|By Riley McDavid|
In William Saroyan’s 1943 novel, The Human Comedy, Homer Macauley is a teenager who works part time as a delivery boy. He pedals around Ithaca, California, a fictional stand-in for Fresno, on his second-hand bike bringing messages to families.
Thousands of miles from the war in either the Pacific or Europe, Homer has a part in the war effort. Many of the telegrams he carries to homes are from the War Department.
One day he brings a telegram to the door of Mrs. Rosa Sandoval. “I cannot read English,” she tells him. “Please, what does the telegram say?” And Homer starts to tell her without even opening it because he knows what’s inside. But she makes him open it and read it. Her son Juan Domingo has been killed in action.
Homer feels terrible, “Maybe it’s a mistake,” he tells her. “Everybody makes mistakes.” But what he really wanted to say was, “I’m only the messenger, Mrs. Sandoval. I’m very sorry I must bring you a telegram like this, but it is only because it is my work to do so.” Homer ends up riding his bike wildly back to the telegraph office, tears streaming down his face.
Like Homer, Mrs. McD and I each grew up with reminders of the war around us, she in Seattle, and I three thousand miles away in Maine. Mrs. McD’s brother Bobby, a junior at West Seattle High when Pearl Harbor was attacked, was determined to become a pilot in the Army Air Corps, the forerunner of today’s U.S. Air Force. So were a bunch of his buddies. Someone told them carrots would improve their vision, so they munched them nonstop.
Bobby did make it through flight school — we have photographs of him smiling in his uniform, his wings pinned to his lapels in one, and to his collar and garrison cap in another.
He went to flight school in Santa Maria, CA, and Mrs. McD’s dad, Harry, who served in France during World War I, took the train down from Seattle to see Bobby solo for the first time. In mid-1944 Bobby was sent to Tinian in the Marianas, to pilot B-29s on raids over the Japanese offshore islands.
He sent Mrs. McD, who was nine at the time, letters with his hand-drawn artwork of planes doing loops, something he undoubtedly never did in a B-29. Bobby was very young looking, and, unlike some of his mates, had no inclination to smoke or drink. Those close to him kidded him about that, but if someone from outside their circle tried that, they stuck up for him. He was just a kid, but he was their kid.
Mrs. McD and her mom and dad worried but there came a day in 1945 when Bobby came home to Seattle. He never piloted a plane again.
My own two brothers went off to the service, John in 1943 and Bob in 1944 but neither of them went overseas. I had what I called an adopted brother in the war. His name was Walter and he was from Ohio.
Our city, Bangor, was home to Dow Army Airfield, which eventually became a stopping off point for troops on their way to fight in Europe. In 1944 alone, more than 8,400 flights passed through Dow, and the city was flooded with servicemen. The Tarratine Club, a lush gathering place for Bangor’s rich and powerful, was taken over for several years to serve as what must have been one of the poshest USOs for servicemen anywhere.
Walter was a military policeman — an MP. I was only ten at the time, but I showed up at Dow’s main gate one day, wanting to look around. I‘m sure Walter gave me the 1944 equivalent of “No way, José,” but he was a friendly guy and he told me to come back on his day off.
I did and he gave me a grand tour. He bought me a burger and a shake, and took me for a ride in some kind of small vehicle that were all over the base. Several times after that I came back to visit, and one day Walter said he might be shipping out soon. He asked for my address, which I gave him. About a month later I got a letter from him. He didn’t say exactly where he was but I assumed Europe. We exchanged maybe four or five more letters after that … and then they stopped.
My mom told me not to worry. He was probably okay but just couldn’t write for some reason. I never heard from him again. I worried about Walter every time I passed a window with a gold star flag in it.
The war had receded to the back of my memory by 2001 when the HBO series Band of Brothers was aired, and for me it was 1944 all over again. It told the story of Easy Company of the 101st Airborne as they fought in World War II. The guys talked and walked and acted like Walter and his buddies. If I happen upon an episode while channel surfing, whatever the hour, I stay glued to it.