Archives for posts with tag: heroes

My mom died a year ago today. I’ve been trying to think of how to best mark this sad anniversary here. It’s tempting to devote this post to how wonderful she was. Remarkably. How much I miss her. Terribly. How there’s a hole in my life that will be with me forever. How I’ve managed to stumble and stagger my way back into my writing life, eventually writing every day for  almost three months to finish a brand new novella. How proud she’d be of me for that and for intending to live the best life I can in honor of her steadfast faith in my dreams and ambitions, and the unconditional love she gave me every day of my life.

So, in that brief paragraph, I gave in to the temptation. And now I’m going to tell a story that incorporates several she told me many times. Some of her favorite memories that show just how cool she was.

I’ve written about her older brother Earl here before. When she was a young woman, he would find her jobs in Memphis and take her there to live with his family while she worked, until the needs of her parents or just plain homesickness would pull her back to the family farm. Before that she would go for extended visits, so as they all grew up his children felt almost like siblings. 

She was especially close with her oldest nephew, Paige. Having grown up very near the airport (You can see the airport behind his back yard in the picture below), he loved planes. One might say he had flying in his blood. As soon as he was old enough, he took lessons and then took to the skies. 

Since one of her jobs was as a waitress at a little restaurant at the airport, my mom was very familiar with and comfortable around airplanes, especially as part of her job was loading meals into the galleys in preflight prep. Uncle Earl arranged for her to go up with his pilot friends on occasion, and she loved it. She leapt at every opportunity to leave the ground and soar over the Mississippi Delta.

Her favorite pilot was, of course, Paige. When she was living back at home, on occasion she would be awakened in the early morning by the roaring engine of a small plane coming in for a landing in the pasture behind the house. She would hurry to get dressed and join her parents in the rush outside to greet their visiting pilot. 

“Sarah! I have to go get refueled. Wanna come?” She was always eager to climb aboard and join him. They would fly away to the nearest town that had the fuel he needed, enjoying their time together in the early morning sky. She took great pleasure in his willingness to fly low and buzz the homes of her girlfriends. I always wondered if those girls were envious and/or a little in awe of their friend zooming over their heads, waving to them when they went outside to look up. I also wonder if it registered with them how brave and cool she was.

One particular flight must have tested her bravery, though when she spoke about it there was no trace of lingering fear. Just the thrill of adventure and faith in her pilot. As they neared their landing field that was literally a field, Paige took his attention briefly from the controls. “Sarah, I don’t want you to be scared, but I have to tell you there’s a problem with the plane. I’ve got to bring us down anyway. We’ll be okay. I promise.” She must have been scared, but she was also too courageous to fall apart as many people would. “I know we will!” And   they ended up safely back on the ground, just as she knew they would. My mom had an amazing capacity for rock solid faith in the people she loved during treacherous times. It was not only his tremendous piloting skills that brought them down safely that day, but that he also flew on the faith in him radiating from his passenger. I know, because I flew through every day of my life on the wings of that same unshakeable faith.

When I call his piloting skills tremendous, it’s not merely as a cousin who has always hero worshipped Paige, though we never met. He never, ever lost his love of flying, went on to become an Air Force jet fighter pilot, and was eventually awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. He was critically burned in 1956, when the flaming F-89D Scorpion he was piloting crashed into the same Mississippi River he’d flown near as a young man, though his final flight was over Minnesota. One of his two engines exploded. He died from his injuries the next day. There was nothing he could have done…but he did anyway. He stayed with his fighter to guide it away from a densely populated residential area. I grew up so very proud to have such a hero in my family. Some say that as we die we see our life flash before our eyes. If that’s true, among the memories of his wife and young son, parents, siblings, and extended family, there was his whole great flying life before him, like a cherished dream. Among the wings and clouds and blue skies, was the green grass of a pasture landing field and the echoing words “We’ll be okay. I promise.” “I know we will.”

