OCTOBER 21, 2018
In the 1991 World War II movie classic, “Memphis Belle,” a battle-damaged B-17 limps home from a bombing run. The pilot (Matthew Modine) struggles to keep the plane out of the trees while his crew tends feverishly to “Danny” (Eric Stoltz), an injured gunner.
The airfield in sight, Modine hears his men doing the only thing left to help Danny hang on. Off-key and choked with emotion, they’re singing to him: “Oh Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling; From glen to glen and down the mountain side; The summer’s gone and all the roses dying; ’Tis you, ’tis you must go and I must bye.”
When I watched the film again recently, it brought to mind another story —this one real life.
The year is 1943. World War II is raging. Etched by the dawn, a tall Texan stands on a make-shift runway counting Flying Fortresses as they thunder aloft, then fade over the horizon. The job of this Air Corps officer is to command the launch of Allied bombing missions.
A Red Cross volunteer from Milwaukee greets aircrews with coffee and donuts before they pile feet-first into their planes. A few give her a goodbye kiss. Conversations on the ground subside as the last aircraft takes flight.
By afternoon, all eyes scan the skyline. In the distance a machine drones, sputters. The lucky ones make it back first. Sirens begin mournful overtures for warriors who have flown too close to the sun. Some survive a landing with crude tourniquets and morphine. Others meet their end in funeral pyres of black smoke.
At dusk, all that remains is the ghastly silence of planes that are not there — the ones that carried fathers, husbands, and sons who never returned. That night, as always, the officer writes letters to their families, trying to assuage the pain.
After the war, he and his Red Cross volunteer muster out, then stop in Miami to be married. She, a granddaughter of the Midwest frontier, and he, a child of Texas, believe in the Western narrative — fertile land, hard work, sweet cantaloupes and better tomorrows.
They start a family, to pass this scenario along. But, by the mid-1960’s their plan is under fire. A new war is on. Unlike their war, it divides rather than unites.
In the country they risked their lives to defend, dialogue devolves to diatribe. When their son begins to advance notions of self-actualization over self-discipline, he and his father clash. What the son sees as a brave new world, the father dismisses as a zeitgeist of sloth.
By the early 1980s, the heart of the old soldier, the one he’d given away to his Red Cross volunteer, is broken by the divisions in his family and his country. When it stops beating, she loses the only man she’s ever loved — the same fate, it seems, that awaits the American dream they’d both fought to protect.
For the next 30 years she watches the country, and her son, struggle to find balance. He marries, becomes a father, and works too many late nights. Driven by ambition, he ignores domestic conflicts, ones that could have been resolved but for his intransigence.
When divorce strikes like a World War II incendiary, he discovers among the wreckage some painful truths. He failed to bring to his marriage the values taught him by his parents — the courage, strength and kindness to subordinate one’s personal aspirations to the common good. The same lessons he preached to his children, but failed to heed himself.
In the final scene of the movie, I hold my breath as Belle clatters into the treetops, smoke belching from her engines. From the bowels of the plane, Danny’s ragged anthem continues to waft.
Arms joined around their injured comrade, the crew continues their song, its tone now more desperate: “But come ye back when summer’s in the meadow; Or when the valley’s hushed and white with snow; And I’ll be here in sunshine or in shadow; Oh Danny boy, oh Danny boy I love you so.”
Some say when your time has come, there’s nothing that can be done. On this, the 25th and final mission in their tour of duty, God smiles on Belle and her crew. Against all odds, she makes the runway on a bad tire and a prayer.
Safe and sound
The ground crew surges. When they open the belly hatch, 10 sets of hands lower the young gunner to safety. He smiles. A cheer erupts. They’ve done their duty — brought him home alive.
As the camera pulls back, in my heart I know somewhere in the crowd, if only in spirit, are a young Air Corps officer and a Red Cross volunteer.
If asked about the future of their country, I know now how they would respond — we have the strength to overcome adversity, to pull together. If only we have the will. I’ve heard them say it many times.
You see, their son was me.
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Malcolm D. Gibson