Howie Franklin: A Life in the Clouds

Howie Franklin spent 29 years in the United States Air Force, reaching the rank of Chief Master Sergeant. 24 years at Andrews Air Force Base in Special Missions Operations. 18 years on Air Force One. 25 years as Operations Manager and Chief storyteller at Cape Fear Jetport.

Written by Colleen Thompson Photography by Raul Sojo Monte

Howie Franklin with chocolate lab Daphne at the Cape Fear Regional Jetport.

 

Over the span of a twenty-year writing career, I’ve met my fair quota of raconteurs and storytellers. People whose lives have been remarkably interesting and captivating and leave the rest of us feeling inadequate and wanting to revise our bucket lists.

Storytelling and people like Howie Franklin are what drew me into journalism in the first place. I still hold onto a core set of basic tenets. That storytelling is important. Stories are important. Not just as buffers between ads, but because they help us make sense of the world; they give order and meaning to our everyday existence.

So how do you become a fabulous storyteller?

It helps if you have a lifetime of experience. It helps if you grew up on Fire Island. Shuttled luggage as a boy for the rich and famous of the 50s. Landed a waitering job at the infamous Talisman Yacht Club at age 16. Joined the US air force to see the world; was elevated to serve the military’s top brass on a few secret missions; became part of a team involved in the historic shuttle diplomacy missions alongside Henry Kissinger; oh, and along the way, served five U.S. presidents as Flight Steward on-board Air Force One.

I’m greeted by Howie Franklin at the Cape Fear Regional Jetport, where he is currently the director, with a firm handshake, warm smile, New York drawl and his chocolate lab, Daphne. “Up until her recent 15-year-old retirement, Daphne helped scare off the birds and wildlife from the airfield and would meet and greet the arriving crew and passengers with a wagging tail,” Franklin tells me while still holding onto my hand. I already know I like this guy.

Born and raised in Bayport, Long Island, the son of a New York-area marina and deli owner, Franklin spent his summers on Fire Island. It’s a thin strip of a barrier island—a half-mile sliver of sandy beach separating the Great South Bay from the Atlantic Ocean. On Fire Island, Franklin grew up surrounded by the glitz and glamor of the celebrity vacation haven for the rich and famous of the 50s and 60s.

Irving Berlin, Fanny Brice, Truman Capote (who is rumored to have written “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” one summer on the island), Tennessee Williams, Jimmy Durante, Woody Allen, Andy Warhol—all made their way there.

“Marilyn Monroe would spend summers in a house just down from where I lived. My friends and I would try and peek through the impenetrable, high hedge that surrounded her house. We couldn’t see a thing, but we sure could imagine what was going on behind there,” laughs Howie. “The fragrance of Privet hedge flowers in bloom still takes me back there in an instant.”

On this small, sleepy enclave is also where Howie Franklin learned the art of talking to people. You see, on Fire Island there are no cars, never have been. But there were, and still are, little red wagons, and Franklin would shuffle people’s luggage to and from the ferry dock and tote the guests’ bags to their rented villas for a quarter or two. He had a front-row seat to all the comings and goings on the island and his first introduction to famous folks.

When he was old enough to get a real job, he ended up at the Talisman Yacht Club, a private and secluded escape for the jet-set crowd and clientele drawn mostly from international cafe society. The Talisman was founded by Michael Butler, the millionaire whose family, ironically, owned Butler Aviation. John F. Kennedy was just taking office in January of 1961, and the world was entering the age of the jet plane.

The Talisman was the kind of place where, on any given summer evening, Samba music would emanate from hidden loudspeakers, and an endless Conga-cum-bongo drum line would weave its way across the clubhouse grounds and into the pool. Princes, billionaires and movie stars vacationed at the Talisman, and Franklin soaked it all in.

Left to Right: Cape Fear Living Magazine Publisher Leping Beck; Editor Colleen Thompson and Howie Franklin.

“I learned important lessons being around those people that invaded our island in the summer. I learned they were real people,” says Franklin. “They feel. They care. In fact, those people were wealthier and more powerful than many of the passengers I would eventually serve on Air Force One; a fact that made life a little easier when it came to working for presidents.”

It was during his time spent at the Talisman that Franklin really learned about food, catering and logistics. The food on the elaborate menus featured dishes from all over the world, prepared by international chefs. The stories Franklin could tell about the Talisman, the chefs and the food could fill a book. Eventually he was promoted to food “buyer” for the kitchen. “We would take the water taxi over to the main island (Sayville) and go into the grocery store with the weekend menu. We would buy what we needed, and then we would box up the food and taxi back to the yacht club.”

It all became real life training for Air Force One.

It was pretty much the perfect life until he received a draft notice for Vietnam. Deciding to join the Air Force—“because it was the only branch of the military where the enlisted man was not the primary resource being shot,”—put steps into motion that would send Franklin on the ride of his life.

The Air Force placed Franklin into food services and onto a journey that would take him to South Dakota and dishwashing for thousands; off to Guam to feed the flight crews on B52s; to cooking and serving Generals and high ranking officials; and through it all, he rose quickly through the ranks, becoming a member of the famous 89thWing. He served under Henry Kissinger during the shuttle diplomacy missions and finally walked up the stairs of Air Force One to serve President Ford. By the time Bill Clinton was elected president, Franklin had made history. He became the first U.S. Air Force flight attendant to serve five U.S. presidents aboard Air Force One.