(Photograph that ran with his obituary)

I honestly don’t know what exactly comes after death. But for right this moment I know what I want it to be for my mom and her beloved Paige. So I’m imagining them sitting together on the highest cloud, swinging their feet as I’m sure they did fishing with Grandaddy as children, then a smile, a nod, a whisper of wings, as they take flight together once again.

When she told Paige that she worried about the danger he was in as a fighter jet pilot, his answer told its own story of the kind of man he’d grown up to become.

“Don’t worry about me, Sarah. If I die flying, I’ll have died doing what I love to do.”

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I just watched Fury. Wow! It’s tempting to just leave it at that, because some movies almost defy coherent reaction. There’s a visceral gut level to this one that leaves me feeling as if I just fought an incredible WWII battle. Though all movies do it to some extent, Fury seriously transports its viewers into a 2+ hour experience that feels like a tank crew ride along. In the time it takes to watch the movie, and for some time afterward, I was a silent partner in the horror of fighting in a world war.

Honestly, the first part was a bit of a slog, though there were parts that were incredibly intense and interesting, with incongruously gorgeous imagery. Then the last hour and a half or so hit, with all the power behind a single remaining tank and the soldiers who practically live in it. At one point Brad Pitt’s character, the tough top sergeant with the heart of the great hero he (and his men) becomes says the tank is his home. Watching what they go through, that sentiment is understandable. Their mantra “Best job I ever had.” is as well. Leader and troops, friends, family, a tight unit that sticks with their “Top” even when he decides to stay with their “busted” tank and take on what seems like a small army of SS.

What transpires from that point
onward is one of the most brutal, awful, and terrifying battles I’ve seen portrayed in movies. Of course that’s the only ones of this kind I’ve seen in any way. I wasn’t even born at the time of World War II, and as I watched Fury I was so very grateful for that. Man or woman, seasoned veteran or reluctant soldier then amazing hero like young gunner Norman, it hits me hard as I watch such movies that people should never have to be asked to fight such battles and wars like that should never happen. The heads of Human beings weren’t made to end in an explosive shower of pink wet haze that’s all that’s left of brain matter… and its protective head…after a machine gun spray blankets its mark. Yet countless thousands have done just that. And so awfully much more.

It’s good to be shown such real life depictions of real life war and be reminded just how fortunate any of us are who have only experienced it through books and movies and the stories of veterans. And it’s good to be forced to remember that so many heroes did the incredible things they did to fight unspeakably heinous enemies. Sometimes a movie is meant to be more than the term implies. It becomes unforgettable. That it’s based on a series of true stories makes it all the more so.

On a lighter note, as Brad Pitt ages into his talent I’m struck by the way he’s becoming the modern day Clark Gable to George Clooney’s Cary Grant. More than an undeniably pretty face, Pitt is the kind of actor who makes me seek out his movies. Shia LaBeouf too is coming into his own. Proven by the fact that I can see him in movies now and not once think he’s Sam Witwicky! Jon Bernthal? He’s good, but I still get flashes of Shane from The Walking Dead. Time will fix that too most likely.

At it’s end Fury leaves images burned into my brain, like a TV screen briefly etched onto my retinas. I can only hope they fade away as fast, and leave only memories of a difficult movie to watch that I’m glad I’ve seen.

Fury–Official Trailer

Today we think of those who serve to keep us safe. Past, present, and most likely far into the future. Conflict, operation, outright war…these events are  part of our collective memory and those who fought their way through them are the strengthening threads that run, often unnoticed, throughout our daily lives. The participants have been revered, honored, and sadly sometimes vilified.

I’ve been fortunate enough to know several veterans of foreign wars. Young and old alike they share that enigmatic stare that seems to look back, to the future, and deep inside simultaneously. They hate what they had to do, yet are happy to have served…and survived. They are all heroes, with or without the visible medals that mark them as such.

There is another group that I’ll call the shadow veterans. In modern times they are the families of active duty soldiers. The glue that holds the heart in place, whatever may come. In the past these shadow veterans were joined by circumstances at home that changed the fabric of reality and demanded more than love, support, and tears.

