Monday, May 28, 2012

On Terrible, Beautiful Wings

One of the B-17s my uncle flew in, "Meat Hound," in 1943.
First published on May 29, 2006; edited May 28, 2012. 

Yesterday a B-17 flew over my head twice as I walked by the sea. The B-17 is a talisman in my life - what my father worked to protect from sudden storms that killed the young pilots still in Texas, what my uncle nearly died in as a navigator over Germany, the nexus of my family's experience of WWII. It still permeates Seattle, the strangely appealing and ominous bomber, the machine that made this town a city, an aircraft whose purpose was to place large amounts of high explosive on buildings and people, assembled by women and men, all to the great glory of life and democracy, I need to believe, and to darker purposes of power and property, I often fear.

The four-engine Boeing B-17 bomber is a symbol of my own safety, family history, beliefs and prosperity, and my own distant, romantic delusions about the nature of war.  13,000 were built in just a few years.  The B-17 looks democratic with its windows at each of the 10 positions, built to see and guard the whole sky. It is a tool of war.  Bury it in metaphors as you will, war is about inserting metal and fire into soft human bodies at high velocity.

But it's a good day to remember several stories: my father catching a ride to Chicago in the nose of a B-17, watching the world pass in the best view in the world, falling asleep and waking hours later in a deep fog, with the smokestacks of the city passing high - whoops - above his head.  He said it was the best view in the world, but he took a moment to strongly request a change in altitude to the pilot. On one of these trips, he saw Fats Waller live, and delighted in this astonishing period in American music.

He told me about the B-17s and P-51s parked in rows by the Frankfurt airport in 1946, all for sale somehow, $100 each or perhaps a box of good cigarettes, men buying them just for the fuel still in the wing tanks. He told me once that he knew a pilot who would pay $100,000 for any B-17 he could find in 1970, because it was the best platform for aerial photography.  It was, along with the P-51, his favorite plane.

A photo shows my father's arm holding the skull of a Japanese soldier burned out of a cave on Saipan a few months earlier. His friends are smiling - it is a post-war moment, so it is a cheerful, almost delirious moment. He was passing through the Pacific island, on a kind of flying hop around tour, an Army Air Force captain, a meteorologist working his way by air to the literally smoldering remains of Frankfurt Airport in early 1946. There is nothing but the joy at the death of an enemy, the death that meant peace.

He told me he knew many men who had been so competent, confident and capable in the war who simply wasted away in peace, or that particular peace we built-  the consumer peace. In a phrase common of the men I grew up around who fought in WWII, there was bitterness over the worship of the All-Mighty Dollar to which they returned.  These men at least, his friends, professors, humanists, scientists, artists, lawyers, writers, believed intensely in freedom, in the cause of the war: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Belief, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear, the Four Freedoms Roosevelt articulated as the policy of the United States, as the counter to rising, endless, deliriously murderous fascism.  But they never meant to offer up their lives for the Almighty Dollar, for the most selfish forms of consumer capitalism. They had seen quite enough of unmitigated capitalism in the Depression.  They sacrificed for their country, particularly its safety and its promise.  America, my father believed, entered the great nations of history at the end, holding the Atomic Bomb as we did, and a fleet of Bombers to deliver it, and resisting temptation, and choosing imperfect humanity, decided not to conquer the world when we had overwhelming, unstoppable power. America proved itself the nation about something more than conquest.

His station in the Army Air Force in Dalhart, Texas primarily trained B-17 bomber crews. My father was a trained pilot, and wondered if he could fly one in an emergency, which was an excuse to fantasize a bit about flying one.  The crews called them ships.

Fleets were built - tens of thousands of bombers of many types. Formations of bombers stretching 1000 miles, involving 1500 aircraft, cycled like a conveyor belt from England to Occupied Europe, to Norway and France and Germany, first bombing military targets, then industries, and finally cities, simply cities, of human beings, often German ones, Germans with names like Bollenbach, who had collectively committed the capital sin of allowing to rise the most insatiably murderous government in human history, and for this collective sin, would die in their beds and at their tables crushed by bricks and beams, burned and concussed by airplanes built with spectacular ingenuity and skill, 20 a day, 5000 miles away, in Seattle, Washington.  In 1943, they were flown by men knowing that each mission, 6% -8% of the planes would fall; and each man faced 25 missions.

The crews, 10 to a plane, broke or allowed to be broken the Nazi war machine. And they destroyed  half a million people. (Conventional bombing raids in Japan, firestorm raids, killed 140,000 people in one attack on Tokyo, more than both atomic weapons. ) This war established the modern pattern: civilians die violently, more, often much more, than soldiers in war. The numbers put you into a calculus far more numbing and incomprehensible than the pleasant wonders, the vast stretches of time and space, of cosmology.

Yet I am pleased knowing that there are still twelve B-17s flying.  It thrills me to see one: the roar of those radial engines, the curvilinear form, the most natural arc of flight, this ship belongs in the air like no other.

