One of the most interesting people I’ve ever known was a pilot, a radio DJ, and a writer for several of the little weekly papers in our corner of East Texas: someone I greatly admired and wanted to be like. His name was Gordon Baxter.
Bax was born in Port Arthur, Texas, on December 25, 1923. He was also an entertainer, singer and emcee for little country bands in that area. I grew up listening to Gordon while I was getting ready for school, mostly on AM radio powerhouse KLVI in Beaumont. He was on every morning beginning at 6:00 am. For the first hour, he would play only gospel songs – he called it “Come to Jesus” music. He featured a lot of Mother Maybelle and the original Carter Family Singers.
He would talk about how beautiful the dawn was. He would tell funny stories about everyday things. One morning he kept playing the same song, over and over, and when someone would call to complain, he told them he was playing different songs – their radio must be stuck. He would play music guaranteed to poke fun at the folks who took themselves too seriously – “Little boxes, on the hillside, little boxes, made of tickey-tackey” was one that I especially remember. And he loved to make his audience consider things that sometimes made them uncomfortable. “Go on, think about it,” he once said during the Civil Rights struggles in the late 1960s. “How would you feel if you were black? How would you want people to treat you?”
He used to say that radio was the most personal of all forms of mass communication. “It’s from my lips to your ears,” he would say. “What’s more personal than that?”
Gordon was good friends with another Beaumont radio personality, J.P. Richardson. Baxter and their other friends mostly knew him as “Jape,” but he was more famously known as “The Big Bopper” for his breakout hit record, “Chantilly Lace.” When Richardson was killed in a plane crash along with Buddy Holly and Richie Valens, Bax wrote a song, “Gold Records in the Snow.” Later, he did an on-the-air, moment-by-moment description of his friend’s funeral procession.
Bax served in the Merchant Marine in the South Pacific during World War II. When his ship was sunk out from under him, he joined the Army Air Corps and became a gunner in B-17s. More than once, I remember, he would fly a little single-engine aircraft into the edge of a hurricane and radio back a live report to his listeners on the Upper Texas coast.
Flying was his real passion. When the editor of Flying magazine visited Beaumont in 1970, Baxter cornered him as he was heading out the door and shoved three of his articles into the man’s hands. He stood there and read them, then asked, “Why aren’t you writing for us?” And so his column, “Bax Seat,” began and continued for more than 25 years. He also wrote for Car and Driver magazine, as well as authoring a dozen different books, most of which are still in print.
When the editorial board at Flying wanted to do a feature about an old-school, “seat-of-his-pants” flyer learning to fly by instruments, they asked Gordon to do it. He said, “Instrument flying is an unnatural act, probably punishable by God.” But he went ahead and did it. I remember hearing him talk about it on his radio show and write about it for the magazine. He went on to earn a number of advanced aviation certifications, but in his heart, he always remained an open cockpit, stick and rudder, “pasture” pilot.
I got to meet Bax on several occasions. Once, for a high school dramatic reading assignment, I read a story he had written about going skydiving and breaking his ankle. “It was worth it,” he wrote. “Any good folly is worth whatever you’re willing to pay for it.” I called Bax later, to tell him about it. He laughed and dedicated the next record to my high school speech teacher – “The Day I Jumped from Uncle Harvey’s Plane,” by Roger Miller.
Gordon died June 11, 2005, leaving behind a wife, nine children and 16 grandchildren. Among other honors, he has been inducted into the Texas Radio Hall of Fame and the Lone Star Flight Museum. His family donated his broadcasting archives – 50 years of recordings – to Lamar University and their campus radio station, KVLU, which still airs his “Best of Bax” program every week.
So thanks, Bax – thanks for keeping us company, for the great songs, the way you made us laugh, and the way you made us think. For the way you loved flying, and the way you made us love it, too. You were definitely one of a kind.