Ordinary citizens who were never drafted except by their sense of duty. I’m not sure how widely spread awareness is today of the women who risked their lives during World War II right here at home. Sometimes they’re lumped into the larger, more familiar term Rosie the Riveter. I don’t know if there was an official term or even admiring nickname for these brave women.

I do know more about them than most. I grew up in an area with a munitions plant, and heard the words “I (or She) worked at the arsenal.” my entire life. Long before I was born, as World War II raged across Europe, many farm boys and their entire healthy male family marched onto troop ships and set sail for the front lines. And many, many of the women they left behind quietly went to work assembling the munitions that made the technology of World War II combat possible.

The danger was great, the risk high, and the courage phenomenal. They worked in what amounted to a giant bomb on a daily basis, knowing full well that every one of those days was a deadly accident waiting to happen. Why would they risk their lives like that? I’m sure any extra money was some part of the motivation in times of rationing and scarcity, but the refrain I heard from reminiscing family, friends, and neighbor ladies was invariably “To help our boys”. Danger and risk of life was never mentioned, unless they were pressed for an answer on why they did it. “But weren’t you scared?” “Of course I was, but it had to be done.”  “Did you think about what those bombs would do?” “Of course. But I tried not to. It was hard…but it had to be done” That old phrase from the movies never rang more true.

For the boys.

Those ladies forged lifelong friendships. Working side by side in trenches made not of mud and blood, but of metal and TNT. They went on to be mothers, grandmothers, teachers, doctors, and the quiet elderly neighbors who smile knowingly at The History Channel and could recite the precise millimeter measurements of specific antique shells…if only someone was interested and knew to ask. Those sweet elderly faces, lined with wrinkles and a hint of steel.

Sometimes even the children of such great women say the words, “Oh, yeah, she worked at the arsenal.”, without ever having given real thought to what they meant. They don’t realize how proud they should be of these quiet heroes.

So, today, I’m reminded and I’m proud. They did it for the boys. The boys we hold in remembrance today, and hopefully throughout the year. Those boys who became some of the veterans we revere, and the girls who are veterans as well. Largely unknown and unsung, but heroic all the more for it.

I’ve spoken with a number of veterans over the years. They span generations, wars, and now that the future is here…centuries. It is always a privilege and an honor.

There are different types of war veterans. Some speak of their experiences as casually as the rest of us might discuss a book we became immersed in as we read it.
They lived it, it is now a part of their lives, memories flowing across the landscape of their minds like a familiar river.

Others discuss the wars they lived rarely and with some reluctance. Their experience was filled with rage and compassion, fear and heroics, honor and courage and questions for which they will never find answers…even across a lifetime of pondering. They speak of it when they do because they want others to know their living history, to pass it on, and perhaps be a small part of the reason war may never come again.

Another group of veterans do not speak of what they went through. Ever. They acknowledge that they fought in battles. They may say where and when. They may not. Some were prisoners of war, and underwent horrors they find unspeakable. Others simply saw so much death and carnage that they have no desire to relive it through articulating what it was like.  Someone who sees their friends killed in front of them, perhaps in situations they missed themselves by minutes called luck or fate or faith, need to keep that knowledge to themselves. I respect that.

The ones I respect most of all spent at least one moment locked in life or death combat, close enough to look into the face of the enemy and for a fleeting moment recognize someone’s husband, father, child. Because of their training, their courage, their desire to protect their comrades, their families back home, and that very homeland itself they take that life. One or many. They operate out of instinct and patriotism and honor and courage and love…and they live with the knowledge of the urgent necessity that forced them to go against their own natures to do the unthinkable.

Some veterans who carry that experience with them for decades do not speak of it. It speaks for them through service records, citations of heroism, and the words of awed comrades. For some their names become legend, while their lives are spent in mostly silent contemplation. They receive their honors and titles and medals with a dignity that shines from their inward turned gazes. Some may tell a trusted cherished few, while others live a life of silent, persistent  memory, and I hope pride in what they did for the rest of us.

It’s the silent soldiers I think of most deeply on Veterans Day and many others. I hope they find solace in knowing how much we honor them and love them, as we remember their service and their sacrifice.