I called the paper in Atlanta and asked to speak to the wise old man on Veteran’s Day. I went through several employees and finally spoke to a copy editor who said, “He left a note for Charles telling him the paper was tending towards propaganda and he quit.” I then called Bright Leaf to see if he had returned there but he had not. I tried a couple of other numbers from the past with no luck and just as I was calling my last number, he drove up in an Elio test car he got from the founder down in Shreveport.
“I have been looking for you, sir.”
“I quit the paper. Journalism is not my gig any more. I have my pension, you know. How do you like my ride?”
“That is so cool. How did you get one so early?”
“Connections, Dan, connections. Listen, Dan, I know we differ deeply on political matters but I just want to say three things and then we can go on to other topics. First, it is what it is. Second, it is not what it is not. And, finally, it will not be what you anticipate.”
My instinct was to go for more specifics and detail, but I remembered what a rhetorically powerful contender the wise old man is, so I kept my peace (such as it was). I invited my old friend in and my wife greeted him warmly and offered a bowl of chili, which he accepted. We had a leisurely lunch and, since it was Veteran’s Day, I brought up our gratitude for his valiant service as a B-17 pilot in World War II.
“Dan, did I ever tell you about how we got shot up and I was wounded in both arms and couldn’t fly?”
“I do not recall that story.”
“Well, flak had already taken out one of our engines and the ship took a bad one in the landing gear. Then the fighters came when we lost altitude and I caught shrapnel in both shoulders and could not fly her. Freddy, my co-pilot was unconscious and everyone else was busy, so I had Barry the bombardier come take the controls. He was a brooding boy from Milwaukee and he was terrified. I was in and out of consciousness but managed to talk him to within sight of our base in Italy. He freaked out when I had him power down. He thought we were going to fall out of the sky. I said, ‘No, Barry, we are fine. It just feels like we are too slow. Nose her down, come on, boy.’ Just as I feared, the landing gear was blown. A belly landing is never easy, even for an experienced pilot, but I talked Barry down until he just froze up. I leaned way back and took the controls with my feet and plopped her down. We skidded and blew sparks all the way to beyond the asphalt. I put Barry in for a medal, but he never received it. They patched me up and sent me out in another airplane not long after that wreck.”
“Wow,” I said, stirring shredded cheddar into my chili. “What an experience.”
“Yep. If you went on a mission as an atheist, you came back believing, or wanting to anyway. If you went as a hawk you came back a dove. If you went an ideologue, you came back practical. If you went feeling coerced, you came back proud to be an American. So many did not come back, Dan. So many.”