Wartime memories come whistling out of the past
It was 4 o'clock in the morning on a summer day in northern Iowa in 1944. I was 7 years old. As I slept in my second-floor bedroom, something unusual awakened me -- more than the chattering of birds, it was someone whistling.
My entire family had been jittery that year as World War II was grinding down, because two cousins were still fighting somewhere in Europe. Kenny was a tail-gunner on some kind of bomber, and Dalton was a foot soldier with plenty of experience in battle. They both had lived with us during some desperate times in their family.
They were my heroes: big, masculine guys who played baseball with me and taught me the rudiments of the game. When they were home, there was laughter in the house. When they left for war, I remember a deep silence and the fear that they would never return.
So I rolled out of bed that beautiful morning, dropped to my knees by the window and looked down toward the driveway. And there, sitting on the back steps was Kenny, whistling one of that year's popular tunes and waiting for the day to arrive.
I stared for a moment, checking over the uniform. I studied the broad shoulders, the rakish mustache, the handsome face of this heroic man. I wanted to be sure, and when I was, I jumped to my feet and went racing through the house. ``Kenny's home,'' I was shouting. ``Kenny's home.''
Then I shot down the stairs and threw open the back door. And there he was, grinning and laughing just as I remembered him. I just stood there and looked at him. He threw his head back again and almost laughed his head off. Then he opened his arms and hugged me.
Then everyone was on the back steps, hugging and crying and laughing. It was one of those pregnant moments so filled with joy that not a word is spoken because all a person can do is laugh and cry.
So, in the house we went. Mother fried up enough bacon and eggs to feed a small army, and we sat down to eat and hear the stories. The best story was the trip home. Kenny had a photo of his plane, ``Quittin' Time,'' and the crew standing in front of it. Old ``Quittin Time'' had flown its missions without mishap, and when the plane was on its last legs, officers told the crew to fly her home.
Across the Atlantic they came, and by the time they got to the United States, ``Quittin Time'' was acting up -- spitting, sputtering and wheezing like an old horse. As they flew over Nebraska, the engines gave out and she came down gently in a farmer's cornfield.
When Kenny opened his duffel bag that morning, he pulled out folded sheets of aluminum ripped from ``Quittin Time's'' side. In his idle moments in the next months Kenny made rings from that material and sold them to students at the high school a block away.
Dalton also came home safely; a miracle, we thought, that both survived. Both of those men went into business for themselves: Kenny building cabins in the mountains of Colorado; Dalton, farming and delivering fuel oil in a small town in Iowa.
Every Memorial Day I think of those two men who, I believe, fought a holy war against Adolf Hitler and other leaders who were tyrants, bullies and the sickest of men. Those veterans, many of whom are still alive, returned home and rebuilt America, created the suburbs, built our interstate highway system and turned the United States into an economic and military superpower.
Those men and women should be our heroes because they believed this nation could progress beyond anything ever seen in human history. They made the American dream come true.
It was not just the war they fought that makes them a great generation. It was the spirit they had, and still have, and the determination to make the world a better place.
Once a year we have a chance to salute them. So, before you fire up the barbecue this weekend, take a moment to remember your heroes and speak a soft thank you.
Columnist Clark Morphew (firstname.lastname@example.org)