Sixty Five Years Later

Utah, Omaha, Juno, Gold, and Sword.

It’s been quite a long time since I stood on the bluffs and cliffs overlooking these beaches. It was an experience that I shared with a large contingent of my extended family, including my Grandfather. Though he was not there during his service in The War, he is a battle weary veteran who understands what went in to a landing. He in fact, understands it better than most men alive. It was what he did for years and under horrifying conditions at that. As a skipper of LST’s, LCI’s and LCM’s, he became a member of an elite group of landing craft captains specializing in unusual or particularly difficult combat landings. His war, however, was in the Pacific.

As we walked around and over the battlements of a lifetime ago, he pointed out small things here and there that we might not have noticed. Things like how the tide was running and what that would do to soldiers in the water, the position of gun emplacements and how the fire would have converged out to sea and where it would be most intense. I have always been fascinated with the Second World War and having been glued to my television set when ever “Victory at Sea” was on, I was well versed in the Pacific War. Whenever I had asked him about his own stories though, I was brushed off. He had a handful of funny tales he liked to tell and retell. I can recall him recounting memories of watching B-25’s and B-26’s making bombing runs on the Owen Stanley Mountains in New Guinea. That was always a favorite for him.

“They’d come over the range high and in formation, then, one by one, dive like sparrows down the side of the mountains. We’d count them as they peeled off and thundered at tree top level with their engines wide open. Then they’d disappear over the jungle. We’d count them again as they came back into our view over the water and figure out how many we’d lost. At that speed, nobody had a chance to bail out.”

That was about as detailed as he would get. I never really heard much about the landings he made at all.

Even though I knew the stories by heart, I would still sit and listen, eager to hear what ever he’d give me. France however, was different for him. He hadn’t been here during the fighting and so, he was in a reflective mood and willing to share his views on how he saw this field of battle. It was a fascinating trip.

As I stood on a German pillbox, its sides crushed under the weight of Allied shelling and bombing, I remember wondering if it was a tomb for the soldiers who would have been manning on that day long ago. There are missing men in every battle, but the thought that under my feet and few feet of concrete and steel, may hold the unremovable, mortal remains of the German war machine, was a sobering one. They would have been young boys. They never grew old, but died as teenagers for the dreams of a madman. The loss from every stone, dune and bunker was palpable.

As we visited the American Military Cemetery at Omaha Beach, we split up as we walked with a sort of hushed reverence. These were the heroes who had given their own “last full measure of their devotion” and the emotion for me was overwhelming. As I humbly walked among the graves, I couldn’t miss hearing the voice from a young British girl as she pointed me out to her parents.

“Look mum! That man is out walking on the grass! It says right here not to do that!”

She was right, naturally. I had walked deftly past the neat little sign admonishing this very thing. We were to “stay on the paths, please.” I smirked… and kept reading and saying the names to my self in a soft whisper. These were my countrymen. They were from my home and I did not think for a moment that I didn’t have the right to be there. In the cemeteries of the other nations involved, I would stick to the paths, but not here. This was U.S. soil and I was here to pay respects. I was twenty-one years old then, and older than most of the soldiers who surrounded me as they lay in peace.

Besides, Americans have never been great at following rules. It’s actually how we started out with our own country.

On this sixty-fifth anniversary of the invasion, I think back to my time walking the peaceful and quiet beaches of Normandy. I thank the French whom we met there and the kindnesses they gave us during our stay. I think of my Grandfather as he stood on the cliffs with the knowledgeable eye of a veteran landing craft captain as he wondered aloud how they got anyone past the sandbars and onto the beaches or over the cliffs.

We remember this day for the great sacrifice of youth that took place and because it marked the turning of the tide in, what had looked all too often, like an unwinnable war against a juggernaut that knew no defeat.

The beaches are beautiful now but still carry deep scars, much like the individuals who were there on the day of invasion. Their scars will be gone soon. They are leaving us by the hundreds every day. The scars on the land will outlive them all.

If you have not seen them, I suggest you should.

If you know someone who saw it for themselves sixty-five years ago, ask them about it now, for they will likely be gone tomorrow.

d-day letter

Thank You.

