11 May 2009

The Greatest Generation

The Greatest Generation
05/11/2009, 10:34 PM

"Drink your water, Bob." My voice is playfully stern, but I'm smiling at the incongruity of ordering this man around.

Bob grins back at me, and, trite as it sounds, his eyes have an honest-to-god twinkle. His grin is wide and inviting. You know the old joke about finding someone's picture in the dictionary? Bob's picture is right there next to "affable". We have to remind him to drink his water because he's collapsed twice now while on vacation: once in Maui, once in Tahoe. Dehydration. The second collapse required a day of hospitalization.

His doctor had admonished him the last time. "You let yourself get too dehydrated, Bob. It'll kill you if you're not careful."

But we still have to remind him or he just won't remember. He can't conceive of his body ever failing him. In his mind he's still 25 years old. The open-mouthed grin is an imp's smile, brimming with the promise of mischief. The teeth are mostly his and somewhat worse for nearly 90 years of wear, but the grin is a contagious one anyway, sculpting his eyes into a permanent, knowing wink. Bob has a way about him that makes you believe you're sharing a joke, a secret, that you're conspiring with him in a perfectly-executed prank moments from its denouement. His ears and eyebrows are both large and bushy (I'm reliably informed by my daughter that these are sure signs of great age). His hair is that rich snowy white I hope my own gray hair will turn out to be when I'm pushing a century rather than the gunmetal gray presently infiltrating my temples and sideburns. His shoulders are stooped now, his spine curved, and the top of his head barely reaches my chin. But he has the easy confident air of a man a good foot taller. His gait is slow but resolute, shaped by the hip replacement without which he wouldn't be able to walk at all. And though his step is slow I sometimes think he could easily outwalk me if challenged. If he stays hydrated, that is. We keep checking in with him to make sure he stays on top of it.

Lieutenant Robert Lucas, Naval Aviator, runs preflight on his F4U Corsair. He can't conceive of his training or his reflexes ever failing him. But even so, he and all his squadron mates take the maintenance of their aircraft very seriously. Nothing wrong with a reality-based foundation to back up your youthful sense of invulnerability. Lt. Lucas is a young man with close-cropped black hair. He and his buddies are all swagger and attitude, part of the most powerful war machine ever assembled in the history of warfare. There's something both thrilling and sobering about that idea that keeps Lucas hovering somewhere between pride and humility. It's a necessary mindset when you're about the business of saving the world.

Today he's flying a routine CAP, or Combat Air Patrol. Again. Although he has accumulated hundreds of hours of flight time running support and escort missions, he has yet to actually see a Zero, or any other enemy aircraft for that matter. For now, his exec has signaled the go sign. "Mount up!"

"Drink up, Bob!" I have to speak loudly. His wits are as sharp as ever but sometimes he looks a little befuddled because he couldn't follow the last few minutes of conversation. It's not that he couldn't understand it, it's just that he couldn't hear it. Sometimes he'll contribute an idea to the ongoing discussion that has already been brought up. If you aren't paying attention this might leave you with a mistaken impression about his frailty and his command of his faculties.

We're strolling through the afternoon heat in Palm Springs. Triple digit temperatures, "but it's a dry heat!" The very infrastructure here resonates with the ghosts of Bob's generation: Bob Hope Drive, Gene Autry Trail, Dinah Shore Drive. And for all that he never actually lived here, except in passing, Bob's personal knowledge base is chock full of local trivia. But that seems to be the case wherever he is. This man has accumulated two lifetime's worth of knowledge and he can seemingly tap it at will. He's even more animated than usual and his excitement is evident. He's assumed the role of host and entertainer for the trip, channeling his heroes. "Sinatra used to eat in this restaurant every weekend; he and Ava Gardner used to shoot out streetlights and store windows just for the hell of it. Liberace lived just up the way here. He had a swimming pool shaped like a piano. Not here, mind you, but in Vegas... Eisenhower went missing from here for a whole day once. They say that's when he was whisked off to make first contact with the aliens. Can you imagine?" He chuckles at the absurdity of aliens palavering with the president in the desert. "I wonder what their golf handicap was?"

In my mind's eye I can see him 40, 50 years younger in a dinner jacket, holding a scotch and a cigarette in one hand and punctuating his conversation with the other. He reminds me of Dino, but without the undercurrent of narcissistic entitlement. He still has a scotch every night (the finer the better, though that's not a requirement). It occurs to me that I've no idea whether he ever smoked. He almost certainly did. Everyone of his generation did. Growing up in that time, a time of historic economic and global instability, they had to grow up faster and embrace their self determination much sooner than their parents did.

Flying a CAP role means your flight has a great deal of tactical flexibility within the assigned objective area. The young men of Lt. Lucas' flight are no different than any other unit marshaled for a martial purpose. That means they're hungry to engage something. Anything. They have to resist the urge to linger on that side of their objective area closest to active combat operations. Predictability is considered a bad thing in time of war and your really top-notch enemies rarely oblige. They dutifully patrol the entirety of their assigned area.

CAP can be mind-numbingly boring, with long periods of rote activity only occasionally punctuated by short bursts of excitement when something out of the ordinary occurs, an unidentified contact, a mechanical malfunction, whatever. Today is no different. There's not even that hoped-for "something out of the ordinary" to break the monotony. Lucas' flight consumes their alloted fuel and mission time and wheels about to return home.

If he's going to save the world, it won't be today.

The world needs more men like Bob. He makes friends with a facility I might envy if I weren't a direct beneficiary. He looks for areas of common interest and rarely has trouble finding some because his own interests are so broad. What can a man his age possibly have in common with a 14 year-old kid? And yet he and my son are fast friends, walking together every morning when we're visiting and emailing one another when we're back home. I treasure the exposure to wisdom and responsibility that his friendship with my son represents. I hope it mitigates the contempt for the elderly that seems to afflict so many kids my son's age. Hell, that afflicts so many kids my age.

He never talks about the war. I only know a scrap of his story because my son interviewed him for the Veterans History Project. I'm going to make it my mission to find out more about his personal history. Somehow I feel that remembrance is the least I owe him.

His has been called the Greatest Generation. Knowing him, I can easily believe it.


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