Monday, September 18, 2006

My Father Asks For Nothing

My father asks me for nothing, really. Every three months or so, I take him to his doctor, who pokes about him wondering what keeps him animated, and that's about it. He's grown frail, and has discovered the joys of "Not Going." It takes a lot to get him to leave the comfort and safety of his house. I was really surprised when he called me on Saturday, because he asked me to take him somewhere.

My father was a ball gunner on a B-24J Liberator bomber in the Pacific during WW2. He rarely spoke about that. My father and his confreres considered themselves part of a thing greater than the sum of their parts in it --or so it seems to me -- and more or less did what was expected of them as a sort of unpleasant chore, kept themselves safe as much as was practicable, amused themselves when possible, and got back to being regular people as soon as they could.

As far as how practicable it was to keep safe hanging below a plane filled with four hundred pound bombs with nothing but the ocean beneath you to bore you and Japanese Zeros shooting at you to keep you interested in the trip, you can draw your own conclusions.

My father said that the last B-24 in flying condition was going to be at a little airshow nearby, and he wanted to go see it. Would I take him?

As I said, my father is very frail. His heart is big but not useful. His mind is sharp but not overused now. It takes quite a bit of effort for him to get down the hall and into a car. And there was nothing I could do to keep him from trying to climb in that plane when we got there.

I didn't try, actually; I just was sort of amazed, and wondered how I could help him. You entered the plane on a rickety jump ladder in the tail, walked through the fuselage filled with wooden ammo boxes and gun emplacemements, climbed around the retracted ball that was his home for forty missions, and then had to walk on a catwalk less than a foot wide between the bomb racks to get to the cockpit. All this for a man who needs a walker.

We went along the side of the plane, creeping along at the pace my father goes, my father assiduously avoiding walking between the fuselage and the props -- a habit sixty years old and more -- and he saw his chance. He ducked down and crept into the bomb bay.

Down came the hands. No one needed to be told who that man was, or why he was there. Everyone behind paused to wait patiently and respectfully, and everyone within reach helped me pick that old, frail, brave man up to look on the nuts and bolts of that totem of his distant life. And they thanked him, and they asked him questions, and marveled at him. A Brigadier General and a sailor and a J.A.G. and Vietnam vets by the handful pressed his hand for the piquant residue of that life that might be on it.

He just looked for one familiar face that he had not brought with him, but there were none.

My father asks for nothing.


Patrick Martin said...

He may ask for nothing, but we owe him and his comrades in arms everything.

I spent Saturday at the National World War II Museum (the D-Day Museum) in New Orleans. I wasn't sure whether I was going to post on the emotionally draining (yet uplifting) experience, but after I saw your deeply moving story, I had to: Service, Honor, Valor, and Thanks.

I hope your dad knows, somewhere in his big heart, how grateful we are for what he did for us.

Editor Theorist said...

Lump in the throat stuff - thanks.

Pastor_Jeff said...

Jeez, give us some warning, willya? I am not supposed to have tears in my eyes at this time of the morning.

Seriously, thank you for sharing this. And most of all, thank your dad for all of us. We owe him -- and especially the ones who didn't come back -- an eternal debt of gratitude.

I am honored to serve in a congregation with a significant number of veterans and active duty servicemen. Memorial Day and 4th of July are very special here.

DaleA said...

Patrick -- Same kinds of emotions I have had the last couple of weeks, during which I lost my next door neighbor and friend, Capt. Fred Carment USN - retired ...Fred flew many airfraft from a number of carriers, from props to jets, and his stories were grist over many holiday dinners, and occasional beverages of rather suitably high octane. DaleA

Pogo said...

Stunning. Well done.

And many thanks for your Dad, of a generation that esteemed being "a good man", and endeavored to live as one.

SippicanCottage said...

Thanks everyone.

Be sure to read Patrick Martin's item. He's a better photographer than me too.

Walrus said...

I have to admit, I'm crying too. My own father was too young to serve in WWII, although he was a fighter pilot, but my uncle was a navigator with the RCAF and did bombing runs over Germany. To this day he never talks about it. He just amiably deflects questions.

