The man in front of me in a public place, whose face I could not see, appeared to be my age, judging from graying, thinning hair, posture and movement, but on the seat next to him was a cap that offered a different story. And what a one it must be.
The hat read “B-24 Liberator” with bombing squadrons and group numbers I do not recall. The cap looked fairly new, so perhaps it was a family Christmas present.
For a while I pondered this man’s luck. The B-24 was a faster plane than the B-17 “Flying Fortress,” with greater range and bomb load, but pilots apparently found it difficult to control, and it was extra prone to battle damage since its gas tanks were in a more vulnerable location. Any crew member of a B-17 or B-24 faced heavy odds of being shot down, especially as mission after mission took off. Thousands of B-24s were built, and the aircraft served in every front during World War II.
So, the man in front of me, who must have 20 years on me at least, is fortunate to have survived. What his thoughts are about his war, about lost, awfully young comrades, about the devastation of bombing, about the aftermath of such destruction, they must be daily, all spinning in that balding head under that proud cap.
His was supposedly the “Good War,” though there never is one, yet given the stage and its principal participants in 1939, battle was inevitable, and so was the Allied response. The man in front of me did his job. We all are here today because of him and others, and many thank him for that. But the war that most living today never knew continues for him, surely.
As I pondered on all this, still staring at his dark blue B-24 Liberator cap, I looked up and immediately caught the body expression of a far younger fellow. I still could not see the man’s face, but there was his back and on it a puffy shirtwaist-style jacket not unlike the shiny nylon bomber’s crew issue. The tell-tale sign of a flyer was there, even for a perhaps 89-year old: A turned up collar. And, after a bit, the man leaned on his left leg, as if standing against a wall, another youthful, even cocky gesture.
Then I knew this man, this survivor of such high-casualty war work, was just a kid again, still. Whatever battles he continues to fight, whatever thoughts he may have about such a deeply moving, disturbing, nightmarish time in his youth, he was given one precious gift other than a pass to live: the special comradery of youth, an eternal thing.