Clifton Brooks

Visiting with West Virginia’s last living Tuskegee Airman

You can trust a secret to Clifton E. Brooks Sr.

Information that Clifton decoded back in the 1940s remains known only to Clifton, a resident of the county seat of Mineral County, Keyser, and West Virginia’s last surviving Tuskegee Airman.

Clifton is getting up there in years; he was 97 when I visited him in the spring of 2019. He has some memory lapses, but one suspects that if he were placed in front of a US Army SIGABA machine, Clifton could still operate the keys and lever that enabled cryptologists to do their vital work during World War II. Indeed, both the machines and the personnel who operated them were so discrete in their duties, the US code was never broken. Even after the war, Clifton was so secretive about his wartime work, it has been only in the last decade or so that the full story of his military service became known to his eight children.

“He never talked about him being a cryptologist during the war,” his son, Mickey “Mick” Brooks, told me. “He would tell me nothing about what he did. When Dad was told a secret, he kept it a secret.”

As far as Mick and his other siblings knew, their father was a mechanic in the Army Air Corps during World War II. It was only after the movie “Top Guns in the Sky” and accompanying media coverage brought attention these airmen that Clifton confirmed his participation in that select group and cautiously shared his story. Mick and his siblings worked with West Virginia congressmen to secure the recognition his father deserved, including the Tuskegee Airmen Congressional Medal received by Clifton and his children: Jacque Washington, Apryl Smith, and Mickey, Clifton E. Jr., Rick, Victoria, Brenda and Tim Brooks.

The airmen were “the men and women, African Americans and Caucasians, who were involved in the so-called ‘Tuskegee Experience,’ the Army Air Corps program to train African Americans to fly and maintain combat aircraft,” states tuskegeeairmen.org. The airmen of the “experience” included pilots, navigators, bombardiers, and maintenance and support staff such as Clifton. His late brother, James, also was an airman and flew in a fighter group.

Prior to 1940, African-Americans were barred from flying for the US military, and it was only through the pressure exerted by civil rights groups and the black press that the all African-American squadron was formed in 1941. Cadets lived on the Tuskegee Institute campus and trained at Moton Field in Tuskegee, Alabama.

As the nation’s first black military pilots and support personnel, they both proved their capabilities and helped the Allies win the war. There were 992 black pilots who were Tuskegee Airmen; the first wave of them were assigned to the 99th Fighter Squadron, which deployed to North Africa during April 1943 and flew its first combat mission June 2, 1943.

The 332nd Fighter Group was the first black flying group. It was activated at Tuskegee Army Air Field on Oct. 13, 1942, and included the 100th, 301st and 302nd Fighter Squadrons. Clifton was a member of the 332nd, which deployed from Michigan to the mainland of Italy between Dec. 22, 1943 and Feb. 3, 1944. Their missions included patrolling shipping lanes in the Mediterranean Sea, supporting ground forces in Italy and escorting bombers. All told, the Tuskegee Airmen flew 1,491 missions.

Service photo of Clifton Brooks
Very little memorabilia and paper has survived from Clifton Brook’s WWII years. This worn photo is among the few artificats.

Clifton, born March 22, 1912, enlisted September 28, 1942, at Charleston, where he was a student at West Virginia State College. Mick says his grandmother, Nellie, had saved money so his father and Uncle James could get a higher education. Mick says education was a family value for the Brooks, who had both teachers and pastors in their ranks.

Mick says his father never shared with him what his career plans were after college. Mick just knows the story of his enlistment, which Clifton shared with me during a visit at a family member’s home.

“Here comes this man to see me,” Clifton says. “He asked, “Are you Clifton Brooks Sr.? If you are Clifton Brooks Sr., you are the man the government is looking for. Now don’t you try to get away. You need to go with us.’”

Clifton says he wrapped up his work at school and let his mother know that he was joining the Army because he had the skills the government needed. He and James stayed together throughout the war years. “Wherever he went, I went,” Clifton says.

According to his enlistment record, Clifton went into active service December 2, 1942, and held the military occupational specialty of cryptographic technician. He arrived in North Africa February 3, 1944. His experience included Rome, Arno, North Apennines, the Po Valley, northern and southern France, Central Europe and the Balkans.  He received the Good Conduct Medal and European African Middle Eastern Service Ribbon and Distinguished Unite Badge.

