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Jewish World Review May 23, 2000 / 18 Iyar, 5760

Bob Greene

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Consumer Reports


'It's funny how you remember the little things'

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 second of three excerpts from Greene's new book, "Duty: A Father, His Son, and the Man Who Won the War." -- "THERE'S A GENERAL SOMETHING waiting for you in the lounge."

The clerk at the front desk of the hotel near Port Columbus barely looked up as she said the words. I had arrived at the airport on a flight from Chicago and had taken a cab to the hotel; this was my first trip back to Ohio since my father's funeral, a short visit to take my mother to dinner. The hotel is where Paul Tibbets had said he would meet me before I went to my mom's house.

General Something. If he'd been the star of a network situation comedy, the desk clerk might have been able to work up a bit of interest in his presence in the hotel; if he'd been a football player or a singer, she might have known who he was, might have called her friends to excitedly tell them who she had just met.

But this old man -- General Something -- had stopped at the desk to tell her that someone might be looking for him, and to please refer the person to the hotel lounge, and evidently the name hadn't really stuck. I told her thanks; she said no problem.

- - -

On the last day I saw my father alive, my mother had a question for me.

"Have you said goodbye to him?" she asked.

She meant the real goodbye -- the one that was going to have to last forever.

In those final months, my brother, my sister and I had been coming to Columbus, spelling each other as we sat with our parents. None of us could be there full-time, yet we knew that he wasn't going to get better -- it wasn't a question of if the end was coming, but of when. So each time one of us left, we didn't know whether it was going to be the last time.

"Have you said goodbye to him?"

I hadn't, really; I had sat in the room with him, and listened as he talked, and when his disorientation was at its worst I had tried not to let him know just how far, in his dying, he had wandered from the person he used to be. There were certain hours -- I think of one especially awful afternoon, when in an attempt to help him complete his bathroom functions, the four of us, my brother, my sister, my mother and I, had lifted him from the bed, and in the middle of this he had seemed to lose consciousness....

I think of that now, and of how proud and self-sufficient he had always been, how confident of his strength, and it seems to me that we, all of us, were saying goodbye day after day, week after week, in ways more profound than words could convey. That by being there, by seeing him this way and looking his dying full in the face, we were saying the most complete and loving goodbye a family could possibly say.

But my mother meant something else. She meant: Have you sat next to him and told him what you think of him and let him know that this may be the last conversation the two of you ever have?

"I've been saying goodbye in my own way," I told her. She knew full well that my father and I were never any good at talking to each other about anything serious; I'm not proud of that and I'm not ashamed of it, it's just the way the two of us were, and I have a suspicion that we were far from the only fathers and sons in this world who were or are that way.

"Debby and Timmy have said goodbye," my mother said.

I knew they had; I knew my sister and brother had sat in the room with him and had done their best to have conversations that summed everything up. Whether he was comprehending what they said -- and whether he remembered it even five minutes later -- I am not certain.

"Go on in and say goodbye," my mother said.

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I'd be leaving for the airport in half an hour to fly back to Chicago. I went into the bedroom; outside the windows the trees had been deep green and full of leaves in the summer, when he had taken to his bed with this final illness, and during the months of his dying they had changed to the brown and orange trees of autumn, and now to the black bare branches of winter, all in the time he had been in the bed.

I looked at him and I knew he didn't want to be here for another spring.

We just sat. The door was closed, and no one else knew what was going on, and he clearly was in no mood for words and neither was I. I sat next to the bed and held his hand, and when he motioned that he was thirsty I held a glass of water to his lips, and there was ice on those branches outside the windows and I knew that this was the right way to do it, and I think he knew, too.

"You have to get on your airplane?" he said after a while.

"I do," I said.

I stood up and looked at him and I said, "I'll see you later."

He sort of smiled.

"You will?" he said.

"Of course," I said. "We'll be seeing each other."

He smiled again. He knew that I didn't mean in this world.

"That's good," he said. "I'll see you later, too."

- - -

During the months of his dying, I kept thinking of so many questions about him. The world in which he had lived -- the world that existed prior to my birth -- who had he been then, in that world? All of us know our parents as just that -- as our mothers and fathers -- but before we were born, they were someone else. Before they defined themselves as our parents, they were men and women whose universes had nothing at all to do with us.

And then I remembered the tapes. He and my mother had given us their life stories some seven or eight years before. My mom had written hers; my dad, who didn't like to write, had talked his into a tape recorder. They were gifts to my sister, my brother and me.

Now, as my father was dying, his voice wispy and confused, his ability to maintain a cohesive narrative getting weaker by the day, I dug up the tapes.

There was his voice, strong and full. Telling the story of a life:

- - -

"I was born on March 7, 1915, in Akron, Ohio....Dad's parents were from very moderate circumstances, and from his very early days, Dad had to work. As a matter of fact, he sold newspapers on the streets of Akron....

"He was more or less self-educated; he did not go to college, but he did study law in a very prominent law office by the name of Vorys. He got his diploma by taking the Ohio State Bar exam and passing it with flying colors, which was quite an accomplishment for a poor boy with only a high school education.

"I believe the earliest thing I remember was when our house on Casterton Avenue was being built, and we lived in the Portage Hotel. I also can think of the drugstore, which was off the main lobby in that hotel, and the wonderful hot chocolate they served, and whenever I smell hot chocolate I think of the treats we used to have going down to that drugstore and getting a cup of that steaming good stuff. I believe I was four or four-and-a-half years old.