Arlington

Range Day

“You should go to the range this week.”

These are words that will always get my attention. When they come from Action Girl, they can almost bring tears to my eyes. This is how I know she loves me.

Things are finally getting warmer here in Maine and the snow banks are slowly creeping back into the woods. All this makes me itch to get my rifles back out after a long winter’s hibernation and spend some quality time making loud noises and punching holes in pieces of paper. Hey… the paper had it coming.

The problem that I’ve encountered lately is defining the time that I should get to go and play. Since I’ve left the Monday through Friday, nine to five world and put most of my energy into caring for the kids and working on the house, it’s been really hard to set aside time to go and do the things that I love. Don’t get me wrong. I love being with my three year old and one year old every day. It’s something that is invaluable and immeasurable and I am unbelievably lucky to have the opportunity. It’s just… sometimes Dad needs some downtime… or rather, Dadtime.

Going off to play does make me feel a little guilty on some level though.

It makes me think of a public service announcement that ran on TV when I was a kid. The ad showed a father going away on yet another golf trip as he left his wife and kids alone and sad looking in the dooryard, one child asking him why he wouldn’t stay. The message was something like, “Did you ever think of having fun with your family instead of being selfish? Dick!” (I’m assuming here that his name was Richard)

I know that I’m hardly in the “absentee dad” category and that I do indeed, get to go have some fun sometimes but it does run through my mind when I’m going off to enjoy myself by myself. Just a few more years of this and maybe I’ll have a little companion who will want to come with me.

Target shooting, one of my very, VERY favorite things to do, has become exceedingly difficult to get around to for several reasons. The first thing that makes it tricky is the fact that I live on an island, and though blasting away with .22’s at the dump might have been perfectly fine a generation ago, those days are most defiantly gone for good. I need to get to the mainland if I’m going to justify owning firearms, and that takes time.

There is no such thing as a “quick trip” to town.

luggage

Pack up your bag, walk to the dock, get on board, find a seat and wait. Dock, disembark, walk to the parking garage, find the car, toss everything in and NOW… you’re ready to start. It takes a long time just to get rolling and if you forgot something back home, say… your car keys, you get to use some very colorful language and toss all your plans out the metaphorical window.

When I worked on the mainland every day, I could decide to go shooting during lunch and simply bring a rifle along with me in the morning. Now if I want to go, it’s a special trip and I have to set aside a big block of time and these days, those are few and far between.

So, with taking care of the kids and desperately trying to get a few things done on the house, I just don’t get to go shooting much. That, and the small fact that winter in Maine will make just about anybody think twice about sitting at an out door bench for an hour while you try to feed frozen ammunition into your frozen rifle with your frozen fingers. Some how, frostbite always seems to suck the fun out of any occasion.

This morning, with the help of Action Girl handling the kid wrangling and the lovely spring weather if not full of the scent of tulips and daffodils, at least holding off the rain, I headed out with a bounce in my step. I’d done the right thing and called several friends to see if they wanted to come along, but being the middle of the week, all replied that they just couldn’t make it. I enjoy taking others out to shoot but this was just fine. Time alone at the shooting bench is a wonderful thing.

As I steamed into town working on the first of my two coffee thermoses, I chatted with a few friends and enjoyed the notion that I would have the whole morning off. A rare and blessed thing. The obligatory stop at the local doughnut shop to pick up provisions and I was ready to start the morning right.

The drive there is an easy one and if not exactly beautiful and pastoral, it is at least quick. By the time the first chocolate glazed was reduced to crumbs on my shirt and lap, I was pulling in and switching off the car. It was still early and all the ranges were silent, but not for long if I had anything to say about it.

I’ve been here many times before, alone and with friends, but it’s always more relaxed when I’m there on my own. No one to wait for when setting up targets. No botching a shot because you flinched when the person on the next bench fired just a half second before you. No worrying if you’re going to bean the guy to your right with a hot and freshly emptied shell casing when you pop the breach open with the enthusiasm that comes over you after a perfect shot. None of that for me today!

