Paul Hendrickson: In His Final Days, My Father Always Knew How to Pull Off the Landing

From a Washington Post essay by Paul Hendrickson headlined “In his final days, my father always knew how to pull off the landing”:

All my life, my father was a flyer. That’s not quite right. He wasn’t flying at the end. He lived to be nearly 85. But even deep into his 70s, I was unafraid to go up with him, to wonder at his skills.

I’m looking at some yellowed notes dated August 1983. He had retired from his 30-year career at Eastern Airlines. By then, it had been almost four decades since he was strapped into the cockpit of his P-61 Black Widow night fighter on Iwo Jima in the last days of World War II.

He came over from suburban Chicago to visit. My wife, Ceil, was pregnant with our first child. He flew his single-prop Beechcraft Debonair into a private airfield in Bowie, Md. By the time I got there, he had already landed and parked the Deb, as he always called her, and was busy tying her down, putting the foam rubber in the nose cowl.

I walked out to the tarmac, spiked with grass coming up through cracks of the asphalt. Bean patches bordered the runway. The flyboy, who had grown up on a sharecropper’s farm in western Kentucky in the 1930s, and whose formal education had stopped at high school, had on a blue-mesh ball cap with “Big Bend, Texas” on the crown. He was wearing a silver and aqua cowboy belt, white socks, ortho shoes. The flyer had just gotten back down safely again, something he’d probably done 10,000 times in his life.

On the second day of his stay with us, we decided to go flying. On the way out to the airport, we talked of this and that. He told me of an accident with a knife he’d had in the kitchen a few days earlier. “I tried to cut off my thumb. Figured I didn’t need it.” I pestered him for more. He shrugged. “I was cutting something with a knife and clean missed it, can you believe it?”

At the field, we untied the Deb. He shoved the nose-cowl foam at me. I didn’t know where he wanted me to store it. He made three turns around the plane, moving faster, talking louder. “Well, son, I don’t see anything a-hangin’ or a-bangin’, so we better go while we got our nerve up.” I had heard him say that so many times.

We ran down the checklist and took off and flew down toward Annapolis, which he kept calling “Anna-nappolis,” and then out over the Chesapeake Bay and the big silver spans of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. It was a gorgeous day for flying. We turned inland and flew over Maryland farmland. He said he wanted to stay clear of air traffic close to the city. He said he wanted to keep out of the path of airliners coming into and taking off from National Airport. “Us little guys have no business being around these big jets, Paul,” he said.

Little guy? He’d once commanded some of the biggest jet airliners in the sky. Hundreds of times in his Eastern career, he’d flown into National, shooting the river approach, which is to say snaking southward down the Potomac and curving her in just this side of the Washington Monument. I remember once, as a teenager, riding family pass on an Eastern flight when my dad was up in the cockpit, arcing and curving and captaining and smoothing her onto those tight runways at National like somebody working with a hand trowel. I was so proud. My father had just done that.

After about an hour up, we headed back. I think we were at about 4,000 feet. He seemed a little unsure where the airport was. “Funny as hell, Paul, the other morning when I came in, I was having trouble finding it. I had plotted it out on the maps. I called air traffic control. I said, ‘Where is the thing? I should be right on top of it.’ Guy said, ‘Keep a-pushin.’”

I spotted the field before he did — it was up ahead of us two or three miles. “Say, you’re getting pretty good up here, aren’t you?” he said, looking over at me, his voice grown soft.

Like so many sons, I’ve spent long stretches of my life trying to reassemble the life of a man who both awed and scared me for almost as long as I knew him, which was close to 60 years.

He was 26, with a wife and two babies back home, when he’d risked his life on “Iwo,” which is all I’d ever heard him call it. One of those babies was me.

