Remembering Joseph James O’Donnell, a eulogy.
by: john harrison
Hello, my name is john Harrison. I am Jimmy’s friend.
We come from a large family – my Mother, my father, my brother, my sister, and then there was the O’Donnell side of the family, all 11 of them. Jimmy was the 2d oldest O’Donnell/Harrison. My brother Hunter was and is older than anybody.
Jimmy and I first met when we were 5 or 6 years old at a park near our homes in Potomac Palisades in Washington, DC near the river. I think we were riding on sleds in the snow. We have been best friends ever since. We were in the first graduating class from Our Lady of Victory elementary school and we graduated from St. John’s College High School, in 1964. I simply cannot remember a time when Jimmy O’Donnell was not my best friend.
We went everywhere together, double dates, parties, proms, debutant balls, various bars, several funerals, one wedding and two riots–really big ones. I dropped him off at and picked him up from Quantico where he became a Marine officer, and I put him on a plane to Vietnam after he learned to fly.
I do not know when he realized it, but Jimmy was not lucky. It might have been when he set his hair on fire carrying a candle as an acolyte at a funeral here at Our Lady of Victory Church (OLV). I think it was right over there near that column. Later Monsignor Hess chewed out Denny Donovan for not lighting the incense properly. He said it stunk as bad as burning cat hair. Jimmy and Denny spent a useless hour cleaning that incense holder, but Denny kept the secret.
Jimmy still holds the OLV record for being kicked off of the altar. He called these incidents –- accidents.
Or, he might have realized it when he had missed school one morning, a dentist appointment, and was running in front of the old MacArthur Theater to get to OLV in time for the afternoon classes. Showing off to a group of girl classmates, Jimmy neatly jumped a saw horse that was sitting in the center of the sidewalk. He landed squarely in the middle of the freshly poured cement sidewalk that Sister Mary DeAngelis, both the OLV Principal and Jimmy’s and my teacher, had warned every OLV student in a special assembly that morning to avoid. Jimmy had big feet even then. I think he regretted missing the student assembly.
Certainly, by the time, he and his brothers had designed and built a go-cart that had an automatic clutch, an aluminum frame (I don’t think his Mother ever missed that lawn chair) and pneumatic tires Jimmy must have realized that he and luck were strangers. The go-cart was a beauty, and it was fast. We never did find out how fast since it did not have a speedometer. But, we know it was faster than a horse because a Park Policeman on a big horse chased Jimmy down the towpath beside the C&O Canal for several miles before giving up. If I tell you that for all of its technology the one thing it lacked was brakes, then I don’t have to tell you what happened to that beautiful machine.
I guess Jimmy knew it by the time he and I were hitch hiking home from St. John’s, as we did every day. It was hot and Jimmy took off his St. John’s hat to wipe the sweat from his forehead with his handkerchief. Just as he was telling me how smart he was to bring a handkerchief, a bird dropped a smelly gift right in the middle of his hat. I told him he sure was lucky to have that handkerchief to clean out all of that bird–- Oh, this is a church–- but you know what I said.
Jimmy went on to the Citadel where he acquired a life long love of good English sentences written by Charles Dickens. When he graduated, he went into the Marine Corps as a Naval Aviator, like my father who was one of his heroes.
As kids we would stay up at night to watch the television stations go off the air. They used to do that you know a little after midnight. As its close off, CBS often played a tape of an airplane flying through billowing white clouds while a golden voiced announcer intoned the poem High Flight.
“Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air….
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace.
Where never lark, or even eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
– Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”
(Funeral Card – High Flight)
He flew Marine Sea Knight helicopters, colloquially known as the “Phrog”, in combat in Viet Nam during one of the more dangerous years there. You don’t fly a helicopter with luck. You do it with training and judgment, and by then, Jimmy had the best of both.
Jimmy would take whatever risks were necessary, but not one that was not necessary. While he was in Viet Nam, the Marine Corps., for budgetary reasons, decided that Marine helicopter rotors did not have to be replaced as often as Army helicopter rotors. Jimmy promptly went out on the flight line and in full view of his commanding officer and the other pilots, called his aircraft to attention and ordered his rotors to extend their life for the good of the Corps. The Colonel was not amused. The order was rescinded when the rotors began to fail and the Marine brass finally realized that helicopters full of Marines are a lot more expensive than rotor blades.
Jimmy finished his Marine Corps tour while he was in Viet Nam. Rather than simply return home, he booked a cabin on a tramp steamer (a tramp steamer is a cargo ship that has no fixed route, but that does not mean it is not very well appointed) that took him to Tahiti and New Zealand among many other beautiful places far removed from war and other dangerous things. Nordhoff and Hall, two of our favorite authors, think Mutiny on the Bounty trilogy, would have been proud of him.
