My Inspiration

I may have been all of five years old when I first heard his story. Probably upset over some teasing from one of my four older siblings, perhaps I asked my dad if he had any brothers or sisters. He did. Four brothers and a sister. I'd never met any of them, and wasn't likely to start any time soon. They were scattered all over. His sister was clear out in Washington; no one had spoken to her in years, and his older brother was killed in The War.

There'd been three of those since he was born. He even served in one, but only a certain, different one was The War: the one that took his favorite older brother, Rudy.

I don't remember this conversation taking place. I only remember the effect of it. I became obsessed with my Uncle, the war hero. How few people could claim they had a family member killed in a real war, by real Nazis, my young mind reveled. It made me proud--and sad. I wanted know everything about him.

My family has a lot of personalities; most are an acquired taste. Rudy was no exception, but he was probably one of the least uncharismatic. His brothers and sister all described him as the clown of the bunch; always an accomplice if not the instigator, but also the first to help when there was trouble, the first to say "Let's roll," when work needed done.

Dad told me he was a genius with machines, forever tinkering with this or that, and that he had a soft spot for airplanes, certainly the most complicated machines then invented. He wanted to be a pilot but at 6'1", he was too tall to fly fighters, and lacking a higher education, he couldn't get an officer's commission, so he settled for working as a flight engineer on a bomber. An early enlistee, he was inducted into one of the longest-serving, bloodiest, most highly decorated units in the Army Air Corps: the 93rd Heavy Bombardment Group, known colloquially, with its English spelling, as "Ted's Travelling Circus."

I spent my childhood reading books, building models, and dreaming about anything that flew, but mostly the airplanes from my Uncle Rudy's era. It wasn't natural. It wasn't normal. Most kids don't even know or care to know that much about their living aunts and uncles, let alone one that was gone a quarter-century before we came into the world, but for reasons I hope to someday learn, I couldn't learn enough about Uncle Rudy's War.

Dad always said he thought Uncle Rudy's interest in airplanes probably gave rise to his own, but for whatever reason, in 1978, he decided the time had come for him to learn to fly. For the next eight years, we were inseparable whenever the drone of a propeller or the leaden funk of aviation gasoline were in the air.

For a while, I thought perhaps I'd get the chance to reprise Uncle Rudy's dream by becoming a fighter pilot myself. When I learned my new eyeglasses would rule that out, I was inconsolable. It wasn't fair, and it didn't make good sense. At some point, it dawned on me that, like him, I'd been disqualified from the life we'd both wanted for ourselves by a seemingly capricious policy meted out with utter inflexibility by an unconcerned bureaucracy. I rail against such policies to this day.

Around that time, I began reading Richard Bach's work, highly spiritual writing wrapped like fabric around Flying's ribs, stringers, and longerons, laced with the idea of Reincarnation. If the light was right, and if I wore a certain expression I couldn't even hold on command, let alone make intentionally, and if someone took a picture from just the right angle, I fancied, I looked just like him.

What if...