Into the Melting Pot, 2

CP Sketch1We became the 111th Wing of the U.S. 92d Bombardment Group, but we remained intact within the Group. We had our own barracks, our own mess hall and our own work assignments which served the needs of the six B29 bombers that made up our wing. We necessarily interacted with the Air Force regulars who greatly outnumbered us. We called them Regs, or Rebs (Rebels). The Regs were comprised of four-year enlistees and a cadre of career soldiers. This cadre forms the backbone of any army.

The cadre’s abiding rule was absolute, unquestioning obedience to everyone in the chain of command. Their role was to inculcate, to impose absolute obedience upon every new soldier. This must be so, because in any army the commander has the power to order you to your death in battle. The cadre, in our narrow experience, was made up mostly of Southerners, some Midwesterners. Many were evangelical in religion and conservative in politics. Many were Scotch-Irish, descendants of the pioneers who had settled the West, or of those who had inherited that mindset.

Here came the 111th, a disputatious, reasonable, friendly bunch of East Coasters. In Philadelphia before we departed to Washington, we had undergone a grossly inadequate basic training: three months of lectures, calisthenics, and marching drills, in a dimly lit, old airplane hanger. We never saw a gun. Obedience to the death?

Our non-commissioned officers were friendly, indeed, they were our friends. They and our officers, all of them veterans of World War II, had been happy as weekend warriors in the Air National Guard. There they could relive the best moments of ‘Their War’, squeezing into their old uniforms, with their “crushed” service caps set rakishly on their heads. They had been delighted to get back into a cockpit once a month. Now their mood was somber. They were forced to uproot their families, to take leave of absence from their jobs, from their settled lives. Still, at the beginning of our stint there was yet a bit of:

“We are not now that strength which in the old days

Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are

One equal temper of heroic hearts…”

but that temper was soon dissipated by the 24/7 aspect of their new duties and it was sobered by the presence of wives and children. The new light blue uniforms didn’t help either. They made us look like bus drivers.

Many of us had never been below the Mason Dixon Line nor west of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. What adventures lay in wait! But our first encounters with the Regs were disturbing. Our friendly overtures were met with hostility. They disliked us because we were Northerners, because we were Catholics, Jewish, because we were ethnics, because we were ill-disciplined.  Of course there were exceptions, but generally our encounters were edgy.

We learned to keep to ourselves except when work duties dictated cooperation. Our officers tightened up our loose discipline and we become passable soldiers. When the weather was fine we marched, with the brasses blaring, the jazzy black drummers syncopating the beat as we pivoted smartly into a turn, the sun glittering the brisk air, and the flags snapping and cracking loudly in the breeze. No wonder young men march off to war!

We were issued open weekend passes which meant we could go into town whenever we were duty free. Spokane was beautiful. Its downtown was rebuilt in a single architectural style after a massive fire in the 1880s. It has a river running through it and it is surrounded by lakes and parks and hills. Occasionally, the police had to chase errant cougars out of town. Now and then, on a Sunday, our mess hall would prepare box lunches for us, which we’d take to Liberty Lake park for a picnic, with a group of student nurses we had met at the USO. We’d play baseball, seriously. After our first furlough to Philadelphia, several of us had returned to Fairchild with our cars. Not I. I didn’t even have a driver’s license.

On pay day we’d go into town for the weekend. Two of us would rent a twin bedded room in the Davenport Hotel. In the night, we’d place two mattresses on the floor so that four of us could sleep over, two on the mattresses and two on the box springs. I would luxuriate in the old fashioned bathtub, the biggest one I had ever seen.

We’d have dinner downstairs in the resplendent Crystal Dining Room: sculptured napery on the tables, chandeliers, fresh flowers. They served Spokane’s best spaghetti which arrived at the table in a silver serving dish. We’d occupy two or three tables, not all of us Italian: Bob Gallagher and Hughie Curran often lent gaelic charm, Moe Slomberg, additional color. The middle-aged waitresses loved us – they had never seen so many ‘wise guys’ – but we’d be on our best behavior, almost always in civilian clothes except for Rick Borracini who loved the military life. We were big tippers; after all, one of us had been a waiter (a very funny guy) back in Philadelphia. Whenever we paid the check, if the hotel made change, the paper money we got in return was always in mint-new bills and in coins that had been washed to a shine.

On the Base it was like being away at college, an experience few of us had known. We lived three to a room. All of our needs were met: the PX, the service club, a good library, a movie, tennis courts, the gyms. The University of Washington offered extension classes. I took a course in Spanish literature. Of course we bitched and moaned. We were homesick, eager to return to sweethearts, to jobs, to graduate and professional schools. Some of us faced a return to limbo.

One Sunday morning late into our second year, we took a wrong turn on the way to the lake, trespassing a small Indian reservation: drunks strewn on the floors and on the steps of the dilapidated porches of battered tar-papered little houses. We lost a bomber and its crew in Korea. We complained less about trivialities for a while.

The war ended. President Eisenhower, in a cost cutting move, announced that if we chose, we could resign from active duty and complete our enlistment back home in the Air National Guard. Our commanding officer, Major Merritt Taylor, assured us that our squadron would be the first to leave. In fact, he was the first to go, leaving the rest of us to straggle back piecemeal as our discharges were cleared.

We wandered about Spokane in an aura of bittersweet euphoria. We crowded round the scarred table in the raffish old Senate bar, where they considered Rolling Rock beer (from Pennsylvania) an exotic. We walked along the river, mesmerized by the flashing, frothing, troubled water as it passed over the rapids. We ate a last dinner in the Crystal Room, to take leave of the waitresses who had so mothered us. The maitre d’ spoke to us with affection. He told us that the kitchen had served more pasta in the last year than in the entire history of the hotel. We had changed Spokane a little; it had changed us a lot.

We vowed to return. For a visit. For good! It was so beautiful. I never returned. “For what reason?” my parents would have asked, “What did I lack for at home?”

Of our crowd, only Peter Scalone returned, on a honeymoon trip with his childhood sweetheart, Aggie George. They drove to Spokane in the 1928 Dodge he had bought the year before from a farmer near Liberty Lake. He had first seen the car, on wooden blocks, peeking out from an open barn door. Peter named it the Aggie George.

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