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by Ron Cruger
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I wondered if that’s going to be me in a decade or so. He was about my height, but with
broader shoulders a thicker chest and mid-section. He had a full head of neatly trimmed sandy colored hair. He was alone, pushing
a shopping cart, stopping every few feet to examine a tomato or to inspect the ears of corn for freshness.
The store was one of those “direct from farmer to you” locations, selling fresh fruits, vegetables and a variety of vitamins, health
food additives and holistic cures for whatever ails you.
He shuffled a bit as he walked
the aisles with his shopping cart. He had large, strong hands covered with age spots. He wore no rings. He had on neatly pressed tan
slacks and a short sleeved dress shirt. He had on clean, white, Nike athletic shoes. He was slightly bent over. He was alone.
I thought, “Will that be me?”
He turned and walked past me. He wore a billed cap with the
lettering spelling out: “World War II Veteran, B-17 Pilot,” surrounded by military golden braid.
I was a young kid during the World War II years, but I had a great interest in it. I listened to the radio news and read the newspapers.
I listened to my mom and dad as they talked about the daily happenings in Europe and the Pacific. I dreamed of being a pilot, shooting
down Messerschmitts, Junkers and Stukas.
And here I was within talking proximity
to a real life B-17 Pilot.
More than three score years had passed since those childhood
days of mine when I dreamed of being a military hero. Seeing the wording on his cap had thrown me back to the days of my childhood
when heroes never died, suffered wounds or showed fear.
I walked slowly behind the man
and when I was even with him I said, “Sir, pardon me, but were you really a B-17 Pilot in the war?”
I had shocked him, so it took a few seconds for him to reply. “Why, yes, yes I was.”
eyes had the rheumy look of an old man. He was tired.
He had a questioning look as he stared
at me. “Why do you ask, if you don’t mind?”
“As a kid you pilots were always my heroes.
I’ve never really met a B-17 pilot before. It’s an honor to meet you, sir.” I reached out with my right hand. He reached out and shook
it. “Nice to meet you, son. He was only ten or fifteen years older than me.
he could leave me I asked, “Where did you serve in the war?”
“I was stationed in England.”
“How young were you then?”
“Well, I enlisted
when I was eighteen years old. I trained in California and after that they shipped me overseas. I knew I wanted to be a pilot.”
I asked him, “Do you mind talking about what happened during the war? Could you spend a few minutes with me?”
“I don’t usually do it. It was a long time ago. I was a young boy then.”
“Why did you enlist?”
“Hell, young man, I was eighteen years old in 1942, but I wasn’t the only one. Something
like six million of us volunteered for the service during the war. I was one of the lucky ones. I lived to see the end of it.”
“But, how did you get to be a pilot on a B-17?”
“They sent me to England and trained me
some more on a B-17. In six months they made me a pilot. By the start of 1943 I was going on bombing runs over Germany. I was nineteen.”
“By the way, my name is Ron.”
I asked him about flying a B-17.
plane. Couldn’t go faster than 287 miles an hour, but it was a potent piece of machinery. We carried two pilots, a bombardier, a radio
operator and five gunners. We were a terror in the skies, but still, a lot of my buddies got shot down.”
I think Fred was getting tired of remembering.
“It was a special time of my life.”
I thought I saw his eyes water.
I saw him take
a short step ahead, pushing his cart. He said, “Nice talking to you, young man.”
I appreciate your time. I wish you the best.”
Fred walked slowly away from me. He appeared to be more tired than when I first saw him.
Maybe his memories of a time long ago returned with their full weight.
I watched him walk
by the fresh baked breads to the check out stand. I watched him leave the store. I wanted to spend so much more time with him. I was
a kid again and he was my hero.
When I got home I looked up B-17 pilots and WW II veterans.
A thousand American World War II veterans die every day. Someday there will be none left.
I’ve never seen Fred again. I hope he’s okay.
I think of him a lot