How well do any of us ever really know our fathers? My dad is an easygoing mid-westerner who is always quick to make a joke and still dreams of being a movie star.
Growing up he taught me how to throw a football, (over the top son he would say as we played catch for hours) how to parallel park (to this day every time I back into a spot his voice jumps into my head cut it, cut it, cut it) and that all of a man TMs hygiene needs can be met with a bar of Ivory Soap (he calls shampoo a rip off.) I thought I knew my dad pretty well. That is until today.
Today I find myself flying onboard the Liberty Belle, a restored B-17 World War Two bomber. My dad was a navigator on a B-17 and flew combat missions over Germany during the war. The B-17 carried so many guns, it was dubbed the Flying Fortress. More than 12,000 of the planes were made during the war. The Liberty Belle is one of just 14 still flying today.
The first thing you realize when you climb onboard a B-17 is how vulnerable the crew must have been. The plane is basically a small hollow tube that was packed with ten men and a couple of thousand pounds of bombs.
To keep the plane light enough to fly with such a heavy load, its frame was wrapped in a thin sheet of metal that provided the crew inside zero protection from shrapnel and enemy bullets. Thousands of the slow moving bombers were shot down by German fighter planes and deadly accurate anti-aircraft guns. In today TMs world, where two soldiers killed by a roadside bomb is front page news, the casualty figures for those flying on these planes is incomprehensible.
Close to 50,000 B-17 crew members lost their lives during World War Two. The planes were not pressurized, and at 25,000 feet, temperatures in the cabin could drop to 50 degrees below zero. The crew wore heated flight suits that rarely worked properly, but that was the least of their worries. At that altitude, they depended on oxygen tanks to survive and with so many bombs and so much gasoline onboard the plane was a ticking time bomb.
Sitting in the plexiglass turret in the nose of the plane where my father sat, I try to imagine what it must of been like for him. There is a little wooden table on the side where my dad would of charted the course for the plane using a ruler and compass.
It is hard to believe now, but before G.P.S., guys like my day actually used mathematical formulas and maps to figure out where they were going. Once he had charted a course, my dad would man a 50. caliber machine gun and wait for the enemy fighters to arrive. I wonder what he must of been thinking as he watched the black puffs of anti-aircraft fire exploding in the clouds around him.
It is something Bob Hill, a volunteer pilot who helped restore the Liberty Belle, has often wondered about as well. "It really had to be scary even for these young 20 or 21-year-olds who were in the airplane. It had to be absolutely terrifying he says.
I TMm sure it was terrifying for my dad, but he has never really talks about it. He did tell me that shrapnel hitting the plane sounded like hard rain hitting a tin roof. But mostly his memories, at least the ones he shares with me, are much more pleasant. How he tilted his cap just so on his uniform to look like a cocky veteran, how he looked forward to the shot of Brandy they gave them when they came back from a 14 hour mission, how the English women loved the officers especially if you were wearing aviator wings, and how when he finally did make it home from the war, he surprised Grandma and she dropped her casserole all over the kitchen floor.
It TMs not that he didn TMt see combat. He did. I TMve seen his fight logs, they saw quite a bit. It TMs just that like a lot of vets from that generation he prefers not to talk about it. Yet as I grow older, I see more clearly how my dad TMs experiences in the war shaped him for the rest of his life. I see in him and many from that generation a certain steadfastness in the face of adversity. Unlike other wars, these men had no timetable for a return home. They were in it for the long haul. There goal was to just survive the next mission.
It is a philosophy I would see countless times in my dad over the years when he faced with challenges in his own life. One more mission son, he told me years ago as he wheeled his IV along, insisting on walking a lap around the entire floor of the hospital just hours after having a surgery for prostate cancer. I remember the look of determination in his eye. I saw it again more recently when my sister was diagnosed with breast cancer.
It is a philosophy I see now as he faces the twilight years of his own life. Sometimes now when we talk, we stumble into an awkward silence. It is a silence that comes from the realization that as much as we would like, there is nothing we can do to stop the passage of time. In those moments, I find myself telling him One more mission dad, and in some strange way it comforts us both.
The Liberty Belle is getting ready to land and the flight is coming to an end. Before I leave the plexiglass turret and go back to my seat, I try one last time to picture my father. As the landing gear comes down, the plane shudders, and for a second I can see him. He has his oxygen mask strapped tight to his face, and the fur on the collar of his flight suit is frozen from the cold. He is a young man, and though his eyes are wide open, he can not see the wonder that lies ahead.