Memorial

May 25, 2015

My walk this morning took me to the peak of Stroke Hill on Stanka Lane, the sun behind me and fast-moving clouds overhead. Swirling shadows appeared on the road, like a mirror ball at a prom, the shadows circling counterclockwise. I looked up to see two hundred American white pelicans in tight formation thirty feet above me, the sun gleaming off the flock, the wings iridescent, the birds silent and purposeful.

All around me, cottonwood seeds snowed and floated and bobbed their way to the forest floor. And in the sunpatches of the road, blue hairstreak and orange and black checkerspot butterflies perched and filled their wings with energy.

And I wept.

It was the beauty of the moment and the full force of the day. Suddenly I imagined the pelicans as waves of allied bombers over Normandy, the cottonwood seeds the parachute troops dropped east of the fighting, to come at the Germans from the back, and the butterflies, master fliers became fighter pilots.

The still largely unknown story of the Second World War was that American troops were segregated. Black army and navy troops served as cooks and road builders (they built the Alaskan Highway). Black pilots with the help of black lawyers literally talked themselves into the air campaign, reborn as the Tuskegee Airmen, with a record of fighter kills unparalleled in history.

The US Department of the Interior commissioned me to interview for the official record the surviving Redtail Angels in the Chicago suburbs. It was the greatest honor of my life. I spent a year welcomed into black families as I talked with their great-grandfathers about the war. I heard stories of our black pilots being treated as heroes in Paris and unable to enjoy a drink at the American officer’s club. Black fliers held prisoner by German troops were venerated and treated as gentlemen, which they were.

I wept for Colonel William “Wild Bill” Thompson. Wild Bill passed away a few years ago at the age of ninety-three. He showed me some souvenir cigar butts he kept in a bell jar on a lamp stand and said that those had been smoked in that very room by President William Jefferson Clinton, the actor Lawrence Fishburn, and the commander of the Tuskegee Airmen, Benjamin O. Davis.

And Wild Bill’s stories . . . of grateful French girls blowing on his soup at outdoor cafes after liberation, of attending a dinner with Josephine Baker, of watching a white Tuskegee policeman shoot a drunken black man who tapped him on the shoulder in cold blood, and the Airmen had to stand and not react or they might have been hanged.

I never met a single Tuskegee Airman who wanted a shoulder to cry on. These were proud men, skilled and educated men, and they wanted to talk about plane engines, plane adventures and plane prices. (The chief pilot trainer, Alfred Anderson, taught himself to fly by taking off and figuring it out. He met Charles Lindbergh at an air show and Lindbergh refused to shake his hand, saying that blacks lacked skills for flying.) They had to sue their own country for the privilege of fighting in a war for the very people who hated them because of color.

And so it goes.

And so back to the shimmery day, to the fecundity of life: the pelicans and the cottonwood seeds and the silkiness of the stunning butterflies, for no war was fought along the Mississippi River as of noon today. No war has ever been waged by birds, seeds or butterflies.

As the human song goes, “When will we ever learn?”

Never.

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