From Bunnies to B-24s, Guns and Childhood

We were watching a TV program last night about the B24 Liberator, these huge and clumsy planes coming down a runway, shaking like a dog at the waters edge, and you are silently yelling “Get up! Get it up!” because these huge birds don’t look like they are gonna make it.  The plane bounces right towards you, and you see (or the camerman sees) the beast rumble aloft, and you see the undercarriage and you wonder what miracle allowed this to happen.

This bomber was used extensively during WWII.  It was called the “Work Horse” of the Air Force.  My father was a B24 pilot and also a sparks man….and at 22 the oldest on the plane.  I remember old photos… found in his top drawer where his metals and other stuff were kept, war mementos  we children weren’t supposed to play with, but we did, like his gyroscope.  We spent hours spinning that on polished pine floors upstairs where our mother was too busy with the day to catch us.  These photos were shot during the release of bombs, going down on some city, and how big these  bombs looked.  Huge fat sausages, but deadly ones.  The men must have been standing over the bay door, straddling the hole, taking pictures.   I remember some of the photos, the instruments, the dials the stuff on the ‘dashboard’ of the plane, and the complicated stuff that seemed to be just dials and levers, the stuff that kept this lumbersome plane in the air and delivered it’s horrific bombs.

I didn’t  know what I was looking at, although I DO remember my father, every time he got into any car he was driving.  He would run his hands over the ‘flaps’ above, the dashboard, the dials under the steering wheel, an unconscious movement like he was ‘checking the dials’ on the plane.  Even in the new black VW back in the early 60’s.

The car built by the Germans, the very same nation they were trying to defeat and stop taking over the world.  I remember there was a bit of flack about that car, but Dad bought it new anyway.  It also floated, which was good when the bridge over the causeway flooded out.

It was something we just didn’t question, Dad running his hands over the interior of the car in front of him.   It  was something so ingrained in him that there were  no questions to be asked.  At least by his three kids in the back of the car silently observing his movements.  But they never changed, until the 9 months before he died in November, 1989 when he no longer drove.

Ford, apparently, I learned last night….produced the B34 Liberator.  Actually it was Consolidated Something but later it was Ford.  They produced 1 an hour.  They needed them because they were so damn slow that 11,000 in one August were shot down over Europe. Don’t hold me to that stat because that is what I thought I heard on tv. Apparently though, 18,000 were produced from 1940-45 in a tremendous war effort.  Willow Run in Detroit was the biggest manufacturer of planes outside of Russia.

I remember some of the names I heard as a child:  “Flying Fortress”, “Flying Boxcar”,  “Flying Coffin”, but I think the “Flying Fortress” was the B29.  I could be very wrong here.   This last (“Flying Coffin”) was the most ominous.  It’s because B24’s caught fire easily, something to do with the fuel tanks being positions somewhere bad.  There were two bomb bays apparently, and a cat walk between  the soldiers had to navigate.  I understand  the only way they could enter and exit the plane was from the rear.  That made it hard to evacuate, especially with parachutes.  They also were almost paper thin, a design nod to flight, light planes, just chunky and weird looking.  Like pelicans a bit.

I remember my father saying it wasn’t an easy plane to fly…big, clumsy, and hard to steer.  But in the air?  My father was a joker, a very quiet man, but had a great sense of humor.  He also carried his German silver French Horn aloft and I can’t think of that without thinking of my father playing his beloved Mahler and Mozart in the clouds.  Celestial music, indeed.

The B24 flew higher than most bombers, cruising at 20,000 feet.  They also had a large payload…bombs….and were bristling with machine guns on the front, sides, belly, tail.  They are strange looking birds to us now, because they were very lightly constructed, rivets all over on small plates.  The cockpit is cramped and I can’t see how they could see out of those windows.  I can’t see how you could get those planes up in the air, period.  Filled with 8,000 pounds of explosives it must have been tricky.  The wings were designed differently, a new attempt for speed.

