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Yesterday afternoon I sat with a old man who, once upon a time, shot at surfacing German subs in the North Atlantic, tried to pick off the crews who were aiming their anti-aircraft guns at the Navy depth charge bombers whose buzzing explosive cargo could blow those subs out of the water. In the spring of 1942 he’d gone into flight school after graduation from a small Iowa college, spent a year in a series of special schools, then took orders to Norfolk for duty in the North Atlantic. During his years keeping Nazi U-boats away from Allied shipping lanes, his unit of fighter pilots knocked off nine subs. “They didn’t give you credit unless there was a heckuva oil stain on the water,” he told me, a bowl of soup set on a couple of towels draped over his lap–lime chicken from his daughter in North Carolina. He says they know how to cook in North Carolina.
He should know. He married a North Carolina girl himself.
He’s 94 years old, and everything you say has to be heavily amplified. We took a bad turn when we determined ear horns were ridiculous. All afternoon I could have used one, which is to say he could have. Honestly, I didn’t say much at all for two hours while he told me about his life, but when I left I was pooped just from yelling the very few questions I did.
But what a joy it was to hear a story he probably doesn’t tell all that often anymore, if in fact he ever did.
Twice while I sat there beside him, he cried. Once, when he remembered coming back to Norfolk aboard that cheap aircraft carrier he was aboard for most of the war. It was a merchant marine ship worked over into an aircraft carrier with barely enough length to land fighters. Held just nine, in fact. Made take-offs difficult too, but that ship was home.
What brewed the tears was his remembering how that carrier sailed into the harbor and how right there on the pier coming closer and closer and closer was his brand new wife standing there among the other spouses gathered there. That happened 72 years ago. Just seeing her there in his memory still brought tears.
When the Nazis began to recharge their batteries at night on the North Atlantic, he and his fighter plane buddies had to learn whole new technologies for going after subs in the dark. Where there was once a bomb in the hold, the Navy now installed a flood light. To learn the new flying tricks, the whole bunch of them were sent to Florida. He told his sweetheart to take a train down with the other women. “But, honey,” she told him, “we’re not married.”
“Then that’ll have to change,” he told her. And it did. They left Florida a few days later, married.
The next time that carrier and its nine planes and crews turned away from combat on the high seas and returned to port for resupply was the time he spotted her on the pier waiting for him–that’s the moment he’ll never forget. He’s 94, and he doesn’t walk well, but the memory of seeing her waiting on the pier brought tears from someplace so deep inside we all probably wish we held such a treasure.
That’s them in this picture. He’d met her at a dance in Norfolk, asked her to dance three times in a row, then asked her if next time he was in port he could date her. She said yes. He wrote her address on his sharp white cuff.
Look at that picture. It’s just about the most beautiful thing, isn’t it?
But he broke just enough for me to see an edge of tears in his eyes one other time too when he told me about his life. Land prices skyrocketed in 70s and early 80s; and when they did, farmers loaded up on everything–on land, on machinery, on cattle. As long as their paper worth was out of sight, so was reason.
But the market didn’t hold, and when land prices fell off the table the whole works buckled like a house of cards. Good people, hard-working people, people who prayed to the Almighty, suddenly found themselves so far gone in debt there was no way out except to somehow cut losses and dreams.
“That was a bad time, wasn’t it?” I asked him.
That’s when he cried again.
He’d become a banker, a good one, a man of prayer. “The Board met everyday at six in the morning and we’d go over loans,” he told me, his lips shivering in the overheated apartment.
Twice he cried this afternoon, this precious old man who, once upon a time in the inky dark over a cold ocean operated a joystick with a trigger that wasn’t a game at all.
Twice he cried. I saw it. Once in joy and once in misery. All in life.
So go ahead and ask me about my day yesterday. I’ll be happy to tell you.
It couldn’t have been richer.