I'm proud to say, I have some incredible neighbors. They range from school teachers, (including my high school Journalism teacher), to university administrators, to artists.
One of those artists (he's not the only one) is Dr. Clinard Martin. (Clint to his friends.)
You may have noticed some of his work around town. I've proudly seen his paintings on display in local bank lobbies and government buildings.
Clint grew up with a love for aviation, and his works honor a special group of airborne heroes from World War II, the Tuskegee Airmen.
You may have heard of these brave pilots. Their heroics were featured in a recent feature film, Red Tails.
During Memorial Day week, what better time to take in the history of the Tuskegee Airmen, and the indelible mark they've left on American history.
After the Wright Brothers first short flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903, the age of aviation was born.
This futuristic new way of travel must have seemed miraculous at the time.
The flights of early pilots, like Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart thrilled Americans, young and old.
Inspired by these pioneers, lots of children dreamed of growing up to be pilots someday. In the 1900's though, for African-American children, it would have been the impossible dream.
They were burdened with the stereotype that blacks didn't have the mental wherewithal to operate sophisticated equipment, let alone the complexity of flying an airplane. But it didn't stop them from dreaming.
In addition to carrying passengers, aircraft became part of the United States military machine, making their debut in the first World War.
In the early 20th century though, African-Americans were denied military leadership roles and skilled training.
It was accepted as the norm, that blacks simply lacked the qualifications.
In fact, African-American soldiers were barred altogether from flying in the U.S. military. Thankfully, that was destined to change.
Prior to the beginning of World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced plans to expand the U.S. civilian training program. But where would blacks fit into the equation?
Our country's own version of apartheid meant racial segregation was an accepted rule in society, including the military.
Much of the country's military establishment, especially here in the South, believed black soldiers were inferior to whites, even thought to be less successful in combat.
A vigorous lobbying campaign of the time, spearheaded by black-owned newspapers and early civil rights groups fought for blacks to be included in civilian aviation plans.
President Roosevelt responded positively and, in 1940, announced the military would indeed institute training for black pilots.
In selecting a site for the program, the Army Air Corps and nation's War Department chose Tuskegee Army Air Field, near the Alabama town by the same name.
Tuskegee was also home to the prestigious Tuskegee Institute (now University), founded by legendary African-American educator, Booker T. Washington.
Tuskegee Air Field was chosen, thanks to its aeronautical training program.
The school already had the necessary equipment, facilities, engineering and technical instructors.
Another plus was its central Alabama location, providing Tuskegee with a climate favorable for year-round flying exercises.
Applicants came from all over the country, most of them college graduates or students, an impressive fact all by itself, considering the times.
Not only were pilots trained, 1,000 of them, the program included training for a support team of 14,000 navigators, instructors, mechanics, even control tower operators.
All of them African-Americans.
Tuskegee's pilot training program graduated its first students in 1940 and was later expanded to become the center for African-American aviation during World War II.
The program was known as the "Tuskegee Experiment." Its importance became undeniable, thanks to a visit by then First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt. Chief flight instructor, Charles "Chief" Anderson took Mrs. Roosevelt on an aerial tour of the base.
Photos and news footage of the first lady's visit helped publicize the program, earning the amazement and approval of the general public.
And so, the Tuskegee Airmen were born.
The Tuskegee-trained pilots began flying in 1942, the 99th Pursuit Squadron, deployed to North Africa and later, Sicily.
At first, their missions were flown in second-hand aircraft, slower and more difficult to maneuver than their German adversary's.
That shortcoming was later corrected and the 99th eventually began serving alongside white pilots of the 79th Fighter Group. In 1944, aviators from the 99th shot down 12 German fighters, paving the way for their being taken seriously, recognized as more-than-able pilots.
A squadron of Tuskegee Airmen and personnel made up the 332nd Fighter Group.
Their job was to escort U.S. Air Force bombers deep into enemy territory.
The tails of their aircraft were painted red, for identification to friendly forces, and the name Red Tails was born, inspiring the movie's title.
During their two years of combat in World War II, the Tuskegee Airmen flew more than 15,000 sorties.
