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War Planes Over Seattle

August 1, 2015

It’s Sea Fair in Seattle so we get to experience some of the sights and sounds of jets making bombing runs over our village, but not the explosions. Our village is Columbia City—one of the most diverse populations in the country, so possibly some of our neighbors have survived the real thing. But this is the Blue Angels (of death, of course) making runs across Lake Washington.

Since my house sits high on the edge of a ridge, a couple blocks from the lake, the planes pass directly overhead, low enough that I can easily see the pilots (like that P-51 pilot in “Empire of the Sun”), if I look up at the right time.   They fly so low that we can’t see them coming, for the trees and houses, and fast enough to be just ahead of the sound. Suddenly they’re on us, and then the sound slams against the houses. Since it reverberates all over the place, it’s hard to know what direction their heading, until they’re out over the lake, or over Rainier Valley heading for the other ridge. The volume is uncomfortable, of course; but when they pass directly above us there’s an added sickening sound, for maybe half a second, metallic and screeching, as if a terrible traffic accident is just beginning.

But I do enjoy spotting an occasional Spifire, Hurricane, or Mustang. They’ve even brought in a Flying Fortress. My father trained on the B-29, but luckily the war ended shortly before he would have seen combat. I watched so many movies, though, that when I visited in the Cotswolds for the first time, around 1990, I was haunted by images of Spitfires rising from the green fields, or a B-17 “coming in” after a raid, “on a wing and a prayer,” as the song had it.

During the years right after the war, I memorized a surplus AAF manual for air crews, for identifying distant planes, and dealing with them if they came near. I could give you, by profiles from four angles, the names, nicknames, and nations of most belligerent and friendly aircraft, and tell you relevant data such as armament and maximum speed.

I saw my first fly-over when I was a kid in Indiana. I’m guessing summer 1950, after the Soviet Union tested an atomic bomb. To assure a jittery American public that the U.S. could strike the USSR if necessary, the Army Air Force flew a flight of B-36s, with intercontinental range of delivery, around the country. They flew directly over my town (Ft. Wayne, IN), probably because it was on the flight path from Detroit to Chicago, and maybe because, with its ball-bearing factories, it had been high on Hitler’s list of cities to be bombed when the Luftwaffe had such planes.

I had seen the B-29s at the AAF base near Amarillo TX; but the B-36 seemed gigantuan by comparison. The sight of those planes, with their long and broad wings, and their six, odd, push-propeller engines, did build confidence. In 1955 I took my girlfriend to see “Strategic Air Command” (James Stewart and June Allyson) and I was genuinely proud when I boasted that my father served in that Command.

One of my pleasures, as a small boy during the summers of the late ‘40s, was to lie on my back in the grass on the hill that our house sat on, and watch the P-51s (“Cadillac of the Skies!”), very high above, flashing in the sunlight like minnows; the pilots were practicing their “dog fight” maneuvers.

That memory always brings to mind one of my favorite passages from Walden: “Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in. I drink at it; but while I drink I see the sandy bottom and detect how shallow it is. Its thin current slides away, but eternity remains. I would drink deeper; fish in the sky, whose bottom is pebbly with stars.”

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