It was about 5 a.m. on Jan. 3, 1971. Little Jim Ayres, age eight, was sleeping soundly in his bed. That’s when he heard a knock on the front door, and his life changed forever.
Ayres recalls hearing his mother answer the door, and after a short period, heard her emit a “blood-curdling scream.” His father was missing, and could not be found.
That fateful day
Jim Ayres was born into a military family. His dad, James Henry Ayres, had been dedicated to be a pilot, much to Jim’s grandfather’s chagrin.
“My dad knew for a long time that he wanted to be a pilot, but his father forbid it unless he went to college first and got an engineering degree,” Ayres said. “So that’s what he did.”
James didn’t wait long. On the same day he graduated from Texas Tech University, he was commissioned into the U. S. Air Force. James flew two tours in Vietnam, piloting the F-4E Phantom, a two-seater, jet-propelled fighter/bomber that saw lots of use during the Vietnam War. Jim remembers how much the Air Force meant to his father, who had volunteered to go on his second tour of duty against the wishes of Jim’s mother.
“He said before he left for his second tour that there were four things he cared about most in life,” Ayres said. “The Air Force, his wife, his children and he said he wasn’t sure if there was a God.”
That second tour turned out to be deadly for James. On a two-aircraft mission in Laos on Jan. 3, 1971, the other aircraft saw a “large explosion” where the F-4E of Ayres and his copilot Charles Stratton were located. No emergency signals were heard or parachutes seen by the other plane, according to the U. S. Department of Defense.
The U. S. could not search in the area, as their operations in the country were supposed to be covert and under the radar as no official involvement in Laos was declared.
The news hit Jim and his family on that fateful morning at their home in Pampa, Texas, and changed his family. His father was declared Missing in Action.
Jim recalls that the news did “tremendous damage” to the family. He recalls himself, his mother and two siblings staying awake in silence for the rest of the morning, before his mother sent them to school.
“I remember hiding behind my book and not saying much for that day. I think mother later regretted sending us to school that day, but she didn’t really know what to do at the time,” Ayres said.
The following day, eight-year-old Jim sat down in front of a typewriter that he had received for Christmas just over a week prior, and typed up a short poem. Ayres still has the original copy of this poem in a scrapbook. It read:
“MY DAYLY PRAYR
My daddy might be dead.
Is he god?
I hope he is not dead.
I pray and pray for him.
And for all the praying I do is it going to work?
I will be very sad if he dies.
So do not let him die. A-MEN.”
Ayres would grow up as a “Gold Star Child,” referring to the service flags that were hung in windows of many homes at the time, the gold star representing a family member who has been a casualty of war.
Years went past, and James was never found. Jim’s mother had his status changed in 1974 to Killed in Action - Body not Recovered. As Jim grew up, he said that the events of January 1971 changed him as a person. He became obsessed with being a people-pleaser, and said he tried as hard as he could to make life easier for his mother.
“As I got older I really became invisible,” Ayres said. “I did everything to give my mother as little grief as possible.”
As he matured and later married, this strain began to wear on him. He says that the please-everone mindset finally came to a head in 1993, when he says his life “fell apart.”
“I had what I’m not sure what to call, maybe you would call it an emotional or mental breakdown,” Ayres said. “Everything just came to a head. I spent the next six years in therapy.”
During that time struggling, his marriage ended and he got into teaching. He recalls being tired of the profession and feeling a sense of burnout, when some unexpected news arrived. His father’s remains had finally been found.
An unexpected call
“My mother received a phone call completely out of the blue in 2007,” Ayres said. “They were telling her they had identified my father.”
Several bone fragments had been found and identified as the remains of James Ayres, and were being kept in Hawaii. Jim’s mother went with an Air Force representative to Hawaii to retrieve them.
The entire ordeal of properly honoring and burying his father completely changed Jim’s life, and put him on the path that he is now.
“The experience of working with a civilian mortuary affairs specialist really piqued my interest in the business of planning funerals,” Ayres said. “After we buried my father, I started on the path to become a funeral director.”
James Ayres has remains buried in Pampa, and is also buried in a plot in Dallas co-mingled with the remains of his copilot, Charles Stratton.
In the years since his father’s disappearance and his turbulent times in the 1990s, Ayres says that he has developed a different perspective on the life of his dad, going from anger to admiration.
“Myself and others in the family were angry, angry it happened, angry he volunteered to leave,” Ayres said. “But over time, I’ve grown to appreciate his service and his accomplishments.”
Ayres added that his breakdown in 1993 forced him to reevaluate his life up to that point, and correct his course.
“1993 really forced me to rescue that eight-year-old boy that was lost in all of this,” Ayres said. “I spent a lot of time learning to admire my father after that.”
Jim and his wife Teena currently are the owners and operators of Commerce Funeral Home, and have lived in town since 2015.
Upon moving to Commerce, Jim has still been reminded of his father.
“I spoke about my father’s story at a Rotary Club meeting years ago, and after the meeting I was approached by Karen Starks,” Ayres said. “She shared with me that Charles Stratton, my father’s copilot, was a cousin of hers. It truly is a small world.”
Ayres had previously also shared his story with the public at the 2018 community Memorial Day Service in Commerce, and was named the Citizen of the Year by the Commerce Chamber of Commerce in 2018.