Eugene Jacques Bullard was wandering around America when he was 12.
He encountered gypsies, who taught him how to care for horses. And by 14, he stowed away on a ship that took him to England.
He went on to become the first African-American fighter pilot to see combat. Bullard's early years are the subject of Wings of Courage, a delightful 50-minute play geared for families that will be staged at 4 p.m. tomorrow at Owens Community College.
The two-person show features original songs by an actor playing Bullard and a second actor who portrays several characters, said Jeff Hooper, of West Liberty, the show's writer and director.
Bullard was abandoned when he was about 12, said Hooper. His mother had died and his father, a dock worker in Georgia, disappeared after getting into a violent fight with a white man. Bullard's father, of French-Caribbean descent, told his son that the only place on earth where blacks and whites were treated equally was in Paris, and the youth was determined to get there.
He made his way to the coast, and after landing in England, found work as a human target at which people threw balls. He became a boxer, then joined a minstrel show and traveled through Europe.
When the show got to Paris, Bullard stayed. And when World War I broke out, he joined the French infantry. He was wounded at Verdun, but not before rescuing several soldiers. For his bravery, he received the French honor, the Croix de Guerre.
He joined the French flying corps and flew in combat. But by 1917, the United States entered the war and commissioned into the U.S. military all the Americans who had been flying combat missions for France except one: Bullard, because of the color of his skin, said Hooper.
"All this experience made him pretty bitter about the United States," he said.
After the war, Bullard ran a gym, was part-owner of a Parisian nightclub, and learned to play the drums. In the 1930s, he married a countess, with whom he had two daughters.
In World War II, he again joined the French infantry, but when the Germans invaded France, he returned to the United States. He lived in New York City, associating with the French community. He worked as an elevator operator at the Rockefeller Center and early television footage shows him being interviewed by Dave Garroway of the Today show, Hooper said.
He sold perfume door-to-door and died in poverty about 1959.
Hooper wrote the play in 2000 and it has been performed about 200 times, including at the Kennedy Center in Washington and in Alaska.
It's part of Children's Community Arts Day at Owens, which includes a free 1:30 p.m. presentation by Toledo artist Wil Clay in the nearby Studio Theatre. Clay will tell stories and show how he creates illustrations for children's books.
Many of his rich paintings are hung in the adjacent Walter E. Terhune Art Gallery, which is also showing the work of four other children's book illustrators.
Local artist Drew Bairley will also attend.
The gallery will be open from 1:30 to 4 p.m. and will serve tea and cookies, said Wynn Perry, gallery director.
"Wings of Courage" will be staged at 4 p.m. tomorrow in the Center for Fine and Performing Arts' Mainstage Theatre at Owens Community College. All tickets are $10, available at the door. Information: 419-662-2787.
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