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Sunday Journal: Reality erases childhood's romantic notion of combat

I was in grade school in the early '50s when my dad was activated for the Korean War. Dad had been a fighter pilot in World War II and maintained his flying status with the Minnesota Air National Guard in Duluth. Watching a squadron of P-51s overhead, I just knew Dad was in the lead plane.

One afternoon Dad told me he was going to take me with him to the fighter base the next morning. I tossed and turned all night. All I could think about was flying a P-51 Mustang.

"Up and at 'em,'' Dad said the next morning, rousting me from my fitful sleep. I ate a bowl of Cheerios while mom fixed bacon, eggs and coffee for them.

After breakfast we climbed into Dad's green Oldsmobile and headed to the base. Passing through the front gate Dad was met with a snappy salute by the MP.

When we arrived at the designated parking area we got out and approached the flight line. The aroma of aviation fuel and oil mingled with the crisp north woods air. Dad spoke with a number of the other pilots and they all made a big deal about the new fighter pilot.

When we got to the flight line I could see the shining silver P-51s lined up, military-style. Everything looked like a movie. The mechanics and crew chiefs were working on the aircraft, using noisy rolling ladders to access various parts of the glistening, sleek war birds. Toolboxes, their drawers open, awaited a skilled mechanic's hand to get the next task done.

No need for salutes as the ground crew stopped by just long enough to say, "Hi, Larry, who's the new guy? He looks pretty sharp." Dad chuckled and said, "It's my son; I'm going to take him up."

Dad took me to his airplane, "Squeaky." It came by the name righteously and simply; when started it would squeak like a loose fan belt. Dad lifted me up onto the wing. My feet were planted on the black abrasive footpath to the cockpit. Dad then stepped up onto the footpath, took my hand and proceeded to the cockpit. I could see the black "no step" lettering and all the military numbering stenciled on the fuselage. Dad then asked me, "How does it feel to be standing on the wing of the finest airplane ever built?" I'm sure I mumbled something in return but I only remember the feeling: This had to be every kid's dream, and I'm living it.

Dad then pulled back the Plexiglas canopy and lifted me into the pilot's seat. I could barely see above the joystick and the gauges, pedals, instruments, knobs and levers. The interior had the aroma of leather, his unfiltered Camels and sweat, a smell that could only be described as bada--.

I played fighter ace for a while. It was great moving the stick around like I was in a 90-degree bank and hot on the tail of an ME 109. There was a red button on the handle of the joystick. Dad told me it was for the weapons, six .50-caliber machine guns, three on each wing. I'll bet those bad boys could do some real damage to an enemy target. I imagined being in a life and death struggle with a German ace, the .50-cal tracer rounds streaking across the sky, trying to catch up to the fast and maneuverable foe. After playing fighter jock for a while it was time for chow.

We went to the Officers Club and had lunch. Dad's friends came over to talk airplanes and say hello to the new guy. After lunch we walked around the base and Dad showed me the operations center, where all the flights into and out of the base are logged.

While we were walking I asked Dad how many Germans he shot down. He looked at me with his overseas cap pulled to about an inch above his right eye.


The tone was resolute, a message that was unspoken; don't ask me anything more about killing.

Soon it was time to go home. I ran to tell all the neighborhood kids about my big adventure.

Twenty years later, sitting in an armored cavalry assault vehicle outside of Dak To, South Vietnam, I understood why there would be no talk of killing.

Ken Dye is the author of "Shadow of the Arch," a fictionalized account of his time as an undercover narcotics detective with the St. Louis County Police Department. He's active with the Tampa Writers Alliance and Tarpon Springs Writers Critique Group.


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Sunday Journal: Reality erases childhood's romantic notion of combat 06/20/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 20, 2009 4:30am]
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