Look around. If you chose seven belongings whose stories would impart an understanding of who you are and the life you’ve lived, what would those things be?
Story Slim Smith | Photographs Luisa Porter
Grounded. There are two widely used definitions of the adjective, one positive, one negative. There is “grounded” — meaning settled, well-adjusted, confident. And then there is “grounded” — the term applied to a pilot prohibited from flying.
Both apply to Col. Nick Ardillo (USAF, retired), who is best known in the Golden Triangle as a former wing commander at Columbus Air Force Base (1991-1993) and former deputy chief of staff during Kirk Fordice’s second term as governor of Mississippi (1996-2000).
“I had a minor heart issue a few years ago,” Ardillo says. “Even though I’m fine now, the FAA is pretty strict about that. So, no, I don’t fly anymore.”
There in no bitterness in his tone, even though flying was the passion that sustained him through a 27-year career in the U.S. Air Force, first as a fighter pilot in the Vietnam War, then as a flight trainer and finally as wing commander in Columbus.
He is grounded by his new life, spent with his wife, Mary, on their 33-acre mini-ranch off Artesia Road.
“There is always something to do out here,” he says.
His Seven Things tell the story of both his past and present, grounded in both senses of the word.
1. The photo of the F4 FIGHTER is a reminder of the early days of Ardillo’s Air Force career. In 1969, a 25-year-old Ardillo flew missions over Southeast Asia during the height of the Vietnam War. Over the course of his career, he has flown many types of planes, but in some respects, the F4 remains his favorite. “It was very much a pilot’s plane,” he says. “Some of the newer planes pretty much fly themselves, but with the F4, the pilot was in control. I loved that about the F4.”
2. Ardillo, who grew up in Homewood, Alabama, left for Auburn University after high school graduation with plans to become a veterinarian. While his first airplane flight changed his career path, his love of animals never diminished. He has three horses, including a pair of 17-year-old mares — a gray named SISTER and a roan named RUBY. He still rides, usually in the evenings. The Ardillos’ association with horses is a long one. The couple traveled the circuit when their son and daughter showed horses in Texas. “I’ve always loved horses,” Ardillo says. “There’s just something about their personalities, their nature.”
3. Parked prominently out front of the Ardillo home is a bright red 1955 CHEVROLET PICKUP TRUCK Ardillo helped restore. He also owns a restored 1951 Chevy coup that once belonged to his aunt. The pickup, he says, is a reminder of his youth. “This isn’t the same truck, but it’s the same model that I learned to drive in.”
4. A photo of Ardillo and FORDICE in their western wear was taken soon after Ardillo had retired from flying and was wooed by the governor to join his administration in Jackson. “I loved my job in the Air Force, obviously, but working for Gov. Fordice was the most fun job I ever had. He was a businessman, not a politician, and we got along great.” The two men also shared a love of horses, as the trip to Texas for a extended trail ride captured in the photo attests.
5. To put it in rather harsh military terms, DIXIE ANNA — the Ardillos’ Brittany spaniel pup -— was a training school washout. “A friend had gotten her with the idea that she would be a retriever, but he tried to train her and wasn’t getting much of a result, so he decided to send her to a training school. It didn’t help. She just didn’t show any interest at all in retrieving, so that’s how she wound up with us. She may not be a retriever, but she’s smart and this is a great place for her to run around and chase squirrels.”
6. The model of the LEARJET that was once the governor’s official aircraft is a reminder that Ardillo brought a unique skillset to the deputy chief of staff position. In addition to his regular duties, he served as the governor’s pilot. “I was a twofer. It was great for the governor and the taxpayers,” Ardillo quips. “They didn’t have to pay a pilot. It was great for me, too, because it gave me an excuse to keeping flying.”
7. Ardillo says he’s not much of a collector, probably because a career in the Air Force is a nomadic existence. This makes the presence of an old BARBER’S CHAIR in Ardillo’s barn perplexing. It isn’t an essential item, after all, and it is heavy, heavy, heavy. “I found it in a junkyard in Alabaster, Alabama, in 1967. Really, of the few things I’ve kept, I don’t know why I’ve hung on it to all these years. It’s no fun to pack and carry around, that’s for sure. It must weigh 400 pounds. You have to take it apart to move it and then put it back together once you get to where you’re going.”
Maybe the appeal of the old barber’s chair lies buried in Ardillo’s subconscious. It is solid, built of heavy steel and porcelain. It is durable, substantial, impervious to the assault of time and a reminder of an earlier time — grounded, in the best sense of the word.