Yesterday a B-17 flew over my head twice, probably this very G-model, in 8th Air Force livery, as I walked by the sea. The B-17 is a talisman in my life - what my father worked to protect from sudden storms that killed the young pilots still in Texas, what my uncle nearly died in as a navigator over Germany, the nexus of my family's experience of WWII. It still permeates Seattle, the strangely appealing and ominous bomber, the machine that made this town a city, an aircraft whose purpose was to place large amounts of high explosive on buildings and people, assembled by women, all to the great glory of life and democracy, I need to believe, and to darker purposes of power and property, I often fear.
It is a symbol of my own safety, family history, beliefs and prosperity, and my own distant, romantic delusions about the nature of war.
But it's a good day to remember several stories: my father catching a ride to Chicago -in all likelyhood to catch a Fats Waller show - in the nose of a B-17, watching the world pass in the best view in the world, falling asleep and waking hours later in a deep fog, with the smokestacks of the city passing high - whoops - above his head.
The image of the B-17s and P-51s parked in rows by the Frankfurt aiport in 1946, all for sale somehow, $100 each or perhaps good cigarettes, men buying them just for the fuel still in the wing tanks. He told me once that he knew a pilot who would pay $100k for any B-17 he could find in 1970, because it was the best platform for aerial photography.
His field in Dalhart, Texas primarily trained B-17 bomber crews. My father had a life-long affection for that plane, and wondered if he could fly one in an emergency. The crews called them ships. They broke, or allowed to be broken, the Nazi war machine. And they burned and destroyed a half million? people. I believe now Curtis LeMay had become sociopathic in his strategic bombing campaign. Yet I am pleased there are still twelve B-17s flying.
A photo shows my father's arm holding the skull of a Japanese soldier burned out of a cave on Saipan a few months earlier. His friends are smiling - it is a post-war moment, so it is a cheerful, almost delirious moment. He was passing through the Pacific island, on a kind of flying hop around tour, an Army Air Force captain, a meterologist working his way by air to the literally smoldering remains of Frankfurt Airport in early 1946. There is nothing but the joy at the death of an enemy, the death that meant peace.
He served most of WWII in the U.S, except a stint around D-Day in England I know almost nothing about, working in some capacity with the forecasters for the invasion. It's not in the documentation I have, but he pointed out that he missed that day when the decision to go or not was made. No point making that part up. Like many men who didn't serve in combat, I think he felt keenly his exclusion from the shared physical risk.
Yet he knew many men who had been so competent, confident and capable in the war who simply wasted away in peace, or that particular peace we built. The consumer peace.
But he sacrificed still, like all families, like families of soldiers and dead civilians victims of war now. His brother, my uncle Duane, was wounded horribly in air combat over Germany with 20mm cannon fire from a Nazi fighter striking his head. The energy of the bullet must have been spent, somehow. It was an archtypical B-17 moment, war in the air, the ship struggling on three and then two engines, metal rattling and brittle cold air pouring through holes shredded in the fuselage, bodies bleeding less in the cold, and yet it landed back in England. The ambulance they called a meat wagon came as Duane was taken out of the plane, and the medics weren't going to take him until the pilot pulled a gun on them, telling them to take him in or he'd blow their heads off. He outlived my father, but paralyzed on one side.
But the sacrifice was in how Duane's spirit was destroyed, how he might have walked again but didn't, how in a falling out over this they spoke only every few years until their deaths in the 1980s. He didn't come to my father's funeral. I didn't go to Duane's. Duane I only met twice as an adult. This story is almost all I know about him, that and when they were kids in Nebraska he had an unfortunate love of onion sandwiches.
I think something about that incident and certainly the military experience drove my father to Alaska, and in a way drove his first son, disconnected from a fairly large family, into the Green Berets in Vietnam. And Grant I do not really know now either. I do know that WWII nearly cured my father of respect for authority and/or wearing hats.
I know more, much more, about the B-17 than these other men in my own family, which the war both ennobled and broke apart through the instrument of the B-17, that beautiful bomber whose elegant, oddly humanistic design seems to have been the final echo of humanity in the military industrial complex that grew to maturity in that war.
But I hadn't thought until yesterday about the man in the German fighter who fired that 20mm cannon round which changed my family in these ways, how, in real war, all battle is equivalent, metal piercing flesh at high velocity, metal emitted from an insane magic bag of ideologies, ever ripping apart human beings. He fired on a man named Bollenbach, which is also a small village in Pflaz-Rheinland. That pilot probably died that day. And the B-17 carried my uncle back to American life, and men waited for its throaty roar, for their friends.
Now at this great remove from that injury, and the ones my uncle and my father inflicted on our nation's enemies - before and since friends-, I am safe and grateful and indulgent in my whims of work and play. But a tiny dark hook of that war that still touches me: what was my father's family? I might have found out, but time had passed, and I did not.
Agnostic as the day is long, I have an answer for the Pope's question at Auschwitz on Thursday: where was God? He was unknowing, stumbling, half-blind and blundering, like he always is, and seeking mostly to stay alive and keep his friends alive; that collected human consciousness we dully call God lived and worked in the Allied soldiers, the undergrounds, the millions paralyzed in fear, the victims of both the Nazis and the God's vengence we visited upon them, in dischordant momentary compassions among the Germans themselves, but most in the sum of all that resisted in every way industrial murder for madness and property.
And this vengence flew too on terrible, beautiful wings.