A Beautiful Day to Be in the Air
By Kit-Bacon Gressitt
In September 1995, they soared into Dayton, Ohio, from all points of the compass: from bucolic calm and frenetic cities, from sedentary retirement and the flush of newfound love. They were seventy or eighty veterans of the World War II Army Air Corps' 484th Bomb Group, 49th Wing, 15th Air Force. No measly designation for these men, who reunited to pay annual homage to themselves and the war they fought for the world from their homely base at the Torretta Airfield near Cerignola, Italy.
Perhaps a motley crew, yet heroes since their youth, back then, in Dayton, they were in various stages of oldth, some sprightly, some hobbled by age and infirmity; some accompanied by wives, some represented by widows. All were ready to drink to their own and the world's past, to boogie to the 1940s brass and reed voices of Joe Aceto and His Big Band, to make mirth of their foreshortened futures.
Ostensibly, they gathered to erect a memorial of black granite and brass: an investment in eternity, an edifice more solid than the fickle flesh bestowed them.
But in truth, they came to reclaim the intimacy that war had given them, an intimacy born in dark and frigid tents; in makeshift games of baseball; in pickup quartets of faithful, hopeful song; in the innovation of desperate necessity; in fleeting lust and, sometimes, life. Theirs was the camaraderie of those who have known the brutality, the fearful allure, the graphic imagery of war. An intimacy that peace took from them. Yet, as they reminisced, they began to regain it, recounting common moments that ultimately defined the men they would become after their fifty bombing missions were complete.
Back then, in Dayton, they juxtaposed stories of the war with tales of the day, merging black and white with brilliant color — the unique vision of a generation slowly fading. The last generation to know without question the righteousness of going to war for a just and worthy cause.
They neglected their chicken dinners, too engaged in one another to take time to chew.
The gunner, who fifty years before had served his nation so well, rhapsodized over strange and fantastic conspiracies his government was purportedly perpetrating. And while he was at it, he was certain that the same had gone on during the war, for sure.
Others spoke of Hungarian girls, orphans of the war, who had waved from their pockmarked window ledges to two downed airmen awaiting return to their Italian base.
"Come up," the girls had said. "Tell us of America."
On a piano that couldn't carry a tune and with the meager utensils of a war refugee's kitchen, the soldiers had found the chords and rhythm of Captain Glenn Miller, the Dorsey brothers, Les Brown. And later, when the more innocent had been plied with his first French kiss, he had stammered to the girl, "We don't do that where I come from!"
It could have been the war cry of his squadron.
One reunion couple, retired from the short-reined demands of a Lutheran congregation, told of traveling a world the minister had known as his battlefield. On maps once sectioned into quadrants and marked with bomb targets and flak batteries, they plotted routes to beautiful vistas and quaint villages where the scars of war had been covered by the detritus of two more generations.
Some vets spoke of the Italians, who embraced the airmen, loving the romantic heroes as only the Italians could, teaching them their language. They used B-24 Liberators as blackboards, imparting to the bombers — crew and bird alike — the critical phrases of communication: Buon giorno. Good day. Come sta? How are you? Quanto casta? How much? And, most important to the young warriors: Volete venire a passeggio con me? Will you take a walk with me?
Back then, in Dayton, the airmen had pooled their funds — from slight and abundant sources — to send scholarships to the descendants of their Italian hosts, the grandchildren of the Torretta Airfield.
The grateful students wrote, "Our grandfathers remember what you did for them during the war and they are very proud of having known such courageous and generous men. Loyalty, courage, friendship: This is the message we get from you, and we want to continue."
But back then, in Dayton, the bombardier turned actuary gave the 484th only another eight years or so to reconnect with one another, to share their stories, to recapture their youth, to enjoy the freedoms for which they flew so bravely.
No matter: He was wrong. The 484th's numbers did dwindle, but they defied his gloomy projection.
Now, it is September 2010, a full fifteen years since Dayton, and seventeen veterans of the World War II Army Air Corps' 484th Bomb Group, 49th Wing, 15th Air Force, are reunited in Houston, Texas.
Now, too precious to be motley, too extraordinary for their ordinary lives, these heroes have progressed further into their oldth. A few remain sprightly, but most are a bit more hobbled by age; a few more widows represent them; some bear second and third generations. And all are ready to drink to their own and the world's past, to boogie to the digital sounds of DJ Ben Avery, himself, a Vietnam veteran, who brought home a Purple Heart and appreciation for the comforts of music.
Now, the airmen — having no more memorials to erect, no more plaques to remind the future that they existed — come knowingly to be together, to lend poignant voice to quiet pieces of themselves, to imprint their past on three generations of progeny, to prove they indeed survived the memories that stay with them, that are always with them.
They nibble their dinners and march tentatively into their tales.
A pilot talks of flying in formation and watching the plane barely to the left and below him disintegrate with the crew aboard. Just like that. Even now, sixty-six years later, he remembers the horrible wonder of it.
“I’m a jack of all trades,” says another, “and a master of none. Except flying an airplane. And I can’t do that anymore.”
They are begrudgingly distracted by “Say whats?” by dessert, by politics.
“Obama has ruined the country,” says one.
“Hey, he’s our commander-in-chief!” says another.
Which president has most abused his power, a grandson wonders.
“George W. Bush?” suggests one.
“LBJ,” says another without missing a beat. No matter that Texas is his host.
A gunner tells of a hospital nurse, tending to his wife just a few years ago. A Hungarian child of the war, she asked if he had stories of her battlefield, and she recounted her own — of awaking from a blast to find the woman whose hand she held was dead.
“The poor, helpless soul. Just ten or twelve then,” he says. “I created hell for her. I felt so bad, all I could do was hug her. All I could do was hug her.”
And the conversation curves back toward comfort, to things new and intriguing, to computers and space shuttles, Blackberries and that texting thing young people are doing.
“The iPad, my son got one,” says the engineer. “That’s an interesting device, but, no, I don’t have one.”
Some of them have taken to email. Others don’t bother. Why should they? That’s not the sort of thing that would have kept them alive over Germany or Austria, Hungary or Romania, Yugoslavia or Czechoslovakia, France or Italy. It took something more than technology. …
After the final meal, after a last tale or two, after naming those long and newly departed, they commit to one more reunion, at least one more — to again defy the actuary's projection.
Then they head for home. Embraced in one another's hearts. Some determinedly on their own. Some in the tow of their offspring. All soaring, nonetheless, all soaring.
And it is a beautiful day to be in the air.
©2010 Kit-Bacon Gressitt
Note: This is an update of a column originally published by the San Diego North County Times on September 25, 1995.