The last and best thing about shooting alone is music. I don’t know who invented the “ear bud,” but to them, I shall always be thankful. In addition to looking slick, cool and coiling up in your pocket, the little buggers also nestle beautifully under a set of ear protection, thus saving your hearing from the sudden concussion of rifle fire so you can crush it under the din of your favorite music.

music-protection

It was a Motown morning for me as Dianna Ross and Supremes joined me for a while during target practice.

After an hour and a half, I stood seventy-five yards away from a well holed paper target and just to the left of a sizable pile of empty brass. It was a great morning. Just as I was picking up, our range safety officer happened by to check on things. He’s a nice old gentleman and I’ve been privileged to chat with him on a few occasions. After our initial greeting his eye fell to the bench as his eyebrows arched. “So, what do we have here this morning?” I pulled the bolt open and handing it to him.

“It’s my Grandfather’s Mauser K98k. His brother brought it back from Europe for him and he had it sported into a deer rifle. I don’t usually care for sported combat rifles but this is a top notch job and obviously, it’s got the family history going for it. It’s actually my favorite rifle to shoot. I can’t wait until my kids can come with me to do this.”

He looked on approvingly as I cleaned it in preparation for its ride back home and we talked about shooting. He told me about how he used to go with his son when he was younger and how much fun it was. “He doesn’t like shooting any more though. It’s too bad. I have quite a collection to pass on but no one to pass it on to.”

“Oh…” I groped for a way to ask without being prying. What would cause that? He solved the problem for me and volunteered the answer.

“He joined the Navy and that was fine. He still liked to shoot and we had a lot of fun when he was home, but then he joined the Navy Seals and well… lost his taste for shooting after that.”

I can only imagine what might have happened to cause that change and to be honest, I’d rather not imagine too hard. I’ve never been in the situation where I had to shoot at another human being and I hope to God, I never will. I have the same hope and prayer for my children. I looked down at my rifle and thought about the young German soldier to whom it must have been issued. I wonder what happened to him? I wonder whom he shot at or if he ever even had the chance. Whatever his story, it was lost to time. The rifle was mine now and I was in charge of its use.

As I drove back to my island home and awaiting family, I thought about how enjoyable it was to have some time to practice a hobby that I enjoyed so much and then about my range-friend with his futureless collection. I truly do enjoy the sport but what he told me was sobering.

One of my Grandfathers taught me how to shoot and the other has supplied me with my two favorite guns to take out. I hope that someday I’ll get to take both my children out to enjoy days like this with me but if they don’t, I’ll hang on to my collection for as long as I can. Who knows? Maybe I’ll get the chance, years from now to sit down with a cup of coffee, my Grandfather’s .22 and my own grandchildren. I’ll explain how their Great-Great Grandfather got it for Christmas when he was just eight, and then I’ll show them how to use it. When they’re strong enough, I’ll get out the Mauser too.

Firearms are nothing to be taken lightly and I treat them with the respect they deserve, just like I was taught to. I feel that it’s an important lesson to pass along. Short Stack and Lulu Belle may not want to have anything to do with them, I know, but they will understand how to handle them. I hope they will at least humor their Dad at times and go with him to the range for a sunny morning of shooting.

It’s warm and bright this morning. The wind is barely perceptible and I still haven’t had breakfast. It’s just right for heading back to shoot some more. Not today though. It’s time to work; shooting can come later. Anyway, waiting for it makes it all the more special when I do go.

Maybe next week…

Movie Night

So, the kids are in bed and Action Girl won’t be coming home tonight due to a late night at work and an early morning shift that precludes getting back to our island home. Lulu Belle’s put me through the ringer this evening and Short Stack is freshly tucked in bed and hopefully drifting off. I’m pooped. It’s been a heck of a day. I should probably go to bed too, but I just can’t. I’ve always been a night owl and need a good distraction before I’m ready to turn in.

Normally, I’d be in the kitchen cleaning up the wreckage that two little kids and a their dad make around the dinner hour and possibly making something chocolaty and gooey for tomorrow, but Lulu’s got me spooked. Her room is right off the kitchen and after the hour and a half of screaming that she put in after I put her down for bed… for the third time… there is NO WAY I’m willing to risk dropping a pot or clanking a plate and reawaken the tiny, pink beastie. No way.

