A Pilots’ Postcards

Sometime between now and tomorrow is the anniversary of my father’s birthday. He was a Leap year baby and so it’s hard to know how to celebrate in non Leap Years. We used to say March first and call it good.

A veteran of 3 wars, he didn’t talk about his experiences much, and when he did, it was often only a few phrases with a description attached. Very like a postcard or a slide. Even his family talk about his career this way, even me. I’ve pieced together the stories from him with what there is of his military records. Some portions of those records are still redacted, though I don’t know why. It makes dates, especially in the ’50’s and ’60’s a bit fuzzy sometimes. It is a pastiche of memories and mementos. So, here are some postcards from my father:

USA 1941: Long train ride to get here. The desert is sure different than Iowa. A guy got killed on the live fire obstacle course yesterday. Came up on a rattlesnake and popped his head up just in time to catch a bullet. Damn it’s hot. I’m going to be in the US Army Air Corps, a pilot.

Checked out a plane and flew home. Mom was surprised but Arlene knew I was coming. She saw me coming in over the hills outside town.

North Africa: If you fly upside down over the blackness that is the Sahara at night, the Bedouin’s campfires look like the stars. So it’s like flying through the starlit sky, no up, no down.

European Theater 1944-45: I got this camera in England, before we came over. Not flying this time. It’s an Argus. I was told to take pictures, lots of them. You don’t want to see them.

United States: 1945-47: I had a girl, but she died so I’m not demobilizing like most guys. I get to fly between working the polio epidemics. My sister saved my legs when I had it, but there are kids I can’t save. I’ve seen one die in an iron lung. They aren’t supposed to be able to do that, but I saw it. But, I get to fly. Now I’m in something called the US Air Force. Butter bars on my shoulders.

France/Germany 1948-1950: Stationed back over here. I’m flying cover for our heavy lifters going into Berlin.

Korea 1950-53: There aren’t enough planes so our crew flies every other day. On our off days, we are assigned other things. Because I have done hospital duty, I drive the meat wagon (ambulances). It’s bad here on the ground and in the sky. I made First Lieutenant then Captain.

USA 1951-1959: I’m a test pilot, a “boomer”. Some of the stuff we do is insane and we lose pilots when we lose planes. Some of them are going to space. I’m not going to strap a rocket to my ass and light it!

Overseas 195X: Redacted I know he bought a brand new VW Carmenghia and drove it over the Alps into Italy on one of his leaves, so that puts him in Europe. He shipped the car home.

Florida, April 1961: Sitting on the flight line waiting for something to happen. It did, but we didn’t go. Stupid asses in Washington, people died.

Las Vegas, June 1961: I got married. Nice lady, she has 3 kids, and we have one on the way.

Germany, August-November 1961: I’m back in Germany, sitting on a flight line, hoping no one in Washington does anything stupid. The Russians are building a wall to keep their folks in. We can get in anyway, we have planes.

USA, November 1961: I got emergency leave to come home just in time for the kid to arrive. I’ve got 6 month orders for someplace called Vietnam as an adviser/instructor.

USA, October 1962: I hate Florida more than I hate the desert, it’s like Vietnam. I hope the idiots don’t blow us all to Hell.

Vietnam 1963: I’m glad I packed my own bag otherwise I wouldn’t even have boots. They are bad about sending anything to these places they stick us let alone boots or beer.

USA, 1964-67: We were supposed to go to Germany, all of us, but that got cancelled at the last minute. With 5 kids now and the older ones in school, I’m doing TDY from now on.

UNKNOWN: 1964-67: At least 3 different sets of orders read as follows: Pilot’s name leaving USAFB, CA, arrive Philippines/Japan, 60-180 days later, pilot leaves Philippines/Japan, arrives USAFB, CA. In other words, redacted.

Vietnam 1967-68: Scenes from leave in Saigon: It’s crazy here, you can’t tell who your enemy is.
A party girl killed a guy in the bar last night with her hair pin. No one knew he was dead until they went to close. We all thought he’d passed out on the bar.

The Coke guy was caught trying to poison us today in the Officer’s Club. He dropped a bottle when he was filling the machine and whatever ate through the floor wasn’t Coke.

There was a little kid dead in the ditch outside the gate this morning. This place is Hell on kids.

When my leave is over, I’m flying into someplace I’m not allowed to talk about. It’s called Cambodia. It’s just a few months of recon overflights so I should get to go home after that.

Somewhere I’m not supposed to be 1967: I got shot down. I’m walking out. Something happened to my right eye, but it’s not too bad. I should still be able to fly.

USA 1968: I hate teaching but they say I can’t fly combat anymore so if I want to fly, I have to teach. I’m not impressed with the college boys. Screw it, I can’t do this anymore.

Back Fence row USA, 1984: The kid came home from college for Thanksgiving. She was all excited about some movie about the old days at Muroc. Later she caught me crying into my beer out here watching the con trails from Nellis. I wonder where they are going?

Happy Birthday Dad.

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