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The International Writers Magazine - Our Tenth Year: Review

The Man Who Would Not Die By Stephen Olvey
Published 2008 by Haynes Publishing
ISBN 9781844255108
Daniel Cann

Long before Jack Osbourne became an adrenalin junkie and Evel Knievel decided to jump over buses for a living there was ‘Lucky’ Herschel McKee. The front cover describes McKee as ‘Barnstormer, war hero, test pilot, motor racer, scoundrel.’ Intrigued by the sepia photograph of an old fashioned aviator confidently grinning back at me I decided to find out more about him.

Author Olvey is in an excellent position to shed light on who McKee was as he is married to one of McKee’s grandchildren. He also has extensive knowledge of motor racing and obviously had access to accounts in the first person as well plenty of newspaper cuttings and official records to aid him in his quest in piecing together the life of this remarkable ‘one-off’ man.

I have to say that I was riveted as I read about how the restless McKee left his family home at only sixteen years of age to join the Lafayette Flying Corp in Europe during the First World War. Always seeking thrills and adventure and having an avid interest in mechanics from an early age I read how this young naive mischievous man became an ‘Ace’ fighter pilot. He survived being shot down and being captured by the enemy, the first of many brushes with death over the ensuing years.

Unfortunately Olvey does rather exaggerate the importance and role of the Lafayette Flying Corp making the ridiculous claim that without them there may have been a different outcome to the war. The book is also prone to bouts of hyperbole and does read like a ‘Boys Own’ comic book at times. A lot of poetic licence has been taken here and much of the claims have to be taken at face value. If you cast your cynicism aside it is still a highly enjoyable read.

There is an excellent section on McKee’s ‘Barnstorming’ days in the 1920s when he toured America performing stunts on his motorbike and in his biplane. Here Olvey manages to vividly evoke a bygone era where crowds would be enthralled by the daring stunts and feats performed on the ground and in the air. McKee was also a riding mechanic in the Indianapolis 500 in the 1920s and 1930s and again his exploits and brushes with near death make for compelling reading. Some of the crashes and accidents described make for chilling reading and McKee does indeed seem to have a ‘charmed’ existence.

The book takes the reader through his days as an advisor and bomber pilot in the Second World War as well as his covert operations out of Florida in the 1950s for the forerunner of the CIA. It all makes fantastic copy and I found myself turning the pages quickly.

McKee lived life to the full and had a really fatalist streak. He does not come across as a particularly likeable person; he was a heavy drinker, womaniser and bigamist. Self-centred and egocentric he never gave a second thought about jettisoning someone after he lost interest in them. Despite not being particularly endearing he is a colourful individual. The era and attitudes of the day are evoked well.

Olvey has a good writing style. One of my quibbles is that fact and fiction conveniently become blurred at times, how does Olvey know what McKee was thinking and what he said? Like I mentioned earlier there is a lot of poetic licence taken in telling this story. For all its faults this book will still appeal to those who enjoy history, adventure and a good yarn. Yes it is romanticised but still an enjoyable tale affectionately told about one of life’s real characters.
© Dan Cann October 2009

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