Engine Number 3 smoked and sputtered. The aging bomber’s propeller began to stir. Then Number 4. Number 2 began to choke and cough–satisfying sounds of old piston engines. Finally Number 1 chugged to life.
A few minutes earlier I had been sitting in the pilot’s seat of that World War II flying Fortress–the seat where Dad sat nearly fifty years ago.
My dad, the farmer.
As I sat in the cockpit, looking out the pilot’s window at the gold-tipped propellers, I tried to imagine that farmer teaching cadets how to fly, and later being in charge of that big bomber.
In my mind’s snapshot of Dad, he was wearing Big Smith overalls with his pocket watch and DeKalb bullet pencil in the bib pocket. Shirtsleeves rolled to the elbow. Pioneer seed corn cap. Tired leather workshoes. Rockford socks.
Then came vignettes of him–guzzling Coca Cola from a small curvy bottle. Leaving for the field on his red Massey Harris tractor. Overseeing his crops perched on a gate. Throwing his head back when he laughed. Penciling neat diagrams and bits of math on slips of paper. Catching a nap at the table after the noon dinner, his head resting on folded arms. That’s the Dad I knew.
A strong breeze buffeted the bomber. It swayed slightly. It sighed and creaked, just like Dad’s barn on a windy day. I had forgotten about barn sounds.
My thoughts turned to Dad’s thorough instructions to my sister and me for our summer chores: how many half-buckets of corn and oats to feed the hogs, how full to pump water into the cattle tank. And Dad patiently teaching me to shirt gears on the Chevy’s steering column the summer I learned to drive.
I began to grasp that he would have used that same thoroughness and patience with young cadets. And I could appreciate that, yes, he would have been put in charge of a multi-engine plane and crew of ten–eventually the even larger B-29 Superfortress, with a date set to leave for combat over Japan–when the war came to an end.
While in that rare bomber, I was blessed with a glint of my dad in his other life–as a young lieutenant, in charge of aircraft instead of tractors, airmen instead of livestock.
I returned to the other side of the chain link fence to watch the takeoff. The engines were coaxed awake one at a time. Did Dad also love their deep throaty growl?
In a few minutes, the awkward-to-taxi aircraft headed toward the runway–nose up, tail down. It lumbered behind a hangar. A roar signaled takeoff and the plexiglas nose emerged from behind the building, pointing the bomber down the runway.
By the time that rugged old warbird leveled off and disappeared over Dallas County, I could readily reconcile my dad the farmer with Dad the young pilot.