Plan “B” for nocturnal distraction is to head to my basement lair to make ammo for the ridiculously odd and ancient firearms I collect. Many of them require ammunition no longer readily available in commercial hunting supply stores, so I make it my self. It may sound like a lot of tedious work, but just like any other solitary and repetitive task such as knitting, whittling, or fishing, it can be very rewarding and calming. Two problems present them selves tonight. Firstly, I’m out of bullets. I have shells, primers and powder, but without the actual projectile, there’s not a lot of point in starting a new batch this evening. The other issue is that I’ve locked the cat down there after his incessant meowing threatened to wake up the kids. The same kids I just spent the last hour and a half getting to finally drift off to Dream Land. The cat isn’t allowed out side, so to the basement he goes. The second I open the door, he’d blast by me like he was fired from a cannon.

cat-cannon

What to do? I can’t make noise in any way and since we own no TV, I don’t have the option of turning my brain to mush the tried and true American way. I’m feeling lazy. I want to be entertained.

I need a movie.

I truly miss having Action Girl home in the evenings, but her current schedule has her gone about half the week. The one bright spot in being solo for the night is that the viewing choice is mine. ALL MINE! When movies are concerned, my wife and I have limited crossover interests. True, she does have a thing for Chow Yun Fat and that means a lot of good shoot ’em up movies. She’s also is willing to see most of the comic book inspired films that seem to be coming out of Hollywood faster than the actual comics are being drawn. The line is drawn very definitely however, at war movies.

I’m not sure why watching gunplay and explosions interests her so long as uniforms aren’t involved, but there you are. This means that on nights like this, I reach for some old standbys as I warm the couch on my own. Casting around in our disheveled video collection, I paw past the ancient VCR tapes and look longingly at my double tape, directors cut of “Patton.” My VCR has long since died and gone to a better, landfill-ier place and as I said, I have nothing to hook one up to anyway. I wonder sadly if I’ll ever get to watch it again. Then my eyes fall on a DVD, still in it’s cellophane.

“Midway”

midway

Now THAT’S a classic! This was a gift from one guy to another and I, for one, am thrilled to have it. “Midway” was one of those movies that I first saw years and years ago on television. Probably, it was some lazy Sunday afternoon when I should have been out playing in the sun but instead, managed to get some time clicking the dial around and around until I spotted dive bombers making their runs on the Japanese carrier fleet. Being the airplane junkie that I am, I stopped to watch.

Since that day, I’ve caught the movie being rebroadcast at least a half a dozen times. I remember parts of it in perfect detail and love stumbling upon it and I’m always blown away at the cast: Charlton Heston, Henry Fonda, Hal Holbrook, Toshiro Minfune, Glenn Ford, Robert Mitchum, James Coburn, Erik Estrada, Tom Selleck, and Pat Morita, just to name a few. It was a bizarre fusing of the old Hollywood and the new and they threw in just about everyone they could get their hands on. The score was by a new and untried composer named John Williams. Perhaps you’ve heard of him?

One night, just before Christmas, we were over visiting my folks for dinner. As I walked through the living room and glanced at the TV, a familiar movie caught my eye. “Midway” was just starting. Frozen in my tracks with a goofy smile on my face, I paused to catch a few minutes of history, Hollywood style. As my Father came over to deliver my drink I commented on how, though I’ve seen this movie so many times before, I seriously doubt that I’ve ever watched it from beginning to end. Whenever it seems to be on, I either come in half way through or get to start it and am then called away. That night was no exception. Dinner was already laid out on the table and the kids needed to go right home afterwards and get tucked into bed. Oh well.

A month or so later on Christmas day, I unwrapped a small rectangular present from Dad and happily thanked him. My copy of the movie has been sitting since then, waiting for the right moment. The house is quiet and mercifully, Lulu Belle has tossed in the towel and seems to be sleeping happily. Short Stack must be snoozing now too. As quietly as I can, I peel off the wrapper and pop the DVD into the laptop and pop in the headphones. The acting is stiff by today’s standards and let us not even talk about the “special effects.” Parts of the film look almost amateurish in their lack of glitz and method acting, but I love it nonetheless. In some ways, it’s almost like watching a play. It isn’t about making the pilots look like they are actually flying a plane or seamlessly cutting in real gun camera footage. It’s about the story, and I find that pretty refreshing.

