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Jewish World Review May 22, 2000 / 17 Iyar, 5760

Bob Greene

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'The whisper of a generation saying goodbye to its children'

After the death of his father, a solder with an infantry division during World War II, Bob Greene set out to try to understand his dad's life with the assistance of an unlikely ally who lived just a few miles away -- Paul Tibbets, the combat pilot who flew the atomic bomb to Japan. This is the first of three excerpts from Greene's new book, "Duty: A Father, His Son, and the Man Who Won the War." -- THE MORNING AFTER the last meal I ever ate with my father, I finally met the man who won the war.

It was from my father that I had first heard about the man. The event -- the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima -- I of course knew about; like all children of the post-World War II generation, my classmates and I had learned about it in elementary school.

But the fact that the man who dropped the bomb -- the pilot who flew the Enola Gay to Japan, who carried out the single most violent act in the history of mankind and thus brought World War II to an end -- the fact that he lived quietly in the same town where I had grown up . . . that piece of knowledge came from my father.

It was never stated in an especially dramatic way. My dad would come home from work -- from downtown Columbus, in central Ohio -- and say: "I was buying some shirts today, and Paul Tibbets was in the next aisle, buying ties."

They never met; my father never said a word to him. I sensed that my father might have been a little reluctant, maybe even a touch embarrassed; he had been a soldier with an infantry division, Tibbets had been a combat pilot, all these years had passed since the war and now here they both were, two all-but-anonymous businessmen in a sedate, landlocked town in a country at peace...what was my dad supposed to say? How was he supposed to begin the conversation?

Yet there was always a certain sound in his voice at the dinner table. "Paul Tibbets was in the next aisle buying ties. . . ." The sound in my dad's voice told me -- as if I needed reminding -- that the story of his life had reached its most indelible and meaningful moments in the years of the war, the years before I was born.

- - -

Those dinner-table conversations were long ago, though; they were in the years when my dad was still vital, in good health, not yet ready to leave the world. I had all but forgotten the conversations -- at least the specifics of them, other than the occasional mentions of Tibbets.

Now my dad was dying. We had dinner in his bedroom -- he would not, it would turn out, again be able to sit in a chair and eat after this night -- and the next morning I told him that I had somewhere to go and that I would be back in a few hours, and I went to find Paul Tibbets. Something told me that it was important.

- - -

By the autumn of 1998, my father had been dying for several months. It was a word my family avoided -- "dying" was not something we said in his presence, or very often in the presence of one another -- but we all knew it, and I think he knew it best.

I was covering a court case in Wisconsin, and during a break I called my office in Chicago and the person who gave me the message was as careful as possible in how she told me: "Your mother called and said your father has been taken to the hospital, but she said to make sure to tell you that it's nothing to panic about. She said they're just taking a close look at him."

Within days that had changed. My sister, who lived in Nevada, had flown to Columbus to help my mom. My father was home from the hospital, but he was not feeling strong enough to talk on the telephone. Another phone call from my sister: "Daddy wants you boys to come."

That day. Right away.

"I think he wants to say goodbye," my sister said.

My plane sat on the runway at O'Hare in Chicago for hours, its takeoff delayed due to some mechanical trouble or other. My brother was able to get to Ohio more quickly from Colorado than I was from Illinois. No working phones on the plane; no way to get word out, or to find out what was happening in my parents' home.

It was well after midnight when I landed at Port Columbus. I didn't call my parents' house -- I didn't want to wake my father if he was asleep, and if the news was very bad I wanted to hear it in person, not over the phone -- so I just got in a cab and gave directions. The lights were all burning, at an hour when they never did.

My mom, my sister, my brother. All awake.

"Go on in and talk to him," my mom said.

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Some moments, not a word is required. And my father and I had never talked all that easily anyway. I walked into the bedroom, seeing him smaller than I ever remembered, gray and all but motionless in bed. My father had always been a man who led with a joke; he could make the soberest moment funny, especially when he needed to deflect matters of gravity.

Not tonight.

"Hello, Bob," he said. "Thanks for coming."

