Robert (gurdonark) wrote,

in flight/in love/in Texas

I want to tell you a story about a man in his eighties. The story seems to have a lot of war in it, a decent tad of absurd bureaucracy, and more than a little Texas about it, but it's really a love story. It's about a time when people did things because there was no other choice to avert genocide, and not because someone in a think-tank published a blue paper. Yet my story is not about the "big picture", but about one ordinary man.

He lived in a small village of 1200 people, in Hampshire, southeast of London.

When the Germans bombed London, people in his village could sit on a hillside, and see the fires burning.

In the Battle of Britain, the German Air Force pummeled England with strafe after strafe of bombing runs. Much of the British air strength at that time was committed to other regions, fighting other battles. This was the time when, to paraphrase the famous Churchill speech, "so few" remaining pilots valiantly turned back the pre-invasion German air action to protect "so many". The British maintained control over their airspace, providing a disincentive for invasion.

As 1940 progressed, it became clear that England would need many more flight squadrons to deal wth the Nazi threat. The United States had not entered the war, instead maintaining an official neutrality while providing material (and materiel) assistance through the lend/lease program. The British Flight Training Schools were one aspect of this lend/lease assistance.

There was a symmetry to the flight training school concept, because in the First World War, the English had trained what became the United States Army Air Corps (later the Air Force). The decision was made in 1940 to set up flight schools in the United States to which British military personnel could come to be trained as pilots.

Thirty miles east of Dallas, the town of Terrell served as a farming center. It's in one of those northeast Texas areas that it part woodland, part field. Andrew Carnegie funded an imposing 1904 library there, and funded a good bit of a pipe organ (one of 8,000 such he donated world-wide) for the use of the local Baptist church.

Because one of the best-respected flight trainers lived in Dallas, the decision was made to build a training school in Terrell. British Flight Training School Number 1, the first of six such facilities spread around the country, was erected at the cost of
$ 260,000, a material sum in 1940 dollars.

The townspeople were thrilled, and ran front page articles in the local newspaper about their warm welcome for the newcomers. No "not in my backyard" zoning meetings were held. Nobody worried overmuch about traffic congestion, nor the wider implications of the visit. Indeed, in that time, even more than in this troubled time, fascism was the domain of AM radio hucksters, who garnered listeners through unsound and provocative sarcasms advocating stark civic immorality disguised as "conservative" self-righteous virtue.

The pilots had to come by a circuitous route. The United States, after all, was neutral until late 1941, and could not officially train airmen. Instead, the trainees sailed to Nova Scotia--a one weeks' trip by ship--and "resigned" from the British military. Then, as "civilians", they boarded trains to ride west through the eastern part of Canada, entering the United States in Chicago. Then they rode the train on down to Texas.

He had had radio signal training, and he wanted to do his part. So he sailed to Nova Scotia, waited a few weeks for the camp to be ready, and then rode the train. In Chicago, he encountered his first observation of racial segregation, which he found
really unfortunate--in his village, racial diversity had been observed towards the few folks in town who did not belong to the majority ethnic group to which he belonged.

Finally, they arrived in Texas. Terrell was a town of no more than 10 or 20 thousand people, and it had not been touched by war in the ways that England had. The young men were astonished by little things, like being offered mutiple eggs for breakfast in a time when the ration in the UK was one egg per person per week.

Soon, they were training to fly planes, P-17s and other planes of the day. The Texas distances were a new thing for them, and quite useful. The flight from Terrell to Fort Worth, considered a short drive in Texas terms, was equivalent to flying 2/3 of the width of southern England. The flight to El Paso, off in west Texas, was like flying from London to Berlin. He learned to fly planes there in the Texas prairie.

The townspeople developed a real fancy for them. The first Sunday of each month, the British airmen would march, 300 strong, in formation from the airport on the outskirts into town proper. They would all attend the church of their choice. The airmen even put on little plays and entertainments for the townsfolk from time to time.

One might imagine that in a six-month training course, featuring leave only a day and a half a week, flight schedule permitting, the world would be entirely workaday. But he, like roughly forty of his compatriots, found love in the prairie.

She lived on a nearby farm. I am not sure how they met, but I am sure they became entirely taken with one another. By the time the United States was in the war, gasoline rationining was in place. In this awful, difficult war, the notion of the "brass" was often that soldiers, sailors and airmen should be treated as people and not as mere means to fulfill the predictions of a white paper. The "powers that be" gave the airmen with friends in town special gasoline rations, so that the local farm families could pick them up from the training base by car, without expending their precious gasoline rations.

I know that in a love story, I am supposed to tell you the look in their eyes, and the
way that they kissed, and how their lovers' spats healed over, making them see they were born to be with one another. I would rather tell you that over time, they decided to marry.

During their honeymoon, they stayed in a Dallas hotel. They danced in the ballroom. She said to him "I feel as if I should apologize to every woman in the room". He asked "Why?". She replied "look, except at the bar, there are no men here--the women outnumber the men". These were stark and different times, when war was not a cable news feature to fill out the time between interviews with celebrities and analyses of tax cuts for the wealthy. This was a time when people went to Europe to fight a desperate war because a genocidal maniac controlled half a continent. The failure of peace, motivated, of all things, by revenge for an earlier "war to end all wars", had led to a deeply sad, palpably costly,and yet tragically necessary war.

As was the fashion of that time, he tried to make light of a dark situation. The only cheering comment he could make was that the male-to-female ratio would be far worse in England--there, due to the war, young women out-numbered young men by the ratio of six to one.

