctor in Ohio: How can I grow a half-inch in two weeks?
“Take a hammer and rap yourself on the head,” his grandfather said. “Maybe you’ll get a half-inch knot.”
The way Graham tells it, he asked his dad to write a note to the high school, saying his son would be out for two weeks. In his bedroom Graham tied a towel to the headboard and slipped it under his chin. Then he attached a 35-pound sash weight over each of his overshoes and draped his legs over the bed’s other end.
In another millennium they called it “the rack,” a torture device under Macedonia’s Alexander the Great and Roman emperor Nero. Jim Graham called it “hope.”
“I knew there were 32 vertebrae,” he says, “and I wanted an extra 64th of an inch between each vertebrae.”
Graham describes spending two weeks in bed, getting up only for the bathroom. Mom fed him. Brother brought home schoolwork. Two weeks later Dad scooped him up like a forklift and drove him to the Armory, setting him down on the scale.
Jim Graham says he would repeat this process a year later, passing another height re-check after telling the doctor he was exhausted from driving all night to his first base in Pensacola, Fla. He’d like to try again in a day or two. With some rest he’d stand up straighter, he was sure of it.
Here’s what happened that first time, in December 1950 at the Indianapolis Armory, after Gordon Graham set his son onto the scale:
“Five-six,” Jim Graham remembers the doctor saying. “He’s in the Navy.”
* * *
Before his flying career was over, Jim Graham logged 8,000 flight hours – nearly a full year – and avoided death a handful of times, most terrifyingly during nighttime maneuvers off the coast of Jacksonville in a McDonnell F-3H Demon, a subsonic fighter plane. The weather turned, and the seas flopped the 990-foot, 75-ton USS Forrestal like a rubber duck in a bathtub.
Three times Jim Graham set down the Demon on the carrier, only to miss the bouncing tripwire and return to the air. His plane low on fuel, the control tower advised him to eject into the Atlantic.
“We’ll try to pick you up,” were the last words Graham heard from the control tower.
Graham gave it one more try, and on the fourth pass his plane snagged the tripwire.
He flew four years in the Navy out of Naval Air Station Oceana near Norfolk, 20 years for the Army National Guard and 14 for the Indiana State Medical Association. Plane-crazy like his dad, Jim Graham owned six planes over the years but sold his last one in 2015, grounding himself after a minor stroke.
Along the way he had the honor of making the first landing at Gordon Graham Field in Danville, named for his father, and received a Sagamore of the Wabash in 2002 for his military service.
Roberta also has a Sagamore of the Wabash, receiving hers in 2004 for contributions to music as president of IU’s Jacobs School of Music at IU and board member of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.
A full life, these two? You don’t know the half of it. In 2005 they became the American family of an Afghan baby named Qudrat and Qudrat’s father. The Grahams’ son, Richard, was in Kabul with the Indiana National Guard – 1st Battalion, 151st Infantry – when he learned of a baby in a refugee camp who would die without heart surgery. Jim Graham and his Brownsburg Rotary Club brought Qudrat and his father to Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health for heart surgery and a month of recovery at the Graham household. The story of Qudrat, who died days after his return to Afghanistan, touched hearts internationally.
The saga of Qudrat, like that of the “shortest pilot in the Navy” – as Jim Graham calls himself – sounds farfetched, even fictitious. But he swears it’s all true.
Now, the whopper Jim Graham told Roberta’s parents in April 1951? When he knocked on their door with “car trouble”?
“I did not – did not, did not, did not – fall for it,” Roberta Graham is saying all these decades later from their home in Brownsburg.
Nearby are a handful of model airplanes, decorations for the den. Closer still is her husband. Roberta is frowning at Jim Graham until she can fake it no longer. She breaks into a smile. So does the shortest pilot in the Navy.
That lie he told at the farm in Lizton? Best lie he ever told. And he’s told a few.