The Scent of a Memory
By Kit-Bacon Gressitt
I catch a trace of Father’s scent each year. He’s been dead since 1996, which makes his lingering essence kind of magical. I’ve smelled him in Dayton and Houston, in San Diego and Midland and Minneapolis… — and he was not a traveling salesman.
I smell Father just about whenever and wherever I find myself in the midst of a particular group of cane-wielding men and stalwart widows. They are the survivors of the World War II Army Air Corps’ 484th and 461st Bomb Groups. And, now, as I wait in the airport lounge to return from their most recent weekend reunion, a tradition in which I’m one of many second-generation interlopers, I try to hold on to the smell of him, of them.
And I watch a pair of beautiful young men holding hands. I am certain, pretty certain — no, absolutely confident — that, despite any discomfort any of the veterans might feel, they would still go to war to protect these young men’s freedom. At least that’s how I like to think of them.
Because they are special. Because I love them.
Oh, they’re as quick to criticize the nation — and the wildly diverse people in it — as anyone, and from all political persuasions. They flew to protect that right.
But somehow their two-cents’ worth is more valuable than that, these men who flew B-24 Liberators, these pilots and ball gunners, navigators and tail gunners, these engineers and bombardiers, nose gunners and co-pilots, waist gunners and radiomen — and their ground crews.
They offered up their lives for good old-fashioned freedom, not some contemporary convolution of capitalism and petroleum wrapped in a flag. They offered up their lives for an ideal, wisely or naively, but sure of purpose. I’m not sure that ideal has survived. Perhaps it disappeared like so many of the aviators, amid fiery explosions, in the depths of an ocean, beneath desert sands.
But these men survived the war, only to be attacked by time. Time is now their enemy, not as brutal as flak, but just as lethal.
So they tell their stories as best they can, heads nodding to each other’s memories.
Stories of ironic snafus. “I’m glad to see Gordon over there. I didn’t know him, but I saved his life. If I’d known how to use that gun, he would have been dead.”
Stories of flying in formation, seven planes mustered. “The first burst hit us, and two airplanes just kind of went. Another burst hit us, and three more airplanes went. That left two of us. The other one, he was under me. And then there was another burst. It was like when someone takes a flash photo in your face. There was the burst, and when I could see, it was just pieces. He did not float away. — You remember how the tents were? They were in rows and the doors of the tents faced each other. He was the one across from me. — Well, in that instant, all ten guys, gone. This is a memorial. But, but I can’t remember his name.”
Stories of an ornery MP, the one who hassled them every damn time they came into town for R&R — and how he got his comeuppance. “They sent him to the front. I didn’t feel bad for him then, and I don’t feel bad for him now.”
Stories of departed loved ones. “Lost my wife on January the fifth of this year, and the last word she said was, ‘You always told me we would never live forever. I didn’t doubt you, but I didn’t think I’d be the one to go first.’” …
I sit in the airport lounge and I have a Scotch on the rocks to honor them. Not because I’m particularly fond of Scotch, but because I’m fond of them and that’s their drink. I watch the beautiful young men holding hands and hope they’ll never find themselves at war. And I realize in a burst of awareness that we second — and third — generations are not interlopers. We are the receptacles for our veterans’ memories. We are the force that will keep our Liberators alive. We are the bells that will toll for them.
I swirl my drink. Their scents waft around me. I catch a trace of Father.