Too direct. Too unlike him.

"You've never seen your old man like this, have you?" he said.

I didn't ask him how he was doing. Having to answer that one was not what he needed this night. Thanks for coming. That's how he was doing.

- - -

"I'm not that hungry yet," Paul Tibbets said. "We can talk some."

He had agreed to meet me. "The man who won the war," of course, is shorthand -- no one person accomplished that. But it is shorthand based on fact -- Tibbets was the man put in charge of preparing a top-secret military unit to drop the world's first atomic bomb, he was the person who assembled and trained that unit, and when the time came to do what had never in the history of mankind been done, to fly an atomic bomb over an enemy nation and then drop the bomb on a city below, Tibbets did not delegate. He climbed into the cockpit and flew the bomb to Japan.

But he was seldom spoken about; the war ended in 1945, and by the 1960s his was a name that few people seemed even to know. Part of this was doubtless because of the deep ambivalence many Americans felt about the end of the war. Yes, they were grateful that it had ended, and that the United States and the Allies had won. But the death and devastation from the bomb -- the unprecedented human suffering caused by the unleashing of the nuclear fire -- was something that people instinctively chose not to celebrate. Hiroshima was not the stuff of holidays.

So I would hear my father talk of seeing Paul Tibbets here and there in Columbus, and when I was a young reporter my journalistic instincts were to try to speak with him, to secure an interview. I wrote him letters, I left messages at his office -- not just once, but periodically over the course of two decades I tried. I never received an answer. He didn't decline, he didn't explain, he didn't offer reasons. He simply didn't respond at all. Never. Not a word.

- - -

Now, though, with my father dying, he had agreed to see me. They were almost exactly the same age, born within a few weeks of each other in 1915 -- the two men who had never met were 83 on that first day I talked with Tibbets.

He and a friend were supposed to go have lunch together. But he said that could wait: "I'm not that hungry yet. We can talk some."

- - -

And so it started. Neither of us knew it that day, but it would be the first of many conversations -- about the war, about the men and women who lived through it, about their lives, and the lives of their sons and daughters: the lives of those of us who came after them, who inherited the world that they saved for us.

As I sat with Tibbets that first day -- thinking of my father in his bed just a few miles away -- it occurred to me that Eisenhower was dead, Patton was dead, Marshall was dead, MacArthur was dead. And here was Tibbets, telling me in the first person the story of how the great and terrible war came to an end.

On this day -- the day I met Tibbets -- all of his stories were war stories. That would change; gradually the stories would expand in context, would begin to explain to me certain things not just about this man, but about the generation of men and women who are leaving us now every day. It is a wrenching thing, to watch them go. As the men and women of the World War II generation die, it is for their children the most intensely personal experience imaginable -- and at the same time a sweeping and historic one, being witnessed by tens of millions of sons and daughters, sons and daughters who feel helpless to stop the inevitable.

For me, as my father, day by day, slipped away, the overwhelming feeling was that a safety net was being removed -- a safety net that had been there since the day I was born, a safety net I was often blithely unaware of. That's what the best safety nets do -- they allow you to forget they're there. No generation has ever given its children a sturdier and more reliable safety net than the one our parents' generation gave to us.

The common experience that wove the net was their war. And as I began to listen to Tibbets -- to hear his stories, later to question him about the America that preceded and followed the war from which his stories came -- I realized anew that so many of us only now, only at the very end, are beginning to truly know our fathers and mothers. It was as if constructing that safety net for their children was their full-time job, and that finally, as they leave us, we are beginning to understand the forces that made them the way they were.

Tibbets began to speak, and as I listened I thought I could hear a rustle of something behind the words -- I thought I could hear the whisper of a generation saying goodbye to its children.

- - -

On that first day, I told Tibbets the story: the story of how I had first heard that he lived in the same town where I grew up, the story of my dad coming home from buying clothes for the office and saying that he had seen Paul Tibbets in the same store.

And I told him how poorly my dad was doing. I said I'd be going back to his house, and that I planned to tell my dad where I had spent the morning.