"Another thing I can remember very clearly was looking out the window in our room or rooms; it was in the middle of the night and the fire alarm rang. Not in the hotel, but out on the corner, and down East Market Street dashed a steam fire engine drawn by about six horses, it was spitting smoke and fire and clanging bells and that was a very, very thrilling moment for me. I can see those horses coming around the corner now, those sparks coming off their hooves as they hit the pavement...."

- - -

"Touch it?" Paul Tibbets said. "No -- I never touched it."

It was a little thing that had been on my mind since the last time I had spoken with him. It was probably a meaningless point -- but I kept finding myself thinking about whether Tibbets had ever touched the bomb. All that terrible power riding in the plane with him, all that nascent death -- I tried to imagine the night he climbed into the Enola Gay for the flight to Hiroshima, and every time I thought about that, I had a picture in my mind of Tibbets stopping for a moment to touch the bomb he had been ordered to drop.

"I'm not sentimental or superstitious or anything else," he said. He was in the hotel lounge, just as the desk clerk had said he would be; he was finishing off a cup of soup. He's not a drinker; he told me he doesn't mind being in bars, but he avoids alcohol. Tibbets was the same age as my dad -- 83 -- and lived just a few miles from my dad's house; the two men had never met. In my father's personal universe -- the one closest to his soul -- the central event, always, was the war in which he served. In the months following my dad's death, I found myself turning to Tibbets in my effort to understand that.

"I could have touched it, when they wheeled it out," Tibbets said. "Tom Ferebee stopped and checked everything -- he was the bombardier, that was his job. I had a team of professionals, and I trusted them. All I needed to know was: 'Will it work?' I trusted that it would."

I told Tibbets I had heard some of his support team in 1945 had written messages on the bomb before it was loaded onto the Enola Gay. The bomb was not fully armed until the plane was airborne; theoretically, there was no danger in approaching it and writing on it while it was on the ground. Still -- walking up to the atomic bomb and fooling around with it....

"I heard the same thing," Tibbets said. "That some of the guys had written something on it. 'To the emperor, with love' -- I think that was it, something like that. It's probably true -- they probably did write messages on the bomb. Didn't make any sense, really. Think about it -- who the hell is going to read it?"

The otherworldliness of this was still sinking in on me. Here was Tibbets, telling these stories while, on a TV set in the bar, an NBA game was on the color screen, and the handful of other patrons were staring at that game, following the action as if the outcome were a matter of life or death. A few feet away this elderly man with hearing aids in both ears, whose identify was a complete mystery to the others in the bar, narrated a tale almost beyond comprehension.

- - -

Once in a while, as I talked with Tibbets, I half-forgot for a second that he didn't just suddenly materialize for the armed services when the atomic bomb project was being developed. The reason he was in the running for the job was because of his combat record in Europe. He flew 25 missions in B-17s, including being the lead pilot of the first-ever American daylight bombing raid against occupied Europe.

Still, occasionally he would drop a reference into our conversations that brought me up short. I had been asking him some technical question about the planes he flew in the war -- I think this particular question was about the altitude at which the planes operated -- and in trying to explain he said, "Well, when I was flying Ike to Gibraltar..."

"You knew Eisenhower?" I asked.

He gave me a look. "Yes," he said.

"Why were you flying him to Gibraltar?" I asked.

"Because he had to get to the invasion of North Africa," Tibbets said.

"Oh," I said. Simple as that. Dwight D. Eisenhower had to get to the war, and Tibbets gave him a ride.

"How was he to fly with?" I asked.

"As nice a passenger as you'll ever find," Tibbets said.

Eisenhower, he said, was to be the overall commander of the operation, with Major General Mark Clark as his deputy. This was in November of 1942; Eisenhower was in England, the air was full of rain and fog, and there was much uncertainty about whether the planes could take off.

"We were standing on the runway," Tibbets said. "Eisenhower seemed like he wanted to get moving, but others were saying that the weather was just too bad. Eisenhower looked at me -- were we going to take off or not?

"I said, 'General, if I didn't know the passenger who I'd be carrying on this trip, I'd make the decision to go.' Meaning if it was just me, I'd fly out of there.

"And Eisenhower said, 'I've got a war waiting on me. Let's go.'"

Tibbets said that a Jeep led his B-17 out onto the active runway, and that by the time he was airborne "I couldn't see three feet in front of me. I flew as low over the Channel as I possibly could -- the last thing Eisenhower needed was for German radar to pick us up. I can't tell you exactly how low I was flying, because I don't know -- but there was salt spray on the window of the plane."

And Eisenhower? "He was sitting on a two-by-four plank that we had put between my seat and the co-pilot's seat. He had told us that he wanted to watch what was going on. And he sat there with us and talked with us as if this was the most regular thing in the world -- him sitting on a two-by-four and us flying him to run the war.

"He had a thermos jug of coffee with him -- it's funny how you remember the little things, but I remember that Eisenhower shared his coffee with us. It was a 1,200-mile flight, and by the time we landed in Gibraltar the invasion had started -- the paratroopers were dropping.

"He was all business. He just got out of the plane, thanked us, and he was gone. He was just as fine as anyone could be. He was wearing four stars when he was with us, but he was one of the boys. I was only -- what? -- 27, I think, at that point. You try not to show that you're feeling anything. But this was Ike.

"Made me feel good -- that he trusted me to get him there. That moment at the airfield in England is one that stays in your mind. You're standing in the rain with Eisenhower, and he's looking at the sky and you tell him that you can do it and he says those words. 'I've got a war waiting on me.'

"And you go."

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


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