As Christmas nears, Modesto woman thinks of the father she never had a chance to meet

snowicki@modbee.comDecember 22, 2013 

— On the morning of Dec. 6, 1944, Ernie Claypool left his home in Southern California to make an evening run as a test pilot. The 28-year-old Lockheed employee was testing the P-80, the first jet made for World War II, to see if it left a visible vapor trail in the darkness. Another plane would follow to check things out and photograph the jet, which was called the Shooting Star.

His wife, Louise, had just found out she was pregnant. “We’d better get some furniture for the baby,” he told her before he walked out the door. She sort of fussed at him, knowing the risks he faced as a test pilot.

Although young, he had been flying for years, as a barnstormer, a forestry and charter pilot, a commercial pilot and then for Lockheed. He was one of the company’s top four test pilots, a dangerous job.

He responded to Louise’s concern: “If anything happens, I’m ready to go and the other guys aren’t.” He was referring to his faith in God. A Christian from an early age, he felt secure about his eternal destination in heaven.

They turned out to be significant words. He died in the test flight that night.

According to a 1945 Life magazine article, Lockheed’s boast that the Shooting Star didn’t leave a jet trail, unlike a Nazi jet fighter that emitted a cometlike streamer, was tragically correct.

“So clean, so devoid of any exhaust trail or sparks was its flight that an Army bomber collided head-on with the jet fighter,” the article said. All five crew members in the two planes were killed.

Claypool’s death rated just four paragraphs in the local paper in Glendale, where he had lived for four years. It concluded, “Mr. Claypool was a deacon of the Assembly of God Church in Glendale and taught a Sunday school class of boys.”

The survivors listed included his widow, two sisters, a father and mother, but of course made no mention of his daughter, who was born the following August.

Erne (pronounced Ernie) Ruth Villa of Modesto was that girl, named for her late father.

“(My mom) said that knowing I was coming along kept her going,” she said. “At the time, my aunt and cousin were living at the apartment because my uncle was in the Navy and they wanted to be close any time he came in. So Mom had Aunt Janet to help with things. Mom had a good church family, too. They helped.

“The pastor was really good at helping her set up her finances. When I was 2, we moved up the street because Mom bought a triplex on the corner. That’s where we lived until I was married. She lived in one and rented out two.”

Her mother, a young widow, never remarried, she said. And every year around Christmas, she would get a little quiet and sad.

“Mom always had trouble about this time of year because this is when Dad was taken,” Erne Ruth said. But growing up without a father, she said, didn’t seem to be much of a burden for her.

“Mom was from a family of 10 siblings, five girls and five boys,” she said. “We always went down to Long Beach for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Summers we went back to Missouri. Mom’s dad and brother lived there on the farm, so she’d go and cook for them while we were there.

“I had a lot of cousins and I knew all of them. So we had church family and family-family.”

There were plenty of activities.

“My life was full,” she said. “We spent every Friday night with the youth group at church. We played volleyball or pingpong after every meeting. My mom was in the choir. I was in the band; I played percussion and then piano in the orchestra.”

It wasn’t until she was married to Marty Villa, director of Family Concern Counseling for Youth for Christ, that she found out what she had missed.

“There are different times when we would be talking things over or having an experience with our kids or grandkids, and all of a sudden she’d recognize that was an experience she never had,” Marty said. “She had good relationships with men in the church and relatives, but watching me as a dad made her know what she had missed.”

“I remember one time seeing (daughter) Katie and Marty,” Erne Ruth said. “It was nothing special. They were just in the front room laughing and playing together. I realized I had never done that with my dad.”

She inherited his looks – his freckles and eyes. And in a strange twist, she received an unexpected gift from him.

He had bought a piano for his sister, Janet, the aunt who lived with Erne Ruth’s mother while she was widowed and pregnant. Music became a big part of his daughter’s life, and she learned to play on that piano. Her granddaughter has it now as she learns to play.

“Twice a week, Mom would take me to Pasadena to my piano lessons at Mrs. Walker’s,” Erne Ruth said. “It was very close to the Rose Bowl. Mom played the piano, too.”

When Erne Ruth was in college, she accompanied the choir as it toured the country. She ran into several people who had known her dad and came up after the concerts to talk with her. She said she learned a lot about him during that time.

“He was always in very pleasant moods,” she said. “He would help you with anything. He was a really neat guy; I wish I would have known him.”

She learned more about him from the transcript of his memorial service. The pastor, a friend of her father’s, called him man of character, honesty, kindness and dependability. He called Ernie “a man of vision. He knew the future of aviation.”

He said Ernie had shared his goal of buying five airplanes after the war and teaching church missionaries how to fly, “thus making accessible the hitherto inaccessible places and … reducing the traveling time between mission stations to a minimum. This man had a vision of the kingdom of God.”

He concluded the service by saying: “Last Wednesday night, high up in God’s heavens, the angels were waiting, and when everything was ready and Ernie got there, the angels just gathered him into their arms and took him home to God.”

Erne Ruth said that several years ago, she and her husband visited the Smithsonian museum in Washington, D.C., where a curator pulled out information about her father’s plane and mission. She had always wondered if he had had a chance to eject or if he had been killed on impact, she said.

“He told us the (test) plane didn’t have an ejection seat,” she said. Occasionally, she’ll learn a new detail about her dad or the planes he flew, including the Hudson bomber and the double-fuselage P-38.

Through the years, she said, people have teased her about her male-sounding name or asked about it. Things didn’t improve, she said with a chuckle, after she married Marty in 1968.

“People would think I was Marty and he was ‘Ernie,’ ” she said. The Villas have two children and five grandchildren. They moved to Modesto in 1985, when Marty took a job with the local Youth for Christ ministry.

Louise moved in with the Villas when she was 88 years old, Erne Ruth said. “She died when she was 99 years and 3 months. She was a very good grandma. Before she lived with us, she always came to see the kids. She’d take them to Aunt Polly’s and they’d go to the beach. I wanted to be that kind of grandma; someone who is there.”

And she is, frequently traveling to Oregon or Southern California to participate in her grandkids’ lives.

She especially likes this time of the year. “Mom did a good job of bringing in a good Christmas, even though she was missing Dad,” Erne Ruth said. “It was always good.”

Music – the Christmas music she learned on the piano her dad gave her aunt – is a big part of the season for her. “I love the carols. They mean a lot to me,” she said. “I like ‘Joy to the World’ and the awesomeness of that.”

As Christmas draws near, she thinks of the dad she never knew, her husband, who models fatherhood, and the Bible verses that promise that God will be a father to the fatherless.

“It’s true. He is,” she said. “Without the meaning of Christmas, life wouldn’t really matter. Christmas is because Jesus came to the Earth. At a young age, I gave my life to him. It’s a really joyful time.”

Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at snowicki@modbee.com or (209) 578-2012.

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