By Emily Williams
As Larry and Sybil Michalove sit together looking through a scrapbook of memories in anticipation of their 60th wedding anniversary in 2020, there are many moments to celebrate.
Some moments are bright, but it is the darker ones that seem to remain most clear.
On July 3, 1970, the Michaloves moved into a three-bedroom apartment in Homewood, welcomed by a broken air conditioner and temperatures exceeding 100 degrees. They had their four children in tow, Lisa, 9; David, 6½; Stacy, nearly 3; and Karen, 1½.
It might have been the last home they shared together, since in just days Larry was to leave for Air Force training and, inevitably, Southeast Asia.
But during those 14 months on assignment, he found time to put pen to paper.
“I must have over 300 letters,” Sybil said. “He wrote me every day, and then once a week he would send a story” that he had written for the children.
In those stories, Larry didn’t discuss his life stationed in Thailand, the 114 combat missions he flew, the successes or the near misses. Instead, he wrote fantasies starring four little children who went on magical adventures to far-off worlds but always made it home in time for dinner.
More than 15 years later, the couple unpacked the letters from a stored box and compiled a children’s book, “The Four Little Children, A Likely Story.”
Throughout the stories there are small details that can be traced back to Larry’s experiences.
Freezing Cold and the Northern Lights
Larry, born and raised in Asheville, North Carolina, never felt a strong call to arms during his childhood. His claim to fame at that time was playing on the high school basketball team. After high school, he was scouted to apply for West Point but ended up being the third alternate for acceptance.
“The first guy decided that he didn’t want to go anymore. Then the first and second alternates both flunked some portion of the test,” he said. “So, they called and asked me if I wanted to go and I said, “Sure.’”
After graduating with the class of 1955, he made his way to McClellan Air Force Base in California and spent the next few years in the service.
In 1958, Larry served at the Hopedale Air Station, in Canada north of Labrador, the closest town being the Inuit community of Hopedale. He was assigned to remove a radar at the Mid-Canada Line’s most easterly repeater radar station.
“I remember it would get to be about negative 40 degrees,” Larry said. Even at the barracks, housed in a lower elevation camp, snow would pile up nearly to the top of the buildings.
“We could see the Northern Lights,” he said. “In one of my stories, the kids see the Northern Lights, so that was inspired by my experiences up there.”
Larry and Sybil married in 1960 and moved to California, where Larry obtained a master’s in statistics at Stanford University. After graduating and having their first two children, they ended up in Hawaii for a few years, where they had two more kids.
Both of the Michaloves and their two eldest children loved their time in Hawaii, and it is mentioned on more than one occasion in the book.
During his three years there, Larry flew missions to recover capsules ejected from satellites. The capsules contained images collected by the satellites, and it was Larry’s job to navigate the crew to the drop site – somewhere in the middle of the ocean.
Once the drop site was found, Larry said, the crew would open the door at the back of the aircraft and throw out what essentially was a hook on a line at just the right moment to reel in the capsule.
He had a knack for navigation and came to enjoy it.
“Being able to navigate and find your way just by using the stars has always been something that fascinated me,” Larry said.
A series of tales in the book use his knowledge of star patterns, as the children, and their magical, elfin guide Ramor travel to the moon and beyond.
Illness and the Jungle
When the Michaloves moved to Birmingham, the United States had been sending combat troops to Southeast Asia for about five years. The Vietnam War was heavily protested stateside, while hundreds of thousands of men were sent off to battle.
In the first few pages of Larry’s book, there is a family photo.
“This was the last photo we took before he went off to training,” Sybil said, “because we weren’t sure he was going to come back, so I wanted to get at least one picture.”
After completing combat training, he went home to visit his family before heading off to Air Force survival school training at Fairchild Air Force Base in Washington and jungle training near Clark Air Base in the Philippines.
Leaving his family at the Birmingham airport – looking back one last time to see Sybil crying on his mother’s shoulder – is a memory that still brings tears to his eyes.
The task that welcomed him to Washington was even less pleasant. He underwent difficult training that instilled in him the thought, “Don’t get caught in the first place.”
He came out of survival school with a case of pneumonia.
“So, I had about three days to lay in bed and try to get well before I had to fly out to Thailand,” he said. “And that was when I wrote the first story.”
As he waited in the terminal for his flight to Southeast Asia, he stood with a phone in his hand, trying to say goodbye to his wife for possibly the final time while Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane” droned from a jukebox.
In the Philippines, Larry mailed the first story home and spent weeks running through the jungle, he said.
“There were times when we were eating rattlesnakes or whatever we could find, but it was better (than Washington) because at least it was warm,” he said.
The Four Children stories became a way to escape from the stories he didn’t want to tell. They also were a way to continue to connect with the family he thought he might not see again.
After survival school, Larry arrived at his station in Ubon, Thailand, about 50 miles from the Mekong River in Laos. There he served in the 16th Special Operations Squadron on AC-13 gunships.
“Our mission was to attack these trucks that would move down the Ho Chi Minh Trail,” he said.
In all, Larry flew on 114 combat missions as navigator and earned two Distinguished Flying Crosses and nine Air Medals.
“I flew missions at night,” he said. “So, I would come back and go to sleep and then I would write a story in the afternoon once I woke up.”
The hardest moments never appeared to influence the tales, and there were times he left them out of his letters to Sybil, too.
Larry’s plane took a direct hit on March 26, 1971, over Laos and had to make an emergency landing just across the Mekong in South Vietnam.
“And that was on my birthday,” Sybil said. “He didn’t tell me about it until he was back for R&R, and after he did I went back and looked through the letters and there was no mention of any of it.”
He didn’t write about the destructive aspects of war or the memories of friends he lost along the way. Instead, he dreamt tales of dancing pumpkins and Martians, or trips underwater or among the stars. Each story served as a teachable moment for his children, relaying the importance of resolving issues from a place of kindness, without violence.
At home, Sybil said, her eyes were always glued to the nightly news and its coverage of the war. Though their eldest daughter and son were old enough to worry about their father, she said, his stories were always something to look forward to.
When Larry arrived home after 14 months away from his family, the letters were boxed up and stored.
Looking back, he describes his service as something of which he is proud, but if given the chance, he would not do it again.
“You know, it was the war that nobody cared about,” he said. “Even when I got back, it was 1971 and people couldn’t have cared less, nobody would stop and thank you for your service.”
In 1977, Larry retired from the Air Force as a lieutenant colonel with an aeronautical rating of master navigator and settled into civilian life. The Michaloves later compiled the stories he wrote and created a book that his children shared with grandchildren.
It wasn’t until his daughter-in-law shared the book with her class that Larry began to search for a publisher.
Published in 2005 by iUniverse, the book won the Military Writers Society of America’s 2005 Distinguished Book Award for Children’s Literature.
“One of the things I’ve loved most was getting to go into the schools and read to the children,” he said. Students have written him letters after his visits, thanking him for the stories, as well as his service.