High Desert Hangar Stories: A Pilot lost (a Christmas story!)

By Bob Alvis, special to Aerotech News
They dreaded Christmas that year. It was 1944, and the war would never be over for their family.

The telegram had arrived in August. Bob’s few personal possessions, the flag from his coffin, the plat of his burial site in the Philippines and a Distinguished Flying Cross had arrived one by one, adding to our agonizing grief.

Born on a Midwestern prairie, Bob rode horse back to school but wanted to fly an airplane from the first day he saw one. By the time he was 21, the family was living in Seattle. When World War II broke out, Bob headed down to the nearest recruitment office. Slightly built, skinny like his father, he was 10 pounds underweight.

Undaunted, he persuaded his mother to cook every fattening food she could think of. He ate before meals, between meals, and after meals. The family laughed and called him Lardo.

He stepped on the scales, still three pounds to go. He was desperate. His friends were leaving one after the other; his best buddy was already in the Marine Air Corps. The next morning, he consumed a pound of greasy bacon, six eggs, five bananas, two gallons of milk and bloated like a pig, staggered back on the scale. He passed the weigh in with eight ounces to spare.

When he was named Hot Pilot of primary school on Pasco, Wash., and later involuntarily joined the Caterpillar club at St Mary’s, Calif., they shook their heads and worried and his mother prayed. Bob was born fearless, and she knew it. Before graduating, he applied for a transfer to the Marine Air Corps at Pensacola, Fla. He trained in torpedo bombers before being sent overseas.

They were told that Bob died under enemy fire over New Guinea, in the plane he wanted so desperately to fly.

Mothers’ faith sustained her, but his father aged before their eyes. He would listen politely when the minister came to call, but they knew their Dad was bitter. He dragged himself to work every day but lost interest in everything else, including his beloved Masonic Club. He’d wanted a Masonic ring real bad and at his wife’s insistence, he started to save for the ring, but that too, ceased.

They dreaded the approach of Christmas. Bob had loved Christmas and his gift giving was legendary; a doll house made at school, a puppy hidden in a mysterious place for his little brother, an expensive dress for his mother, bought with the first money he had ever earned. Everything had to be a surprise.

What was Christmas going to be like without Bob? Not much. Aunts, uncles and grandmother were on their way, so they went through the motions, as much for memory as anything, but their hearts weren’t in it.

On Dec. 23, another official looking package arrived. Father watched stone-faced as his mother unpacked Bob’s dress blues. Silence hung heavy. As she unfolded the uniform to put it away, a mother’s practicality surfaced and she went through the pockets almost by rote.

In a small inside jacket pocket was a neatly folded $50 bill with a tiny note in Bob’s familiar handwriting: “For Dads Masonic ring.”

The daughter said that if she lived to be one hundred years old she would never forget the look on her father’s face. Some kind of transformation took place “a touch of wonder, a hint of joy, a quite serenity that was glorious to behold.” Oh, the healing power of love! He stood transfixed, staring at the note and the trimly folded bill in his hand for what seemed an eternity.

Then he walked to Bob’s picture hanging prominently on the wall and solemnly saluted. “Merry Christmas, son,” he murmured, and turned to welcome Christmas.

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