It begins with a memory.
But the memory is contained in an object.
The object is easy to find. It has been with me since the age of eight. It has lived with me in every house, every apartment. It has been my traveling companion. It has rested on my dresser, my night stand, always in plain sight. It has seen most of Indiana from Lafayette, Vincennes, Terre Haute, and has returned with me to Linton. It now sits on my desk, resting on the base of a lamp with the sharp edges casting shadows.
The object is a bracelet, and the bracelet is of a bright silver, the metal of a B-52 bomber. Two rivets hold the wings of the Army Air Corps which are set dead center. The wings are duller than its silver backing, showing its age.
To start the memory, all I have to do is look at it. The longer I stare, the longer the memory continues.
The memory begins with a smile.
The man who smiles shares my dimples. His hair is sandy blond, though rogue white hairs accent his temple. He stood straight, as only former military men do. But there was nothing coarse in his manner. I know that from his hand. It rested on my shoulder as I sat at my L-shaped desk.
We are in a classroom. At each desk sat men and women who shared similarities with the students. The teacher asked us a week ago to bring someone to class whom we admired. I could think of no one but my grandfather, Robert Ferry. Robert in name, Bob to everyone else.
It can take a child’s question to soften the resolve. There is no ulterior motive in a question which comes from a child and makes it easier to answer. I remember the question well, “What did you do in the war?”
At that time I knew little of Hitler, except a name. I knew nothing of concentration camps, nothing of Normandy, nothing of rations, nothing of the fear of uncertainty. War was a thing which happened, already decided, already won or lost. I knew we had won. I knew my grandfather had served, and I knew that him being there in the classroom with me was proof of us winning.
“I’ll tell you when we leave,” he said.
After class, we left in his Chrysler New Yorker, a blue car with electronic seats. The seat could be adjusted by a row of dials on the panel of the door. I moved each dial and felt the reaction. I could sense a grin rise from my grandfather as I tested the limits of the seat’s mobility. When I was finished, I repeated the question.
“Ice cream first,” he said with a smile.
We always ordered the same thing from McDonalds: a caramel sundae. It was a Sunday tradition, and I remember being very happy to have a sundae on a day that was not Sunday. I thought you could only have sundaes on Sunday. That was why they were called sundaes.
We returned with our sundaes to my grandparent’s house. He parked in the driveway and walked towards the outside patio. There were four seats and a table, each white and metal. I remember the sundae dripping on the table and running through the holes onto the pavement.
“So, you want to know about the war?”
“Yes, what did you do?”
“You see, I was in the Army Air Corps. This was before there was the Air Force. I enlisted after high school. Your great-grandparents were upset I didn’t go to college. I graduated second in my class. I had a scholarship to go to college. I would have been the first to go in my family, but I enlisted anyway. Times were different then. I knew it was something I had to do.
“My job was to work on planes,” he continued, “I didn’t argue. They said it was the best way to serve my country. So for most of the war, I was repairing many of the planes which came back from missions.”
Briefly, he looked towards the sky as though the planes of his past still circled.
“I loved driving the planes. After they would land, they would let me sit in the cockpit and taxi them to the hangar. I wanted to be a pilot, but never got the opportunity.”
“What kind of planes did you work on?”
To that question, I could see his face tilt in the sun. He became expressive. I knew I had asked the right question.
After a moment he returned with a big rectangular book. He took the seat next to me and placed it between us on the table. Inside it was every variety of aircrafts used during the World War II. For the next many hours he flipped through the pages and described the inner working of each airplane.
He explained to me which ones held bombs and which ones were used in escorting the bombers. I learned what a dog fight was, even though it had nothing to do with dogs. I learned of the routes they would fly over enemy territory and how air support, during the latter part of the war, was beneficial to the Allies.
The tragedy of memory is the things its leaves out. The exact conversation of the airplanes, more of his involvement in the war have been lost with time. I’ve tried to recover them, but I am left only with an impression. Though it lacks facts and weight, this is what I recall of his voice:
His intelligence was cloaked by his speech — a way of speaking which could only originate in Southern Indiana. There was no draw in his words, though he would hang on the vowels long enough to elevate them. What I admire most of his voice was its lack of pretension. He matched others questions with sincerity, neither going above or below the person he was speaking to. He said what needed to be said. And he said it being neither folksy nor frivolous, though his intelligence could have allowed him to go over the heads of most people. He did in speech what most writes fail to do. When I write I think of his voice.
As the day ended I remember not wanting to leave. But when my mother arrived, he reached in his pocket. In his hand the silver of the bracelet refracted the afternoon sun, catching my eye.
“I want you to have this,” he said. “I worked metal from on old B-52 and melted it down. I bent the metal back and put my wings here. You see the two rivets? I wore this after I came back. But I think it is good hands now.”
With care, I ran my fingers along the edge of the bracelet. The edges were not sharp, but rounded.
“Try it on,” he said.
I slipped the bracelet over my wrist. My arm was too skinny to hold it in place. I moved it high up on my forearm. It took half of my arm to hold its weight. It appeared as an armband rather than bracelet.
“You’ll grow into it one day.”
The day he died my mother called. It was early in the morning, and the call woke me. I don’t remember her words. They were brief, all that she had the strength to muster. But I got the message.
Afterwards I could not sleep. I stared at the ceiling searching for his face. When I turned my head to the nightstand, I saw it in bracelet. I still see it in the bracelet. If I stare long enough, looking at the rivets holding the wings, I see myself at eight, and my grandfather with his dimples and his hand on my shoulder.
Grant is a staff writer for the Greene County Daily World. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.