There is an entire book of stories that unfolded aboard Air Force One, called “Yes Sir Mr. President,” written by Franklin and friend Mark Grady, which captures the antics, conversations and memories and gives readers an intimate look into the lives of the presidents 30,000 miles up.

As a writer with a particular interest in food and history and how they bind us together, I want to hear all about the food from Franklin. Sure, there are the big stories: the politics, the history made on board, the famous folks, the jokes…but really, I want to know about the real stuff.

The food, the drink, the music.

After all, how do you go grocery shopping for a president?

“Security is always paramount. If you were going to harm a president, one way would be to poison the food,” says Franklin. “So, we put a system in place that was very similar to the one I had at the Talisman. We would simply go grocery shopping like regular folks. We would rotate stores and would never identify ourselves. We would just be dressed in civilian clothes and shop wherever we happened to be,” he explains.

As for what presidents like to eat…

“Ford was a Michigan meat and potatoes man, but he was also known for eating cottage cheese with A-1 sauce on it,” laughs Franklin. “At the end of the day, he would have a gin martini on the rocks. Carter liked southern style sandwiches, but he told us we didn’t have to cut the crusts off. No alcohol to speak of.” Carter’s mother however, aka Miss Lillian, made no secret of her fondness for “bourbon-and-branch,” which Franklin quickly figured out was Southern for bourbon and water.

He tells me that Reagan liked meatloaf and mac and cheese, and that his favorite dessert was a lemon meringue pie. His favorite recipe, which came from cook Albert Cowan of Southern Salt in Morehead, was a thick, creamy pie with fluffy white topping and a Ritz cracker crust. “He would, however, only order dessert when Nancy was not traveling with him,” laughs Franklin.

Bush liked pigskins and Baby Ruth bars to snack on. For breakfast, lunch and dinner, anything barbecue—particularly Texas barbecue. He tells me a story of how once when they were delayed in Washington, D.C. and Bush wanted barbecue ribs, he stopped and asked a man on the street wearing a Stetson if he knew of a good rib shack. He did, and so off went Franklin to buy smoked, barbecued ribs for the president. “He definitely did not like broccoli; he would only eat it if it was disguised in a casserole or a vegetarian lasagna.” Klondike bars were often his chosen dessert. At the end of the day, he enjoyed a vodka martini on the rocks with a small amount of vermouth, and as many pickled onions as Franklin could fit onto a toothpick.

Howie Franklin in his office at Cape Fear Regional Jetport.

Bill Clinton’s favorite wintertime meal was a grilled Reuben sandwich and the famous White House Navy Bean soup. “Clinton had dairy and alcohol allergies, but he would cheat a little bit when it came to Italian and Mexican food. I can also confirm that Hillary Clinton carried a bottle of Tabasco sauce with her, and she  would use it on a regular basis. At the end of the day, she would enjoy Chardonnay.”

And there’s a common thread that apparently runs through all presidents—that would be butter pecan ice cream.

They all liked music.

Ford through Bush liked country music. “I remember the Oak Ridge Boys in the Stateroom with President Bush singing ‘Elvira,’” says Franklin. “He opened a lot of his campaign stops with Lee Greenwood singing ‘I’m proud to be an American.’ President Clinton, who is one year younger than me, listened to all kinds of music but preferred loud rock and roll and Motown. I remember walking into President Clinton’s stateroom, and he was listening to ‘Cecilia’ extremely loudly. He asked if it were too loud. I replied, ‘I think it’s great. I’ve been waiting for a guy like you for a long time, because we listen to the same music.’”

At 73 years young, Howie Franklin’s life is showing no signs of slowing down. He is director of Cape Fear Regional Jetport at Howie Franklin Field since 1994, and he proudly tells me that it is the fourth busiest airport in North Carolina and continues to grow year after year. For the past several months, he’s been involved in the design of a brand new terminal building scheduled to open this Summer.

Franklin’s story has come full circle. 57 summers later, the Talisman’s buildings are simply weather-beaten remnants, long-since closed. But the construction of the new terminal building at the CFR Jetport is telling a new story: the one about a place Howie Franklin fell in love with long ago.

The last place going north on the east coast where palm trees grow wild: Southport, NC.

“You have a point with the whole full circle statement. One of my first jobs as a young teenager was at the Bayport Aerodrome, the only federally funded, grass runway in the country. For one dollar an hour, I reconditioned aircraft spark plugs and witnessed the operation of a quaint General Aviation airport.”

Attention to detail in the terminal building—creating the feeling of having arrived at the beach—was all important to Franklin. Standing on the construction site, the low country-style building is already taking shape with its Antebellum overhang, thick banisters and wraparound porch. Franklin scoops down and picks up a handful of crushed shells, and pours it into my hand. These will be added to the concrete for paving.

“Southern hospitality added to the mix,” he smiles. “Our hope is when people see the airport and terminal, they can put their real life behind them and start to enjoy this Southeastern North Carolina experience straight away.”

Between running things at the airport and ensuring it continues to be an economic engine for the region, building a new terminal and spending time with the youth in the community teaching them about aviation, life is still in full swing.

So, there’s really only one thing to ask. What’s for dinner? That would prime rib and fresh, crisp vegetables, and like all classy gentlemen, a good Manhattan on the side.

At my first journalism job, we had a credo pinned to my editor’s door: “All stories begin with a person. No stories exist without people: don’t forget!” A day at the Jetport feels like the best possible use of my time and loops me back to those heady days when I discovered the creaky world of journalism in the first place.

 

Thank you Mr. Franklin.

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