My father served much of WWII in the U.S, and then was transferred to England. I know almost nothing about this critical period where he worked with the forecasters for the D-Day invasion, in what has been described as the most important weather forecast in history.  He told my mother that he missed that day when the decision to go or not was made.  But he was part of the science team- the best weather scientists in the world were there for months, trying to pin a date - and they threaded the needle with a correct and critical forecast upon which depended tens of thousands of lives and the fate of the war.

Like many men who didn't serve in combat, I think he felt keenly his exclusion from the shared physical risks of war.

He sacrificed still, like all families, like families of soldiers and dead civilian victims of war now.  His brother, my uncle Duane, was wounded horribly in air combat over Germany with 20mm cannon fire from a Nazi fighter striking his head, moments after he had removed his flak helmet. The energy of the round was spent, and it shattered into fragments.  It was an archetypical B-17 moment, war in the air, the ship struggling on three and then two engines, metal rattling and brittle cold air pouring through holes shredded in the fuselage, bodies bleeding less in the cold, his buddy literally holding his head together for the long hours home.  Approaching the coast, they had to toss everything to lighten the load, guns, radios, and unfortunately the emergency landing gear handle, which, as it turned out, they needed.. The Wahoo II landed safely back in England on one wheel, looping on the ground. 

The ambulance they called a meat wagon came as Duane was taken out of the plane, and the medics weren't going to take him in for treatment, until the pilot pulled a gun on them, a souvenir Luger no less, telling them to take him in or he'd blow their heads off.  Duane outlived my father, but paralyzed on one side.  But the sacrifice was in how Duane's spirit was in some ways wrecked by his permanent disability,  how in a falling out over this they spoke only every few years until their deaths in the 1980s. He didn't come to my father's funeral. I didn't go to Duane's. Duane I only met twice as an adult. This story is almost all I know about him, that and when they were kids in Nebraska, he had an unfortunate love of onion sandwiches.

I think something about that incident and certainly the military experience drove my father to Alaska, and in a way drove his first son, disconnected from a fairly large family, into the Green Berets in Vietnam. And Grant I do not really know now either. I do know that WWII nearly cured my father of respect for authority, and most desire to wear hats, except the brown beret he adopted later, which with his tweed jacket and turtleneck, horn-rimmed glass and goatee made him look like the Cool Jazz weatherman.  He was a respected weather scientist in his many years in Alaska, popular enough with the international pilots that he once pulled a favor and had a 747 turn around on the runway and come back to pick us up.  He became an artist as well, and defender of liberal and humanist values in the public sphere, values forged, quite consciously, by his experiences of WWII.

I know more, much more, about the B-17 than these other men in my own family, which the war both ennobled and broke apart through the instrument of the B-17, that beautiful bomber whose elegant, oddly humanistic design seems to have been the final echo of humanity in the military industrial complex that grew to maturity in that war. I know more, much more, about the B-17 than the Bollenbach family, and my ancestral history. That plane in some ways is the end and beginning of my family.

I hadn't thought until yesterday about the man in the German fighter who fired that 20mm cannon round which changed my family in these ways, how, in real war, all battle is equivalent, metal twisting and tearing flesh, metal emitted from an insane magic bag of ideologies to rationalize the destruction of human beings. He fired on a man named Bollenbach, which is also a small village in Pflaz-Rheinland. That pilot probably died that day, defending something real, the people he knew, and something spectacularly horrific. And the B-17 carried my uncle back to life, and men on the ground at the little airfield waited for its throaty roar, staring for their friends and comrades encapsulated in dark smoky dots against a buttermilk sky.

Now at this great remove from that injury, and the injuries my uncle and my father inflicted on our nation's enemies - before and since friends- I am safe and grateful and indulgent in my whims of work and play.  But a tiny dark hook of that war still touches me: what was my father's family?  My grandfather, a shadow, was hated for hitting my grandmother; my grandmother, a school principal, flickers as a formidable white haired presence in a handful of memories. I might have found out, but time had passed, and I did not. So much more clear in my living mind is the airplane, the B-17, its history, its symbology, an icon to me of horrendously flawed but ultimately substantive nobility, the Vargas girls on its sides marking it a war goddess, a Kali-mother dropping its horrific high-explosive children that by the path of total madness pushed the human race back to sanity.

Agnostic as the day is long, I have an answer for the Pope's question at Auschwitz on Thursday: where was God?  He was unknowing, stumbling, half-blind and blundering, like he always is, and seeking mostly to stay alive and keep his friends alive; that collected human consciousness we dully call God lived and worked in the Allied soldiers, the undergrounds, the millions paralyzed in fear, the victims of both the Nazis and the God's vengence we visited upon them, in dischordant momentary compassions among the Germans themselves, but most in the sum of all that resisted in any and every way industrial murder for madness and property.

And this vengeance flew too on terrible, beautiful wings.