Jewish World Review May 24, 2000 / 19 Iyar, 5760
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 third of three excerpts from Greene's new book, "Duty: A Father, His Son, and the Man Who Won the War."
In the months after my father's death, I had been talking to Tibbets a lot. He and my dad were the same age -- 83, having been born within a few weeks of each other in 1915.
I asked him about how much the soldiers' lives had depended on each other -- both in matters that could kill them if someone did something wrong, or matters that would merely inconvenience them if someone declined to do a little thing right. And I decided to tell Tibbets one small story, from a Christmas Eve long ago.
"We were in the house," I said. "All of us were still little kids. And there was this huge sound from the garage, like an explosion or something, and then the sound of water gushing.
"It was freezing outside. We opened the side door that led into the garage-- and a water pipe had burst. It must have been a pipe that extended across the ceiling of the garage, because the water was just pouring onto my father's and my mother's cars. I mean, more water than you've ever seen come out of a pipe.
"And you could tell that it was very hot water -- it was really steaming as it came out of the ceiling of the garage. And we stood there -- I can see my father looking at it -- and what were we supposed to do? It was Christmas Eve -- late in the evening on Christmas Eve, if I'm remembering right. Who are you going to find on Christmas Eve to come fix a burst water pipe?"
"What did your father do?" Tibbets asked.
"Well, I remember him going to the phone in the back hallway, and calling all these plumbing services," I said. "But of course, no one was there. So he looked up the home numbers of some plumbers who lived near us, and he told them what had happened. But they didn't want to go out on Christmas Eve. I couldn't blame them -- but the water was just gushing into our garage.
"I guess what I think about when I think about that is: In the Army, you always must have had all these people to do every job with you. You had been asked to save the world-- but even on the little things, there were millions of you, always doing everything together. However tedious it might have been, however hurry-up-and-wait, at least you were all there. You know that old line: 'Yeah? You and what army?' You had the answer, back then. You and what army? The United States Army."
"If he'd been back in the Army, there would have been hundreds of guys around to fix the pipe," I said. "Hundreds of pairs of hands. And I remember him standing there with his family, with all the water pouring out . . . and I think about whether life got so much harder for all of you once you got home, and there was no army with you. The pipe blows, the furnace breaks . . . and it's not you and what army anymore. It's just you."
"It's still you and the Army," Tibbets said.
"What do you mean?" I said.
"That's one of the things that the war did for us," he said. "It's an old saying, but it's a true one: There is nothing like American ingenuity. For the GIs during the war, it was a question of coming upon new problems to solve every day. Problems that none of us had ever anticipated before -- and we had to figure out ways to solve them every day of the war.
"Yes, we did it together -- but I don't think that made it harder once we got home. I think it made it easier. Because we had all those months and years of coming up with solutions when there was no choice but to find a solution. So your friends might not be with you once you got home and were faced with problems -- but the experiences you had gone through were with you."
"So you don't think a lot of men didn't know what to do once they didn't have the Army at their side?" I said.
"I think a guy's lost if he feels that way," Tibbets said. "And I don't think a lot of us came home feeling lost. We had our experiences inside of us. That was as good as having our friends from the Army next to us. Or almost as good."
"I don't know," I said. "I keep thinking about the expression on my father's face that Christmas Eve."
"Let me ask you something," Tibbets said. "What finally happened?"
"What do you mean?" I said.
"What happened with the burst water pipe in the garage?" he said. "Did it just keep pouring the water out all night long?"
"No," I said. "He got it shut off."
"I'm not surprised," Tibbets said. "Did a plumber come over?"
"No," I said.
"Then how did he fix the pipe?" Tibbets asked.
"I don't know," I said. "I don't remember what he did."
"He did something," Tibbets said. "And whatever he did, it worked."
"It must have," I said.
"That's my point," Tibbets said.
- - -
I have seen some impressive things in my life. I have never seen anything to match the way my mother cared for my father in the months of his dying.
When he became totally bedridden, virtually everyone to whom she went for advice-- his doctor, our relatives, her friends, in the end the hospice people-- told her the same thing: You must make some time for yourself. If you try to do everything, if you try to be with him every minute, you will exhaust yourself, deplete your strength and health, perhaps even shorten your own life. For his sake as well as your own, you must regularly step away-- you must breathe.
She said yes. She said of course she knew that was true.
And then she didn't do it.
With the exception of when she took a shower, or went to the grocery to buy food, or had to leave the house for an essential errand, she did not leave him. He became more emotionally dependent on her than he ever had been; he became frightened and disoriented when she would leave the room. We had hired a man to come to the house every day to do the things she was not physically strong enough to do -- lift him from the bed, assist him with the functions that must be tended to; there was time to give herself some peace. She didn't want it. She wanted to be with him.
As his confusion grew, he began to ask her the same questions over and over. This was a man who never forgot a detail -- and all of a sudden he was interrogating her about things that made no evident sense, and when she would offer some explanations to calm him, he would nod -- and then, within minutes, ask the same questions once more.
