GAINESVILLE — Ray Lawson lived his life like there was no tomorrow.
A lot can be said for a life lived like a dream — every desire fulfilled, every risk accepted and every goal achieved.
Now, tomorrow is closing in fast, and for this 78-year-old Gainesville man it looks like this: Stale cigar fog drifts over scattered nostalgia inside his rented one-bedroom home, lingering high above stacks of hobby magazines and model aircraft plans pinned to his desktop.
Wooden replicas hang from hooks and string in the ceiling, dust collecting on the wings.
Framed color photos of family members surround every room, accompanied by countless black-and-white pictures of a man in a white jumpsuit beaming as he free falls toward Stone Mountain Airport.
In the midst of this current life that seems a shrine to his past, Lawson’s health is failing. He has developed a severe bronchial disorder and leans heavily on a cane.
Indeed it was poor health, and not an accident from his dangerous lifestyle, that ultimately derailed him.
He owned a big house and a nice car before a stroke in 1996 caught him off guard without health insurance, leaving him nearly penniless.
He’s been scraping by since on Social Security checks. As his health has deteriorated he’s been forced, at last, to consider the prospect of tomorrow — an alien notion to a man who has lived like Lawson.
“I lived a life so doggone dangerous — skydiving and flying my plane through thunderstorms at night — I didn’t put much of anything in savings,” said Lawson, adding that he never had health insurance because he was self-employed for four decades in the flooring business “and just figured I’d work until I died.”
“Now, it’s catching up with me,” he said. “I don’t know what’s kept me alive this long, because I should have been dead a long time ago.”
Looking to the future, Lawson hopes to cash in one of the few financial assets he’s got left — those dusty model planes suspended from the ceiling of his home.
He’s been building the models, many from scratch, since he was 6 years old. By selling them off one by one, he hopes to help pay for looming medical bills and the possibility of being admitted to a nursing home.
Some of the crafts have already been purchased and donated to the Interactive Neighborhood for Kids museum in Gainesville.
That’s the type of charitable kindness Sheri Hooper, founder and executive director, hopes will continue with the bulk of Lawson’s yet-unsold collection.
“At last count, we’ve got four of his planes,” Hooper said. “Someone purchased three of them and gave them to us, and Ray donated one himself … This type of gift helps provide a wider range of educational opportunities for children. The fact that these come from someone with a history like his makes it even better.”
She’s correct — Lawson’s got history all right.
The fascination with planes began in his hometown of Canton, where he built 10-cent models from store-bought kits.
“They had rubber bands and propellers,” Lawson said. “You’d wind ’em up and just sort of sling ’em to see if they’d go.”
Soon after, he started taking apart old apple crates to build fuselage and wings for his planes.
His obsession evolved beyond toys, when at age 15, he joined the Civil Air Patrol and “learned quite a bit about flying.” Lawson got his pilot’s license at age 16 and joined the Air Force in 1956 at 18.
He went to basic training in San Antonio, Texas, and passed all his tests, but wasn’t permitted to fly because he is color blind. He worked instead in communications.
As a pilot with his own plane, Lawson flew countless flights for 38 years without having an accident. But flying was only half of Lawson’s fascination with planes. Starting in 1960, he jumped out of them, too.
Lawson said he and six other local daredevils helped pioneer the technique of skydiving in Georgia, jumping mostly around the now-defunct Stone Mountain Airport. He was in a small group of like-minded individuals called the Georgia Skydivers.
Throughout nearly 20 years of skydiving and 538 total jumps — the final one in November 1979 — the only injury he got was a broken finger, and that happened when he twisted it before jumping from the plane.
He also was an instructor, taking those wishing to skydive up in the air on one of his private planes. Most would chicken out, Lawson said, laughing. He didn’t blame them.
When not soaring through the sky or plummeting to the ground, he continued to build his model airplanes, amassing them and giving them female names and hanging them from the walls and ceiling.
And, many remain in his current home.
If not for the keen eye of Meals on Wheels volunteer Doug Hanson, it’s likely nobody would have known about Lawson’s home, which is a veritable toy aircraft museum.
Hanson happened to spot the collection one afternoon when bringing Lawson his lunch.
Walking inside, one sees dozens of intricately painted, painstakingly constructed airplanes suspended from the ceiling or propped behind furniture. An unfinished model sits atop his desk. Thin slices of balsa wood are pinned to one another to keep it all together as the glue dries.
“I feel like everybody has a story,” Hanson said. “Some people just have more interesting covers on their book.”
After delivering that fateful meal to Lawson several months back, Hanson has since become good friends with the man.
“Ray has a lot of savvy and aeronautical wisdom, and I think the creativity he has helps to manage his loneliness,” Hanson said.
By his own admission, Lawson is indeed a bit lonely. He has three grown children, two who live out of state. He also has many grandchildren and great-grandchildren whose numerous photos adorn his walls — the glass frames reflecting images of the model aircraft hanging all around.
When asked what he loves so much about aeronautics, Lawson shrugged.
“It’s just in my blood,” Lawson said. “The adrenaline flow was like an addiction. Maybe I was a pilot in a past life, too, because it just comes natural to me. I don’t know why I wanted to be up in the air so bad, but I sure did love it.”
To inquire about buying and donating one of Lawson’s planes to the local, nonprofit children’s museum, call Interactive Neighborhood for Kids at (770) 536-1900.