Mick says that while his father did not speak of the work he did during the war, he did talk about the discrimination and segregation the airmen experienced, including “colored” facilities in Alabama.

“One time he went to town in a bus and had to walk back to the base because he was not allowed to get on the bus (with the white passengers),” Mick says. “He also told about how the black officers were treated and were not allowed to use the same mess hall as the white officers.”

Clifton returned to the United States Oct. 17, 1945, and, after being discharged from the Army, came back to Keyser and married Bessie Reva, who’d been his classmate at the segregated Howard High School in Piedmont. Clifton graduated in 1940 and Bessie in 1942. Mick says his mother was widowed during the war, and his father and she married in 1947 or ’48.

Mick’s Uncle James, who was a pilot with the Tuskegee Airmen, joined the US Navy and lived in Portsmouth, Va. He is deceased.

Clifton chose marriage over completing his college degree and got a job with Kelly Springfield in Cumberland, Maryland, as a tire builder. He worked there four decades and was a quality control worker when he retired in 1982. His employer named him the company’s “Man of the Year.”

The couple raised their eight children in a modest home on Locust Street, across the highway from South End Park. Mick says the park was simply a corn field when he was growing up and the entire neighborhood was farms. It is now all residential and commercial.

“We grew up in that park,” Mick says. “It had a pool, and I spent almost every day down there. There was an airfield right next to the park, and the planes would fly over it.”

To circumvent their mother’s rule that they were not to cross the highway to get to the park, the children crawled through the culvert under the road to reach the recreation spot, which now bears the family’s name.

Mick says the family had a tradition of vacationing at Atlantic City, where an aunt lived and provided lodging.  even in those relaxed times on the boardwalk and beach, Clifton didn’t share his war stories. Indeed, unknown to his family, during those post-war years, government employees were monitoring Clifton’s associations to determine if Clifton was sharing cryptology secrets he’d acquired during his time in the Army. The secrets were safe with Clifton E. Brooks Sr.

The fact that he was a World War veteran was no secret, however. Even before retirement, Clifton gave freely of his time to the American Legion’s Washington Smith Post 152, of which he served as post commander and district chaplain. He’s been a member 72 years. Clifton also served as treasurer and lay speaker of his church, Janes United Methodist, and was a Mason and past grand master of Potomac Lodge 41. He was often called upon to speak at Memorial Day services and to school children during Black History Month. On Martin Luther King Day, Clifton recited King’s “I Have a Dream”
speech wherever he was invited to speak.

“He stayed busy all the time,” Mick says.

Once the full story of his service with Tuskegee Airmen was known by the family and community, Clifton kept busy sharing that aspect of his life, as well. Mick says one of the most memorable stories that his father shared was of having a bomb and suicide pills in his room where the cryptology work was performed. If the base were overrun by the enemy, he was to use the incendiary bomb to destroy the machine and associated documents, then consume the suicide pill so he could not be captured alive.

Clifton Brooks holds his Congressional Gold Medal.

In April 2006 the US Congress voted to award a Congressional Gold Medal to the approximately 350 surviving Tuskegee Airmen or their widows. A bronze replica was presented to Clifton in 2010. His receipt of that honor drew community recognition that led to the park and the bridge being named in his honor. TJ Coleman of the Aubrey Steward Project spearheaded the effort.

“Don’t wait until people pass to recognize them,” Coleman told Elaine Blaisdell of the Cumberland Times-News in September 2018. “Let’s do this while we can so he can appreciate it.”

The Brooks children grew up playing in South End Park, which was named in honor of Clifton Brooks. His son, Mick, stands at the new sign in the spring of 2019.

On November 26, 2018, the sign designating Keyser’s South End Park as Brooks Park was unveiled. Clifton attended the ceremony, at which Keyser mayor Damon Tillman declared, “Today is a great day for the City of Keyser. It is a day we as a city can give back to a hero,” reported Liz Beavers of the Mineral Daily News Tribune. “Finally, we get to give back to somebody who is so deserving.”.

“Mr. Brooks, when everyone comes across that bridge, it will be your face they see,” Coleman told Clifton at the November ceremony.