I like old movies, and old war movies are even better, in my opinion. They may not be Action Girl’s cup of tea, but that’s fine. There are lots of movies that she likes that I wouldn’t go near with a ten foot pole.

I’m looking at you, Romantic Comedy.

I’m looking at the clock now and just realized that there is no way I’ll be able to finish “Midway” before I need to get to bed tonight. At least I can stop it and pick it back up when I want. Action Girl will be home tomorrow night, so it will have to wait a while. If I start watching now, I think I can just make it to the part where the American’s break the Japanese code.

Once again, I’m thwarted at seeing it all the way through in a single sitting.

I’m okay with that, though. Why mess with tradition?

Flight of a Lifetime, Part II

When the time got close, we needed to help get the plane ready for take off. Both aircraft have four massive radial engines. The radial is a fantastic design. Tough, easy to work on, very powerful and air-cooled. The only problem with them is that if you shut them down and let them sit, all the oil collects in the lower cylinders. To fix this, you have to “turn them through”. That means is that you rotate the propeller by hand to get the oil up into the top cylinders. It took a group of about ten of us ten minutes on each engine. By the time we had finished, all of us were sweaty and my hands hurt. For the record, those blades might be massive but, boy, are they ever sharp and they only spin with a good deal of effort. It was like pushing a piece of sheet metal, edge on, through mud.

When it was done, it we headed for the door. Doors, actually. There are two access hatches on a B-17. One is the smallish door on the right hand side, aft of the wing. That’s where everyone was heading except me. There is another, far smaller hatch, three quarters of the way under the nose on the left side. When the door opens, you are at eye level, looking directly into the navigator’s station. The opening is only about twenty inches square and there is no ladder. To get in you have two options. First is to reach through, and pull your self through as your legs bicycle foolishly in the air. The other option is the cool one. It’s what the boys who flew this plane over seventy years ago did. You reach up, palms toward you, and grab the top lip. Then, like an overenthusiastic chin up, legs are pulled up, shot through the hole and you push off with everything you’ve got, hopefully, flinging all parts of your body after them. There was no one at the hatch and I was sure that if I asked, the answer would not be the one I wanted. A quick glance around, a grab and… Heave! In I went, just like on the newsreels and, off came my hat. I looked through the hatch from inside the bomber at my hat as it lay on the tarmac. To go back out and get it would both kill the “I’m so cool!” sensation that was coursing through my veins and open me up to being in trouble with the ground crew. Crap. Just then, a face appeared through the hole covered with a big toothy smile. It was one of the ground crew. I smiled back sheepishly. With one hand, he scooped up my hat and handed it to me through the small opening.

“Ever see ‘Twelve O’clock High”? He asked, still grinning.
“Um.. Thanks. Yah, a few times. I own a copy, actually.” I replied as I retrieved the hat.
“Heh, me too. Have a great flight!” And with that, he reached in, grabbed the hatch and swung it closed. I scrambled back to the radio room for takeoff, happier than ever.

FAA regulations dictate that all passengers must be belted in for take off and landing. The B-17 was not built for regulations like that and accommodations had to be made to fit the times. The floor of the radio room is wooden and along the sides, against the fuselage, they had bolted seatbelts right to the floor. You simply sit down with your legs out straight and buckled in. The sitting portion of the flight would be short anyway.

As I sat down on my bit of plywood, I looked around at the others who had paid for this privilege. I knew that it would be a few minutes before takeoff and I was curious what drove the other guys here to plunk down enough cash for a flight to Europe, just for an opportunity to fly in a plane that used to drop bombs on the same. To my left sat an older man. He looked like he was in his seventies and unlike the rest of us who were casting our gazes around the interior of the plane; he looked more like he was meditating. I decided to ask.

“I used to fly in these during the war. I was a waist gunner.”

