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by Bruce Bethke
Editor, Stupefying Stories
“I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.”
–John Adams, 1780
Ninety-five years ago, this coming Monday, the guns on the Western Front fell silent and the Great War came to an end. In the decades since, the Eleventh of November has changed from being Armistice Day—or as the British and former Commonwealth countries call it, “Remembrance Day”—to being Veteran’s Day, to being just another another occasion for Post Office holidays and liquor store sales.
Rather than dwell on the sad irony of “the war to end war,” though, today I’d like to honor those who served, and those who still serve, by re-running what I consider to be one of my best columns.
Where do you get your ideas from?
First published: July 2007
I meant to write a column about the publishing business yesterday, but instead went with The Kid to see “The Wings of Freedom,” a traveling collection of World War II-vintage aircraft that had flown into Holman Field for the weekend. This time around they were showing and giving tours of—and if you had a few hundred bucks to spare, rides on—a B-25 Mitchell, the last known flyable B-24 Liberator, and a B-17 Flying Fortress.
We went mostly because The Kid, in that inimitable way known only to kids, has lately become positively obsessed with B-17s and the 1939-1945 air war over Europe. “Dad,” he said, with breathless excitement, “we’ve got to see it! It’s a B-17G. It has the chin turret!” So we paid our money, and got in line...
To this day, I remain in awe of what my parent’s generation did in those terrible years. World War II combat aircraft in particular both fascinate and frighten me; I once got to sit in the cockpit of a P-51 Mustang, and felt just naked at the thought of taking such a tiny and flimsy machine into a gunfight. (For reference, I felt much more comfortable in the cockpit of the Lockheed A-12.) Bombers are even worse. Essentially flying UPS trucks designed for the sole purpose of delivering bombs (When it absolutely positively has to be destroyed overnight!), these craft do not seem designed to give one spare ounce over to armor, comfort, or crew protection. Ergo, the thought of spending 12 hours in what amounts to an aluminum beer can full of high-explosives and high-octane aviation gasoline, while highly motivated people on the ground and in other aircraft are shooting at you with cannons and machine guns...
We toured the B-25 Mitchell first, because the line was shortest. Good grief, Doolittle’s raiders were brave, to go attack Tokyo in those primitive things. Next we toured the B-24 Liberator, and The Kid got to have the first of many moments in High Hog Heaven:
Finally, we got in the line to go through the B-17, and it was while we were standing in that line that I made the acquaintance of “Dayton,” who was standing in line next to me, and who’d just learned about the exhibit that morning and driven down from his home at the other end of the state to see it.
“I had to come see it,” he said. “I haven’t seen a B-17 since 1946.
“I flew on one in the war, you know. Out of England; Eighth Air Force. I was a ball-turret gunner. They picked the little guys for that. I weighed 135 pounds, then. They put you in the turret, and locked it shut, and you stayed in there for twelve hours straight. Then when you got down, they let you out, and gave you three shots of cognac so you’d forget what it was like and they could get you back into it the next time.
“A tight fit? I even had my parachute in there with me. I don’t know why they gave us parachutes. If you had to bail out, the Germans just shot your parachute.
“Our captain was 19 years old. One time a major wanted to take control, to get some flight hours in, and our captain said ‘NO!’ It was his ship, you see.
“They’re all gone now, except for the armorer. And me. And the navigator’s wife, I think she’s still alive, but I haven’t talked to her in years.
“We were lucky. Our engineer got appendicitis, but instead of giving us a replacement they decided to keep our crew together and ship us over later. When we finally got to England, we asked about the other guys we knew from training, but most of them were gone already. Dead, or shot down.”
The tour line went in through the nose hatch, which was a tight squeeze for The Kid and a contortionist’s exercise for me. Dayton tried to climb in that way, but something got to him; he said it was claustrophobia. He backed down the ladder, then went around to the tail of the plane and climbed in the aft hatch. Working his way forward past the waist-gunner’s positions, he spent a minute or two looking at the mechanism for the ball turret.
Then he climbed out again.
“After the war, I came back home and tried to farm with my dad, but that was a bad idea. Not because I had problems with my dad; we got along great. But it was never much of a farm and we couldn’t make enough off it to support two families.
“My wife has gotten me on a plane twice since the war. And now, I think I’m done for good.”
So to answer the question we began with: where do you get your story ideas from?
The stories are all around you. Listen to them. Hear them. Tell them.
Bruce Bethke probably needs to update his professional bio one of these days...but this is not that day.