In Harm's Way In Faraway Places

Leslie Williams passed away a few days ago.  He was 95 years old, and one of the few living members of a famous World War Two command known as the Tuskegee Airmen.

It was a bold and controversial experiment the American military embarked on in 1939.  With war clouds gathering, in a day when the military and most of American society was racially segregated, Congress approved funds to recruit and train African-Americans as pilots.  Leslie Williams was among the first to join.  He and his fellow cadets learned to fly while they attended classes at nearby Tuskegee Institute.  The best-known unit that came out of Tuskegee was the 332nd Fighter Group.  They painted the tails of their P47’s and P51’s red and gained fame as the “Red Tails,” distinguishing themselves in combat in the skies over Europe.   Their exploits have been chronicled in books and movies.

I’ve long been fascinated by the story of the Tuskegee Airmen – partly because of their distinguished military record, partly because of the racial discrimination they had to overcome, and deal with constantly, to earn the right to get in those cockpits.  Leslie Williams, in an interview a few years ago, said, “In those days, no one had to salute blacks, but we could be court-martialed if we didn’t salute a white officer.  The discrimination was bad.”  But Williams and his fellow officers endured all that and prevailed. 

In a much broader sense, I’m intrigued by that entire generation of young American men and women who lived through Depression and brought their nation through a conflict of staggering proportions.  After World War Two, everything was different.  Those young Americans changed the world, and the world changed them.

I knew some of them intimately.  My father and three uncles served – two pilots, a soldier, a sailor.  In the post-war years, when I was a child and youth, they spoke sometimes in passing of their experiences – never of the moments in combats when they were in grave peril, but of the experience of being uprooted from a small Alabama town and sent to the ends of the globe.  In what they said, the memorabilia they brought back, in the letters to and from wives and girlfriends, I could feel their homesickness, their wonder at the places where they were stationed – England, France, Germany, Burma, China.  I came to realize that the war had altered them irrevocably in ways I could only glimpse and suspect.

I have taken liberally from those men’s war experience in my writing.  My first novel, Home Fires Burning, is set in a small southern town during the last year of the war – a story of the folks who stayed behind and supported the war effort, and the young men who came back, profoundly changed, to try to bring some order to their lives – to settle into jobs and raising families and being part of a community.

More importantly, what I sensed about my father and uncles and their time at war let me know that in all of us, there are things below the surface, rarely revealed, secrets of the heart, that nevertheless shape who we are and how we look at the world in vital ways.  It’s that life-below-the-surface thing, the subtext, the rough edges, that interests me most when I imagine characters.  As a writer, I can peer into my characters’ souls and feel things that are not obvious, but which are essential.

Leslie Williams survived the war and returned to his native California to become a successful businessman, and at age 60, finish law school and begin a 20-year legal career.  My father and uncles settled in my southern town and made lives in business and public service.  They were quiet lives, but they were meaningful lives.  They had gone in harm’s way in faraway places and come home to shape my own life.  I am forever in their debt.

Real Men Change Diapers

I don’t think you can truly appreciate fatherhood unless you get it on you.  Babies are messy little things, and the thing about messes is, they have to be cleaned up.  Later, baby becomes a teenager, and there’s the teenager’s room…but hey, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

I am so proud of my son-in-law David.  Baby Paul Gordon arrived a week ago, and David dived right in.  He’s a hands-on father, and that includes diapers.  He goes about it like he’s been doing it all his life.  There are some things, like nourishment, that David can’t provide; daughter Lee is in charge of that.  But everything else, David is eager to do, and does.  The guy bonding thing is in full bloom, and I predict that it will last a lifetime. 

Fatherhood can be an awkward thing.  For one thing, what precedes fatherhood is mostly out of our hands.  In my novel Old Dogs and Children, my heroine, Bright Birdsong, is pregnant, and husband Fitzhugh is at loose ends.  A wise older woman says to Bright, “He can’t help it.  Biggest thing a man ever do is begat.  Every time a woman get with child, you see the man struttin’ around like a peahen ‘cause he done begat.  Hell, ain’t nothing to begattin’.  It’s after the begattin’ that you gets down to bidness.  And that drive the man near about crazy ‘cause he can’t run the bidness.”

This sort of male displacement often continues after the blessed event.  Our instincts run to hunting and gathering, and after we’ve returned to the cave with what we’ve hunted and gathered, we are prone to kick back by the fire, light a pipe, pop a beer, and sit by as the little woman does the rest, which includes the nurturing stuff.  So when we put aside the pipe and the beer and get fatherhood on us, we’re working against type.  But when we do that, we discover that the rewards are enormous, that being hands-on touches deep and important things in our souls.  Not to speak of what we give the kid.