This is always a trick moment for me. I desperately want to know all the details but at the same time, don’t want to be intrusive. I don’t remember asking him any more questions, but I probably did ask a few. He was defiantly there for a personal experience and I quickly left him alone with his ghosts. It seemed like what he wanted, I recall.

Across from me, lashed to the floor sat another man. He looked like he might be in his late fifties or early sixties and was well dressed. He looked like someone who didn’t spend much time sitting in anything other than an executive, leather office chair. I decided to chat with him a bit and found him to be quite affable. I also detected a hint of an accent. After a few minutes, I asked him why he wanted a ride. With out skipping a beat, he told me.

“ I grew up in Germany during the war. I remember as a little boy, running for the air raid shelter with my mother as the planes came over from England. Even then, I thought that these planes looked so beautiful and I always wanted a ride in one. Now, I finally will get my wish.”

Two men who were on opposite ends of the bombing of Europe, together in one of the planes that was used. Amazing.

Before I could pester anyone else, engine one barked and puffed to life. The B-17 was built for fighting, not for comfort and when the engines are running, you can forget about holding a conversation. Little could be seen from our seats as we took off, but once in the air, we could roam all over. I felt like I was living a dream. I poked my head through the open radio room top window and the slipstream hit me like a tidal wave. The force was amazing and I let out a long, “WOOOOOOOOHOOOOOO!” into the prop wash

Eventually, I found my way to the nose and sat in the bombardier’s seat. A huge, bowed window of Plexiglas sat in front of me and as I pressed my forehead against its center, the rest of the aircraft disappeared from my view. All I could see was the rolling hills and open air in front of me. It was an amazing view and it made you feel as though you were alone in the sky.

I crawled back through the plane and visited each station. I stopped and watched the pilot and copilot for a while and stood in the top turret and looked around. With no German fighters present, I decided was safe to keep moving. The radio room was empty for the most part as I passed through on my way to the tail. The openings for the waist guns yawned open on either side of the plane and the wind and sound of the engines made an amazing noise. You had to shout to be heard. In the port waist window, the old gunner stood at his post, just looking out at the rolling countryside. Like the others here, I gave him his space. It was obvious that he had wanted the ride for very different reasons than we did.

The only restricted areas were the tail gun position and the belly turret. The turret on the bottom of the plane is very difficult to get in and out of and you need the help of someone in the aircraft. It’s also very cramped and during wartime was reserved for the smaller crewmembers.

The tail too was roped off. This was due to the fact that you have to step over the yawning opening that the tail wheel mostly fills. Essentially, it’s a hole in the floor that is big enough to fall out of if you aren’t careful. OSHA would have a field day with one of these things.

The ride was just as fantastic as I’d dreamed. As luck would have it, because it was the last ride of the day and the last day of the visit to my area, the half hour flight went on for well over an hour. By the time we landed, they had the strobes and landing lights on.

It took about an hour after we landed and shut her down for my hearing to work correctly again, but I didn’t mind in the least. It was grueling and deadly work to ride those planes into war and I feel like I can imagine what it was like a little better now. We didn’t need oxygen or flack suits. No one was shooting at us and no live bombs were on board, but the mixture of excitement and fear must have made a toxic cocktail for those young men who did it every day. I’m feel honored that I had the chance to do what I did and marvel at what others went through in the name of duty.

Epilogue:

The Nine-O-Nine is still flying today, as is the B-24 that I opted not to fly on. They belong to a group called the Collings Foundation and if they come to your area, they are worth the visit. I don’t know if they still offer rides, lawsuits what they are these days, but I’d ask if you care to. It’s a almost vanished part of our world and some day soon, they will no doubt be put on permanent display in some worthy museum, but never fly again. Grab the chance while you can.

Flight of a Lifetime, Part I

I knew that they were going to be coming to town and I had made darn sure that my schedule was open. There was no way that I was going to miss this.