Next, he went to work for Petroleum Helicopters in Louisiana. When he was on a re-supply flight to an off shore oil rig, a guard came up and asked him what he was doing and where was his Identification card. Jimmy was standing by the open door of his helicopter in a flight suit that prominently displayed the name of the company that had brought the guard to the rig, supplied him with everything he used there and would take him home at the end of his shift, so Jimmy replied that he had memorized the card and then threw it away. The guard did not see the humor.
Somewhere along the way, Jimmy acquired a sense of style. Not of fashion, but of quality. If he drank Gin, it was Tankeray, and this started when we were 15. If he had a suit it was an Oxxford, a car, a BMW natch, a watch, a Rolex of course. It got even worse later.
When Jimmy and my Mother baked a Kentucky Whiskey cake for my birthday in Viet Nam, she included a letter with the cake. She told me that Jimmy had picked out some strange bourbon with a really ugly bird on it. She hoped it was all right. Bottled-in-bond, 101 proof, Wild Turkey, Bourbon Whiskey; fine sippin whiskey, fine cookin whiskey, fine cake whiskey. I literally got high eating a slice of that cake in the Cambodian Highlands.
As I said, if Jimmy wore suits, they were Oxxford — $1,500.00 a pop when you could buy a good suit at Raleigh’s for $150.00. He bought a BMW before anybody else had heard of them and when they became popular, he bought an Accura that he proceeded to drive for well over a 100,000 miles. It was the quality he bought, not the fashion statement.
After leaving Petroleum Helicopters Jimmy joined the US Coast Guard and for many years flew search and rescue operations in the Caribbean. For several years after this, Jimmy sold helicopters to hospitals and local governments to use for medical evacuation. He was based first in Savannah and then in West Virginia.
While he was in Savannah, he began to run for exercise. He won a 10 K race and was lighting up a celebratory, post-race, unfiltered Camel cigarette on the winner’s stand when he noticed that the American Cancer Society had sponsored the race. Jimmy later apologized to them for the unfortunate picture on the front page, above the fold, in the local paper.
Following that, he worked for the Washington Post, first in the Post’s advertising department and later still, he was the Post’s distributor in Martinsburg, West Virginia for many years.
While he was working for the Post, an aviation friend working for Med Star helicopters approached him and asked him to come back and fly again. His friend said he liked hiring Viet Nam veteran helicopter pilots, because they could fly anything, they could land and take off from anywhere, and given the cost of helicopters it was really good when they flew because most of all, these pilots did not crash. Jimmy replied that it was easy to fly when no one was shooting at you.
For the last several years Jimmy has been a Med Star helicopter pilot flying all over the DC Metro area to pick up the sick and injured and transport them to various hospitals. He was good at it and he was still a Med Star pilot when he died suddenly at age 62 at home.
Jimmy made friends easily. And then he introduced them to me: there was the guy that made a living running trap lines along the Potomac River, completely illegal in a national park in the 1950’s. But, he made a good living at it for years. Then there was the gun nut – jimmy was never a big fan of guns, but this guy had rifles in .303, 7 mm, 8 mm, 30-06, .308 and many, many more, and he actually let us shoot them, in his basement. He and his wife were hippies, hippies with guns, lots of really neat guns.
Jimmy always found the strangest, most interesting, people. And, Jimmy was always the friend of anyone in a clean well lighted place that sold ice-cold beer, preferably Budweiser in long neck bottles.
Jimmy never married. He never had kids. But, he was the nicest man I know. When my daughter Lucy was killed by a drunk driver, he came to my house and listened patiently as I raged for hours. It is surprising how much you can drink, how drunk you can be, and still talk when you are both incredibly sad and completely infuriated at the same time. When I was talked out, or passed out, I do not remember which, Jimmy and my wife carried me upstairs and put me to bed. Then, on purpose, he came back the next night and did it again, and he kept doing it until that part was over. We never discussed those terrible nights again.
Jimmy was a gentle, gentleman, who really liked Budweiser beer, ice-cold in long neck bottles, a conversation about a good book, or about any kind of women, and he absolutely hated fern bars. He was that strange warrior who, even as a Marine, always preferred not to fight, but was always prepared if he had too. Having no pretense himself, he did not suffer fools at all.
We had a great time. He liked Dickens. I hated Dickens. He liked Bud. I liked Heinekens. He liked hanging out in bars; I liked eating in good restaurants. He would get up early to study. I liked staying up at night to study. He was careful. I was lucky; right up till now, I was the lucky one.
He was my Best Man and my Best friend for almost 60 years. My son is named James Harrison after Jimmy. He has his work cut out for him, but I think he will live up to the name.
Semper Fi, old friend. You always were Semper Fi.