an unlikely hero

Any of my friends who had Mr. Barnes at Boca High will remember him: gruff, tough, but fair and deep down, a nice guy. But he suffered no fools and called everyone by their last name with a “Miss” or “Mr.”

I had him for American Military History and his accounts of battles, tactics and how things worked were tinged with humor but interesting. One day I made the mistake of mentioning to him after class that my dad had served as a B-29 pilot. A few days later at dinner, my mom hands my dad a letter. He opens it and as I’m eating my meat loaf, his eyes dart back and forth. He puts it down with a pleased expression. “Well, isn’t that nice! Your teacher, Mr. Barnes, would like me to come speak to your class.”

I was stunned, my toes curled. What? Oh no….oh man, my dad?? In front of all my friends? Oh fuuuudge, I may as well pack it in now….

The day finally arrived, a knock on the door, Mr. Barnes opens it, and in walks Pop. He’s wearing a leisure suit and his big black no-nonsense IBM glasses. I slumped lower in my seat as friends turned to me with a mixture of expressions: sympathy, amusement, curiosity. Mr. Barnes motioned for him to sit on a stool. He began to speak.

He started with an account of America before the war and his experience growing up in a house where only Norwegian was spoken until he was five. How he had loved aviation and had hung around the local little airfield, doing chores in exchange for rides in the planes. Joining the service at 17, his parents’ anguish of their only son going off to war. Flight school, training, the rigorous discipline, interesting details of the planes. He wove a narrative of humorous recollections and technical details during the stateside days.

When he got to the combat days, the narrative turned darker. The flak-filled skies over Japan, 16-hour flights starting at 4am, enemy fighters, watching friends’ stricken planes cartwheeling down to the blue Pacific. The rigors of flying in formation with hundreds of other planes over a target already in flames, the enormous updraft carrying large debris up over a mile.

I looked around. Every kid was sitting in rapt attention. No doodling, no reading, no bored stares. They were all listening to Pop in his dorky leisure suit and glasses. As I looked at him, it was as though the years fell away and I saw not a middle-aged guy in a silly get-up; I saw a young guy, only a few years older than me, flying the most sophisticated plane in the world at the time, in charge of a crew of 10 other guys, no screwing around, life and death.

When he finished, Mr. Barnes stood and began applauding. As the rest of the class followed suit, my embarrassment turned to pride. Man…Pop…who knew?

# # #

On this Memorial Day, thank you to all those who served….and especially those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

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