"Even though you were so famous in the war and he wasn't. . . ." I began.

"Don't say that," Tibbets said.

"I don't mean it in a bad way," I said. "I just mean that as much as the Army meant to him, no one outside of his friends and his family really ever knew he was there."

"That was the whole point," Tibbets said. "That's what being in the Army meant."

"But everyone knew about you," I said.

"That doesn't matter," Tibbets said. "Who knew about who doesn't matter."

I said goodbye to him, and thanked him for the visit. He asked me what my father's rank had been, and I said that when he left the Army after the war he had been an infantry major.

He took out a pen and signed something and handed it to me. "Give this to your dad when you get back to his house," Tibbets said.

I put it in my briefcase and thanked him again, and it wasn't until I was in the cab that I looked at it.

"To Major Greene, a World War II warrior, with best wishes from Brig. Gen. Paul Tibbets, USAF (Ret.)"

I got back to my parents' house; he was still in bed, just as I had left him. I showed the signature to my mother, who carried it over to his bed and handed it to him.

He moved it toward his face and looked at it. First I saw the smile. Then the glistening, the shining in his brown eyes.

- - -

One of my first memories of my father -- one of my first memories of asking him for something -- had to do with a song.

"Sing 'Army now."'

That's what my mother tells me I said -- she said that when I was two or three years old, I would beg my father to sing that song for me.

"You're in the Army now, you're not behind a plow...."

Apparently that was his ritual, when he would come home from work. My mom and I would be waiting, and in his business suit he would drive up to the house, and -- at my urging -- he would sing to me from the song. "You're in the Army now" -- every soldier knew the song, every civilian, it was one of the last remnants of an era when not only did composers write songs about life in the military, but the songs became universally recognized.

So -- I am told -- "Sing 'Army now"' was my every-evening request. Number One on my hit parade -- I couldn't get enough of it.

There is a photograph -- a snapshot -- that, according to the penciled notation on the back, was taken in 1949. That means that I was two; that means that my father was 34. We had the same names; he was Robert B. Greene Sr., I am Robert B. Greene Jr. Both of us Bob Greene. He had returned to America, to Ohio, at the end of the war, less than five years before the picture was taken. In the photo he is in a suit and tie, wearing a fedora, a businessman supporting his family in a nation newly at peace. In the photo I am so small that I am barely visible. Bundled up against the cold, my face tiny, I am standing in front of my dad. We are posing by the garage of our home.

He's reaching down toward me, his hands just making it to the top of my head. He's smiling in the cold. Two years before, I hadn't been born; four years before, he was in Italy, in Africa, in uniform. So much motion for him, so quickly; so many changes.

Who knew about who doesn't matter. That's what Tibbets had said. All those soldiers, coming home to the country they had saved, and all of a sudden the country, and they, were on to the next page, the next chapter, moving forward, or trying to. What they had done in the war was yesterday. All those men. They had grown up in this country, and then gone away, and then they had been told that it was time to come home and start being someone new.

The hat on his head, the smile on his face, the tie around his neck. His son, in the picture, pressed against his knees. "Sing 'Army now,"' I would ask. And the businessman, home from a day at work, would comply.

"You'll never get rich, by digging a ditch . . ."

There are shadows behind us in the picture, but from the front we are washed in winter sunshine.

- - -

"Who knew about who doesn't matter." But now it did. I understood what Tibbets meant: Who knew about who didn't matter, they were all in the war, they were all doing the jobs they had been asked to do, they weren't doing it to become celebrated. They were doing it because nothing, at that point in the world's history, was more important.

My father lay sleeping. My mother -- I could see her across the bedroom -- had reclined on the other bed, and now she had drifted off too. I sat in the room, and I looked at both of their faces.

The need to understand -- the duty to understand -- can come to you late. Who knew about who doesn't matter. Maybe not back then -- maybe not when everyone was young. But whether you're a soldier the world never heard of, or the man who won the war, it matters in the end. In a way, it's all that does matter.

My father's breath and my mother's breath were the only sounds in the room.

JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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