A heart unburdened

Those of the almost-gone Greatest Generation never seemed to like to talk about their wartime experiences. It was just how they were raised. Their principles were forged in the crucible of the Great Depression, where the rule of thumb was: Use it up; wear it out; make it do; or do without.

Certainly this was true with Pop. A cheerful guy by nature, he was thrifty to a fault. He loved to discuss the many aircraft he learned to fly, humorous stories of his cadet and training days, even stories from his days on Saipan…as long as they, too, were light hearted. His gritty days of combat, his agonies, fears, was a locked door that neither Doug nor I…and maybe even Mom…were ever permitted to open. Except once, when the veneer horribly slipped.

After retirement, he sustained a foot injury while doing some yard work. He consulted our family doctor who prescribed a pain medication, with the strict admonition that it not be taken with alcohol.

One night, around 9:00 pm, Mom called. She was frantic. Pop was having “some kind of fit,” and could I please come ASAP. She had also called Doug.

Fifteen minutes later, we stood by Pop’s E-Z Boy recliner. His complexion was mottled, the veins on his neck stood out ominously, he was agitated and thrashed about in his chair, yelling about the Japanese and calling out to people whose names I’d never heard, telling them to watch out, look to their six, Zeroes coming out of the sun.

While Doug called for an ambulance, I turned to Mom. “What happened?” I asked. “Did he fall? Did he hit his head?” I looked at his face, trying to detect drooping; I was thinking stroke.

“No,” Mom said, wringing her hands. “He forgot he had a few drinks before dinner. He took his pain medication and got like this a little while later.”

The EMTs arrived and took over. Within a few minutes, Pop was considerably calmer but still muttering to Dutch and Al and Sid: Watch the ack-ack (anti-aircraft fire), it was thick; big thermals ahead (updrafts from entire cities on fire); lotta shit being thrown up. Jimmy was gone, ack-ack blew off his starboard wing. He sobbed quietly. Doug and I looked at each other.

I didn’t see Pop for several days. When I did, he looked sheepish; I guess Mom had filled him in. He was off the pain meds and asked me to sit with him out back under the seagrape tree and have a beer.

After a long silence, he spoke. He said he was sorry to make Doug and I come out there so late and make us so worried. He was sorry that he had lost control and let us see a side of him he had struggled to keep secret. He was sorry that he had worried Mom. He was sorry… for being human. I felt a lump forming in my throat for this man who had suffered in silence for four decades. So many things suddenly snapped into focus.

He looked at me. His expression was stricken. “Dar,” he said. “Can I ask you this…do you think…do you think that God can ever forgive me?” His face cracked. “I didn’t drop the bombs… but I flew the plane that did. Oh, God. All those people.” I’d never seen Pop weep, but his eyes swam as he covered them with his hand.

I didn’t answer right away; this was overload, so much all at once: The fit; the revelation of this secret chamber of his heart; the sudden awareness of loss he carried for his dead friends; and above all, 40 years of guilt and anguish over the deaths of those below his B-29.

A snatch of Scripture from my confirmation days came to mind. “Pop, I said gently. “It was wartime. People were collecting tin cans to make into bombs. Everybody did their part.” He picked up his head, took a swig of beer but looked unconvinced.

“Look,” I said. “King David was a soldier. He and his men killed thousands, tens of thousands. And what did he say? ‘As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.’ Of course He forgives you.”

Pop stared ahead blankly, digesting this bit of scriptural input from his youngest son. After a time, his shoulders relaxed. He looked up at the Florida sky, bright blue that October afternoon, and appeared to come to a decision. He raised his beer can and I met it for a clink.

“Dar, he said. “You ain’t half bad.” He looked vastly relieved.

I felt honored; coming from Pop, it was high praise indeed.

On this Veteran’s Day, giving thanks to all those who gave their lives and/or peace of spirit to keep our country free. May God grant you eternal rest.

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