I am glad that he did his duty, but I am also glad to be able to tell you that this story lacks a tragic interlude. He graduated from flight school, and was commissioned a lieutenant upon his "re-enlistment" in the British air corps. But he never flew a combat mission. An opthalmologist ended his flight career before it had begun properly. With hindsight, I suppose this closed out also a number of career paths for him. He was grounded, and worked air traffic control until the war's end.

They lived in England when peacetime fell. The British people had been through years of hardship and deprivation. They elected a Labour government to begin the re-building,
even though this meant displacing Winston Churchill, an unorthodox Tory with a rather
curious history, who nonetheless distinguished himself in many ways, including particularly his understanding from early on that appeasement of Hitler would prove a dangerous and costly endeavor. My own personal views land me in what we would here call the "moderate left", but World War Two and its immediate aftermath are a wonderful object lesson in how political philosophy in the abstract within a democratic spectrum is less important than seizing the moment when a moral challenge is at hand.

The Labour government faced the problem of rebuilding a country and immense economic and social upheaval in the wake of a war's end. It embarked on an ambitious program,
which retained rationing for years, and introduced substantial regulation.

For the young married couple, this posed some challenges. He had taken over the family business, which I gather had something to do with milk distribution. He had learned of some new innovations from his travels in this industry, which he would have liked to try. He could not get the permits to do the changes he wanted to do, as the boards in charge of such things wanted to keep a lid on such expansions until England was rebuilt. He developed a knee-jerk reaction to socialism, which I consider perhaps misplaced, but understand, because I have a similar knee-jerk reaction to the IPod/ITunes digital rights management regime.

Soon she was to bear their first child. She did not want to raise her child in post-war England, but instead among her own people in Texas. Spouses make such requests, and other spouses often honor them. It was a time when little people did big things with great purpose. He had to sell his business in the UK. His family did not mind that he had sold the small family business. They believe, I believe, that love conquers all.

They moved to Terrell, and he worked on her family's farm for four years, and then ultimately found another job. He doesn't long for what he lost. He doesn't sit and pine for what might have been. He earned his RAF wings, though he never used them, and he married a girl from Texas under the most improbable circumstances.

Now he sits in a small museum, which the unprepossessing name "British Flight Training School No. 1 Museum", out at the Terrell Airport. It's an amazingly well done museum,with memorabilia and text to explain this four-year slice of history. His accent
still has the pleasant light overlay of Hampshire, and he sat me down and gave me the story of the school, and his own story. We were the only people in the museum, and we spoke until closing time.

I think now that I wish I had asked more about his particular love story. What color were her eyes? How many children did they have? He told me a story about how he could not get a job at Love Field Airport in Dallas, because he was an alien, but I never asked how he did fill his work days. Is she still alive? Just how did they meet? What was their favorite dance? I will never be a romance writer, I fear.

Yet his story touched me, and yesterday was a good day for me to hear it. Yesterday my own love story reached a new milestone. My wife and I married in 1990 on a rainy May day,
when the Kansas City colors popped in the way that rainy-day colors do. We married in a time of peace, and although we also met when I was traveling for work (indeed, we met on the plane in transit from Los Angeles to Dallas, during a time when I made regular trips to work on a case in Calfornia), we faced no deprivations or hardships.

So many times it occurs to those of us today that we are but a shadow of "the greatest generation", a set of ordinary folks who, despite natural inclinations to wish they could get on with their lives without the risk and heartbreak, somehow managed to set a goodish part of things right after fascism had sent Europe all wrong.

Yet I wish for people not the purifying crucible of love among war, but the encompassing joy of love among peace. I have come to believe that we do all live in our own time of challenges, and that in a world in which most of the people work hard every day to make less than two dollars a day, there is no rest merely because one lives in a pleasant suburb. I think a lot about how it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of an needle than it is for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. I imagine that all around us all are ways to help in ways that challenge and refine us, just as the stark reality of the 1940s refined and altered the lives of so many.

My wife and I are among the lucky ones. We've not experienced the losses and agonies that others have faced, and we have lived lives nearly charmed in their simplicity. Our days are not cloudless, and we are certainly each flawed in our own ways. We have had setbacks and small triumphs. Perhaps we are limited reeds, playing rather quiet songs. But we have encountered and shared great kindness, for which we are grateful.

We ate last night at a seafood restaurant, after my wife returned from her time-consuming work as a poll worker for a very minor local election. I told her about my hike with my friend Gene at lovely Lake Tawakoni, and about the three small museums I encountered along the way. I told her about the nice man who guided me through the museum. I gave her two gifts, one a rather nice bit of jewellery,and another, more humorous, an 'instant sushi maker' from a kitchenware store in Terrell's impressive outlet mall. We counted ourselves to have been lucky, and we shared our memories. We talked of family and friends, work and an upcoming vacation, as we are wont to do.

I never thought I'd brush up against love in a military flight museum. Love is a funny thing--the marshmallow peeps versions are sweet at first, and fun to experience. Yet I trust the loves that move men to Texas, start families, and end when people are in their eighties. I hope to take my wife to that museum to meet that man, as she, with a journalist's bent, would fill in the narrative for us both much better than my thin effort here. Yet I don't mind the images I see--of scrambled eggs for ration-starved men, Dallas big bands playing dances for newly-weds, and men who give strangers tours of lives worth living.

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