Colonel Lap was doing what he does best - telling a story - when a buddy interrupted to testify about Lap's skill as a pilot, his splendid character and appealing personality.
Lap endured the praise for about 20 seconds and then broke in: "That's too much frosting on the cake. I'm giving him facts; you're giving him baloney."
Typical Lap, those who know him say.
Lap, 86, is a volunteer tour guide at the Harold F. Pitcairn Wings of Freedom Aviation Museum at the former Willow Grove Naval Air Station. The museum features many venerable relics that chronicle man's romance with flight and the evolution of warfare in the sky.
Not all of the relics are made of metal, however, and surely none is as charming and beloved as Lap, who has lived the history the museum celebrates and flown many of the planes on display.
"I love aviation and want to promote it to the kids," Lap says. "We've got to let the new generation know about this stuff."
His full name is Sylvester Lapkiewicz. He's a product of the Burholme section of Northeast Philadelphia and a retired Marine colonel who was commanding officer of Marine Reserve Squadron 218 at Willow Grove in the mid-'60s. During World War II, he earned a Distinguished Flying Cross, six Air Medals, and two presidential citations for, among other things, shooting down several Japanese kamikazes in the South Pacific.
Lap, who lives in Huntingdon Valley, and ran a fuel-oil business for many years, is a fixture at the museum every Saturday.
"He's so popular, especially with kids and vets, that he kind of has his own fan club," says Susan Halteman, the museum's curator. "He's a wonderful communicator who always seems to be having fun."
One of his secrets: "I don't do all the talking," Lap says. "I like the kids to express themselves."
For those interested in the history of aviation, the museum is an underappreciated gem, a local version of the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum. Visitors can see an array of aircraft - helicopters, prop planes, jets - including a replica Fokker, a restored Messerschmitt, and an F-14 Tomcat like those in Top Gun.
The flight simulators are surefire attractions, and when visitors take the controls, Lap enjoys showing them how to take off, land, and do rolls and loops. So memorable is the experience that some have sent Lap thank-you notes.
Last Saturday, he squeezed his body into the cockpit of an FJ-3 Fury flight simulator, the type of jet he began flying in the early '50s.
Pitch and altitude are important, he explained to onlookers, but of paramount concern is airspeed. He recounted taking a real Fury to its top speed - 720 m.p.h. - and breaking the sound barrier ("a little shake but extremely quiet in the cockpit"), and he described the challenge of landing on a carrier ("With a prop job, you cut the throttle; with a jet, you catch the tail hook with full throttle").
The last time he piloted a jet was in 1965. But on Father's Day 2008, his son, Rob, treated him to a ride in a Stearman biplane, the craft in which Lap learned to fly after joining the Navy at 19. Once the plane was aloft, Lap took over and began executing loops and rolls.
Parked outside the museum building is an FJ-4B Fury, a plane Lap flew a dozen times from Willow Grove. "My sweetheart," Lap says of the sleek fighter jet with folding wings and four 20mm cannons. "I'm so happy they kept this aircraft here."
Painted on the fuselage, under the cockpit canopy, is Lap's name, but his granddaughters just call the jet "Poppy's plane."
As always, it prompts stories, such as the time his engine flamed out at 45,000 feet over Williamsport, Pa., and Lap enlivened his Mayday glide back to Willow Grove with some eight-point rolls. And the time he made an emergency landing with only two of three wheels, saving the plane by pivoting on a fuel tank attached to the wing. And the time he flew to Brunswick, Maine, to fetch $200 worth of lobsters for a squadron party. The haul was stowed in the wing's ammo bay.
Lap's fascination with aircraft was fostered by geography. Back when Easton Road was a rural two-laner, his family had a summer bungalow next to Pitcairn Air Field, pastoral precursor of the Willow Grove air base. As a lad, Lap would pack a lunch and go play with the planes, supporting glider wings and performing odd jobs for the mechanics.
After joining the Navy and training to fly a prop-powered F4U Corsair, Lap chose to serve as a Marine and was sent to the South Pacific, where he hunted Japanese Zeros and dropped napalm in caves to flush out the enemy on the Marshall Islands, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa.
The story he tells with the most pride is about the time he was on submarine patrol and saved a U.S. convoy from running aground as the ships sought to enter the Eniwetok Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Unable to reach the lead ship by radio, he remembered the Morse code he learned as a Boy Scout and flashed the word TURN using lights on his wing. The convoy heeded the signal, and Lap guided the ships to safe harbor.
"I was only 19 or 20 years old," Lap says. "If I hadn't done it, the first ship would have crashed. It was headed to a coral reef where the water was only four feet deep."
Not all Lap's stories are so heroic, or suitable for school-age audiences. For instance, while on a training flight near Squantum, Mass., he noticed two women sunbathing on an apartment building roof, naked. He showed his appreciation by buzzing them. The stunt cost him loss of liberty and 40 hours of marching with a rifle. "Between you and me, it was worth it," Lap confides.
But wait, before you leave, Lap has one more story:
In 1944, during a 10-day leave, Lap asked his dad if he could borrow the family DeSoto. His father, reluctant to trust his son with his precious automobile, for which he had paid the extravagant sum of $900, refused. At which point Lap's mother, Mary, intervened: