As a child, Laslo Zamolyi Jr. was always a dreamer. During school, he longed to be outside, frequently gazing out the window, much to the chagrin of his teachers. He wanted big things, he wanted to explore the edges of the mountaintops and feel the way the ground would disappear beneath him when one day, he would finally fly in an airplane. He gleefully recalls how he was scolded by teachers, parents, by those who grew impatient with his daydreaming, and he laughs when he mimics their chastising. However, as he grew older, his mother became ill with multiple sclerosis; she was bound to a wheelchair and Laslo, along with his two sisters, assumed the role of her caretaker.
His family history is rich, and deeply mired in hard work, with generations before him that had migrated to the United States to escape war-torn Hungary. Laslo’s grandfather was a farmer who had built himself up from very little, and he expected that his son would follow in his footsteps. Laslo’s father, however, had different plans. At the age of seventeen, after being denied permission to attend college by his staunch father, he ran away to the United States. Twenty years later, his brother – Laslo’s uncle – would also make the trek across the ocean.
The fact that Laslo’s father had been forbidden to attend a university had always stuck with him so he insisted that Laslo attend college to ensure a better life. And, Laslo was determined to make his father proud. In eleventh grade, Laslo met the girl who would eventually become his wife, and she supported his dream of adventure. He enrolled in college and pursued a degree in Aeronautics. He joined the Air Force ROTC program and committed to the Air Force when he was eighteen.
Laslo is a handsome man still, charming, and his ruddy features make him appear perpetually sun-kissed. Photos of a younger Laslo show dark, deep eyes, and a solid set in his shoulders, like he planned to go places in life. Ever the romantic, though miles apart while Laslo attended college, he and his sweetheart became pen pals, spending precious coins sending constant, old-fashioned, hand-written letters. In the summer of 1961, the two decided to get married and start a new life, together, in the same city. She was a nurse at the local hospital in St. Louis, when he was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant. He laughs as he tells this story, jokingly shocked at his own success.
“I graduated from college, got married, and was commissioned in the Air Force, all within two weeks of my twenty-first birthday. You tell someone that today, and they’d laugh, say it was impossible, kids these days don’t do that. Which … it’s true. They don’t!” He erupts into good-natured laughter. As expected, the work ethic young Laslo exhibited spurred him toward the beginning of a wonderful career.
After getting married, the couple moved to a new military base in Selma, Alabama while Laslo completed flight school. He remembers that it was a different time, recalls memories of racial tensions and the feeling that anything might explode at any minute. He had friends and neighbors who had nearly died due to brutal beatings, but the world was beginning to refuse to continue in silence, and the status quo was constantly being pushed against, causing riots bringing death and danger to health and home.
“It was, in a way, both the best and the worst year, at the same time.” During that year, he learned about his fellow man – the good and the bad, and lost his innocence. “But I always tried my best to live my best. That’s really all I could do.”
With his flight training complete, while serving with the Air Force, Laslo worked on military contracts as an engineer of aircraft parts with Javelin Aircraft Company. Working with seven other men also fresh out of college, Laslo and his coworkers collaborated on a series of projects, including the Caribou, a twin-engine, short take-off and landing aircraft. Eventually the Caribou would become part of the Army fleet, its purpose to deliver supplies to troops in time of war.
During his six and half years in the military, Laslo piloted many flights on many aircraft, including the Boeing B-52F, the Cessna T-37, and the Lockheed T-33. His experience was vast, even before entering the world of commercial aviation. When he was finally released from the Air Force, he was immediately hired by one of the biggest airlines during that time – TWA. He was assigned to the Convair 880, a powerful, fast, four-engine jet, but quickly moved his way through various other aircraft, including several versions of a Boeing.
Laslo reminisces about what he loved most in his career. “Really, the airlines are a pain sometimes, but the people, that’s what I loved about it. It was like a family, and it was simpler back then.” He tells of the “old-timer “ pilots who were set in their ways and refused to budge, and yet it was from them that he learned some of the most valuable lessons in his profession – including how to make the perfect, smooth landing. He recalls being fortunate to work with competent, trustworthy co-pilots – well, for the most part. He bemusedly tells a story of a co-pilot who once punched him while they were working together. “There weren’t many bad eggs, but man, the bad ones were REALLY bad.” He laughs, then grows somber again.
“There were times where I wasn’t sure how we made it through those snow storms or scary takeoffs in really bad weather. We had a larger crew in the cockpit, so there were five of us who had to trust each other, and sometimes blindly.” Laslo is grateful for the time he spent in the aviation industry, though he endured mergers, setbacks, and lawsuits. “But, that’s just it, you know. It’s messy sometimes, but it’s real.” He gets uncharacteristically quiet for a moment or two.
When asked about his family, and if his two sons and daughter have pursued a career like their father’s, the smile is clear in his reply. His son is now a pilot and his granddaughter, just as her grandfather had done, dreams of a life in the sky. Laslo is proud, and frankly, I’m proud for him. With his wry remarks and no-frills storytelling, I can envision the young man from humble beginnings. Slowly, he drew on the strength of his family and his spirit of adventure to become the wizened, laughing grandfather surrounded by the fruits of his labor with memories of the beautiful years in which he built something special — something that came from a heart full of love.