And she would hold his hand and answer. Softly, lovingly, without rancor-- she would go through everything again.
He would ask: What about the third floor? Was the third floor cleaned up? It was important -- the third floor had to be straightened. Had she done it yet?
And she would explain with gentle patience: Their house did not have a third floor.
The mailman-- had she given the mailman the notice yet? If the mailman came and she didn't give him the notice, he didn't know what they would do. Was she certain the mailman hadn't arrived yet?
And she would ask him what he wanted her to tell the mailman-- and he would look off, not being able to think of it, and finally say that he guessed he was mixed up-- he guessed it didn't matter. Then: Had the mailman come yet? Had she remembered to tell the mailman what he had asked her to tell him?
The white pipe that he wanted her to adjust; the geometric forms that he wanted her to explain. In his dying he became stuck on these things, things that defied logic, and she would sit and talk with him about them as if it were 40 years earlier, and they were talking about their children, or their vacation plans, or their hopes.
From the sound of her voice, you would think that these awful conversations were the most wonderful moments she could ever spend She was talking with her husband.
- - -
On the tape he had made for us children several years before, telling his life story, you have to jump past his induction into the Army to find his first reference to her.
It comes after he had been at Camp Shelby in Mississippi for a while; it comes as he is describing a trip to Columbus he had taken when the soldiers had been granted a leave:
"In Columbus I had met a certain Phyllis Harmon, and I thought she was kind of nice. I had taken her to the movies on one of my previous trips to Columbus when I was first visiting Violet and Sam.
"She seemed like an OK gal, but I didn't pay a hell of a lot of attention to her because I was still squiring around a girl named Nana Bowler, who lived up in Lima.
"Well, I didn't think a heck of a lot about Phyllis Harmon until after I had been in the Army for about six months, and I believe she and I started corresponding with each other.
"One fine day when I was on leave in Columbus, she volunteered to drive me to Union Station where I would catch a train to go up to Akron to see my folks. I remember the old blue/gray Pontiac she was driving, and I also remember she looked pretty damn good to me, and I said to myself, I think I'm going to marry that gal.
"Little did I know that I really was going to. I believe that that little ride to the train station from Violet's house with Phyllis was the luckiest thing that ever happened to me. That fact has proven itself time and time and time again over the years."
- - -
There was a moment -- when Paul Tibbets was trying to explain something to me-- when I failed to understand what he meant at first.
He ended up raising his voice. The matter at hand was that important.
I had told him that I was struggling with the question of why my father -- and, apparently, so many men his age -- thought that on some level the war was the best experience of their lives.
Not that it was fun; not that it was enjoyable. But as terrible as the war was, there was nothing else in my dad's entire life that meant quite as much to him. Nothing that came before, nothing that came after, ever seemed to contain the same power.
And although I understood some of the reasons for this, I didn't understand them all. I asked Tibbets if he did.
"It was because your father was a man among men," he said.
That sentence stopped me. Tibbets had never known my dad -- the two had never met. I thought, just for a second, that Tibbets might be patronizing me -- might be saying something he knew would please me by praising my father to an extent that was not possible from someone who had never set eyes on him. I thought that he was calling my dad a man's man -- giving him a macho, dagger-between-the-teeth, pistol-swinging-from-the-belt stature.
And I said so: "How do you know that he was a man among men? It's a very nice thing for you to say -- but my dad was just another soldier."
That's when Tibbets' voice got louder.
"I don't mean it that way!" he said. "What I mean is that the war was the one time in a man's life that he got to be a man surrounded by men, all of them working for the same thing, no one better than the person next to him, regardless of rank.
"A time like that comes along only once in a lifetime -- if that. You are literally risking your life every day, and you're doing it with the men who are next to you. You form friendships during days and nights like those that no one and nothing in your life will ever match.
"Please pay attention: The reason those years mean so much to so many of us is that it is the one time in your life that you are absolutely proud of what you are doing, and you are absolutely proud of your friends and what they are doing. It's a relationship of man to man.
"It's your ass and his -- your ass and the guy next to you and the guy next to him. And the people back home can't see you, and they don't know what you're doing, and they don't know who you're doing it with. These men are your friends, and you are depending on them to live.
"Men among men! Men among men! And when you come back home after the war, it is never the same. You faced odds, and you made it back, and you faced down your worst fears. And all of a sudden you're back in a country where things are quieter, things are safer, and the people around you on the streets are not all working for the same goal.
"And you go on, and the war is over, and you become the person you will be for the rest of your life. But inside of you, the time when you were men among men will never go away. That's all I was trying to tell you.
"You had asked me a question. Why it all meant so much to your dad. I was
trying to explain. It's no big secret. I think it was probably the same for
all of us. We would be fools to think that anything that ever came along later
in our lives could affect us like the war did. The best experience of our
lives? 'Best' is a funny word. But there is nothing we could ever do that
could ever measure up to what we found in each other's company when our
country sent us off to do what we
05/23/00: 'It's funny how you remember the little things'