His golfing buddies know Julius Okrzesik, 99, as the oldest member of their crew and a good putter. Few know more about his history.
SEMINOLE — Julius Okrzesik left his South St. Petersburg home at 5:25 for his regular Tuesday morning game of golf.
He was among the first members of his league to arrive at the Bardmoor Golf and Tennis club. Alone in the back room of the clubhouse, he fidgeted with his baseball cap.
Pretty soon, the team from the Bamboo Beach Bar and Grill across town surrounded Okrzesik, some cracking jokes and letting loose deep belly laughs, others sipping coffee as they listened to Thanksgiving plans, still others taking a moment to pat Okrzesik on the back in greeting.
They know Okrzesik, 99, as the oldest member of their 60-and-up crew, one of the golf club's better putters and a quiet unassuming retiree looking to stay active and have fun with friends. Only a few knew more about his story.
After checking everyone in, Ronald Wehner, 76, went around handing out playing cards that would determine the day's teams of four.
"Sixes! Sevens! Eights!" Wehner called out.
Okrzesik flipped his card over to reveal a king. He often gets a king.
A few men came over to him, inquiring about his card, dejected that he wouldn't be on their team. Then Don O'Rourke, 71, patted Okrzeisk on the shoulders, showing off his matching card. Okrzesik smiled at the familiar face. Two others soon joined them.
"Elevens! Queens! Kings!"
On cue, Okrzesik eased himself off his seat to follow his teammates out into the cold. A brisk breeze hit and he adjusted his cap — the one he often wears in public, the conversation starter, the one that hints at his past.
Pierced with a silver pin, a North American P-51 Mustang fighter plane, the cap reads: "U.S. Army Corps WWII Flyboy."
In late 1942, Okrzesik, the 22-year-old son of Polish immigrants in Indiana, enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Force.
He had completed civilian pilot training, fulfilling a childhood fascination with planes. Enlisting was his way of putting his skills to use after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Many of his memories about the time center on his training, first in San Antonio, Texas, aboard PT-19 planes.
He made a name for himself from the start. In his first training flight, Okrzesik recalled the instructor telling him he could do whatever he wanted. So Okrzesik took off without warning, and the instructor exclaimed that he nearly fell out of his seat.
Once in Waco, Texas, his plane died on him 500 feet off the ground. He improvised, positioning his wheels to bounce up and over an approaching fence and landing without major damage to the aircraft.
He first tested out a P-40 fighter in Sarasota and found it tricky to handle. He recalled narrowly avoiding an accident when his plane gave out 8,000 feet in the air over marshland, forcing him to make a sudden landing at a nearby airport.
He continued training with P-40s and then P-51 reconnaissance planes in Mississippi. No matter the hiccups, the time spent among the clouds was always worthwhile.
"All you had was your compass, the horizon and time," he said.
Then came his deployment to London in January 1944.
He doesn't talk much of what came next. Only a few men in his golf league know of his war stories. But they know they can count on Okrzesik out on the green.
The golf carts pulled up to their starting hole, clubs in the back snug inside their head covers, except for Okrzesik's. His well-worn, scratched up clubs hung out of his bag unprotected. In his foursome were O'Rourke, Randy Russell and Earl Melancon.
Okrzesik swung last, from a tee box a few feet ahead of the others. He laments that he can't shoot with the power he had in his youth. But knees crouched and back bent, he put his whole body into it and sent the ball flying straight down the fairway.
"Nice shot, Julius," Russell exclaimed. He and others routinely cheered Okrzesik on, applauding him for his precision and strength. They even picked up his golf balls and allowed him extra shots when he needed them.
At one point, Okrzesik came frustratingly close to scoring a birdie but he swung with a bit too much force, sending the ball past the edge of the hole.
"Some days you've got good days, and some days you've got bad days," he said.
Other golfers might groan at the close calls, but Okrzesik would simply shrug and smile and return to the golf cart. He doesn't play to win. He plays to have fun and to meet new people through the league's rotation of players.
At the 6th hole, O'Rourke hit his ball with full force but poor aim, landing it in the rough. Okrzesik followed with another straight shot.
"With your swing and my power Julius, we'd eat this corner alive," O'Rourke said. Okrzesik chuckled.
Later in the morning, as the team took aim at the eighth hole, a small plane roared overhead. Only Okrzesik took the time to look up.
It was noon in Paris. Okrzesik flew over the Seine river on his 13th reconnaissance mission. He and his wingman spotted nothing of note during the first run. But as they turned for another go, they met a barrage of enemy fire.
In the dogfight that followed, bullets pelted the P-51.
It wasn't until he reached the landing strip that he realized he had a flat. After his clumsy landing, he learned his camera had been blasted to bits. If the bullets had hit just a bit higher, he'd have been a goner.
"I didn't want a Purple Heart."
Okrzesik had a few other close calls after that. He learned to spot German camouflage from the sky. He became attuned to the dangers of flying close to the ground. He once flew right at the Eiffel Tower with a wingman and they split at the last moment.
His superior officers gave him some time to rest in London, but he kept asking to go back to the sky.
As the war neared its end, Okrzesik got the chance to lead his own missions. He completed 87, earning several medals in the process.
Stateside, he remained in the Air Force reserves until 1964, including a stint as a flight instructor in Annapolis, Md.
In 1949, he changed to a more permanent career in air traffic control, still surrounded by planes.
He retired to St. Petersburg in 1976.
His wife, Mary Alice, 95, decorated one of the walls at their home with memorabilia, including a grainy black-and-white photo of a young Okrzesik posing before an old P-51 named Cloud Hopper.
Okrzesik's weeks now are taken up with with Tuesday golf, Wednesday bowling, woodworking and household repairs.
His son, John Julius Okrzesik, 61, carries on the legacy as a pilot for Delta Airlines after serving with U.S. Special Forces.
His father admits there was a time he missed flying, back when he could move easier and had more strength.
But out on the green, where teammates rely on him for advice on the best putting angle, everyone knows the old flyboy still has game.
Near the end of the round, Okrzesik's teammates all smacked their balls into the trees and missed the fairway by a long shot.
Okrzesik took his time eyeing the fairway and feeling the breeze, then shot straight once more.
"Thanks Julius," Russell said, patting the veteran on the back.
"Yes sir," Okrzesik replied, tipping his cap.