Veterans Day is special to me because it was my grandfather who provided the guidance that saved me from the life of poverty that surrounded me as a kid. My dad died when I was just 2 and my mom struggled tremendously to move on without him. So, my grandfather stepped in as much as he was permitted and was a profoundly loving man to me; both masculine and tender. He also had the kind of unmitigated honesty that was always cheerful, even when it bit you hard.
He first served in the army air corps and then as that evolved into the Air Force, he went along with it, flying both in the European and Pacific theaters. He got a lot of medals, the two most impressive being the silver star and the distinguished flying cross. It's the story behind those two medals that I wanted to share with you today.
A little backstory: he was "just" an engineer in a bomber (his words), but his pilot- for some reason- took him around the plane one day and ran down how you flew it, "just in case" my grandfather ever had to do it. My grandpa was the kind of spunky, opportunistic child of the depression that many of us have hopefully known in our lives. I can picture his fascination in the details here, as he was always fascinated at every opportunity to learn.
Well it was a few months later, during a mission, when both the pilot and copilot were killed in flight. The crew met to discuss the situation and my grandpa told them about the quick tutorial he got from the pilot. I get the sense, from his retelling of the story, that there was a tacit okay from the crew and he went right up to the cockpit to get to work.
A few minutes later, after he was in the pilot's seat and just about to take control, the rest of the crew sent one of the guys up to talk to grandpa. Apparently, they had had a second meeting without him, taken a vote, and decided that they had absolutely no confidence in grandpa to pilot the plane. Their "spokesperson" flat out told him it was foolish to even try and EVERY single person onboard agreed that he would fail. They were going to jump ship, abandon the plane, and take their chances over Nazi Germany instead of trust him to fly. And if he wanted to do anything other than die, they told him that he better do the same.
Every single one of us has come to a point in our lives when everyone around you takes a no confindence vote in something you want to do. In some way, I am sure it has happened to everybody - even on a minor level like what movie would be the best for the group to go to or something as big as you wanting to become a lawyer and all of your friends and family trying to be really nice as they gently discourage you.
So, this is the part that sticks with me, because grandpa used to tell me this story every once in a while and he was so cheerful (I bet even at that moment) when he recalled that he said, "you can jump out of the plane if you want, but I'm going to fly it back to the base and get anyone who wants to back home. If you jump out, you're just going to make me come back later." And the conversation was over. The rest of the crew took another meeting, decided to stick it out, and they all landed safely. He had never flown a plane before, but he did it because he had paid close attention to his pilot and chose to be steady under pressure.
That story sticks with me for some reason. I don't think he made the choice to fly that plane because he just believed in himself. Knowing him as I did, I am certain that he felt confident because he paid close attention during the 10 minutes of his life where someone with the skills and experience decided to teach him how to fly.
So, that story doesn't tell me that I should just blindly believe in myself. But, it sticks with me because he knew what he was capable of and had had the presence of act on that belief in the face of overwhelming disbelief around him.
He died three years ago at 89. He was the greatest person in my life until I met my wife, but as a man, there will never be someone more lovely than him to me. I would like to salute him this Veterans Day.