It is a kind face. A face that smiles often yet conceals secrets; a face full of stories that will never be shared. Every question about his service is answered with his anecdote about the man coming to the West Virginia State College in September 1942 and looking for Clifton E. Brooks Sr.

So, I ask Clifton what the other men who served with him would tell me about him, and he says, “If you go that way, I guarantee that they will know Clifton Brooks,” and falls silent. I ask him what he thinks of all the attention he’s received, and Clifton looks around the room and says in a soft but strong voice that he is humbled to “see you all sitting here to find out something about me, to see a white man coming here and looking for a black man boy like me,” perhaps not still not able to comprehend just how far these airmen’s flights have taken us in our battles both overseas and at home.

This article appears in the Winter 2019 Goldenseal magazine.

Calemine’s Patriotic Shoe Repair Shop

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Guerino “Reno” Calemine died this year. Feb. 23, to be exact.

He was almost 91, but up until a few days before his death, Reno was still working in his shoe repair shop at 25 Armstrong St., Keyser, W.Va.

“He was the ‘Mayor of Keyser,’” said Bart Lay, owner of the Solar Mountain Records shop, next door to Reno’s shoe repair shop. “(His passing) has left a big hole in the community. He lived a great life, right up until a week before he died. He was just rocking.”

I met Reno during a Goldenseal Magazine assignment trip in the fall of 2016. The affable Reno welcomed me into his shop, and we spent an afternoon talking his work, family and passion for life.

 “My father started in 1904,” Guerino said, launching into the story of how his father, Dominic immigrated from Italy, survived a narrow escape from death and found a way to make a living despite a disability sustained in that escape.

“He came here when he was 16 years old,” Reno said. “He came by himself. He landed in Rome, New York, where he paid $5 to get a job. He worked a week, then was let go. “That’s the way they treated immigrants back then,” Reno said.

Next came a job in a nail factory in Youngstown, Ohio. Then Dominic received word from a cousin, John Fanto, that he could get him a job on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad at Piedmont, W.Va.

“He got a job on the work train, and that’s how he ended up in Piedmont,” Reno said of the town near Keyser.

As was the custom, the workers played poker in a caboose when the work was done. “Another train came along and collided with their caboose. Two people got killed, and my father’s legs were smashed, all broken,” Reno said.

At the Keyser hospital where the injured were taken, Dr. Hoffman insisted that Dominic’s mangled leg be amputated. Dominici, unable to speak English, adamantly expressed through an interpreter that he would be extremely “disappointed” with the doctor if that happened. After several impassioned exchanges about the leg, the doctor agreed to do surgery. Reno said the doctor wired together the pieces of his father’s shattered leg.

“And you know, I saw an X-ray of that leg when my father was 80 years old, and you coulc see the wire still in there,” Reno said.

His father spent a year in the hospital; Reno said the railroad paid for his care. A nurse, “Mrs. Romig,” took special interest in the immigrant and taught him how to speak and read English. When Dominic was finally released to resume his life, he decided to stay in Keyser and open a cobbler shop.

Reno said his father learned the trade as a child and teenager in Italy. With Keyser being a railroad town and enjoying prosperity, there was plenty of work to be had, even though the town already had several shoe repair shops. His father set up shop in a frame building on Armstrong Street. The little shop, run by an immigrant with a limp, prospered.

“In 1913 he went back to Italy. Apparently, he had made enough money that he could afford to close up this place and go back. While he was there, he met his wife, Teresa Calemine. No relation to each other,” Reno said.

Dominic brought his bride to the United States and he resumed his cobbler work in Keyser.

“He liked Keyser, and this is where he wanted to stay,” Reno said. “My father and mother are both buried here.”

When America sent its young men into the battlefields of World War I, Dominic tried to enlist. But he was rejected by the armed services because of his injury. So Dominic did his part by being the most patriotic person in Keyser. He played the part of Uncle Sam in minstrel shows and parades and sold Liberty Bonds at his shop.

“He sold more Liberty Bonds than anybody else around here,” Reno said. “One day, he came to work and the sign was on his shoe shop: “Calemine Patriotic Shoe Shop.”

The name stuck, and to this day Reno proudly holds fast to the patriotic legacy of his father and mother. The couple had four boys, all of who served their country. Three of them became cobblers, as well.

