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Eight Air Force Historical Society - Minnesota Chapter - Don Kent Story

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Shadows 2000

A reflection on the times of
Our youth…
The memories that we each
Carry inside

by Don Kent, 614th Bomb Squadron, 401st Bomb Group, 8th Air Force

We gather in the twilight, looking back through the shadows and mists of time into the dusty memories of 50-plus years ago. Each Wednesday, around 11 AM, forty or fifty of us drift into American Legion Post 550 in Bloomington, Minnesota for lunch. Balding, graying, with slightly burgeoning waistlines, we are getting old; yet with these gatherings we seem younger, as we tell and re-tell our own individual stories of those days so long ago. We come from all points of the compass (and only one of us ever has to use his GPS to get there)--from Hudson, WI, Anoka, Cambridge, Lakeville, Little Canada, St. Paul--and a few from as far away as Bloomington. Every Wednesday we come--like "lemmings to the sea"--we come. But why? None of us has found the answer to that question. Yet we have been doing this for about eight years--an informal call to lunch. It seems as we have a command from somewhere, a direct order we must obey.

It is quite a phenomenon, one probably unheard of anywhere else. Tom Brokaw, in his book "The Greatest Generation," does speak of a group somewhere called ROMEO (Retired Old Men Eating Out). There were only eighteen of them, and they met once a month. We do it every week with triple the numbers. The first such lunch I attended, there were five of us at American Legion Post 435. We soon grew to twenty or so and outgrew those facilities. We moved to VFW Post 5555 in Richfield, until they tore the building down. So, we moved again, to our present location. And we still don't know why we come--but we do!

We have all belonged to or still belong to various clubs and organizations: American Legion, VFW, Elks, Lions, Eagles, Chamber of Commerce, fraternal organizations, each chartered to a common purpose. All these have regular scheduled meetings to take care of business. Normally all that show up are the officers. Everyone else is busy somewhere else or just not interested. Perhaps that's the answer to our mystery: we're not organized. But we are interested, and maybe, even a little interesting. If we were structured, perhaps we wouldn't be here!

We gathered together over fifty years ago also, at about 3 AM, sleep struggling to take us back to the sack. But we had a job to do. We straggled to the mess hall hoping for fresh eggs, with ham or bacon or sausage, maybe even pancakes, but more often than not, settling for that old GI favorite, SOS, or even worse, powdered eggs. We would wash this down with a lukewarm cup of battery acid. We then got on a truck and the workday began! Today we eat LoCal specials, forage at the salad bar, and worry about our cholesterol levels.

We were the pilots, co-pilots, navigators, bombardiers, gunners of all occupations (tail, ball turret, waist, and nose) and a solitary radio operator. The majority of us flew our missions on the B-17 Flying Fortress and a few crewed the B-24 Liberator. Most of us were in the Mighty Eighth with a smattering of folks from the Fifteenth Air Force from sunny Italia. A Navy Corsair pilot sneaks in and some P-51 jockeys; a marine or two can be seen from time to time. And the Army sends a representative once in a while. And yes, a "feather merchant" has been known to dine with us. We have broken bread with an ex-governor, some current legislators, a WASP, retired three-star general, a Marine who raised the flag at Iwo Jima, two current USAF pilots who first started coming while they were cadets at the Air Force Academy, and many "just plain folks." Of course, when they have joined one of our lunches, they are no longer "just plain folks."

Fifty-plus years ago we talked of home, our families, girlfriends, wives and children, and whatever dreams teenaged warriors could possibly have. We went to the local pub and drank that warm English beer. We played cards, went on pass to London, played darts and danced with the Land Army girls at the local dances. Now we are the "zipper" crowd and talk about cholesterol levels, prostates, cancer, how many "bypasses" we've had, and how our new knees are doing. One of the fellows had both knees replaced and is now tall enough to play basketball. And our old and close friend "arthur-itis" rears his painful ugly head. Jitter-buggers are now hobble-alongers. What a difference a half century makes.

Sometimes we are called to escort a fallen comrade on the last measured path of this mortal existence, as we say farewell to a friend, a brother, a comrade-in-arms. And, sadly, this is happening with greater frequency.

We laugh and joke and reminisce, and sometimes sit in contemplative silence. The shadows lengthen; the mists cloud what once was. If it weren't for these gatherings, maybe these memories would be lived in solitude and sadness. But once a week, we are young again, pre-flighting, starting engines, taxiing to the end of the runway--flying those countless missions once more. We trade books and magazines, exchange pictures and memorabilia. We tell jokes, swap stories--make jokes of ourselves. We joke and cajole, because we're all too old to rock and roll.

A few years ago we had a mutual sweetheart at Flying Cloud Airport, Miss Angela, a B-17 that some of us gave tours through on weekends during the spring and summer months. When she left town for warmer climes, a hole was left in our lives. We can no longer sit at our crew positions and close our eyes and through the mists of time return to those youth-full days. That void is now filled somewhat when the Collings Foundation brings their B-17 and B-24 to town. Many of us are still involved in aviation museums, reveling in the sounds and smells of old planes. We then have the opportunity once more to brag to the public of just how great were our experiences on these airplanes a half century ago.

Why do we come to lunch? The most common answer to this question seems to be comradeship, the bonding, the exchange of memories and experiences. One of the guys says he's here because his wife kicks him out of the house; another says he comes because he's afraid we'll talk about him if he isn't here! We commiserate about our aches and pains--we are genuinely interested in each other. We have our reasons to come, each different, at the same time each the same. But we come!

The mists deepen and shadows lengthen and memories fade as we get older. Maybe, just maybe, we all need something like our Wednesday gatherings to keep us in touch with ourselves, and with what once was…so very long ago!

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