I Went Searching For an Indian and Found I Was a Dutchman

I Went Searching for an Indian and Found I Was a Dutchman.
I've always been interested in history so when my Uncle Wayne gave me some information about our family roots I had to begin changing the way I've always thought about where I came from. We had always been told, "there's Indian blood in our ancestry, we just haven't been able to prove it". I have been surprised to learn that while searching for an Indian link, I found a Dutchman. Now I'm not saying there may not be some Indian blood somewhere but the prospect looks dimmer the more I find out.
I also have had some general prejudices about folks back east, especially areas like Ohio (I grew up in the Woody Hayes era and couldn't stand Ohio State). What a surprise (and God ordained I believe) to find we arrived in Ohio in the early 1800s, my ancestor fought in an Ohio Regiment in the Civil War, and came to Kansas afterwards. That, and some visits to Ohio, has adjusted my thinking.
And the other reason why-to keep communication between the far flung members of my family and encourage them to drop a note so we can keep in touch with the details of their lives. We miss too much by not being there in the day to day workings of life. So, leave a post for all of us.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Wingman

We laid the Wingman to rest in a little cemetery north of Belvue, Kansas, not far from the Union Pacific tracks where his father called a workplace. The Wingman's dad worked for the UPRR and moved the family up and down the tracks to the various little towns in northeast Kansas.  I know this because the Wingman gave me the book he wrote, Sunflower Wild, about growing up and going off to war.  The Wingman's name was George Joseph Brooks.  LIEUTENANT George Joseph Brooks, US Army Air Corps, DFC, retired.

The little cemetery sits alongside a dirt road about a mile north of Belvue, surrounded by soybean and corn which aren't faring too well due to the terrible drought and heat of this unique summer.  All the crops look pretty bad except those gaining the benefit of a huge irrigator arm in the field next to the cemetery. It's obvious which of the beans are getting the moisture and which are on the periphery gasping for it.  But today is a unique day in that this day, of all the days over the past few months, is graced with overcast skies, cool breezes, and a drizzle in the air.  It's a little damp but we don't mind after all the dryness.  It actually feels good.  And a little moisture won't bother us as we gather to honor the Wingman.

Even the army honor guard isn't bothered as they stand waiting for the Wingman and his family to arrive. They're about a half hour late but for all the he has done, no one cares.  I sit in my car, peering in the rear view window through the detail towards the rock wall gates waiting for them to arrive.  It's obvious when it occurs because the detail suddenly comes to attention and gives due respect.  After they park, those of us waiting get out and slowly make our way past the detachment to the covered grave.

After everyone settles, the detachment, in their very military way, marches to the hearse and crisply move the Wingman to the grave site, his coffin properly draped in the national colors under which he fought.  They retire and we give ear to hear the hospice chaplain recount to us comforting words from The Word-reminders of the One larger than us and His comfort and care for us.  Frankly I'm not one much for women preachers but she did a nice job.  As if on cue, out of south, came the distinctive whistle of a steam engine. Of all days for an old steamer to come down the UP tracks, it was this day-and time.  A coincidence? I don't think it was planned to coincide with the Wingman's ceremony but a coincidence it wasn't. It was so significant, even the chaplain paused to take note of the uniqueness of the event.  She then continued on, recounting the Wingman's exploits which I matched up in my head from what I had learned from his book.

He went off to war back in the 1940s when he was just a young man of 18.  Away from a small community where no one strayed very far from home, to Texas where he trained to be an airplane pilot.  He progressed through his training until the day when he was proclaimed a newly minted Lieutenant and of all things, given the controls of the magnificent P-51 Mustang.  From England then eventually France, he would fly to do his part to end the Nazi aggression.  On one fateful day in 1944 he was doing his duty as, you guessed it, the Wingman. It was August 13, 1944, his fifth mission (exactly 68 years ago today).

As they flew over France, the Leader took some German fighters under his guns and in the swirling fury of a WWII dogfight, P-51s up against ME-109s and FW-190s, the Leader managed to down three and the Wingman two.  As they limped for home the Wingman noted the Leader's plane was a bit worse for the wear.  In fact, he barely made it back. The Wingman wasn't so lucky.  The oil temperature went up, the engine died, and flies began coming from under the instruments, burning off the Wingman's wool socks,  He tried and tried to get the canopy off, but to no avail, until he remembered some words from training. Suddenly the canopy, and the Wingman were away.  His parachute barely opened, an apple tree breaking his fall.  He was now a resident of France.  For the skills he used that day, he helped the Leader get home and won for himself the Distinguished Flying Cross and Purple Heart.

The Wingman and "Kansas Aggie"
The Wingman managed to evade the enemy with the help of some kind French folk, eventually made his way back to friendly lines, now a full fledged member of the Air Force's Escape and Evasion Society for life. His hand badly burned, he was treated and eventually returned to duty to fly more missions and even serve again during Korea.  After all that excitement the war ended and he went home to take up a job with the US postal service, somewhat dull in comparison to his life thus far (commented the chaplain).  The Wingman lived his life like most of us, getting married a few years later, but he never gave up his love of flying.  He even built three of his own planes, one from an old Volkswagen, and one from a kit.  He used them to help the students at K-State learn aviation.

I met him many years ago through his brother Larry with whom I worked.  George was kind enough to allow me into his world, showing me his plane and sharing with me his memorabilia.  He shared with me his book, videos of his interview as a veteran, and his memories.  It was my privilege to call him my friend and I tried to remember each year on his birthday (February 14) and Veteran's Day to send him a card again thanking him and his family for such a sacrifice for me and my family.  It was a small thing.  Which is why I had to rearrange my schedule and show up today.

With the chaplain's part done, she turned the service over to the army detail who, in classic format, just like the movies, they carried out their duty.  Only it was different this time. This was no movie.  They lined up and gave George the required ritual for a hero-three volleys of seven shots and the mournful notes of Taps.  It was a struggle to stay composed but a necessary duty.  They then marched to the coffin, removed the flag, and so very precisely folded it, working every crease, to make it perfect.  They handed it off to the command Sergeant who checked it over again, dug into his pocket and placed within the folds an item unknown to me, and walked to George's widow.

I've seen it a hundred times but the motions, the words, "from a grateful nation" churn my heart, as it obviously does others who openly weep, all restraint having been lost.  But that's ok.  Times like these are reserved for such emotional carnage.  Thankfully, for me, the moment passes. Composure is gained, the chaplain says a final blessing and I wander back to my car.  I look out over the bean field and listen to the gentle whoosh of the misters and the chup-chup of the sprayer on the irrigator.  It was nice. This is the land for which George fought and was willing to die at such a young age.  It was good we remembered him this day.

Rest in peace gentle warrior.  You stood your post with honor. Thank you, from a grateful nation.

1 comment:

  1. A note from Gary McDaniel: Mike Burton, a local American Legion officer got to read your post and wanted to answer some questions you posed. Three spent rounds were probably placed in the fold of the flag.