Today, September 15, is Battle of Britain Day, marking a battle on this day in 1940 when the German Luftwaffe launched an enormous attack on London and South East England, but the Royal Air Force pushed back victorious and turned the tides in the larger “Battle of Britain”- a nearly 4 month long campaign.
I know this, not because I am a WWII fanatic. I know this because it streamed across my computer this morning. The universe handed me this nugget, not so much as a random byte of information, it seems to me, but as a beautiful gesture of syncronicity, an acknowledgment of battles we face.
My parents grew up during WWII. They took form, in character and outlook, from the struggles and victories of that era. If their lives have a soundtrack, it is generously sprinked with Big Band music, Ella Fitzgerald, and the tappity-tap-tap of my mother tap dancing her way through a recording of “The Boogie Woogie Buggle Boy from Company B.” It may not be my generation’s music, but I do find that my heart swells when I hear it because it so pulses through the veins of my parents in their youthful moments.
It will come as no surprise that my dad has always been a student of WWII era aircraft. He indulged that love of Spitfires and Corsairs, poured over books about them and history magazines that featured WWII battles, and built model airplanes with my brother when we were young.
I observed this and, although I never shared the obsession or built the model airplanes, I loved his love of the history and of the forms of flight and defenders of freedom that these metal birds represented. Because I love my dad.
There was one way in which my dad and I shared his love of WWII history and aircraft, and I suspect he doesn’t know this. In fact, I never thought about it until this week– it’s one of those memories of childhood that doesn’t get fully processed until some time later in life. It’s like a shiny pebble you pick up and put in your treasure box as a child, just because it delights you. Years later, you open the box to have a nostalgic look at those simple prizes of childhood, only to realize that you have pocketed a gold nugget.
This is one of those nuggets:
In the 1970’s, my dad would often man the P.A. (public address) system at our church on Sunday mornings. The control board was a large metal tower of dials and toggle switches that had to be monitored for volume and switched at the right moment, to turn on and off microphones that were placed around the sanctuary. Was someone reading a lesson from the lecturn? Was the minister stepping up to the pulpit to deliver a long and learned sermon? Wherever the action was, there the microphone should be turned on. Wherever the action wasn’t, it should be shut off to avoid buzz and background noise.
The fellow in the pulpit may have the figurative spotlight for a speech, but if the PA system wasn’t properly aligned, the whole morning fizzled.
Manning the PA system was important, but it wasn’t exciting. You sat in a small room, armed with a church bulletin and notes on where each “act” of the service would take place. You stared at a large metal tower, set into a recess of the wall, and you navigated the service while you listened in on the giant aviator-style headphones that were provided.
Yes indeed, you navigated the service in your aviator headphones. So it seemed to me. You see, my dad would occasionally let me join him when he manned the PA system. From his perspective, it was probably just a chance to spend a little more time with his children. Or maybe he knew my fascination with aviator headphones. Either way, on the rare occassion, I was his co-pilot in this cockpit.
When I was lucky enough to join my dad, it was a big deal to me. I liked the headphones, and I marveled at the dials and switches, while sitting on a metal chair with my feet dangling above the ground. If I fidgeted and squirmed, it was only between moments of staring, enrapt at the towering cockpit and keeping an eye on my dad’s deft piloting of the apparatus.
I wasn’t old enough to see it then– I loved the experience, but wasn’t self-aware enough to know why. Today, it is crystal clear to me. In these moments, I was flying a Spitfire over the skies of London. I was co-piloting a Corsair over the English Channel. I was a green co-pilot to my dad’s flying ace, and I loved every moment. Sure, we got off easy: when Dr. Joe Mullin stepped to the pulpit for a long sermon, we’d flip on his mic, then leave our post and scramble down to the kitchen for donuts. But we’d always be back in place before Joe finished, and we’d fly that service back into a safe and smooth landing before shutting down the cockpit and hanging up our headphones for the day.
We were a great aviatorial team, my dad and me. The best.
So today is The Battle of Britain Day, and my dad is still the best pilot any co-pilot could have. He’s fighting his own battle with cancer now. It’s very difficult and grueling. Some days, it’s just a wing and a prayer. But today is The Battle of Britain Day, and, although he was just a school boy at the time, he’s my favorite WWII hero.
I love you, Dad!