I have always found history in general to be fascinating and Second World War history, in particular. Perhaps it was because of all the ‘Victory At Sea’ episodes that I soaked up or maybe the fact that there were still so many veterans of that war still around. What ever the reason was, it captured my imagination completely and I spent a lot of time researching the various bits of equipment used, the vehicles that carried men into battle and where and when those battles took place. Having been born an aviation junkie, I naturally put a lot of effort into learning as much as humanly possible about as many of the war’s aircraft as I could find. Knowledge, like anything else, fades away with disuse and I doubt that I could talk in anything close to the complexity now, that I could back when I was young. At my height of research, I could have easily been employed at the Air and Space museum, if they let sixteen year olds lead tours.

A job at an air museum would have been welcomed with open arms by me but alas, there were none anywhere near my home town. I spent my time scrounging up bits of WWII history to fill my own personal museum in my room. So, with no job to discuss the intricacies of how a Bendix ball turret works or what the overhaul time was on a Merlin Kestrel engine, I was reduced to a more perfunctory job of working behind a counter at a retail shop. Even then, I managed to work Second World War aircraft into the odd conversation.

One day as I ground down the hours until I could close up the store, an elderly man came up to the register, took a look at my t-shirt and remarked with a smirk, “Mine was faster.”

I glanced down. Emblazoned on my chest was the GeeBee R-1 racer.

James Dolittle had raced it in 1932 and in it had set the land plane world speed record at 296 miles per hour. It’s top speed was printed directly under the image of the aircraft.

“So… What did you fly then?” I enquired.
“Oh, mostly P-47’s. I was based in England”

Well, that kicked off a lively chat. The two of us had a ball, I was amazed just to find someone willing to share some stories and I think he was surprised to find a kid who knew what the stories were about. We talked about fighters and bombers long past and about the visitors that were expected at the local airport some time soon. We would both be there.

The visitors were two old bombers that flew together all over the U.S. One is the “All American”, the last flying B-24 in the world. The second is the “Nine O’ Nine”, one of about ten flying B-17’s left in the world. I love these aircraft with a passion and there was no way that I wouldn’t be there to see them. Then the revelation came that, for a fee, a ride could be had if there was room and if the weather permitted.

The day that the two bombers came to town, I was informed by my boss that I had to work late. I figured that there would still be time and anxiously awaited the time when I could leave. I’m willing to bet that I had a fair shot at breaking Jimmy Dolittle’s record as I sped to the airport. I bought my admission ticket, walked up to the little table that the crew had set up, slapped down my checkbook and asked the price of a ride.

“$300 will get you in the air. The flight will last about a half hour.”

I don’t spend that kind of money lightly and back then, not only was $300 a lot more than it is now, but with my counter clerk job, I wasn’t exactly raking in the cash. I immediately opened the flap, filled out the check and handed it over. I knew that this wasn’t likely to happen again. Then a tough question was posed to me.

“So, which plane do you want to ride in?”

This was hard. The B-24 was the last of its type still in the air, but the B-17… That plane is the symbol of America’s involvement in the war. That, and it is one beautiful bird. Just sitting there with its engines silent, and its nose pointed skyward, it looked like it wanted to take to the air. I chose the Nine o’ Nine, the B-17.

Part two next…

A Hierarchy Of Worth

I spent a large chunk of my youthful summers by the sea shore. There’s a little community on the Maine coast where, back in the fifties, my Grandfather built a vacation house to take his sizable family on weekends. How a man from the hills of New Hampshire came to find this place is another interesting little bit of history. As a very young man thrown into the armpit of a hellish war, he made a friend. Both of these young men had become captains of large, specialized landing craft in MacArthur’s island hopping campaign. The branch they belonged to was the Army’s Combat Engineers and the fact that they both survived to the end is a minor miracle in its self.

His good friend was named George, though most everyone, with the exception of myself, called him Skip. I was a little kid and in those days, a child did not refer to an adult by nickname. George had grown up not merely on the coast, but on the water. He was a lobsterman by trade. One of a rugged bunch of men who made their living harvesting bugs from the ocean floor. George was gruff, big and instantly likable. At some point during the war, he told my Grandfather that if they ever got out alive, he should come see where he lives. George thought he might like it. He was right.