I looked at the photos and film of the men during WWII, the crews of the B24’s and they looked so young, (and they were) but they carried a burden on their shoulders  today that is hard to understand.  There were no therapies, no real counseling units, no real understanding of what these men saw and did during war.  They had radio for the only immediacy and film footage shown in theaters before the movie.

Then, only the understanding of others who had gone through the same.  Back then they were expected to shoulder the task and buck up.  They were supposed to act and be men.  Their bodies were patched up and either they were sent back in or home, depending upon the damage.  The causalities were horrific in these planes.  Somewhere I read the percentage of returning from a mission was less than 45%.  There are hard stats to grasp.

My father was stationed in the Pacific, mostly the Philipines  and Australia.  He was a runner and held the Army record for a mile for a while.  Something like 4.11 minutes.  He ran in the outback, and there was a native Australian, named “John” who would meet him at a big rock and run with him for miles.   They never said a word to each other, speaking different languages, but John could chase birds out of the air.  My father saw him do this.  They would run back to the rock, shake hands and part.  The next day the same routine.

My father came out of WWII a pacifist.  He would not tolerate a gun around the property, and we lived in the country where pheasants, rabbits and deer were there for the taking.  I remember Uncle George, a favorite uncle, who shot a brace of rabbits on our property, hung them up by a nail by the door and my father got it from my mother.  We had come home from school, off the school bus, and saw the dead bunnies.  She found the chorus of mourners around the door, with rabbit blood dripping down the white paint to the brickwork.

Uncle George was told not to bring a gun on the property again.

My father did have a Benjamin Franklin air pistol…..something you had to pump up with a long metal thing out the snout, and he could shoot a walnut out of a crook of a tree.  That was the only gun allowed because I think it shot rivets.  Those weren’t proper bullets.

He did have a Ivanhoe Reversible Long Bow….45 lb pull.  And we learned to ‘shoot’ with that, plus the deer arrows.  My father thought it gave the wildlife a fighting chance.  But I never saw him kill anything.  He was an excellent baker, and would go out in the misty mornings, early fall and pick the blackberries in the fields, along the hedgerows, and make up three pies by 9am.  He would put them on the box freezer in the cooling room (this was a pre-Revolutionary War house, and there were many strange rooms for different purposes) and we would sneak in and eat the crusts off  the pies before he caught us.  He never really minded us because he knew about hungry children.

Many years later, when I had run back home, avoiding a first marriage,…I brought two shotguns home and a guy I grew up with, Doug Craig and I went looking for rabbits and pheasants.  I had never shot anything, but thought we would supply a country dinner.  Doug had returned from Vietnam with shrapnel in his stomach area, and Doug was a little weird BEFORE Nam.  But he was a wonderful friend,  one of the best banjo players around, and somehow lived through me trying to shoot a rabbit we spooked in the back fields.  I kept shooting at his foot, because that’s where the damn rabbit showed himself, and Doug kept hopping around.  I guess after Vietnam a girl shooting a shotgun wasn’t so terrible.  Doug did shoot the rabbit and a pheasant that day, and I did all the cleaning. We shot that pheasant on old man Staats’ property, hid it in the bushes, walked up to  Staats, asked him (which was proper) if we could hunt bird on his land, he said no, and we left.  My mother was angry, not that we had shot the bird on his property, but because his passel of boys had been poaching our land for years.

I do remember tossing the rabbit head out into the ravine between woods, and that rabbit’s head slowly rotating around in the air.   I remember it’s slightly accusatory face turning around and around. Funny what you remember.

I overcooked the (young) pheasant and stewed the rabbit.  My father said it was the first time he had tasted rabbit in 30 years.  I guess my mother wasn’t big on cleaning and cooking rabbit.

Doug and I threw the rabbit pelt up on the copper roof.  It stayed up there for a long time until my father retrieved it.

Doug died around 1991, mugged in Philly, and lay in the cooler for three weeks until his father, Dr. Craig identified him.  Dr. Craig was the big animal vet in Princeton, and a general terror to our teen years.  He was all bark and no bite, but I can still hear him and his booming Scottish voice.

Another story.

Lady Nyo

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