They destroyed or damaged 36 German planes in the air and more than 200 on the ground. Sixty-six Tuskegee Airmen lost their lives in battle, another 32 were captured, held as prisoners of war after being shot down by German forces.
As they flew through the air, their service and accomplishments were groundbreaking.
The Tuskegee Airmen overcame the barriers set by segregation, as they became one of the most highly respected combat fighter groups of World War II.
Their heroics helped defeat the myth that African Americans couldn't fly, or maintain sophisticated combat flying machines.
After helping to defeat the forces of Adolph Hitler, the Tuskegee Airmen, along with thousands of black soldiers, returned to an America that treated them as second-class citizens.
Racism's ugly head dominated American society. The bravery and dedication of the Tuskegee Airmen, along with the other black soldiers who fought in World War II, helped pave the way for a fully-integrated United States military.
In 2007, more than 300 of the original Tuskegee Airmen were present to receive the Congressional Gold Medal from then President George W. Bush.
Good things do come, they just often take time.
As the Tuskegee Airmen were flying their sorties over Germany and other theaters of war during WW II, my friend and neighbor, Clint Martin, was only a kid growing up in McComb, Mississippi.
Clint has a very personal connection to these heroes. For starters, his uncle, Walter Downs was, himself, a Tuskegee Airman.
Clint marveled at the war stories his Uncle Walter shared with him of flying during World War II, so his love for aviation and military aircraft began early in life.
In fact, on occasion, an air force jet might fly over his hometown and he'd rush outside to stare as a jet trail was left in the skies above McComb.
He even befriended the owner of a local hobby shop, who would let him come in to admire some of the shop's model aircraft.
Clint was in heaven, as he studied the finely detailed models, while dreaming of being a military pilot someday.
Sadly though, born with an inner ear problem, meant Clint would never be able to fly.
The high altitudes of flying would have made that impossible. But it didn't stop him from loving the World War II aircraft, flown by his heroes.
Blessed with artistic skills, Clint turned his attention to drawing, using construction paper in elementary school to create everything from illustrations of President Abraham Lincoln to, of course, drawing pictures of the World War II fighter planes, flown by his uncle and the other Tuskegee Airmen.
Clint and his wife, Madeline, moved to Los Angeles in the early 1960's, where he went on to become a laboratory technician in the field of dentistry.
But living in LA gave him an exciting opportunity. When he discovered there was a Los Angeles chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, he couldn't wait to be a member. (You didn't have to be an former airman to join the group.)
Clint attended many of the Tuskegee Airmen functions in the Los Angeles area.
One of the airmen became like a father-figure, often picking him up to join many of the their local appearances. By then, painting images of the Tuskegee Airmen's magnificent flying machines had become Clint's passion.
He may not have ever gotten to fly with them, but Clint's work is every bit as important.
His paintings have helped immortalize the memories and history of these special heroes of World War II.
After retiring from dentistry, Clint and Madeline (a Louisiana native) returned to Mississippi, choosing Hattiesburg as their new home, which is when I discovered what a special next-door neighbor I have.
His works hang in a number of prestigious locations, including West Point Military Academy, the Air Force Naval Academy, the Mississippi State Capitol and our own Library for Hattiesburg and Forrest County.
I have to add, there's another place I hope to soon see Clint's work displayed, on the licence plates of automobiles here in the state of Mississippi.
A specialty plate honoring the Tuskegee Airmen, and featuring his work, has already been designed.
Clint may not have flown with the Tuskegee Airmen, but his inspirational works of art make him a special member of a group of World War II heroes.
Their successes in the air, and on the ground, are an unforgettable slice of American military and civilian history.
The challenges they faced were tough, their accomplishments greater, playing an important role in helping our country, and the world, defeat the forces of evil in World War II.
But it doesn't end there.
The Tuskegee Airmen were part of paving the long road that lead to correcting one of the greatest wrongs in our country's history.
The government-sanctioned inequality between black and white citizens.
Their achievements in the air, helped open to door for the triumphs of the American Civil Rights movement.
History will always remember them as, indeed, fine heroes and true. The Tuskegee Airmen.
Jones is a writer and a proud graduate of both Hattiesburg High School and the University of Southern Mississippi. Look for his column in The PineBelt NEWS every other week.