A Veteran's Day Memoir
by George Cambanes
November 11, 2014
As a veteran myself, I've always held the proposition that Veteran's Day was my day of rest...my day to sleep in, visit the fallen heroes I personally know, and generally be a nuisance to my wife. Mostly, I've always felt inadequate to what Veteran's Day represents. After all, I've never dropped any bombs, stormed any beaches, shot at an enemy, or even so much as taken a picture of any military actions. Why, I've never even been shot at in anger (or in any other emotional state). I simply delivered fuel to thirsty aircraft of all kinds. The Air Force thought that was what I was good for, so I did my job for four years...left quietly, got married, had kids, and lived life in servitude to that end.
My Dad, on the other hand, a Naval Korean War Veteran, not only saw action, but became a 30 year Navy man (reserve, retired). That's the kind of stuff you want to live up to...the kind of stuff, that at some point, becomes impossible. So, you settle for being comfortable in listening to the stories and in realizing that your own contribution, while not equal, was still some small contribution.
This past Veteran's Day, I had the distinct pleasure and honor of having a free lunch at Applebee's with my Dad and his Veteran buddies. Navy, Air Force, and Marines were never so well represented as at this table of six Vets. Gus Cambanes (USN), Ray Firmani (USAAF), Jim Dallas (USAF), Bob Nelson (USN), and Bob Hunter (USMC) are an eclectic bunch of Veteran's, each with his own stories...his own memories...his own wisdom about life: “I'd rather be a lucky pilot than a good pilot. There are lots of good pilots that didn't make it home.” -Ray Firmani, former B17 pilot
Interestingly, the talk around the table is fairly technical in nature. It isn't just the fact that they are Veteran's and friends that come together...they also have careers in photography and flying in common. Many of the stories have to do with post-veteran life and the present. Military and war memories are interspersed and acknowledged with brief comments and nodding heads. But in each instance, there is something funny to laugh about. Bob Nelson wears his leather helmet with goggles to the table and it brings to mind the story of the new guy who thought the relief tube was the plane-wide intercom tube. That's pretty funny stuff...unless your sensibilities are so damaged you don't see the humor. You've also got to keep in mind that these guys are age 85 to 92 (while I am but a 62 year old punk).
There are also unfunny things as well. Someone tells the story of the (B17) bomber crewman whose pilot called for a bailout. After performing his final duties, he couldn't get an “okay to jump” command. Finally going to look for help, he realizes that the rest of the crew jumped and he never got the final word. Turns out that the plane wasn't as damaged as originally thought and remained on auto-pilot. The crew jumped out over Germany and were captured. The last guy finally got up the nerve to jump and landed in France where he was sent back to England to rejoin the war. Unfunny.
Ray Firmani tells of a training operation in which he flew a PT19 (a low-wing, open cockpit, monoplane) cross-country. The idea was to follow a map (no HUD or GPS in those days) in your lap. Bob lost the map on the floor of the plane while waving at some kids on the ground. His solution? Fly the plane upside down so the map would fall back. The map did come back to him...so did dirt, gum wrappers, cigarette butts, and all manner of trash one can imagine. Funny.
And then there's Bob Hunter. When I made the mistake of asking if he were a retired marine (I know better than to ask this, by the way, but was trying to be a polite kid) he pointedly informed me that there were no retired marines. Trying to recover, I asked about the beaches he must have seen. He mumbled some things about 1944 and 1945, but then told me he wished he could remember them all. Jim Dallas whispers to me that Bob is beginning to suffer from dementia. I literally fought back a tear, remembering my mother-in-law's long descent into the same malady. What horrors and dangers Bob had to endure to survive and build the good life that he did. It is clear to me that he will never forget the fact that he's a United States Marine. Unfunny.
Jim Dallas and my father are old friends that go way back. Jim is one of the three people left on earth that remembers me as a child, so it was no wonder that he greeted me with a hug. I listened as Jim explained a post-war exploit as the only photographer to capture the largest non-nuclear explosion in the United States, on film. Later, he explained that he'd spent 15 months in Korea and a little time in Japan, even flying the 38th parallel on a special photo-intelligence assignment. “We had some good days and some bad nights...but other than that, those are memories.” -Jim Dallas, former USAF photographer
I think that the thing that impressed me most is just how much these guys love each other. Their get-together looks like they could've been talking to each other the previous day. It dawns on me eventually that they all communicate by email constantly. Ain't technology wonderful? And now they are asking me (the young punk) for my email address. I solemnly copied their addresses into my iPhone and promised to send copies of the pictures I took to their in-boxes. I'm proud to say that I've been invited to their next get-together. I'll be there to see what I can learn.