Edmonds’ Fred Bell is a triple threat: Army pilot, world traveler — and square dancer
For most, moving to a different continent for a job is a deal-breaker. But for Fred Bell, the risk is always worth the reward.
“Never turn down an adventure,” said Bell. “My life, it’s been quite a ride.”
At 87, Bell has dedicated more than two decades to the Army, serving in both World War II and Vietnam. He has lived everywhere from Nepal to Laos to Edmonds working as a cowboy, prison interrogator, pilot, aviation teacher and real estate agent. He can speak multiple languages and has earned a degree in gemology.
If his globetrotting resume couldn’t get any more diverse, Bell can now say a chapter of his life was turned into an award-winning documentary.
The first-prize winner in the Santa Monica Film Festival, “Do Si Do In the Sky” directed by Cameron Tucker, tells the story of Bell’s experience on the U.S. Helicopter Square Dancing team.
Raised on a ranch in Arizona, Bell grew up admiring the planes overhead and dreamed about flying them one day. Years later, Bell turned his dreams into reality when he attended flight school and became an Army pilot.
In 1953, Bell was one of the few pilots to participate in the Army’s latest aviation promotional strategy: square dancing helicopters.
Bell said firmly, “If the Thunderbirds and Blue Angels were going to do their thing, we were not going to be far behind.”
Choreographed stunts and swift maneuvers highlighted the agility of the helicopters. But, it was the wigs, straw hats and paint that transformed the flying machines into characters. They even had names; Bell’s was always Henry or Henryetta.
According to Bell, the helicopters may have looked graceful from the ground, but the experience was less peaceful in the sky.
“When we got a new pilot it was up to me to train them and two out of three times they’d want to get out of the plane half way through the dance,” Bell said. “There are points when your blades are three feet apart from the other helicopter.”
Thanks to this adrenaline rush, Bell called the dance team his “fun, stress-relieving” activity. And with this fearlessness, it is no wonder his wife Bette, who met Bell when she taught in Vietnam, has the same thirst for adventure.
“Whenever you’re afraid of something, think of the worst-case scenario, you will die and the best, you’ll love it,” she said. “Always choose the adventure.”
The couple’s history shows that they take their own advice. They have lived in more places in one lifetime than most ever visit and embarked on an impulsive road trip that turned into a three-year-long journey across the country.
While Bell’s health limitations require him to stay put in Edmonds, where he and his wife have lived since 1986, Bell still welcomes new opportunities to try something new.
Since the project needs additional funding before it can be shown on more screens, Bell and Bette have yet to see the finished product. In fact, the closest Bell ever gets to showing fear is when he talked about seeing the film for the first time.
“I wouldn’t say I’m excited or nervous,” Fred said with a sly grin. “But, (pause) I’m a little anxious.”
To learn more about “Do Si Do in the Sky” visit the project home page.
– By Marika Price