Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

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Preston King, to many locals, is simply the namesake of the Westover Post Office.

But for two Arlingtonians, the neighborhood hero killed in World War II remains a vivid presence—despite their being too young to have ever met him. Both shared with me fresh details.

Chip Beck, retired from the CIA and Naval Criminal Investigative Service, is a skilled combat artist. That’s his pastel portrait of Preston King you see while in line at the post office.

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Beck also wrote the displayed King bio, a labor of love far beyond what the postmaster expected when he commissioned the painting of King in time for the 1995 dedication of the remodeled post office.

Beck described his research to fill in lost details of King’s life, using friends’ recollections, a yearbook, photos and news clips.

King, the son of a sports business manager, was known to intimates as “P.K.,” a Westover boy (North 11th Street) who graduated from Western High School downtown in 1935. He worked in construction and real estate before Pearl Harbor and then enlisted in the Army Air Corps flight school. After qualifying as an officer and pilot training in Florida, he was sent to Panama with the 37th Fighter Group, 30th Fighter Squadron to fly P-38 Lightnings.

The second lieutenant’s letters home were vague on location and assignment due to wartime censorship. But Beck, whose work in the 1990s took him to Panama annually, visited the archives at Howard Air Force Base and found records of King’s assignments. On June 19, 1943, King was flying a reconnaissance mission over an unspecified territory when he was forced to bail out of the cockpit. Due to the poor design of early P-38 fighters, when he rolled over the wing, he was decapitated by the tail section.

The body was brought to Gorgas hospital (and later buried at Arlington Cemetery), Beck learned while visiting the Panama sites where King and mates would have spent leisure hours. “I felt like I was walking in his footsteps,” he said.

My friend Karla Sorensen, who worked in her family construction business, grew up knowing her parents were P.K.’s inseparable friends. Lester and Margaret “Dodie” Sorensen roomed with him before their war service, and the two men enlisted. “One of the nicest thoughtful gentlemen who ever walked the earth,” Karla’s mother said. The family recalls a high school episode in which a girl knocked P.K. down, and he resolved, “If a girl hits you, don’t hit back.”

Karla, whose family visited P.K.’s mother throughout her childhood, grew up with the hero’s photo (on which Beck based his portrait) on the wall. She showed me King’s wartime letters, one consoling her father after he was reassigned from pilot to lead bombardier. “Maybe you are lucky,” King wrote. Sorensen’s eventual role would bring “excitement, going places, a swell bunch of fellows and last but not least, the flight pay,” P.K. promised.

King described life in Panama as “jungles, mountains, scorpions, head-hunters, snakes… Never a dull moment.” Deeper in the jungle, he wrote wryly of “some very fine upstanding head-hunters….They are quite the fellows when you get to know them. But…I was always bashful.”

P.K. also wrote that he and his buddies “drank two joints clean out of Scotch.” He told Lester Sorensen to watch the newsreels: “P.K. might be in one.”

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If you’re downtown for the Inauguration (or the next-day protest) and you fall sick, a special kind of help will be nearby.

Doctors to You, a mobile medical service seeking to revive the concept of house calls for primary care, is planning to place mobile medical professionals at the ready.

They will be riding electric bikes through the crowds, I’m told by Alan Levine, owner of Hybrid Pedals in Arlington. Doctors to You founder Dr. Ernest Brown is an  e-bike enthusiast and serves on Hybrid Pedals’ board.

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