He is a member of the Greatest Generation and he apologized to me!
Once again, I was waiting for yet another order of Chicken Chop Suey and while doing so I started talking to others at the bar. There was this little old man sitting between me and the older couple I was talking to. I don’t know what made me think of it but I said to myself, “I’ll bet this guy was in World War II.” “Not only that, I’ll bet he was a pilot.”
Well, this old man was quietly sitting playing Keno and sipping his vodka cocktail when I placed my hand on his shoulder and accused him of being rude. With a smile on my face, of course. Startled, he looked at me and said, “Excuse me, rude, me? What on earth did I do?” “Why, I said, you’ve been ignoring these nice people beside you in favor of that blasted Keno game. Don’t you think that’s being a bit rude?” He looked at me for a second or two and apologized. I laughed and told him I was just joking.
Up to that point he was expressionless. Eyes locked on the Keno screen or the ticket before him. I asked him pointblank what he flew during the war and he just stared at me startled. “How did you know I was a pilot?” he asked. I told him that I knew a lot of pilots from that war or have met quite a few over the years, he just had that look about him. An educated guess.
The transformation was almost immediate. The smile on his face went from nonexistent to ear to ear in a heartbeat. He started telling me about his experiences flying one of the biggest and most powerful fighters of World War II, the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt. How he enjoyed low level flying and buzzing the trains in southern Florida the most. They were being trained for strafing runs and ground support missions because the P-51 Mustang being lighter and more nimble in the air, was taking over the aerial combat missions. But, ‘mixing it up’ with other fighters at altitude was a real kick as well. He was twenty-one then in 1944. He had just graduated from advanced flight training and was transitioning to the P-47 in the first part of 1945.
He told me all about the airplane and its flying characteristics, how the Army Air Corp held his group back in the states and trained them and trained them and trained them some more. He looked down at his drink and said, “We were the best trained fighter group never to see combat.” He looked at me sadly and said, “I really have to apologize for that.”
As I looked at him I realized he wasn’t really apologizing to me. That apology was for the other pilots who did go and fight, some of whom died. Although the decision was not his, he felt the guilt just as strongly as if he had cut the orders himself. He loved flying and had the feeling he would have acquitted himself well under fire. I’m sure that he was right about that.
He told me that after the war he went home to marry his high school sweetheart as so many of our veterans did those days. He continued on to tell how he wanted to go into commercial aviation and continue flying. His new wife put her foot down. It was too dangerous and she would hear nothing more about it. He didn’t quit flying all together though, he bought himself one of the first V-tailed Bonanzas and flew that for more than thirty-one years before selling it to some big casino owner in Las Vegas. His wife never flew with him. She was scared to death of airplanes and couldn’t understand his fascination with those contraptions anyway.
His sweetie, as he called his wife, passed away a year or so ago. He comes out every few days to play a little Keno, have a few drinks at the bar and now, hopefully, talk a little bit with other folks. When the Greatest Generation is gone it will be too late to say thanks to them for what they did for us as a people and a nation. And if we as individuals can bring, like in this gentleman’s case, a smile to a face that has done so much for us and listen to his stories,. we will all be a lot better off in the long run. They all have different stories that are important for them to tell and for us to listen to and they all tell them in their own unique way. We should listen to them while they are still here to be heard. Their voices are getting softer and fewer and all too soon will be gone forever.