At one stage of my grown-up period when I was attempting to pass for a serious corporate type, I found myself in a conference room of a Harrisburg Holiday Inn, a last-minute, substitute delegate at a committee meeting of a statewide trade association.
I’d never before met any of the ten guys in the room, and had no clear idea of what I was supposed to be doing or not doing at the meeting. I knew only that I was there to show the company flag and to get through the day without embarrassing myself. The other committee members, this was 1976 and they were all men, were a good deal older than me, each representing utility companies from around the State, and they all seemed to be on easy, familiar terms with each other. I felt like a crasher at a private party. There was little serious attention paid to the meeting’s prepared agenda, and I figured that for most of those present, it was a day out of the office with best of all, a free lunch.
And it was to be good lunch indeed.
Deserting the Spartan accommodations of the Holiday Inn for a high-end, overpriced streak joint, we entered a dining room filled with state legislators drinking and chowing-down, all accompanied by smiling lobbyists. In an “aha!” moment, I concluded that like the politicians, we were about to dine well on somebody else’s money. The understanding among my fellow committee members was that the association’s marketing consultant, who had been chairing the meeting, would be putting the lunch tab on his expense account. I watched as my fellow committeemen ordered from the top of the menu. There were drinks all around, a hearty lunch and lots of good-old-boy jocularity. I did my part, smiling, grunting, eating, drinking and nodding.
After lunch and over coffee, one of more outspoken of the group, the association staffer, a big stuffy guy, self-important and decked out in full Ivy League drag, lit one of the cigars offered by the generous consultant, almost everyone still smoked in those days. “Mr. Big Deal” as I’d christened him, sent out his first clouds of smoke and began what would be a long monologue about his wartime years, all spent in the peaceful environs of Hawaii. “Best days of my life,” he went on. “Plenty of booze and horny women everywhere…,” and on and on. After a few minutes of that and looking for any escape, I turned to the guy seated next me, a guy from a gas and water company in Reading. I knew his name was Bernie. He looked about the right age. So I asked him, matter-of-factly, “hey Bernie, were you in the war?” Bernie was a little guy, even shorter than me. He wore one of those waffle-weave polyester blazers that were sold on the premise that they’d never wrinkle. It was mustard yellow. He too was puffing on one of the consultant’s freebee cigars.
Pausing as if to consider answering, he slid the cigar from his mouth and gave me a slow, flat, “yeah, I was in the war.” Willing to do anything to maintain an alternative to the “Remember Pearl Harbor” soliloquy going on across the table, I followed up with an equally disinterested “what were you in.” My new friend Bernie barely acknowledged my inquiry. In fact he actually turned his head away from me as he quietly said, “the air corps.” He said it like it didn’t really mean anything to him. It was my serve again, and I was beginning to tire of the whole thing. “Did you fly,” I asked. “Yep,” was all he said. Approaching terminal tedium with Bernie and his one-syllable answers, I asked what I thought would be the requisite and final question of a dead-end conversation. No longer at all that interested in Bernie, not in his war, not in his hideous sport coat – his necktie was worse – I threw out a casual, “what did you fly.” With a studied slowness, he pulled the cigar from his mouth and for the first time in our little back and forth, looked me in the eye. It was a look to say, “you really fucking want to know, don’t you.” Deliberately, slowly, and enunciating every syllable, he smiled for the first time and said, “P-38s.”
My outburst of “no shit” was involuntary and turned every head at the table in our direction. Catching myself, I allowed Mr. Big Deal to resume his Hawaiian rhapsody before trying to recapture Bernie’s attention with another “no shit, Bernie. Did you really fly a P-38?” He knew he had my attention. I got another sly smile and a modest, softly stated, “sure did.”
I was eight years old when the Second World War ended. Coming into awareness in the excitement of the biggest war ever fought, the content of the imagery inside my head anticipated the entire film library of the History Channel. My default settings for action, for excitement, for cool were all referenced to the photojournalism, the newsreels and the movies that had covered the war. I hadn’t cared a damn for sports, for cowboys, for cops and robbers. Nope, it was all tanks, Iwo Jima and John Wayne. I had spent the first conscious years of my life devouring the data, the statistics, the trivia of everything that came my way related to World War II. I knew that the .30-caliber, M-1 rifle, gas-operated, semi-automatic Garand was clip-fed, and had superceded the 1903 bolt action Springfield, that the Thompson submachine gun used the same .45-caliber ammunition as the Colt .45 automatic pistol, and that the Japs were real bastards.
