Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Taps for G102

A Guest Post for Robin Chapman News
Steve Thompson

Robin Chapman writes: These are the years the baby boom generation, children of the Greatest Generation, faces losing the parents that loomed so large in our lives (not to mention in the history of the world and the lives of free people across the globe.) My friend Steve Thompson, novelist, journalist and historian, lost his own military father several years before I lost my own. We were talking about our fathers one day, and he shares with us the following tribute.

Steve and his father at their housing on Brady Air Base, near Fukuoka, Kyushu Island, Japan. His father was flying C-46 and C-119 aircraft into Korea then. Steve is looking very happy to be right where he is. ©Steve Thompson

Taps for G102


Steven L. Thompson

January 1991. Apartment G102, Air Force Village West, California. I hung up the phone and looked across the kitchen at my wife. I stood rooted to the floor. We’d been preparing to make our daily trip the hospital where my father lay dying of cancer, and I had just been told that he was dead.

My wife and I embraced, and I gazed over her shoulder at the world. But not the real world. Not the world of G102, my father’s home in this community of retired officers. I was looking back into the past, into the world I’d shared with the man whose heart had just stopped and whose life had shaped me in ways I was only now beginning to understand. The world of a pilot’s son in the United States Air Force.

October 1961. RAF Sculthorpe, England. I was a 13-year-old kid at the junior high school at this Tactical Air Command base in East Anglia, playing football during phys. ed. As we huddled, the familiar sound of Allison J71s spooling up for takeoff washed across the schoolyard. We didn’t really notice the shriek, the way New Yorkers don’t really notice the traffic noise. We lived in a continuum of engines.

The jet’s scream rose, then abruptly ended in a gut-rumbling explosion. We ran to the fence and looked toward the runway. A dirty brown cloud roiled into the gray English sky. The noise on the playing field died as we stared at the smoke. The wail of the fire engines came as the smoke began to drift in the chill air. We looked at each other as we left the fence.

We knew what might happen next: A big blue Air Force car could arrive and some kids could be taken home to be told that their fathers had been hurt. Maybe killed. We wondered, as we always did: who?

That day, the blue car didn’t come. After school, when I got home, my father’s Vauxhall was parked in front of our house. Inside, I found him comforting my mother. The airplane had been his. The starboard engine on his B-66 had tossed a turbine blade and destroyed itself. He smiled at me and asked if I’d been worried. “Nah,” I said, and went into the kitchen to get some Oreos. We ate at the O-club that night. His squadron commander bought us dinner. I played pool with my dad. He won. He always did.

May, 1990. California. For a magazine feature, I needed to find out why General Curtis E. LeMay had allowed the Sports Car Club of America to stage races on Strategic Air Command bases in the mid-1950s. I told my dad about it. He laughed, remembering his own MG-TD and SAC racing. I wondered how I’d get to LeMay, who I knew was living at the Village. “Don’t sweat it,” Dad told me.

A week later, he called to tell me I had my interview. He’d spoken to LeMay in the dining room. I marveled: as far as I knew, LeMay hadn’t given an interview in years. I wondered if he had agreed this time because the story was about sports cars rather than politics. Or if the reason was even simpler, if he’d agreed because I was an Air Force brat. I’d never know.

LeMay gave me two hours. He spoke of sports cars and SAC racing and much more. But of all his topics, the unfulfilled promise of strategic bombing and the genesis of Air Force Village West animated him the most. He told me—anger rising visibly—how little support Air Force officers’ widows were getting in their desperate search for affordable housing; how American bankers wouldn’t fund a retirement community for career military officers and their spouses; and how he’d had to go to Royal Air Force friends, now senior bankers in England, to get the startup money.

Five months later Curtis LeMay died. My father was one of the three men in wheelchairs in the front row at LeMay’s memorial service. Afterward, we talked about where we were going fishing in the spring. But spring never came for him.

2LT Thompson, Steve's father, as co-pilot, kneeling at left, in front of the B-25 bomber he flew out of a little island near Guadalcanal with the 75th Bomb Squadron during World War II. Next to Thompson, is the pilot 1LT Ernest G. Keefer, and next to him is 1LT Floyd E. Fredenburg, the crew's bombardier-navigator. Rear row (standing) from left: SGT Meyer Sandel, engineer; SSGT Eugene E. D'Amico, radio operator/gunner (looks like he caught some flak and is recovering with his arm inside his uniform shirt); SSGT Cecil P. Creech, tailgunner. By the time the war ended, Steve's father had flown 55 combat missions. ©Steve Thompson

As I stood in his kitchen, I gazed around the few artifacts of airman’s life that fit into a small apartment. On the walls were a few paintings and a pair of blue velvet plaques on which our Air Force decorations and insignia of rank were pinned. I looked at his command pilot wings and wondered what it would have been like to grow up with a father who did not go to work every day wearing a business suit the color of the wild blue yonder. I couldn’t imagine it. I never had been able to.

