Across a Generation
By Tim Erickson (EAA 316971)
Published in Warbirds November/December 1990
On this fall day — temperatures hovering around 60 and the wind beating through the protective layer of my leather flying cap — I imagine myself transported back 50 years or so to the days of Ryan trainers and wind-in-the-face flying. I pretend my open cockpit homebuilt, painted in prewar colors, is a primary trainer preparing me for a war which I know only in stories.
I cruise at 70 mph, and there is a sense of continuity with the past as the verdant green Kansas landscape passes lazily under wing. I crane my head around the meager windshield and gulp prop wash — alive with exhaust noise, oil residue and the smell of burnt aviation fuel. I feel the wind pulling at my cheeks, distorting the flesh and seeping in around my goggles.
Looking out at my yellow wings with Army Air Corp stars — meatballs I think they call them — I feel connected through time and space with my father, a World War II veteran with the USAAF. I know he must have looked out over this bomber’s wings many times — hoping and praying the narrow Davis airfoil would keep on flying. I think o of the wind that mush have blasted his face in “Howling Banshee” as he stood midship, craning his neck and waiting for fighters to swarm over that B-24. And I think of the cold sweat that often broke out in those bomber crews despite temperatures way below zero.
I am eternally grateful that flying connects me to him in a small but significant way. And I never forget that while flying is a fun, recreational activity for me, the smell of death was ever in my father’s nostrils as he scanned the German skies in 1944.
This is a tribute to Clifford Erickson, my father. He is not gone and in the grave but very much alive. Like thousands upon thousands of bomber crews who fought and lived through World War II, he is approaching 70 with great haste. He needs bifocals to read, his face is full of wrinkles, and his hearing is shot — a result of close proximity to those might Pratt and Whitney radial engines.
Like the majority of bomber crewmembers, he was not in the left (or right) seat. No glamour position for this Kansas farm boy. Dad sat in the tail sometimes, but spent the majority of his time as a waist gunner in the four-engine Liberator. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross, carious air medals, and piece of flak from German gunners. (He saved the flak, which was extracted, from his posterior at great cost. I lost it years later while playing “army”.) He put in his time, learned to smoke cigarettes, had an English girlfriend and saw his share of death and destruction. Like most veterans from the 8th Army Air Force, he left as a child and came back as a man. When the war was over, he returned home and started a family.
Up until recently, I believed he came back to Kansas in near angelic positioning. This was a myth my father did nothing to dispel. But unimpeachable sources have since indicated quite the opposite. It was indeed hard to keep ’em down on the farm after they’d seen the lights of Paris.
A postwar farming career was short-lived due to low commodity princes. Babies came in 1948, 1953 and 1958. The last arrival was an unexpected two-for-one special of twin boys.
“I got two,” he announced excitedly to a fishing buddy the night of our birth. “One 5 pounds, 7 ounces; the other 6 pounds, 2 ounces.”
“Bass?” the fishing buddy asked excitedly.
“No, twin boys!” he shouted through the phone receiver.
During the time he and mother were raising their family, father operated a livestock feed warehouse. It provided a good income for the growing family and a distinctive smell to all his clothes. I never realized it “smelled” until years later when a temporary worker and myself entered a similar establishment.
“Man, this stinks so bad I think I’m gonna throw up, ” he commented.
“I don’t know,” I responded, “it kind of smells like money to me.”
Father and the twins often went fishing, although I spent most of my time trying to retrieve lures from tree branches and untangling line from impossible knots. While Tom and dad would typically end up with bass, I’d usually end up with fewer lures. It never occurred to me that life could have been any different until we took a family trip to El Paso years later.
“There it is, at the top of the mountain,” he said pointing to a distant cross.
“What?” I asked.
“The monument to my crew,” he said quietly. “They all flew into the mountain the night before we were due to be shipped out.”
We trudged up the rocky slope to the spot where the white cross stood. It had been erected by a local Boy Scout troop shortly after the crash. Debris was still scattered among the boulders, and dad picked up pieces here and there. He explained how he won a coin toss on the night of his crew’s last training mission. He opted to stay on the ground while the Liberator made one last night flight. The bomber took off, lifted into the night air on its slender wings, and crashed at full speed into the side of the mountain. No one survived. No one but my father. The next day he shipped out alone to England and the 458th Bomb Group.
Until that time, I had never really considered the world of the ‘what if”. But things could have been different if the coin had fallen on its other side. I wouldn’t have been born, or at least I wouldn’t have been the product of the particular union between my mother and father. And I realized how fickle fate must have seemed to the men of those bomber crews who watched life come and go over Germany like so many coin tosses.
As I grew up, I followed in my older brother’s footsteps and out the door of jump planes. It took parental permission for me to make my first skydive at 16, but the folks gave in after much persuasive whining and carrying on. My father said the closest he came to jumping was once when Howling Banshee was close to the Swiss border. The bomber had engine trouble and was limping back from Germany. Someone came over the intercom and suggested they all bail out and spend the rest of the war in neutral Switzerland. After much discussion, the crew opted for their home base of Norwich.
At age 20, I began to take flying lessons in Wichita. After I got my private certificate, my father and I would go flying on occasion. He liked being airborne around our hometown, being able to look down on homesteaded land. He once called me from the center of the state with a broken down truck. I flew out to retrieve him in grand style. Hoping to impress the line crew, he introduced me as “his pilot” before lifting heavenward.
Now as I fly with the wind in my face, following winding rivers and rolling hills, I think of the sacrifices that he and thousands like him made in the Mighty 8th. I am proud to have a father who served his country, and thankful that he made it back. And as I look out over my wings I hope and pray — like he used to — that those peculiar things called airfoils will support my dreams and always take me home.