An engine smoked and sputtered. One propeller began to stir on the aging bomber. Then another. The third engine started to shudder and choke–satisfying sounds of old piston engines. Finally the last one coughed to life.
A few minutes earlier I had been sitting in the pilot’s seat of that World War II Flying Fortress–an old B-17 like the one in the movie “Memphis Belle”–in the seat where my dad sat seven decades 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 Iowa farmer teaching cadets to fly (at Marfa, Texas), and later being in charge of that big four-engine bomber.
In my mind’s snapshot of Dad, he was wearing Big Smith overalls where, in the bib, he carried a pocket watch and a DeKalb bullet pencil–with a little metal cap to protect the lead point. Shirtsleeves rolled to the elbow. A Pioneer brand seed corn cap. Tired leather work boots and Rockford socks.
Vignettes of him–guzzling Coca Cola from a small curvy glass bottle. Leaving for the field on his red Massey Harris tractor. Overseeing his crops from his perch on a gate. Throwing back his head when he laughed. Penciling neat diagrams and math formulas on scraps of paper. Catching a nap at the table after the noon dinner, his head resting on folded arms. That’s the Dad I knew.
My husband, an air traffic controller at the Des Moines airport, had called to let me know that a B-17 was there just for a short stop-over. So I rushed out with my camera and asked if I could see inside–that my dad had trained in one in 1945.
One man led me up a short ladder into the fuselage, then over a catwalk above the bomb bay, to the cockpit. I climbed down into the bombardier station, then up into the pilots’ area. He told me to take all the time I wanted there.
As I sat in the pilot’s seat, 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 those friendly 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 in the barnyard the summer I learned to drive.
It began to dawn on me 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. He eventually became Commander of 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.
To exit the old warbird, I was told I could climb back through the plane and down the ladder, or I could drop out the way the crew did, through a small door right below the cockpit–by grasping the edge and swinging out. There’s no photographic evidence, but I did it, just like Dad had long ago.
I returned to the other side of the chain link fence to watch the Fortress take off. The four engines were coaxed awake, one at a time. Did Dad also love that 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 sleek rugged old warbird leveled off and disappeared over Dallas County, I could readily reconcile my dad the farmer with Dad the young World War II pilot.
Story first aired on Our American Stories over WHO-Radio, March 5, 2019. It has been rerun several times since.