The wings reminded me of the Air Force Day airshows, of all the times I’d be fooling around out on the flight line with other Air Force brats, feeling superior to the awestruck civilians because we knew silver-winged secrets they didn’t. When the first formation of jets would scream overhead we’d fall silent, the superiority knocked off our faces by the JP-4 burning far above, and watch in wonder as our dads rocketed across the firmament.

We knew what we were supposed to do. Nobody ever told us. We just knew. We were supposed to step into the cockpits when they got out. To go higher, faster, farther. It was just that simple.

But of course it was not that simple. The Vietnam War was everything but simple, for me and for every other serving son of the military. Long-suppressed memories erupted, memories of civilians shouting curses at me and my comrades. “Baby killers!” they yelled. “Napalm murderers!” Ignorant of our realities, they knew only what they saw on TV. But they hurt us. The images of my Air Force and the Air Force of my father clashed, mixed but did not mingle, and yet were bound together by the things that never changed: the traditions, the faith in each other, even the rituals of Reveille and Retreat and Taps. Always Taps.

“Hiya, Sport,” he’d say when he got back from a mission, short blond hair smelling of Vitalis, flightsuit stained with sweat, kneeboard battered and chipped, helmet bag tossed into a corner. “Take the stick, Budro,” he say in the Piper Cub as the little yellow plane climbed away from the sun-baked Kansas fields. “Too rough for ya?” he’d call over the Gosport tube in the Tiger Moth as he rolled and looped it, making the green and brown quilt of England wheel crazily.

Steve's Dad and the crew were shot down near Rabul, flying the bomber "Hell Bent" during World War II and the rescue was captured by a photographer from Look Magazine. Rescued by a PBY Catalina, the chubby-winged rescue plane was nicknamed "Dumbo.

A later picture in the same Look Magazine sequence shows Steve's Dad taking a drag on a cigarette, a moment in time that suggests some of the real stress these men lived with.

Flying was life. But behind it, always, was Taps. Behind it, always, were Air Force fathers who took off and never returned. “Don’t sweat it,” my father would say when the base’s flag was lowered to half-mast and one of my friends would leave school in a blue car. And then he’d add, ruffling my hair, “They knew what they were doing.”

As did he. I read again the evidence in his decorations, the silver presentation mug from his last command. Is this all that’s left? I wondered. And then the door to G102 opened. Dottie, Goodie, Helen, all of them came in, as they had always come into Air Force kitchens, arms full of food and hearts full of love, summoned by the swift, mysterious Word that moved even faster than the blue cars when an airplane was down and men had died. They were the women who kept everything together on the ground when everything came apart in the air.

The memorial service was held in the Village Convocation Room. Chaplain Cooper reminded us of the eternal truths. It was easier for him because those who had gathered to remember my father had learned those truths long ago. A Marine colonel gripped my hand hard in the reception line. “I fought in two wars,” he said, “and your father was the bravest man I ever saw.” The colonel wasn’t speaking of his heroism in combat, where young men act quickly, but of his heroism in cancer, where old men must act slowly. The man in G102 had inspired them all, and they loved him for it.

When the memorial service was over, I surveyed the now-empty little apartment. There seemed to be no trace of him: a scratch on the wall paint, a burn on the kitchen linoleum. Was he ever there?

Overhead, a Boeing KC-135 dropped its landing gear and flaps to land at March Air Force Base, just across the freeway from me. I watched it for a moment, remembering the day the first gleaming KC-135 landed at our base in Idaho to replace the old prop-driven KC-97s. It was the day we decided the Jet Age had finally arrived. It was a day one era ended and another began. It was a day like any other day in the Air Force.

I slid closed the patio door to his apartment, started to walk away, and then stopped in the little patio, where he’d placed his hoya plants and hibachi. I knew something had not been done. I couldn’t decide what it might be. Then I remembered.

I turned, stiffened to attention, and saluted the empty room. I held the salute a moment, not thinking, just being who I was: the boy who had become the man to bury the father. And a pilot, as he had been.

There was nobody in the room to return the salute, of course. But there had been. And as long as the place is called Air Force Village West, there will be again.

Happy landings, Dad. We’re on your wing.

Steven L. Thompson

Originally published in the Oct/Nov 1991 issue of Air & Space/Smithsonian Use only with the permission of and credit to the author.

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