He is an old man now, the man sitting at the wooden table. His hair is remarkably dark for his age and belies the wrinkles of his face. He sits listening to the swing music, the music of his youth.
“They don’t play that kind of music anymore,” he says, looking around the private hangar made up to look like a hangar from World War II. He is clearly enjoying the afternoon. He is listening to the band, drinking his beer, and sitting next to his wife. They have been married more than 53 years; they were childhood sweethearts, in another life long ago.
Later, much later after the party has wound down and he has consumed a few more beers, he talks quietly to those around him. He is melancholy now. The music has stopped and the band is packing up. He looks at those around him and he knows they are all younger, but he notes they are not that much younger. And he starts asking about the young ones. “Where are they? Don’t they know what we went through for them to have everything they have now?”
Then he starts to remember; at first, the memories are good. He talks and he is, for the moment, with old friends far away from this little Florida airfield. They are together again, in his mind, now back in England. He and they are again, once more, young, and in the prime of their youth. They are again, saving the world.
The old airman was a member of the Eighth Air Force. He was once a part of the largest fighting force the world ever witnessed. The Army formed the unit in the sleepy little coastal town of Savannah, Georgia in January, 1942. From there, the airmen and mechanics of the Eighth went to England to fight Hitler. By the end of the war, more than 350,000 Americans wore the patch of the Eighth. Twenty-eight thousand of those men became prisoners of the Germans and 26,000 died in battle.
Sitting in the hangar next to his wife 60 years later, he suddenly turns quiet. He thinks back to those times in England, he is thinking now of his friends. Many of them are gone, but he is still here. A tear starts to form in his eye and he sniffles a bit. When next he speaks, his voice cracks a little.
“Many of them boys are gone now,” he says. “I miss them. Each one of ’em.” Everyone sits quietly in the hangar; we know the old warrior is no longer here, with us, but rather back in the air, somewhere over France, or Germany, or England again, with his boys. Fighting. Fighting just to stay alive. He continued.
“I was one of the lucky ones. I got to come home to those I love,” he said, looking at his wife. “A lot of my buddies, they weren’t so lucky. Some of ’em ended up in Stalags, some were blown clean out of the sky.” His tears start to come again.
We are quiet, waiting. We know he has more stories to tell, and we wait patiently. There is also a sense this might be one of the last times we get to hear a story like this, straight from one who was there. According to the Veterans Affairs Department, veterans from World War II are passing away at a rate of 1,056 per day.
“Ya don’t know what it was like back in them days,” he says. “Flying in the war wasn’t like today. There was no pressurization; we just stood at an empty hole in the fuselage with our big 50’s sticking out in the wind. God, but it was cold. And if ya didn’t pay attention, your oxygen line would freeze up. Next thing you’d know, you were clean passed out on the floor and if your buddy didn’t notice you were down and wake you up, you’d die.”
Today’s new pilots don’t realize what it was like during that war. We have, in a very real sense, forgotten. We have forgotten aviation was extremely archaic before World War II. We have forgotten about the advancements in aviation that today, we take for granted. Mostly, we have forgotten the human suffering and sacrifice many shouldered in achieving those advancements and making the world a better place.
And in winning the war.
© 2011 J. Clark