From Chicken Soup for the Veteran's Soul

The Waiting Room

If a man had done his best, what else is there?

General George S. Patton

“It’ll be about thirty minutes,” the pharmacist told me as he slid a numbered tag under the thick glass window. I didn’t care for this part of the VA hospital experience, sitting in the waiting room and pretending to read a magazine so that nobody bothered me.

I couldn’t tell you what the magazine was, but waiting-room etiquette requires that each patient have one and appear to be giving it their attention. It’s just something that one does to protect one’s privacy when in the midst of strangers.

That’s not to say that I wasn’t aware. Although my eyes were staring blankly at the open periodical, I was very conscious of others in the waiting room, especially the conversation going on between two elderly patients sitting with their wives not far from where I sat. These guys obviously didn’t know the rules.

They were talking about the coldest experiences of their lives. The gentleman called “Slats” by his friend told about when he was a kid in North Dakota. He had walked to school one day when it was fifty-five degrees below zero and the tip of his nose had frozen. His wife politely reminded him, “It was cold in that bomber, too, wasn’t it?”

“Oh, yeah,” he reflected soberly. “I’d forgotten about that.”

“That was a B–17, wasn’t it?” his friend asked.

Apparently uncomfortable with the direction the conversation was taking, Slats answered in a low voice, “Yeah, Eighth Air Force.

“We had a thermometer on board,” Slats continued quietly. “But it had been busted since our third mission. We were dressed for the cold, though, which really helped us out in the POW camp.”

I was aching to get into this discussion. I am sitting next to history, I told myself as I stared at the magazine. These guys saved the world, right over there, the little guy next to his wife, and the other fellow whose wife was almost asleep now. Did these guys know what they had done? Did they know back then what the odds were of their ever coming home again? I don’t know why, but these questions were burning inside me, and all I could do was stare at my magazine, because these were strangers and that’s what you did in public.

“You were a tail gunner, weren’t you?” Slats’s friend asked.

“Yep, but we did a lot of damage from back there, too,” Slats said as though defending or making excuses for tail gunners who were notorious slackers.

I’d had it! Forget decorum; I couldn’t stay out of this any longer.

“Excuse me,” I said, addressing Slats. “May I ask a question?”

Slats gave his friend a look as though to say, “Now we’ve done it. We’ve gone and disturbed this nice young man who was trying to read his magazine.”

“Sure,” he said.

I had to lay some groundwork here to let him know that I knew a little something about this, so I began, “The U.S. Army Tank Corps was sent to North Africa thinking they were the best-equipped and best-trained corps on earth. They were told that their tanks were invulnerable to anything the Germans had to shoot at them and that their guns could destroy German tanks with near misses. It wasn’t until they were in combat that they discovered that the exact opposite was true.” I didn’t know of a delicate way to phrase my question, so I just asked, “Did you realize, at that time, what your odds were of ever coming home?”

“You look awfully young to have been in the world war,” Slats said. “Were you in Korea? Vietnam?”

“Vietnam,” I said, trying to put this aside. I was afraid he was trying to change the subject and evade my question.

“That was a bad deal there,” he said sympathetically. “But to answer your question, yeah, we knew, but we tried not to think about it much. They let you go home when you flew twenty-five missions, but of all the thousands and thousands of B-17 crews that I know of, only about six or seven ever made their twenty-five missions.

“A lot of the guys in other crews were superstitious about it,” he continued. “When they got to their twelfth mission, they’d call it “twelve-A.” Then when they flew their thirteenth, they’d call it “twelve-B” and then go to fourteen. I used to tell them how stupid that was—that is, until we flew our thirteenth mission.

“I think we all knew inside that we’d probably never make it home again, but until that thirteenth mission, getting shot down was something that always happened to the other guy.”

“But you knew and still went up?” I stated more than asked.

“I knew the odds of getting our twenty-five missions were practically zero. I was also aware that the life expectancy of a B-17 tail gunner in combat was two and a half minutes, but we had to go. We were all that they had just then.”

I nodded and retreated to the refuge of my magazine to contemplate what I had just heard. I was in the presence of a real hero, and I was too choked up to take advantage of it, to tap his personal knowledge, to exploit and revel in his memories. I just stared at the magazine.

“I’m not a hero,” he said as though he’d been reading my mind, “but I knew one. Our pilot was a real hero.” His voice was beginning to break. I looked up. His jaw trembled, and his eyes glistened as he fought to check his emotions.

“We never made it to the target on that thirteenth mission,” he continued. “We were jumped by Jerrys and were shot up pretty bad. When we turned back, the fighters followed us and kept pounding us until they either ran out of ammunition or fuel or were shot down. It was just beginning to look like we were going to make it back when we ran into the flak. The navigator and I were too badly wounded to bail out.

Slats was looking at the ceiling now and blinking rapidly. “But the pilot crash-landed that plane with no engines, no landing gear and most of the tail section shot away. He saved the navigator and me, although the navigator died from his wounds. We were all captured because we stuck together, but we were all alive.”

I stared defensively and silently at my magazine. I’d gotten a lot more than I had bargained for, almost more than I could bear.

Moments later, the pharmacist called him to the window. When he came back and helped his wife to her feet, he told his friend that he’d see him later, and then he looked over at me. He smiled, nodded and said, “Take care.” I nodded and returned to the magazine I was holding.

Within minutes, I noticed someone standing in front of me waiting for my attention. I looked up to see that his wife had returned and was holding a copy of a newspaper from a nearby town that she had retrieved from the clinic waiting room. It was folded to show a quarter-page ad for the First National Bank, half of which was a black-and-white photograph of four officers and six enlisted men standing proudly in front of their B-17.

“This is my husband, Lowell, here,” she said, pointing to a nineteen-year-old in a leather jacket. “And this is the navigator,” she said, pointing to a not-nearly-as-handsome officer in the front row. “He died in Lowell’s arms,” she said. “I thought you might appreciate this.”

She left while I stared at the photo. I wanted to thank her, but I was unable to speak. The eyes of the men in the photo were looking directly at me. They reflected the determination it would take to save the world but also betrayed the human frailty of which they were very much aware. “We were all that they had just then. . . .” They had been enough.

Michael Manley

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