I do volunteer work at the Hickory Aviation Museum. There’s a couple of simple reasons I enjoy it. One reason is that I’m an airport bum. Ever since I was a kid watching airplanes take off and land is a source of never-ending pleasure for me. But the other reason is something I came to by stages. It keeps me coming back. It’s the people.
We have a pretty unique bunch of people at the Museum, including a number of old guys who took part in World War II. Most of them are aviators because that’s our focus, but we’ve got all types, and all have a story to tell if you just learn to listen.
But being around those guys has taught me a lot. I’ll share some of it with you.
For me, the hardest thing in the world was learning to just listen. I’m a terrible know-it-all, so why listen? It took me years to learn the trick of it and I’m still learning, every time I have the chance. You never learn it all. Usually you’re taken by surprise. It starts with just a few words someone says. The first thing to learn is to understand why those words catch your attention, when it’s just a few words, or a chance to watch a man’s face as he speaks.
My father’s friend Lloyd White was one of those who taught me. Lloyd flew P-47 Thunderbolts with the 9th Air Force in World War II. He told me about flying ground support missions during the Battle of the Ardennes. Lloyd was just a little guy with a soft Southern accent. Maybe it was the contrast, that soft accent, because somehow you could hear the sound of the guns beyond the words. The very young man that was Lloyd White took fearful chances because, “well, those boys up there with the rifles needed our help.” Lloyd passed away in 2009.
I saw Robert S. Johnson, one of the great 8th Air Force Thunderbolt aces, watch another gentleman, a former B-17 pilot, tell the story of losing most of his squadron to Luftwaffe fighters. Bob Johnson slowly, calmly lit a cigarette while he listened. He never took his eyes from the other man’s face. The look on Bob Johnson’s face taught me something about listening. Bob went west in 1998.
There was an older gentleman who worked at the same FBO I did, thirty years ago, who told me about his last mission flying a B-17 in the Pacific. The airplane was badly damaged by Japanese fighters and antiaircraft. He and everyone else on his crew were wounded. The last thing he remembered was lining up on final. What outfit was he with? What airfield was he landing on? What was the target, the date? Who were his other crew members? I’ll never know that now. Just, “somewhere in the Pacific, back during the war.”
And simply to list names of World War II vets means nothing. One ended up flying cargo all his life and stopped logging flight time after 35,000 hours. Another flew 40 missions with the 8th Air Force as a navigator. Others flew B-26 Marauders over Europe, or B-24s with the 15th Air Force out of Italy. Art Sulteen, who is no longer with us, flew P-47 Thunderbolts with the 8th Air Force. They all have or had war stories.
It took me a long time to understand that “war stories” are jewels beyond price. But by the time I learned to listen, to be quiet and really listen, and to know enough about history and aviation to fill in the blanks and ask the right questions, there weren’t so many war stories around. Not the first-hand stories told by the guys who were there, who did that, where you can look in their faces and their eyes when they talk about how it was over Berlin or Tokyo or Schweinfurt or Rabaul or over the Hump. If you know what to look for you can see the young man still there, below and among the wrinkles of age, because memory brings that young man back for just a little while. The old geezers themselves know this. They never feel as young as when they are among themselves, swapping stories about life the way it was.
Something else you must learn. Those old geezers feel no one understands them, and that no one believes their stories. Mostly that’s why they stopped telling stories, except among themselves, when they don’t have to justify something as true or not because the other person knows enough to judge for themselves.
So you must learn to understand what it is that you see and hear, what is being offered to you for free, because the price was paid long ago and not by you, sitting there safe and warm and well fed, doing nothing but listening. Even then listening isn’t always a comfortable place, not if you listen with the proper frame of mind. Not if you can put yourself in their place, just for an instant, even in the smallest way, and just listen.
Take the opportunity if you can and while you can. And remember, if you’re ever around an airport with a bunch of old geezers swapping what they might call lies and/or war stories, that there are ghosts standing among them — the ghosts of the ones who didn’t grow old. The ones who didn’t come back.
They too have a story to tell. It’s in the silence between the words of the war stories.