Friday, November 17, 2006

Into The Wild Blue Yonder

My parents were political, and by that, I mean they were staunch Democrats in the staunchly Democratic state of Massachusetts where I grew up. In fact, one could call them Liberals and not be casting aspersions. My father, an Economics Professor at a pretty liberal school, (Harvard), was once accused of being a Communist at a Fellows dinner. I don’t know what it was he said to elicit that response; he never told me that: He only allowed a sour expression and stated, unequivocally, that the accuser was, “A horse’s ass,” and that was the end of story.

I grew up in this environment, in the 60s, (Kennedy, Nixon, Vietnam, Summer o’ Love, Etc), thinking that my folks were pretty cool and right on politically, and I still do. I do admit to probably being the most conservative member of my family. I have been called before, (More than once), by a sibling on the eve of a national election to, “Make sure you’re not going to vote Republican,” which, despite my predilections, I find somewhat insulting. There is strong probability that my dad, of all people, actually voted for Ronnie Rayguns his second time around, (He wouldn’t admit it, but he wouldn’t deny it either, which is the strong probability part…) I do not vote straight party ticket, ever, although you can in Texas. I don’t know if that’s unique in these 50 United States, (Probably not), but it was to Monica and I. Just check Democrat, Republican, Independent, or Libertarian at the top of your ballot and you’re done. Oh, and for the record, no, I never have voted for a Republican presidential campaign, but I might have if Bob Dole, Libby Dole, or John McCain had ever made it that far… My first Presidential election was 1980, and I got in my beater Datsun and drove 20 something miles into Forks, Washington to vote for Carter, even though that was the year that the press screwed the whole thing up and he’d already conceded before the western states poles were closed. I still find it hard to understand how even democrats say Carter was, “A bad President.” This was a man who was honest, forthright, Christian in his manner and bearing, who spoke his mind, was kind, caring, and compassionate, and he was a “Bad President?” That tells me that the problems lie not with the man in question, but with those who form the criterion of good and bad as far as Presidents are concerned…

And so although I was only 12, I remember vividly election night in 1972, when our hopeful household became a sea of woe as state after state declared for Nixon. Our little Commonwealth, Massachusetts, became the “Lonestar state” that year, because we were the only ones to weigh on for George McGovern. I did not know much about him then, other than that my parents and their friends approved of him. I knew that what I saw and read and felt, I liked.

When I was a cop, I was formally introduced to the concepts of “Loud thinkers” and “Cop 6th sense:” These are nothing more than attuning one’s senses to the lingering manifestations of traits all humans once had and shared with the other animals: The ability to perceive another’s general intentions, bearing, and mood based on subtle signals that we all most definitely radiate, but few are able to receive any more. If you doubt these things exist, try this simple experiment: Go out and try to shoot a crow or a magpie. Be as sneaky as you like; you’ll get the idea…

Anyway, I’ve always been able to hear and sense perfectly well on a subliminal level, and at the time, I knew without question that George McGovern was a good man; honest, calm, caring, forthright and intelligent. In other words, like President Carter, McGovern possessed all the traits that would assure that he was to loose in a landslide to one of America’s most crooked and notorious politicians.

But what I didn’t know at the time, because it was virtually unmentioned, is that he was a decorated World War II B-24 pilot. Oh, yes, there was mention that he was a vet, and I recall him being accused of having been a coward by the far right, (An accusation that was quickly shot down, no pun intended). The gist of the matter is that McGovern did not want to use the fact that he had flown bombers and received the Distinguished Flying Cross as a political tool. He wanted the campaign to be about the times, the issues and the men in question – Who they were and what they stood for then, not about past laurels. A unique idea, indeed, for American politics, and one that obviously fell flat on its face.

I bring all this up because I just finished Into the Wild Blue Yonder, Stephen Ambrose’s book outlining McGovern’s time in the U.S. Army Air Force, flying B-24s out of Cerignola, Italy in ’44 and ’45.

I don’t know if you’re aware of the B-24, and if you’re not a buff as I am, you’re probably not. There were more B-24s produced than any other World War II aircraft, but unlike the others, they were not poular and there are very, very few left: Three fly, and 2 are in museums, and that’s it. Unlike the relatively celebrated B-17 and B-29, the B-24 was not pretty, although you’d probably best not say that around the men who flew them. With it’s twin tails and boxcar like profile, the B-24 was utilitarian, built to bomb, and that’s what it did. It carried more bombs and flew farther than any other bomber in WW II, but they were largely scrapped immediately after the war. McGovern, in Ambrose’s postlude to the book, recalled seeing the very plane he had flown the most in a scrap yard being smashed by a caterpillar, on a news real shortly after the war: He said he almost stood up in the theater to tell people how wrong that was it bothered him so much.

McGovern’s experience was probably no better or worse than most of the aviators who survived the war. He flew through flack, fighter attacks, malfunctions, accidents, and pilot errors that almost killed him and his crew, and did in fact get others killed. He nursed more than one badly wounded B-24 back to the field, and in 35 missions, his men never had to bail out of an aircraft. He never failed to bring everyone home when they flew with him. As I’d seen in ’72, this serious, thoughtful, conscientious son of a preacher took his job very seriously. According to the men who flew with him, he was always calm, never panicked, never even raised his voice in the heat of battle. This while flying though what more than one A.A.F. vet described as “Hell on earth.” Flack, or Anti Aircraft Artillery, is basically a high explosive charge surrounded by steel that is designed to turn into razor sharp shreds of metal, which, when exploded, are basically moving at the speed of sound or faster. In the WW II era, when planes were basically think aluminum shells, flack could and did shred aircraft like a hot knife through butter. Issued flak vests after the early war years, savvy veteran flyers sat or stood on them when in combat, since most of the danger came from below… As the war progressed, high altitude bombing broke into two camps, one British, and one American: The Brits carpet bombed at night, as was being done to them, and as such used bombing to cause general terror as they did to hit specific things. The Americans “Precision Bombed,” meaning they flew in broad daylight and tried to hit specific targets. As things got worse for the Germans, they contrived more efficient ways to hit aircraft with flak. The scariest of these was The Box: The Box entailed shooting a specific amount of flak into a box 2000 feet high and 2000 feet wide, filling that area with hot, fast moving twisted steel. They would overlap the boxes around a target, and trust the Americans to fly right into it, which indeed they did. On a bomb run, there’re no evasive maneuvers of any kind; you made the turn at a designated turning point, and then following the lead plane, you flew straight into hell…

McGovern did that 35 times, as did all the A.A.F. fliers in W.W. II. He did so keeping in mind his responsibilities: bring everyone home alive, and drop bombs where they’re supposed to go, which also did.

I imagine that politics, while potentially as stressful at certain times, cannot have matched the terror of combat. I also easily believe that he might have found Presidential campaign politics in ‘72 less savory even than flying into The Box.

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