Some day, Greg, you have GOT to write a book!

XWL said...

Great stuff, despite the pernicious influence of the late 60s and the entire 70s, a heavy dose of Reagan, and the huge shock of 9/11 has minted a whole new generation of folks like your father.

(but, shhhhhh, don't tell the media, they don't want to hear that)

Let's hope the current fight is fought vigorously, and is won soon.

Thanks for sharing that.

BD said...

Thank you for posting this, and for taking your dad to the air show.

Please pass on our thanks to your dad for his service.

And tell him what an inspiration he and all his comrades in arms still are to all of us.

Mark said...

From me, please pass on the best salute you can muster. It is for his part in creating the great tradations of the Air Force I had the honor of following him into.

Please get him to participate in the Veterans History project if he will.

We know so little of the personal stories of our heros. My father rode a ball too. All I knew about it was he still had his coat and gloves. And refused to fly.

Not until my Mom died and I was in my 50s did I find out why. He was in two crashes in Italy. Figured the third time would be the charm.

Ron said...

At an airshow I ran into someone who had just finished assembling a B-24 from crates of parts he had acquired in India! He had parts for 2 more! He found that India had these parts and wanted F-104 Starfighter spares for them. He somehow got them out of Canada's mothballed F-104's, thus a trade was made...

SippicanCottage said...

Thanks to all for your kind wishes for my father, and all the men like him, of which there are many.

Please read Patrick Martin's entry linked at the top of the page.

Ron- I'm told they made more b-24s thatn any other plane of its type, and there must be a lot of them rusting around the world. I was sort of amazed to learn this one we saw was the only one flying around.

Mark- I hadn't seen the website you mentioned, it's very interesting. My uncle died in Korea, and we've participated in a memorial of sorts for that, but it's hard to contemplate that a WW2 veteran is going to get to be a rare thing pretty soon, isn't it? There were so many.
My father has many stories to tell about his time in the pacific, but really has never done it. I read a list of his missions. Yikes.

DirtCrashr said...

The planes come here to Moffett field and park in sight of Hanger-1 for the past several years, and I go to see them and sometimes I get to meet guys like your father. Thanks. I love to hear the sound of their big round motors going overhead, right over my home - the racket they make is a symphony.

SippicanCottage said...

Dirtcrashr- Yes that's the plane we saw- The Witchcraft. Fantastic picture. You can see the bomb bay doors, with the retracted ball faintly visible just behind them.

Thanks for posting that.

You folks are all marvelous.

M. Takhallus. said...

Look how young he is. You watch the movies and you forget how young these guys were. Civilization was saved by children.

Uncle Mikey said...

Fantastic stuff. God bless the man and how wonderful to have him here still. I wish my Uncle Billy had lived through his air war in the ETO. Bad weather and a malfunctioning bomb rack conspired to end his young life in 1944 and I've always wondered what he would have thought of the current state of the world he helped save. How does your dad feel about it?

SippicanCottage said...

m.takhullus- You're right. I have pictures of him in the South Pacific a few years later and he looks like a man then. And I think my father had been in the army for a while before that picture was taken. He was a gunnery sargent, and transferred to army air force after a while. He might be 19 years old or so in that picture, maybe twenty. They all just shrugged their shoulders and did what had to be done.

Mikey- Thanks. it was a very dangerous business just to fly in those planes, never mind the shooting. I looked around in that plane and realized there wasn't one thing in it I didn't understand, just by looking at it. It was like a flying bulldozer. Really primitive. Those men were all brave to fly in the damn things.

My father is so immensely... Boston... He does not offer opinions on large matters much. He'd rather tell you about James Michael Curley than any contemporary politician. But no Boston Irishman of his vintage could ever see himself as anything but a Democrat.

dawn said...

Be grateful and honored that you got to share that moment with your father. The memory of that day will sustain you when he is no longer with you. Thank you for sharing the emotion of that experience with us, it helps us to remember to honor our loved ones.