My own father never had much chance at the messy stuff.  Soon after I was born, he shipped out for Europe and the Big War, so it was just Mom and me and the messy stuff.  The one story I heard from that period was about a 2:00 AM feeding that went awry.  Dad put my bottle in a pan of water on the stove and promptly dozed off, to be awakened by a loud boom when the bottle exploded, leaving the ceiling above the stove dripping with milk and embedded with bottle shards.  Europe may have been a relief for him.  By the time he returned from war, I was well out of diapers and wondering, WHO THE HELL IS THIS STRANGE MAN IN MY HOUSE?  We bonded, but it took awhile.

As for me, I was a diaper changer when our girls came along.  I wasn’t the perfect father – no man is – but along with the hunting and gathering, I tried to contribute to the nurturing part, too.  I got fatherhood on me, and I’m mighty glad I did.

Okay, diaper changing isn’t essential for successful fatherhood.  For one reason or another, a new father may not help with that job.  But hands-on nurturing is.  Touching, holding, loving unconditionally.  Guiding, supporting, caring.  Those are the essentials.  All I have to do to remind myself of that is watch my son-in-law.  David, You the man.

Floating To Earth On Faith

My father was a paratrooper.

He served as an infantry officer in World War Two, and settled into a mostly quiet life as a father of four in a small Alabama town.  Then the Army summoned him again.  He was called back to active duty for the Korean Conflict, and that’s when the paratrooper business began.  He was a rugged guy, a former college football player, and for some reason he sought the more rugged side of Army life.  He joined the Rangers, and then the Special Forces.  He was a Green Beret who jumped out of airplanes.

I suspect my mother thought he was nuts – a guy with four young children at home who jumped out of airplanes.  It wasn’t until he was back from Korea that we learned that he and his comrades jumped out of airplanes behind enemy lines in North Korea and did mischief.  It’s a good thing we didn’t know.  He stayed in the service for awhile after Korea and we lived on Army posts – Fort Bragg, Fort Campbell, Fort Benning.  He kept on jumping out of airplanes.


Sometimes we watched.  Mother would load the four kids in the car and we would park next to a large field.  We’d hear the drone of the planes and then they would roar into view and people would start jumping out of them.  Suddenly the air was filled with parachutes, hundreds of them, all floating to earth.  It was an awesome sight, and as the oldest of the four kids, I thought it was fabulous.

It all came to an end when Dad’s unit got orders to go to Japan – a two-year peacetime deployment.  That’s when Mother put her foot down.  Enough foolishness.  Dad got out of the Army and we returned to small-town Alabama life.  If Dad missed it, he never said so.  But I suspect he did.

I’ve thought about those paratroopers often in my adult life.  I did an Army hitch, but never jumped out of an airplane.  But I’ve always wanted to.  It’s on my bucket list.

I’ve also thought about it in another way – how similar it is to writing.  When a guy jumps out of an airplane, he’s taking a leap of faith – trusting that his parachute will open and he will float to earth.  When I stare at a blank page and begin to tell a story, that’s also a leap of faith.  I have to believe that my characters will truly come to life and lead me through the roller-coaster ride of the tale.  I have to believe that somewhere in the future I will land safely and write “The End” and think I’ve done okay.

It’s taking that first leap of faith that’s the hardest part – flinging oneself out the door of the plane of imagination.  It takes a bit of a certain kind of courage, and maybe – like my Dad – a touch of madness.  There are so many people with a tale to tell and the aptitude with words to tell it.  But few ever do.  Taking the first step can be daunting, even terrifying.  My friend Ralph Keyes talked about this elegantly in his book The Courage to Write.  If you’re thinking about writing, you should read it.

This new book I have coming out in September, The Governor’s Lady, took me ten years to write.  It was a time when I was becoming a playwright – seven plays, two of them musicals, all produced and all published by Dramatic Publishing Company.  But the book was always there, and I always returned, trusting that I would land safely and write “The End.”  Eventually I did, and readers will decide if I did okay.

There’s an old joke among paratroopers.  A young trooper, about to make his first jump, goes to his sergeant and confesses he’s terrified.

“Nothing to it,” Sarge says.  “Your parachute is attached to the plane, and when you jump, the line pulls the chute out of its pack, it opens, and you float safely to earth.  In the very unlikely event the main chute doesn’t deploy, you pull the handle on your emergency chute, it opens, and you float safely to earth.  When you get down, there’s a truck waiting to bring you back to the barracks.”

Reassured by Sarge, the young trooper leaps out of the plane.  The main chute doesn’t open.  He reaches for the handle of the emergency, and it comes off in his hand.  As he plummets toward earth, he says, “Yeah, and I bet there ain’t no danged truck down there, either.”

I guess that’s the risk paratroopers and writers take when they make the leap of faith.  As one who’s leaped a few times, I can say the risk is worth it.