Friday, June 3, 2011

A Different Kind of Hero

Dad in the radio shack of a B-17. Grim prospects have dulled his usual smile.

My dad was a hero. Not the movie kind of hero that sprays bullets all over the place to save the world from imminent destruction, but the quiet kind of hero that shows up every day to deal with life as he finds it without complaint or rancor.
Not that he didn't exhibit plenty of raw bravery. He was a radio operator in a B-17 bomber group during World War II. He did this at a time when B-17 flight crews had a 75% casualty rate. That means every time his plane took off he had a three in four chance of coming back dead or maimed—or not coming back at all. This must have been a terrifying prospect. It makes me cringe just to think about it, and I'm only imagining it on his behalf. He never talked about it.
He flew nine missions from England to Germany and back. On the last one his ankle was forever ruined by a ten inch shard of anti-aircraft flak. He kept the piece they took out of his leg in a box with his purple heart and a way cool pair of aviator sunglasses. Army surgeons basically botched the job when they tried to put him back together. After three surgeries, his ankle was still frozen at an odd angle. He walked with a pronounced limp the rest of his life.
It didn't slow him down much, and he never complained about it. He could bowl a 220 game without any practice and foxtrot and polka into the wee hours at a wedding reception. Even more amazing were some of his feats as a country veterinarian. More than once, I saw him take a kick that would have felled a bigger man. More times than that I saw him thrust his whole arm into the south end of a recalcitrant cow and shove her calf into position so she could deliver it alive. As often as not these things were done on damp concrete floors in freezing barns using that ruined leg for purchase.
By the time he was the age I am now, his gimp walk and the physical demands of his profession had ruined his hip as well. His doctors botched that fix too, and the aftermath was a slow spiral into a relatively early grave—his personal aspirations largely unfulfilled, his dreams as shattered as his bones. Still, in the forty odd years that I knew him, I never once heard him curse his fate, swear, or say an unkind thing. I think that's heroic. Too bad it wouldn't make a movie anybody would watch.


  1. Sounds like a wonderful man. The movie, which doesn't show the half of it, I guess, might have been "12 O'Clock High"?


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