On an unconscious level, too many of my aesthetic paradigms were weighted toward the imagery of the Second World War, toward the gracefully lethal. And of all the internalized configurations; the silhouettes of destroyers, of the Schmeisser machine pistol, even of the shark-toothed Curtis P-40 of Chennault’s Flying Tigers, it was always the supercharged, 400 mile-an-hour, double-boomed, twin-engined, Lockheed Lightning P-38 single seat fighter with its nose full of firepower that came closest to defining the absolute embodiment of deadly cool.
In “Populuxe,” his treatment of the design concepts that came to define the postwar consumer culture, Thomas Hine pointed out that Detroit’s addition of tail fins to American cars was a direct lift from the profile of the P-38. But that came later, after I’d let my enthusiasm for things military burn itself out while marking time for two years as a draftee in an army motor pool in Germany. In that expensive steak joint in Harrisburg, my brief conversational gambit with Bernie “whats-his-name” had struck and unearthed something primordial, something on which I was compelled to follow through.
After a couple of “wows,” and a “really,” I began pumping Bernie about what it had been like to actually fly one of those Harleys of the sky. The intensity of my enthusiasm seemed to disarm the laconic stoicism of my tablemate. “Well,” he said, “it’s not something you quickly forget about. I was only twenty-years old at the time.”
I got him warmed up, and I found out that he had flown in a fighter group based in Italy during the final months of the war. He had flown combat missions. He had been shot down. And, yes it had all been exciting, most of it anyway. He told me that it had been like hanging out with your high school friends. “Hell, we were all kids, really. Six or eight of us would go up together, loaded for bear. That plane had six fifty-calibers and a 20-millimeter cannon in the nose pod. “Christ,” he said, “you could cut a tree down with one burst from that sucker. And, it was fast, I mean really fast.”
He went on to tell me that the first time he was hit, a German plane had gotten behind him before he knew it. And that it wasn’t until the enemy plane shot past him that he realized he’d been fired on. “My one engine was smoking and he’d shot away most of one side of my tail.” He said he’d been at about ten-thousand feet and had had to bail out. “I didn’t have time to be scared until my chute opened, and then I worried all the way down.” He was over Allied lines and before he could gather his parachute, there was a jeep coming across the field to pick him up.
The second time, he told me, he hadn’t been as lucky. “We were shooting up trains and railroad tracks along the Inn River in Austria,” he said. “We were low, and I took a big hit, anti-aircraft fire, flak. I started losing control of the plane.” He told me that was too low to jump and had to ride the burning plane down, crash landing on a farm road, going through a hedge and finally stopping just short of a herd of dairy cattle. “It’s funny,” he said. “The last thing I could remember was those goddamned cows. One of them turned its head and looked at me. I can still see the big bell it had around its neck.” He said that was when he passed out. “I was pretty banged up,” he went on, “and I guess I had a lot of shrapnel in my legs. The local krauts must gotten me out of the plane before the fire reached me,” he said. “And that was the end of the war for me.”
“Boy! Bernie, that’s an amazing story,” I said. “I guess everything since must seem kind of flat after going through stuff like that.” “Well, not quite,” he said. “Looking back, I could have just as soon done without the whole thing.” A pause and then, “I didn’t get out of the hospital for almost a year and a half, Christmas of 1946. I’ve had nine operations on my legs.”
The waiter was clearing the coffee cups. Mr. Big Deal had finally finished the saga of his glory years, and the consultant was looking at his watch. Time to go back to the Holiday Inn and the conference room. Leaving the restaurant, I noticed that Bernie lifted each foot with the studied concentration of a man who wasn’t too sure he would actually be able to make the next step. I served on that committee for another four and a half years, for one six-month period I even chaired it. Bernie, his last name was Penowski, almost always got to the meetings before me, and he always saved me a chair next to his.