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.