After they all came home, my Grandfather bought a piece of property from his friend’s mother-in-law, just across the street from George’s own house, in fact. The two friends set to building what would become our family’s cottage. Fast forward about twenty years and now there was a little boy, tottering around in the grassy lawn looking for toads and bugs. That, was me.

That place was magical to go to. By the time I was old enough to walk down to the little market in the village on my own, or ride my bike to the sea wall down front, I knew exactly where to go to find the most sought after kid-treasure of the ocean. I knew where the sea glass was.

I always remembered being amazed that it was there just for the picking. It was like finding jewels on the beach left behind by a careless lady, just waiting to be scooped up and dragged away by the incoming tide. The part that I liked the most was that just finding it wasn’t enough. For it to be any good, it had to be “done”. No sharp edges, no clear, unscuffed bits and yet, not over cooked either. The pieces had to be big enough not to slip through the hole in the corner of your pockets. It was like sifting for diamonds.

We had a particular place that we liked to go to and the few of us who knew about it, guarded its location carefully. It was set up as the perfect mechanism for grinding glass into jewels. A natural outcropping of rock funneled the sea through a small gap where the stone was warn smooth by a billion waves. As the sea surged in, it ground what ever it pulled along over a blanket of fine sand and pea sized rocks. We called it “The Gates” and it was natures polishing wheel on the Southern Maine coast. The gates look directly out to sea, but for some reason, an amazing quantity of glass was refined and deposited there and for those of us who knew the secret, we were its stewards. All this would have been a boon for any treasure seeker but there was another surprise. This place was rich in one of the rarest of commodities: blue sea glass.

There was a hierarchy of sea glass that was pretty universal. Kids could understand it and take to it quickly and no one who I ever heard of, disputed where the various colors were on the list. From the least to most sought, they run like this…

Brown,
Green,
White,
Light Blue,
Blue,
Oddities.

Oddities were bits of pottery with intricate designs or glass colors that were just so rare that they belonged on a list of their own. The oddity that was claimed the most was red glass, but calling it common is not right. It was simply the most common of the rare. I can say that I’ve probably only come across a dozen or so pieces of it in my life. You never expected to find them but when you did, it was big news.

No, blue was the color to look for. The pieces were usually small. Smaller than any of the browns, greens or whites. Nothing back then was still being sold in blue glass jars and so what we were finding were the remains of inkwells, old medicine bottles or bits of depression glass. They had been rolling around with the sea for a long, long time and had been reduced to tiny fragments that were easily missed. A honed eye could find them, though. So, like a bunch of wet footed truffle hunters, we scoured the sands at The Gates, sun burning the backs of our ears and chins welded to our chests. When the incoming waves finally chased us off our patch and the last glance down was torn away, our eyes focused upwards and we would go home to count our bounty.

First came the sorting. Color piles were made and sandwiches were provided by smiling mothers. The potato chips and pretzels were always a little soggy from the humidity but it was never minded by the happy hunters. After that, the vetting process began. Pieces that had been picked up in haste were scrutinized by the group and if they did not pass muster, then they were voted down. They were not done yet and need to be returned to the ocean. The piles must all be of high quality. Then, the trading began.

“How many light light blues for that good blue piece?”
“I have a white that looks like a horse’s head. I’ll trade you for five big browns.”
“This once still has some pattern to it. Any one want to trade? What do you have?”

It was a great way to spend a summer day.

Now when I walk the beach, I can’t help but look down. In various boxes, forgotten to the basement or shed, sit bags and bags of old, hard won treasures, far too special to dump. I don’t need any more sea glass but I still can’t seem to keep my gaze away from my feet for long. I’m more particular about the pieces that go into my pockets now and try like hell to leave most of it where I find it, but old habits die hard. Blue is not as rare as it once was, now that it’s back in bottling use. I tend to walk past it now. An old bottle rim will stop me though, as will a piece with some printing on it. Though I don’t get down to the family cottage much anymore, I have found little places here and there near my new home. The pickings aren’t as good, but then again, no place ever could be. Some day soon I’ll have to make a pilgrimage back and be sure to bring my treasure hunters in training. Once they get a little older, I think they’ll be good at it. After all, they’re closer to the ground and have better eyes than the veteran, showing them the ropes.

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