WHAT WE MAY BE
“Tell me your stories, Grandpa.”
He smiled at her, a wan, knowing smile. There was weariness in the drawn features of his aged face, but the eyes were bright, and they twinkled with a mischievous leer. His body might be tired, but his mind was still as sharp as ever, and his expression gave nothing away, even as his granddaughter studied him intently.
He didn’t look much like a hero. In fact, he was rather plain, an ordinary man. Sure, he was old now, but despite that, there was nothing in his stature to indicate that he might have possessed any superhuman faculties in his younger days. He was just her grandpa, but she knew from her mother that there was much more to this seemingly unassuming man than first glance might imply.
“Which stories would you like to hear?” he asked with an amused grin. There was something in that grin and something in his tone that made her wonder if he might be testing her somehow.
She glanced down at the cherry surface of the dining room table and the documents spread out before her; pictures, letters, and newspaper clippings, all of them yellow and faded with age. The pictures were monochromatic, black and white images of young men wearing black leather jackets with white wool linings and goggles set atop their heads. They stood in front of and beneath the towering frame of an old airplane with two giant propellers on each wing. All along the fuselage, gun barrels stuck out at odd angles, like porcupine quills bristling at an unseen enemy.
With the flat of her palm, she moved the pictures aside to reveal a newspaper clipping, the headline of which read, “VICTORY! NAZIS SURRENDER!” in bold black letters. Gently, she lifted the newspaper and moved it aside so she could look at another beneath it. This one was from St. Paul, Minnesota, dated July 3, 1944, and the article was titled, “ESCAPE FROM BEHIND ENEMY LINES: LOCAL HERO RETURNS HOME.”
She smiled as she gazed at the script with its imperfect typesetting, so much different from the clinical precision of modern computerized printers. She had read the articles, of course, and she knew the gist of the stories, but what she was looking for here was deeper and more detailed.
“I want to know how you did it,” she said at last, “how you managed to evade the Nazis and make it back to safety after you were shot down. You were the first B-17 crew to ever do that.”
The wan smile returned, and he nodded slowly, as though he had been expecting this. Then the knowing eyes met hers, and with what sounded like painful regret, he said, “I can’t tell you that.”
She blinked in surprise and disappointment. “Why not?”
“You wouldn’t understand.”
A grimace showed her growing frustration. Well, of course, she wouldn’t understand. No one who hadn’t gone through that sort of ordeal could possibly understand. She realized that, but why should that mean he couldn’t tell her?
“Grandpa,” she said, forcing her voice to sound patient, “you said you would tell me your stories for my paper. I’ve already told my professor that this would be the topic. I flew all the way out here from Arizona. What do you mean, you can’t tell me?”
This time, there was more warmth in the smile, and as he leaned back in his chair, he sighed aloud. “I mean I can’t tell you the story by starting with when I was shot down.”
“Okay,” she said, her voice more relaxed now. “So, where would you need to start?”
He took a sharp breath and let it out. “I was a pilot, not a soldier. They didn’t train us for ground combat or to evade enemy pursuit. Most guys who survived being shot down were captured and spent the rest of the war in a P.O.W. camp.”
He paused, and she waited patiently for him to continue, nodding encouragingly for him to go on. “What prepared me for that trial wasn’t taught in basic training or flight school. No, that came from much earlier. It was life experiences, like growing up during the Great Depression, that taught me to overcome adversity and rise above my circumstances. Those lessons readied me for challenges I could never have anticipated.”
She frowned at that. “Grandpa, I’d love to hear all of your stories, but this paper is about the war.”
His eyes showed disappointment. Shaking his head, he sighed. “If that’s all you’re looking for, then you can find that in these articles, and I have some notes you can read.”
“But that’s not all I’m looking for,” she insisted. “I want to understand.”
“Then you need to know where I came from, what I went through, and who I was. Those struggles helped to shape me into the brash, headstrong young man who did the things they wrote about in those articles. But for you to truly understand, I would have to tell you my whole story, from the beginning.”
“Okay,” she said. “Then tell me, please.”
“Are you sure? This could take a while.”
Now it was her turn to smile. “I have nowhere to be.”
“Alright then,” he said, but then he nodded at a tape recorder that sat on the table between them. “Should you start that?”
She jerked with sudden recollection. “Yes! Thank you for reminding me.”
Then, having started the recorder, she sat back and repeated her earlier request.
“Tell me your stories, Grandpa. Please, start at the beginning.”
With that, he settled in the chair, and taking a deep breath, he began.