Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Falling into the State: Veteran's Day

Dad was no poetry fan; he sometimes traced his antipathy back to an English professor at East Carolina Teacher’s College in 1943. “He made us read his poetry, and it was awful,” he said. “I never did like it after that.” But I often think he would have liked Randall Jarrell, the poet and former North Carolina Women’s College professor whose poems documented his service with the 8th Air Force during World War II.

Like Jarrell, my father fell into the State in 1944, when he was drafted into the Army Air Corps. He was assigned to the 449th Bomb Group of the 15th Air Force and stationed in Grottaglie, Italy, where he flew 52 combat missions as a gunner in B-24 bombers. On his very first mission, on January 14, 1944, the B-24 developed engine trouble and he had to bail out. Only 3 of the crew of 11 made it out of the plane. It was Dad’s first mission, but because the plane crashed before they reached the combat zone it didn’t count, and Dad went on to fly an additional 52 missions.

He rarely talked about the war, and then only in generic terms, but he did save his parachute ripcord and his membership in “The Caterpillar Club,” an honor given to men who parachuted from planes using silk ‘chutes. Years later, when he was a professional picture framer, he framed the ripcord and the Caterpillar Club card (that's them above). He wore the tiny caterpillar lapel pin for the rest of his life.

Dad became a military man, a cold warrior. Unable to find work after the war, with a family to feed, he reenlisted in the newly created Air Force and served a total of 23 years, retiring as a major in 1965. During that time he worked as the ordinance officer for a fighter squadron with nuclear weapons, and went on to command a Titan II missile launch trainer just before he retired. That's a photo of him sleeping in a B-29 sometime in the late 1940s, I believe when he was stationed in Roswell, New Mexico.

But he never took to poetry, preferring the newspaper, history books, the Bible, and the Book of Common Prayer – I come from well-established Episcopalian stock on my father’s side. Yet on this Veteran’s Day, with Dad being gone a full eight years now, I turn to Randall Jarrell to honor my father’s life. Dad was lucky - he made it home and lived to age 78. Many of his friends, including the man I was named for, didn't share the same fate.

The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner

From my mother's sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
-Randall Jarrell

Dad and me, sometime in the early 1990s.


Anonymous said...

What a nice treat to read on Veteran's Day. It's hard to imagine what a combat veteran's life is like.

we_be_toys said...

Incredible poem, and a fitting tribute. I can't get over how much you resemble your dad in that old photo (the B&W one). I love the stories that accompany each unique life around us - it makes you realize just what a rich tapestry of human experience is within each of us.

FairiesNest said...

Two great posts in a row! (I'm catching up on some blog reading when I should be working.) I love that picture of your dad sleeping in the plane. It's hard to even imagine the experience of war, it was so ubiquitous for that generation and for so many of the young men today and certainly one I hope my sons will never have.