|Ardell (center), Doris (right) at the WWII Memorial|
In the War, the second big war, he flight tested P-51 Mustangs, the fighter plane.
When the war was over, he returned to Iowa, where distance is shortened by the past. He planted his land a farmer-stone’s throw from Lum Hollow where he grew up, where I like to think he hung the tire swing from the cottonwood tree for his younger brothers and sisters, for the grandchildren, where he watched his mother’s narrow back and wide hands on a wooden board on dough.
Dessert first, I can hear him say.
With the gift of the rising sun, he survived the all-too-common small farmer’s demise because he ran the farm with a businessman’s head. His land like all the land around the town opens up in one long field of alfalfa and corn and soy beans, squares of green patched up against pale gold, stretching so far you’d think the world was flat.
He took me, a Baltimore girl, inside the waving wheat, inside the fields he’d plowed and planted.
Hard work, blisters on the hands, aches in the back of his legs, the smell of sweat and dirt reverberate in the sight of his neck, wrinkled with years and sun. And in the story:
The caper during the second World War when he flew repaired planes to see if they were safe. He and his buddies were pilots who could fly larger planes and did: Planes filled with officers they took down from Kastl, Germany, where he was stationed, to the French Riviera to give the heroes R&R.
He and his buddies didn’t get that R&R but they did get time off and the P-51s were theirs. The Doris Lea, the one he named for his love, I think of as glory. Here’s what he and a buddy did on a whim. Got into his P-51 and flew to Paris with the glory of the Eiffel Tower in their heads: Its arch, its height, its span and the span of their wings and their own foolhardiness. They flew to the arch of the tower that looked smaller and smaller as they approached, when there was no turning back, when through it they would go or die. Only those on the ground who saw would ever know. Those on the ground and we who’ve heard the story told over and over and over again.
I saw tears in his eyes only once when my husband and I took him to The Smithsonian’s outpost of the Air and Space Museum way out by Dulles airport, not where the Apollo 11 command module sits, not where the Wright Brothers’ 1903 Flyer hangs or the Spirit of St. Louis, not where the McDonnell FH-1 Phantom holds court inside the museum that sits on the National Mall. His P-51 requires a long drive out to Chantilly, Virginia, where he stood and saw his Doris Lea.
Every pilot who flew and shot and saved and won Congressional medals and Purple Hearts owes him. The second big war that was won in part with some five hundred enemy aircraft shot down by P-51s, the lives that were saved, the lives that were lost owe him.
I see him inside the church in town, a simple wooden structure with stained glass windows on two sides. I see his gait down the center aisle, the collection plate in his rough hewn hands that speak of the one who gets things done and can’t be bothered with those who don’t.