Listen before it is too late
Monday, August 19, 2013 5:17 AM
Everyone has an interesting story. But not everyone has someone to listen to that story, so too often it is lost.
There's a small diner in the big city that has been there for 40 years, owned by the same person, Bonnie. Not surprisingly, the name of the place is Bonnie's Diner.
One time not so long ago I mentioned to Bonnie that I bet she has a whole lot of interesting stories about things that have happened in her place over the years. Her eyes lit up, she started laughing and said, "Boy, do I ever!"
I told her about this Biker's Diary, and that sometime I would like to spend about an hour hearing some of her most significant, frustrating, rewarding and poignant stories. She liked the idea, and told me the best day and time of the week to stop in, when things were the most quiet around her busy place.
Shortly after, my friend Ray was here to visit, who I wrote about in my last diary page, he sent a book in the mail. Titled "The Greatest Generation of Silver Wings" (2004, Don Ward DBA The Memorial Press), it is a collection of World War II stories told by Air Force veterans.
Ward had first heard these stories over the years when he joined other 8th Air Force and 15th Air Force alumni at their weekly lunches. One of his reasons for publishing the book was that "These men in particular, as well as all of those who served, should continue to be remembered and honored long after they are gone and I add this book for that purpose." Ray sent the book because he knew of my interest and also because his own story was included in the book. When I received it, of course it went to the top of my summer reading list.
One of the most poignant entries in the book was placed, rightfully so, at the end as the epilogue. A radio operator aboard a B17, Don Kent completed 28 missions during World War II. He said, "I would like to tell you about a special group of men who meet for lunch and old 'war stories' every Wednesday...We gather together in the twilight of our lives to share a 'look-back' through the shadows and mist of some 60 years ago. We are graying, balding with burgeoning waistlines. We are growing old, yet we grow younger with each meeting, telling and retelling each of our own individual stories of those days so long ago."
Kent briefly described gathering "together back in those days, too," drinking what the Army Air Corps called coffee, or what they also called "battery acid." Mostly they were B-17 crews, but now "we do let some B-24 types in to share lunch. Most of us flew with the 8th Air Force, but again, we do let some of the 15th guys join us...and even some ground pounders and men from later wars....
"Sixty years ago, we talked of our families, dreamed of our girlfriends that were back home, and went to the pubs for some warm English beer. We played cards, played darts, went on weekend passes to London, and danced with the Land Army girls at the local dances. Now, we are the 'zipper' crowd, talking about cholesterol, prostate troubles, cancer, how many 'by-passes' we have had and our old friend 'Arthur-it is.' What a difference more than half a century makes.
"We flew countless missions....and fought our way back to our temporary homes in England and Italy. Some stayed as guests of the enemy and many left the earthly vale and grasped the hand of God.
"(Now) We laugh, joke, reminisce and sometimes sit in contemplative silence. The shadows lengthen and the mists begin to cloud what once was. If it weren't for these gatherings, maybe these memories would be lived in solitude and sadness, but once a week we are young again preflighting our aircraft, starting engines and again taxiing to the end of the runway for takeoff.
"Our visits at lunch, our summer 'fly-ins' and giving talks to high school students give us the privilege of telling others our various stories and sharing them with many who were not even born at the time. We have many stories to tell and little time left, but we keep on telling these tales of heroism, sacrifice, discomfort, fatigue and the job that had to be done.... We end our lunches with 'see you next week.'
"As the creator of this book of stories, Don Ward so aptly stated, we are the men of 'The Greatest Generation of Silver Wings.' We once soared with the Eagles."
Not only is this Greatest Generation running out of time to tell their stories, the rest of us are running out of time to hear them, and to learn from them. We all have good intentions, such as me with Bonnie at the diner. I never got to sit down with her to hear her stories; a short time ago I read her obituary in the big city paper. She had succumbed to cancer, and I missed my chance simply because I did not carve out the opportunity to do so.
I was reminded of that again when my friend Ray visited, and yet again when I read the book that he sent. There are a lot of stories around, stories worth hearing, because everyone has at least one. I'm trying to hear them, and that is for my own benefit. But I'm doubly motivated when I remember how much it means to the other person to have someone who is interested and willing to listen.