LARAMIE, Wyo. — Fred Weems’ chest-length white beard, black leather jacket and owl-shaped knit cap gave him the appearance of an off-season Santa Claus as he stood with his skis in the Snowy Range Ski Area lodge.
A retired U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel with degrees in astronomical engineering, music and law, Weems is the definition of a gentleman and scholar, but if labeled such, he says, “I’m only a gentleman by the government’s standards,” or “I studied just hard enough to pass, blame them for giving me the degree.”
Weems, 65, said he makes it a point to ski as often as possible.
“At my age, a lot people are ready to get busy dying, but I figure why not just get started,” he said. “I suffer from Type II Diabetes. This is a fight for my life to the death. So, I ski during the winter, and I bike during the summer.”
Weems moved to Laramie in 2017, and since being diagnosed, he said he’s lost 30 pounds through being more active.
“I think I can lose another 30 pounds before the end of the ski season,” Weems guessed, staring out the resort window at snow floating to the ground. “And god, what a place to do it. It’s so beautiful here.”
On top of the Pioneer run, Weems pulled his yellow-tinted goggles over his eyes and thrust his chin into the wind. Gray clouds swirled over the slope, blanketed with 11 inches of fresh fallen snow.
On the left side of the ski lift, the snow was recently groomed and packed down by constant use from the unusual abundance of weekday skiers and snowboarders. On the right, a single set of tracks carved through the deep, loose drifts of unmolested snow.
“I think I’m going to go right,” Weems said as he tightened his gloves around his ski poles. “I want to see what everyone is missing out on.”
Born in Fort Smith, Arkansas, Weems is the oldest of eight and traveled the globe throughout his childhood.
“I’m (a U.S.) Army brat, so I grew up all over,” he explained. “The first time we went to Germany, I was about 5 or 6, and they didn’t lock the cockpits at that time. There were these two wizards at the front of the plane with all these lights, and I saw what they did as magic. I decided then I wanted to be a pilot.”
After graduating from the Frankfurt American High School in 1970, Weems said he was ready to follow in his father’s footsteps and join the war effort.
“Vietnam was pretty hot and heavy back then, so I thought I would enlist and try to get into chopper pilot training,” he recalled. “I figured, ‘We all got to die, might as well go doing something fun.'”
Before he could sign up, however, one of his teachers asked him to take a college entrance exam, and gave him money for the test fee.
“I figured, ‘Hell, you buy, I’ll fly,'” Weems said. “That’s when I really screwed up — I passed with flying colors.”
He was offered a full-ride scholarship at several universities, but decided on the University of Arkansas, so he could be near relatives. During his freshman year, he joined the Air Force Reserve Officers’ Training Corps in hopes of spending time close to aircraft. Through the program, he learned about the Air Force Academy, and decided to give it a shot.
“I wasn’t ready to commit to the academy, so I tried the summer program,” Weems said. “I hated it there. Every day I wanted to quit, but I forgot to before the end-of-summer deadline, so I stayed. I kept saying I was going to quit every morning, but I was too busy, so I’d put it off to the next day. It went like that until I realized graduation was a day away, so I figured I’d stick around for that.”
TAKING TO THE SKY
Weems spent the next 21 years flying F-111 Aardvarks, C-130 Hercules and A-10 Warthogs.
“I loved blowing stuff up — it was the greatest job in the world,” he boasted.
With tours in the Middle East, Asia and Europe, Weems said he was deployed to several combat zones, but didn’t see much action.
“It’s funny — everywhere I went, the fighting stopped,” he explained. “It’s like I was the white devil of peace.”
His military service included 10 years on active duty, one year in the National Guard and another 10 years in the Air Force Reserve.
During his time in the guard, he started flying airliners for Trans World Airlines and climbed the ranks within the company. After retiring from the military, he took up airline flying full time and was one of only about 300 pilots to keep his captain bars when American Airlines bought the bankrupt company in 2001.
“In my 40-year aviation career — in spite of flying in combat — I’ve never hurt anybody, I’ve never bent any tin, and I’ve never gotten a violation,” Weems said. “So, I have none of that on my conscious.”
But the sky wasn’t high enough, and nowadays, he’s looking to the stars.
“At my age, the tuition at (the University of Wyoming) is free, so I start astronomy classes in the spring, which will cut into my ski time a bit, but I should be OK,” Weems said. “I hope to take it to Ph.D. on the cost of books alone. I’m 65, and I’m a freshman. I think that’s pretty cool.”
With a few classes at UW already under his belt, he said he was truly impressed with the quality of instruction the university has to offer, and hopes they can help him become qualified to work on the Five hundred meter Aperture Spherical Telescope, also known as the FAST, in the Guizhou province of China.
“My goal is in 10-15 years to be qualified and go work with some of my heroes,” he said.
His voice and his gaze trailed off as he added, “Do you know how rare it is for a man my age to still have living heroes? And to be able to one day work beside them? That would be a beautiful thing.” Moving slow and methodical, Weems pushed through the snow on top of the mountain. Like an empty carousel, the Virginian lift swung its chairs in a wide circle over his head.
He approached the Centennial run with a smile spread wide across his face, but he was not overeager to speed down the hill.
Instead, the old man slid down the trail in much the way he’d lived his life — at his own pace, with his own style.
Information from: Laramie Boomerang, http://www.laramieboomerang.com