Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Backstory, the last chapter, and the answer at last

Years ago, I sat in a class by the prolific author, Angela Hunt. She declared, “Back story belongs in the back of the book.” I etched those words in my notebook, and every time I start to give a character’s whole life story in the first chapter, Hunt’s words sound in my head.

But however much we construct our books with the backstory of a character’s motivation in the last chapter, life itself rarely works out that way.

But, if writing a novel with my dad as the protagonist, in one circumstance, it’s almost as if a novelist had constructed the plot.

My dad, a Korean Conflict air force veteran, was stationed in several places in this country and spent time in England as well.
Here while stationed at Chanute Air Force Base, my dad second from left on front row

Here with comrades (Dad's in the middle)
Of course, he flew to most of these places. He was a mechanic and good at his job. He was offered officer’s training, but declined it and left the service after his term was up.

You might find it odd, as I did, from that point on, my dad never flew again. Oh, he traveled. He zigzagged coast to coast across the country several times in an RV. He made the 8400 mile round trip from Georgia to Alaska. Twice. If there’d been a bridge to Europe, I have no doubt he would have gladly crossed it.

Through the years, as I’ve traveled, he’s occasionally picked me up from the airport, and was always interested in my adventures, but never so much as to become an airline passenger himself.

My dad could be somewhat oblique and quite skilled at deflecting a question he didn’t want to answer. I’ve always attributed that to his English ancestry. So, I never knew why his feet stayed firmly planted on terra firma.

Until what was to be the last chapter.

A couple of years ago, after the cruel dementia had set into my dad’s brain, I sat across from him at our family Thanksgiving meal. Somehow, the conversation turned to travel. Because of his mental decline, Dad in the last years could be removed from what was going on, but this day, he seemed to be more on his game.  I dared to ask, “Dad, why is it you never traveled by air again after you left the service?”

In a single moment, decades of defenses crumbled brick on brick as his eyes met mine. “It was because of the crash.”

Everyone at the table grew silent. We put our turkey-laden forks down.

“Crash? Can you tell us about it, dad?”

“I was stationed at Barksdale, and we got word one evening that a B-45 jet coming back home was in trouble. We all rushed out to see, hoping they’d make the landing, but they didn’t. The plane crashed east of the runway. Several of the men stationed at Barksdale were killed in the crash. My friends.”

I don’t know how we even finished our food after that revelation. It was hard to bear that he’d carried this horrible memory all these years and none of us knew about it until he was 85 years old.

Later, I researched and found news releases about the crash. Poignantly, one was on a site entitled, GenDisasters.com, Events That Touched Our Ancestors Lives.

On March 21, 1951, three men died instantly in the crash, and a fourth died later trying to put out the fire. My dad had been witness to it all at 23 years old. My son is now a year older than my dad was then.

That may not have been all there was to tell. Incredibly, I found another tragedy connected to Barksdale occurred only a couple of days later on March 23, 1951. According to this source, “Brigadier General Paul Thomas Cullen was the deputy commander and chief of staff of Second Air Force at Barksdale and had just been detailed to establish the Seventh Air Division in England, a unit that would have spearheaded any air attack on the former Soviet Union. He, along with four other senior Strategic Air Command officers on his staff and several dozen top nuclear experts from the secret 509th Bomb Group were lost in the north Atlantic Ocean, when their C-124 transport vanished.”

No reason has every been found for the plane's disappearance. That’s a lot in a very short time for a twenty-three year old to process.

Fact is, many of our vets are carrying around backstory―the tragic details of war and service that have left indelible marks in their lives. And often, those who love them never know the why's. I wish we had known earlier what happened to my dad, but it was either too hard for him to discuss or perhaps, he wanted to protect us from the painful past.

This Memorial Day, I’m thinking about those service friends my dad lost one March evening before I was even born. I want to remember their sacrifice and so many more like them that gave their lives across the years serving our country.

As we barbecue our hamburgers and make our potato salad, let’s remember and give thanks that we have the freedom to do those things because of the extreme sacrifice of brave men and women who in Abraham Lincoln’s words have given “the last full measure of devotion.”

“I thank my God every time I remember you” (Phillipians 1:3).

"They fell heir to what others had toiled for ... " (Psalm 105:44).


pvmanns said...

Bev, I read this post a few minutes ago, and was truly blessed on so many levels.Thanks for sharing!

pvmanns said...

Bev, I read this post a few minutes ago, and was truly blessed on so many levels.Thanks for sharing!

Beverly Varnado said...

Thank you so much, Patricia. I am blessed by you reading.

Marilyn Turk said...

Hi Bev,
I just found your blog and appreciated your two most recent blogs. I won't say "enjoyed," because they were about tragedy, but thank you for writing about them and making us care.

Beverly Varnado said...

Oh, wow, Marilyn, thank you. It was good to reconnect with you at Blue Ridge even though we couldn't remember where we actually met the first time. Don't you just love this time of life we're in? Hope to see you again in the not so distant future. Blessings, Bev

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