The Long Way Home

One Memorial Day many years ago, Pop and I were sitting under his towering ficus tree in our K-Mart sand chairs. We were tired from woodworking and having a few cold ones from his stash in the old garage fridge.

It was an idyllic day; not too hot, no bugs yet. The breeze gently moved in the tops of the Australian Pines at the edge of our property in rural West Boca Raton.

As the beers went down, the conversation became more animated. Waving arms, outbursts of laughter, sometimes getting up to demonstrate something like we were playing charades. Mom and Sue came back a few times to see what was going on.

There was a lull in the conversation. A plane droned by overhead and Pop, the aviation enthusiast, looked up to watch it. His face grew quiet, reflective. He took a sip of his beer but his expression told me he was miles and years away. I waited a moment then asked if he was OK.

“Yeah,” he sighed. “Just thinking about my friend Einar.” I knew enough not to speak and nursed my Budweiser in silence. After a few moments, he resumed.

It was Saipan, early 1945, and the Army Air Corps was assembling an armada of B-29s to bomb the Japanese homeland 1500 miles away. On Saipan…an island wrested from the Japanese in a horrific battle…the US had built a runway a mile long. At the far end, the runway ended abruptly at the edge of a cliff several hundred feet high. At the base were coral rocks and the Pacific.

The B-29s needed every foot of that runway. Loaded with 20,000 lbs of bombs, 10,000 lbs of fuel and a crew of ten, a mile was barely enough to get aloft.

The pilots would stand on the brakes while revving the engines; a ground mechanic would listen intently to the engines to make sure nothing was misfiring or skipping. When he was satisfied, he’d nod to the chaplain, who was standing off the runway, near the pilot’s window. Solemnly and slowly, above the propeller wind, heat, and the roar of the engines, he’d make the sign of the cross. The pilot was cleared for take off.

Pop trailed off. In the distance, a farmer’s tractor chugged in the fields. When he resumed, his voice was tight. He never spoke of his time in the service; I wondered where this was going.

Ahead of him in line that day was his childhood friend Einar Sorensen. Einar was getting married and Pop was to be his best man on upcoming leave.

Einar went through the pre-flight ritual, received the benediction and took his foot off the brakes. His B-29 lurched and pulled away from Pop toward the far end of the runway, a mile away; lumbering, heat shimmering off the runway, his plane slowly gathered speed.

Pop paused, drank some of his beer, tilted his chair back and put his hands in his lap. He waited a moment, then continued.

A few Japanese remained on Saipan and did what they could to thwart the Americans. One of their favorite tactics was to shove soap into the pitot tubes so the pilot couldn’t determine their airspeed. This was dangerous, both while flying in formation and especially during takeoff. Often, a sabotaged bomber…or one merely experiencing mechanical failure…would reach the end of the runway and simply disappear over the edge of the cliff.

Best case, the pilot would descend into a mild dive to increase airspeed and then bring the nose back up. The plane would reappear, maybe a half mile out, and those watching let their collective breaths. Worst case…a different outcome.

On this particular day, Einar’s plane reached the end of the runway and disappeared. Everyone waited. But instead of seeing his plane gently regaining altitude, there was a muffled WHUMP and a shudder as ten tons of bombs and 1400 gallons of aviation fuel detonated at the base of the cliff. A heavy oily cloud rolled slowly up.

I looked at Pop. As his story unfolded, he’d had to pause a few times to collect himself. His generation was like that; just bear it, move on, don’t complain. But his eyes were shining and he angrily wiped a finger under his eye. He continued.

This was war, no time for sentiments or pause. He received the benediction, released his brakes and lurched forward. As his plane gathered speed…50 mph, 100, 200… the ground blurred. He reached the end of the runway and launched into space. He could see the burning wreckage of Einar’s plane far below. No wedding, no honeymoon…no kids, career, retirement. Just a telegram to his parents.

“Damn,” Pop said quietly. “Damn it all.” He finished his beer and turned; his eyes were no longer brimming but he wore an odd expression of sadness, weariness. “Don’t ever let anybody tell you to get over it,” he said. “There are some things you never get over.” He got up and went into the house.

I sat there a little longer, watching the Australian Pines, wondering what to make of this peek behind the curtain of the greatest generation. Of shattered dreams, making do, quiet resignation. Keeping it all inside.

Did I have the same stuff? Could I have done what Pop did? What Einar did?

I think some questions are better left unanswered.

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