When I die and they lay me to rest,
Gonna go to the place that’s best.
When they lay me down to die,
Goin’ up to the spirit in the sky
— Norman Greenbaum
I never believed in god. That’s one reason why, when I was little, I thought Spirit in the Sky was a song about a pilot. Ever since I could remember, my father talked about what an incredible experience it was to fly. No matter what WWII story he told — whether it involved humor, disdain for bureaucracy, or the tragic loss of life — he always had a gleam in his eye when he retold his tales from the sky. It was almost like he couldn’t believe humans were given the profound gift of flight. For him, “the place that’s the best” was always in the cockpit of his B-24.
And that was the song that immediately popped into my head on Sunday, standing on Juno Beach as a B-24 slowly passed, low, overhead. A B-17 followed closely behind. I turned to someone on the beach and asked the date, although I knew the answer before they responded. It was February 8th…the anniversary of my father’s birthday.
My father’s missions included the oil fields of Ploesti, which are remembered as some of the most disastrous for American bombers. Thankfully he was in the second campaign and not the devastating first raids. He would even say that Ploesti was never as bad as the raids over the Ferrara railroad bridges, chronicled in Joseph Heller’s Catch 22. I know about most of his missions by the copy of his flight log I keep in my desk drawer.
But most of George’s stories revolved around the guys he flew with. Up until my father joined the army (there was no air force then), he led a fairly narrow life. The son of Armenian immigrants, he grew up in East Cambridge. He rarely left the city, and most of what he knew of life involved hustling Harvard kids for money at the local pool halls. But when he enlisted, he met guys from all over the country, from every walk of life. And they would forever change how he viewed the world.
Recently, I had been thinking of “Cricket,” a fast-talking, angle-shooting, Southerner my father met in cadets. On one of their early training missions, Cricket’s plane didn’t make it back with the rest of the crews. My father was devasted. He and the other pilots went to the bar and worried about their friend. Hours later, Cricket came bursting into the bar. He said, “Birds, George. I hit fucking birds.” It was thus, at a tender age, I learned that swearing was fun and birds were a bane of pilots.
For over a month now, I knew I needed to get away. I’d been running on empty for months. I need to regroup and feel whole again. My plan had been to spend some time down in Big Bend. It is so eerily peaceful there. But at the very last minute, I booked a trip to Florida, where my father would go this time of year to golf.
There is only one B-24 in the world that still flies and it is lovingly maintained by the Collings Foundation. Every few years, they change the name of the plane, in honor of a different B-24 and combat crew. She is currently named “Witchcraft.” It was indeed Witchcraft that flew overhead as I stood on the beach in Florida.
The original Witchcraft flew 130 missions in WWII. And in all that time, not one of her crew was injured or killed. I have learned that Witchcraft is coming to Austin in March.
Was this all some kind of sign? If so, what did it mean?
Pictures: Insignia of the 723rd Squadron “Cottontails,” my father’s crew (George is bottom right), and Witchcraft.