Carlo, the first born, was at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attack came. He served in the Army Air Force throughout World War II and received several Purple Hearts.

“He had shrapnel in his head, and they buried him with that in there,” Reno said of his brother, who lived to be 89 and is buried in Wisconsin. He chose a career path other than shoe repair.

Orlando, the second born, went into shoe repair in North Carolina. He was the shortest lived of the boys and died at 68.

Reno, born March 5, 1926, was next in line. He entered the armed forces as soon as he turned 18 in 1945. He was assigned to Camp Lee, Va., where he taught shoe repair. While that seems like a strange military assignment, Reno said there was a need because so many wounded soldiers required orthopedic footwear.

A sergeant who taught in the orthopedics section gave Reno access to the lab and Reno learned human anatomy and orthopedic skills.

“He let me fool around in there, and that’s where I really picked up the skills to take care of wounded soldiers,” Reno said.

Julio was the last child born to the couple.

“He was in the shoe repair business, too. He went into it in the Cumberland (Maryland) area. He retired 10 years ago, and he wanted me to retire, too, but I never did,” Reno said.

“He told me he wished he had not retired. He told me, ‘Retirement is not the best thing when you are our age. All you do is sit and sit. And pretty soon you can’t walk,’” Reno said.

Julio, a widower, lives in Michigan, where his step-children live.

Reno heeded his brother’s advice and refuses to suffer the same fate brought on by inactivity. Depending upon the company he’s in, Reno has several explanations for why he continues to work.

“I’m here because I didn’t want to stay home,” he said. “My wife pays me $50 a month to come over here.” When pressed, however, Reno admits he does not get a stipend from his wife, Elva, a retired nurse.

He said that working late into life is all about self-preservation.

“I want to stay mobile until I die,” he said. “If I keep working, I’ll be that way, that’s the trick. Whoever said that retirement is the golden years is crazy. Those people who retire and sit down end up in the nursing home. Retirement is not the golden years unless you keep yourself busy. The truth is, the golden years are those years leading up to retirement.”

“There ain’t no disgrace to growing old. It’s just inconvenient,” Reno adds.

His shop is open Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. If Reno has a doctor’s appointment or other personal obligation, he calls his friend, Greg Rotrock, who comes down and opens the shop.

“He has the key to this place, and when I can’t come over, I give him a ring. I’ve always kept this place open so (his friends who loiter in the shop) have a place to go,” Reno said.

“I usually have company from the time I am open,” he adds. “If I am busy, I don’t pay any attention to them and go back and work.”

Reno and his comrades take their seats in the front of the 14-foot-wide shop. They sit in the four elevated, repurposed metal kitchen chairs on the shoeshine platform that came from a Main Street, Keyser, hotel. The platform is made of marble and the stanchions are pure brass.

“This was a five-seater,” Reno said. “But this place is too small for five seats, so (his father) cut it down to four.”

The shoeshine station is closed for business; if a customer wants his shoes polished, Reno uses a lathe-like machine in the backroom. But for decades, the shoeshine station was the busiest spot in the shop. Reno said there were numerous dance halls in the Keyser area in the first half of the 20th century, and no dapper gentleman would go to a dance without a shine on his shoes. Dominic, and later Reno, paid young men to shine shoes long after the repair shop closed on Saturday evening. Many of those men who worked for Reno still stop by to reminisce about those days. “Jimmy, Gerald, Bubb … Reno said, naming off a few of the dozens of young men who made money shining shoes for him.

“The place would be open until 9 or 10 p.m.,” Reno said. “There were five shoe shops in Keyser in those days, and there were three more in Piedmont.”

A black-and-white shoeshine cost a nickel, a white shine a dime and tan shoes were 15 cents when Reno began polishing shoes at the age of 8.

“This is where I learned the shoe repair business,” Reno said, pointing to the row of seats.

“I bought my first bicycle with money from shining shoes,” Reno adds. The bicycle cost $24. Reno said that he also purchased all his clothes with his shoeshine money; his father allowed him to keep everything he made, but he did pay his father for the polish he used.

“Ever since I started shining shoes, I never asked Dad for money,” Reno said.

