Thursday, May 20, 2010

A Birthday Coincidence

The holocaust angle? Just one more personal 'coincidence.'

SERENDICITY. Yesterday was my dad's birthday. He'd be 88 if he hadn't died more than ten years ago. It was also a day when Mrs. IP had jury duty and was staying home till court convened, so I dallied longer in the morning before getting to work. Over one cup of coffee too many, I stumbled on a NatGeo documentary about a P-47 that went down in an Austrian lake on the last day of the war in Europe. The P-47 was my dad's plane, 88 missions worth. An international team was determined to raise it from the lake bottom and restore it. I was hooked. The lake waters were ice cold and short on oxygen, which meant that the wreck was probably well preserved. As proved to be the case. The plexiglass cowling was intact, the cockpit dials were remarkably legible, and even the lacquered aluminum skin of the fuselage retained all its old stencilled numbers, lettering, and American star insignia. It came up upside down but in far better condition that it looks to the naked eye

The ailerons still worked freely.

Closeups showed the instruments muddy but with unbroken lenses.

The .50 caliber machine guns were loaded;
the shells gleamed again after a light hosing.

The experts proclaimed that this plane will fly again.

I was struck by the fact that this is not my first P-47 coincidence. I just happened to be living in Dayton, Ohio, when Wright-Patterson Air Force Base (in Dayton) dedicated a memorial to the Twelfth Air Force my dad served in. He flew out (commercial) for the ceremony and that day I had my first look at a P-47 in the Wright-Patt museum, with him there. He hadn't laid eyes on one since 1946 or thereabouts. I also got to shake hands with a few of his surviving fellow pilots. Seeing the old men and the plane on which their lives depended was a strange experience. It's at such a long remove from actual events, so evidently mothballed and still, that it seems simultaneously unreal and hyper-real, as if the vivid past really can bump the prosaic present into a roaring, screaming, rat-a-tat hell if you close your eyes for just a moment. It's awkward to shake their hands. There's nothing you can say. They know something you'll never know and even trying to put that into words would be sacrilege. You wind up wishing you weren't young and your clothes didn't fit.

More coincidence. A few years later I was serving as a consultant to Whirlpool Corporation, which had an air-conditioner manufacturing plant in Evansville, Indiana. I went there to conduct training and help coordinate labor management communications. That's when I learned that the huge brick facility with its serpentine connecting bays had been built in the first place to assemble P-47 fighter planes. The plant was dark and logistically difficult in terms of modern manufacturing requirements, filled with U-turns and cul de sacs that only made sense when you imagined their original purpose. How odd that this Jersey motorhead would somehow get to see the plant (and descendants of the people) that built the plane that kept his father alive so that I could be sired after the war. No, it's not all about me. It's about the chain of events, including U-turns and cul de sacs, that occur by apparent happenstance to give you a fuller picture of the continuum of which you are only the wagging tail. I was supposed to be seeing Just-in-Time appliance manufacturing. Mostly, all I could see was P-47s creeping though darkness to the skies of Europe.

And then one more. My dad was from southern New Jersey and he took his flight training at Thunderbird in Arizona, but it's also perversely the case that one of the premier P-47 training bases during WWII was in Millville, NJ, less than 20 miles from where he, and I, were born and grew up. Millville has never forgotten this important moment of its history, which is why the annual Millville Air Show is one of the biggest and best attended in the nation. Which I'd never attended until my Navy-loving wife (I could tell you why but then I'd have to kill you) made us go see it back in 2007. Where I saw my first P-47 outside of a museum, prepped and ready to go on the flightline

And then, by God, flying.

My dad was dead by then. but not that day, not for me.

Life is a curious thing. I never consciously sought out any of these encounters with the past. He tried more and more over the years to make his life story about something other than the war, which he had every right to do. He had many accomplishments of his own, and he suffered from the survivor's guilt we've all seen in veterans who can't be convinced that the best and bravest  didn't die in their place. But my own life keeps bringing me back to this aspect of his experience, which I know, as a son knows his father, both hurt him grievously and annealed him to the ordinary hurts of so-called real life. He may have wanted to turn his back on so much fear and pain and testing ordeals, but I can't. I feel the phantom every time I mount a motorcycle. If I screw up or get unlucky, I could die today. But nobody's shooting at me when I ride. And I'm not shooting at them. A way to stay humble as the wagging tail of the continuum.

Almost done. But one final 'coincidence' in yesterday's accidental television rendezvous. The pilot whose plane went down in the Austrian lake survived. He appeared in the show and recollected his rescue. Ditching a P-47 in the water is an incredibly tricky thing. The huge engine almost immediately plunges from the surface in a water dive. The waters that day were brutally cold. He sank ten feet or so three times in heavy pilot gear and fought his way back to the surface but didn't think he'd survive a fourth dunking. But Austrian civilians saw him in the water, and two boats raced to his aid. In fact, two women outdistanced a surviving male (a teenager at the time) who was rowing toward the downed pilot and plucked him from the water.

Which was eerily reminiscent of my dad's closest call in the war. He strafed a German ship in Naples harbor, got away with it, and decided to attempt a second pass. They blew him out of the sky and he had to ditch in the water. Same crisis. P-47 diving nose first toward the bottom and an over-clothed pilot struggling to stay afloat with one leg full of shrapnel. He got rescued by a Navy PT boat, which braved all kinds of enemy fire to salvage my dad from what he called "the stupidest thing I've ever done." He never regarded the Purple Heart he received as anything but a dunce cap. 

I can see his point. That's how he was. Surprised and mortified when he wasn't entirely sensible. But it's not sensible to volunteer for what you've coldly determined is the most dangerous role in the war, is it? That part he never successfully explained away.

Happy birthday, Dad.

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