Friday, October 23, 2009

The borders of wilderness

No, I haven't run out of silly. There's still lots of it out there. For instance? Pearl Jam is angry because their music was played loud and often to annoy Gitmo prisoners. While I understand how the band feels? As the father of a former teenager I must admit, that's a very effective method. Works on parents anyway!

The B-17 tour is worth some attention though. It complements the general theme of middle aged determination to expand one's horizons. And yeah, too? This life ain't a dress rehearsal, so stop and smell the roses (or in this case the machine guns) or whatever the Creator puts it in your squirrely head to find honest joy in smelling, every chance you get.

But this should be about the plane and the boys.

Here are two things every American schoolkid should know about the B-17...
A.) If you survived 25 missions in a B-17 you automatically rotated back to the US for the duration of the big shooting match. You'd done your bit.
B.) One third of all B-17's that saw combat were shot down by the enemy.

That makes it sound like an unsafe plane, though it was anything but. The Nazi military carefully studied all B-17 wreckage (they're so precise, those Germans) and concluded it was one stubborn aircraft.

Better to let an actual participant speak. Paraphrase from an interview, New Yorker magazine, 1944.

I was bombardier, sat right up in the nose. I remember my first mission. The Ack-Ack exploding far below us looked so beautiful. We dropped the bombs, seemed like a game to me. On the way home, I saw three B-17's explode. Not go down smoking, but explode, mid-air. One minute they were there, and the next gone.

This one mission I recall? I thought they had us. I fired a nose gun until it jammed, ran aft and fired a waist gun until it jammed too. They were coming in so close I could see their faces. About that time the belly gunner got hit. I ran to him, and about that same time a round hit me, nothing bad but knocked my headset off. He was blinded from plastic dust in his eyes, from the bubble getting shot up. He was leaking bad from the cartoid artery, all I could do was apply pressure, and he was in semi-shock. I was yelling fore loud as I could, "Get me some help back here, Eddie's hit kinda bad. My headset got blown off." So now he's screaming he's gonna bail out, cause Johnny just got his head blown off. I'm yelling right back at him, "Shut up you idiot! I'm Johnny, who ya think has his hands on your dumb throat?"

So that's what a participant had to say about it in 1944. But it's not all blood and gore and fighting for your life over Europe. A certain amount of absurdity attends every human endeavor, moreso if Americans are involved.

A B-17 once got so lost, they bombed Zurich, Switzerland. Not funny for the citizens of Zurich, but kind of hilarious in an objective sense. I really don't know how they managed that, Switzerland kind of being known for lots of Alps and stuff, but they did it. However it happened, they had a good story apparently, since they were absolved at the Court Martial. Myself, personally? I think the navigator was distracted by listening to Pearl Jam probably.

What I don't understand about last weekend, is the old men flocking to run their hands on the fuselage of that B-17. That's something I'll never forget. The way they lovingly ran their hands across the riveted skin of that old plane. What makes a man revisit an artifact from the borders of his personal wilderness? What is it that draws old men to a symbol of past terrors, almost impossible to imagine?

I wish I'd had the guts to ask them. But shaking their gnarly cookie hooks, thanking them for what they once did, tears in my eyes? I couldn't ask them WHY, because my heart was filled with a partial understanding of their personal WHAT.

Why do old men flock to an artifact from a time in their youths, when they nearly died, over and over? I'm not sure, but I suspect Pearl Jam has something to do with it.

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