Reno received free vocational education as part of the deal. The first task he learned in the workroom was removing the soles from shoes.

“Step by step, that’s how I learned,” he said.

The shoe repair business is the only job Reno has ever known.

“There was never a better boss,” said Reno, who worked with his father for decades. His father taught him that it makes more sense to the job right the first time rather than rush through it and risk having to do it over again and alienate a customer. Reno retains that work ethic.

“If it took me all day to put on a pair of heels, that was OK. He wanted it done right,” Reno said. “ ‘Speed comes after perfection,’ he used to tell me. ‘I want you to do the job right.’ And he always said ‘The customer is always right. Right or wrong, he or she is always right.’ We tried to do everything right.”

Reno and Elva raised two children on the wages he earned from the shop and Elva from her job as a registered nurse. Reno trained their son, also named Guerino, but he chose a career in food service.

“He retired from Kentucky Fried Chicken, he was a vice president,” Reno said proudly. His son and his wife, Sue, live in Culpepper, Va., and have a son, Guerino “Jody” Calemine III, a lawyer, and a daughter, Jillian, a physician and researcher in California.

Their daughter, Carla Hastings, lives in Keyser and has a son, Howard J. Hastings, Jr., who has six children. Reno and Elva have two great-grandchildren.

Reno is one of a handful of cobblers left in West Virginia. Even in metropolitan areas like Washington, D.C., finding a cobbler can be difficult said David White, who drove 110 miles from Ashburn, Va., to have new soles put on his dress shoes. Even factoring in the cost of driving 440 miles, White considered it a bargain.

“For $27 I got a new pair of shoes,” said the U.S. Coast Guard/Navy commander retired, who grew up in Keyser.

Reno tells his customer that the job was a tough one because modern shoes are not manufactured to be repaired. He pulls out the mangled mess of plastic that was the original sole. Reno said using the old technique of putting soles on shoes with nails no longer works because the materials won’t accept the nails. For David White’s shoes, Reno tried a new type of adhesive that will, with any luck, do the job as well as traditional methods.

Reno said the job probably would have cost his customer two to three times as much in a metropolitan shop, and chances are the shop would be that of a tailor or dry cleaner that is a drop off point for the cobbler. Even Reno could not survive on the shoe trade from Keyser alone, and his completed-work shelves are filled with shoes, boots and purses from out-of-town, out-of-state and occasionally foreign customers who found the shop through word of mouth.

“If I were to advertise I would be so doggone busy,” Reno said. “But I’m doing fine this way.”

Reno said that most of what he makes in the shop goes for overhead: taxes, insurance, utilities and rent. He has always rented the storefront at 25 Armstrong Street since it was built in 1959, following a fire that caused heavy damage to the wooden structure on the same location. Reno said the fire was March 5, 1959. As flames raced toward the shoe shop, neighbors and strangers alike pitched in carry out the cobblers’ precious equipment and tools – the economic lifeblood of two families.

“I was so surprised at how all these people came out to save the shoe shop,” Reno said.

The equipment suffered smoke and water damage, but was salvaged and stored in a building across the street from the shop. The next day, Reno and Dominic received an offer from the bank where Reno had recently signed for a $6,500 loan to finish Reno’s house. At first, he was worried the bank was not going to honor the loan commitment after reading about the fire. Instead, it was an offer to set up shop in a building next to the bank, a former whiskey store where bank records were stored. The space was huge.

“I said, ‘Are you crazy? I got enough to pay without that big place,’” Reno said. But the bank was more interested in keeping a cobbler’s shop open than getting what the space was worth, and for the next six months, while a new block building was built on the old site, the shop was located next to the bank, now the library.

“I had a (cobbler shop supplies) salesman come in and told me that I had the biggest shoe repair shop in the world!” Reno said.

Nearly 70 years later, Reno worked with the same vintage tools and equipment that were purchased by his father and salvaged from the fire. Reno said one of the reasons he can keep his prices low is because the equipment was paid off long ago. He keeps it running with a stash of spare parts. Reno takes care of his equipment because it has to last him the rest of his working life, which he anticipates will be the rest of his life.

“It is OK if I die over here because that will mean that I died on my two feet,” Reno said. “As long as I can come over here and work, I am going to do that.”