My 91 year old father-in-law recalls his time in the Navy during World War II with the ease of a man reliving a well-played golf game. He has a smile in his eyes, even when the story he’s telling sounds terrifying. He was our escort as we visited the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida. The more he talked, the faster the calendar pages flipped back to the late 1930’s and 40’s, the height of the war. As you might suspect, he’s got a few stories to tell.
“Flying is hours and hours of boredom sprinkled with a few seconds of sheer terror.”
~ Gregory “Pappy” Boyington, World War II USMC fighter-pilot
About an hour into our visit, we came across an FG Corsair. Famous for its powerful engine, huge propeller and unique bent-wing design, it’s a fighter plane so fearsome, Japanese ground troops nicknamed it The Whistling Death. When he saw it, Dad’s face lit up. “Now this was a great plane to fly,” he beamed. He slowly made his way toward the curved wing where he examined the rivets. “One time, the metal on one of my wings began ripping apart in mid-air,” he laughed and his voice became more excited. “I’ll never forget the sound of that metal tearing.” As he spoke, my mind went black and white like an old movie. I pictured a fearless young man dressed in his Navy uniform, seated in the cockpit, looking through the dirty glass at a wing slowly unraveling. “What did you do?” I asked. “Well, I had another plane fly alongside me and I radioed that I was coming in hot,” he replied as if it was no big deal.
As we left the museum, I thought about how Dad’s experience mirrors our lives. We begin in black and white; young, full of energy and ready to conquer the world. We long for adventure and we chase it, fearlessly diving in head first. In life’s flight we encounter battles that attempt to shoot us down. Sometimes we’re merely grazed, other times we take direct hits. We experience loss, disappointment and pain. But as we do, we gain experience and we become wiser pilots. And when things level off, we can laugh as we recall our own unraveling metal.
No one I’ve ever met has had a greater view of life’s ups and downs. Dad’s an American hero; not for anything he ever did in World War II; he’s a hero for being a good man. He came in hot, guided by his wingman.
There’s a lot we can learn for that.