I met a 90-year-old guy in an elevator on the day before writing this piece, in a small airport just north of Denver. Our nation was celebrating its annual Memorial Day weekend, and both he and I had come to see a famous 70-year-old airplane called the Memphis Belle.
The man’s name was E Liveston. According to a lady I guessed was his wife, that was his name, plain old “E.” In World War II, he had been a bubble gunner on a B-17. (So in my mind, that made him Mister Liveston.)
The bubble on a B-17 was a turret on its topside, equipped with twin 50-caliber machine guns. There was a second turret under the airplane, just aft of the wings. Additional guns protruded from the tail end of the fuselage, both sides of the nose, and both sides of the waist (under the leading edge of the tail.) In fact, the B-17 bristled with guns. In its day it was popularized as the Flying Fortress.
But although it could absorb a lot of damage and keep flying, it was like a big glider—easy to hit by anti-aircraft gunners on the ground. And guns or no guns, targeting an attacking aircraft from a moving platform was no easy task. According to people who know much more than I do, what made the B-17 such a formidable weapon was the fact that Boeing was able to produce it quickly in great numbers.
My friends know I detest wars and generally despise people who start them. I wish there were a lot more intelligent servants in governments, a lot more vigorous activists among the public, and no more sanctimonious memorials for young people whose lives we intentionally wasted by sending them off to fight in stupid, unnecessary wars. It seems to me those who suffer the most and pay the greatest price in wars are always children—the most innocent, most inoffensive, most impotent of all people. But I have a reverence for soldiers, especially the youngest, poorest and lowest-ranking ones, and particularly those who have overcome great fear to go to war because they believed it was their duty.
I thanked Mr. Liveston for his service, bowed to him and grasped his hand. I should say I grasped his fingers, because they were all he offered me. They seemed frail, pale, cold and thin. For a moment I thought about them slinging, loading and firing those big guns. He responded politely and graciously to the obvious love expressed every few moments by the family members drawn around him. But between those contacts, he sat in his wheelchair, silent and absorbed in something far, far away.
The old man’s hands rested lightly on the creased grey polyester knees of his trousers and waited for their turn to touch that airplane. When the time came, they trembled at first, tentative and halting. Barely making contact, they found a bright scratch on a painted black ladder. Next, softer than a breath, they caressed the skin of the fuselage, eventually coming to rest as an open hand on its dull, warm surface. After that, tears. And finally, stifled only at first, came intense, convulsive sobs. His family offered him a handkerchief, and more hugs.
I’m still learning, but I think too many of us readily embrace the word “hero” on our own behalf. I don’t think you’re a hero because you’re reckless, or because you take calculated risks in exchange for specific rewards. You’re a hero because you treasure your life just as much as other people do, but you offer it on their behalf, anticipating no rewards. And you’re never a hero because you claim to be. You’re a hero because someone else confers that honor on you. Not just a reporter, a TV producer or a politician, all of whom peddle the term for money or influence. But someone who understands the choices you’ve made.
I think there are many unsung heroes in life. They’re mommies and daddies, a lot of them. They work in hospices and nursing facilities, teach other people’s kids and address other people’s emergencies. They do what they do for little or no money, and they expect no acclaim. Their sacrifices are great. But their actions are so quiet, so private and so honestly humble, we rarely hear about them.
I’m just saying, EMS providers are the trained observers in life. Maybe we should be recognizing some of the real heroes around us. And learning from them. jems