His plane’s name was the Rita B. That was my mom’s name. (The B stood for Bernardine.) He’d had the words painted in bright, curvy white on the glossy black nose of his sleek and poisonous three-crew warship. The Black Widow, from Northrop Aircraft Inc., was the first operational warplane of World War II to have been built specifically as a night fighter. Her M2 Browning machine guns, mounted in a rotating 360-degree turret atop the fuselage, could fire 800 rounds per minute. She had 20-mm cannons. She could carry 500-pound bombs. Like my dad, the P-61 had entered the shooting war very late. There was a mystique about her. I think it had to do with the dark. “Fighting the night,” I used to hear my dad say.

From mid-March 1945 through V-J Day, he flew 75 missions in the Rita B, roughly 175 hours of logged time. What I’ve come to believe is that my father was basically scared out of his skull the whole time he was on Iwo Jima. He was just a boy over there, as they all were, or nearly so.

Sometimes the beveled mirror of memory is hard to stare into.

He could come home from a two- or three-day airline trip and put down his bags and get a report from our mom that my older brother, Marty, and I had been bad. He’d jerk us upstairs by the shirt collar to the many-windowed sunroom at the back of the house. Sometimes he’d still be in his uniform. It was such a beautiful uniform, with the medallion of a red falcon on the brim of his hat, and his starched light blue dress shirt with the epaulets on the shoulders, and his dark blue woolen uniform itself with the gold buttons on the jacket.

He’d order us to take down our trousers and jockey underpants while the belt came off. He’d have us lie over the bed, face down. It was the terror of waiting. Our crying and begging would begin before the whipping started. Marty and I would sniffle our way to sleep in the twin beds in that sunroom.

All these decades later, I can never glimpse a belt out of its beltloops without shivering. And yet I have a deeper understanding, even a forgiveness, about that belt. Or I think I do.

Kentucky. I remember him telling me of how he was once sitting on the tongue of a wagon in a sweltering Union County hayfield when overhead came this terrible roar, and then this huge shadow darkening the earth all around him. His voice grew soft, as if recounting a gauzy dream.

“It was a Ford Trimotor, Paul. It was silver. It flew right over top of me. I was out there all alone. I would have gotten the strap for sitting on that tongue instead of working. I heard it coming before I could see it. It came over the rise. It seemed about a hundred feet over my head, as if it was going to land and pick me up, or maybe drop a ladder down. I could make out the pilot in the little window on the side of the fuselage under the wing. Must have been about ’32. I was 14 or 15. It went right on past me, the noise just huge. I was trembling. It landed in a big pasture on the other side of town.

The next day, the people who owned it, and who were barnstorming it through the countryside, along with a biplane that was doing acrobatics, started taking people up for a dollar a ride. I got a ride. I have no idea where I got that dollar. A dollar? Who had a dollar? After, when I told my folks I was someday going to fly airplanes, my mother said, ‘Joe Paul, if you want to commit suicide, why don’t you just go out there and jump off the barn?’”

I am remembering that time we went on a fly-in fishing trip to Canada. It was long after he had retired. A bunch of old Eastern pilots were going, and a few were bringing their sons. “Paul, there’s water up in Canada man has never fished in. They’ve got muskie and walleye and northern pike and largemouth bass waiting up there for us.”

It was sleeting when we got into the air. He got up to 5,000 feet and decided to come down to 4,000. Big chunks of ice were thwacking off the wings. He said, “Snow? Who the hell needs it? On Memorial Day? Let’s get the hell out of here and go to Texas.”

But the weather cleared. The fishing and hunting resort had its own 2,800-foot grass landing strip. He came in right on the dime — and handed the landing strip some change.

Flying home, we went into Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport so I could catch a commercial flight back to Washington. He was visibly tense. The air controllers brought him in on an outer runway. He had both hands on the wheel. He was leaning forward. I had maps and approach plates in my lap — he had thrust them over at me about an hour after we had lifted off from the grass at Eagle Lake.

“Little hectic, isn’t it?” I said, after we got back down and he had taxied her off the main runway.

“You’re damn tootin’. Anytime you go into a major.”

There were big airliners all around us. We were a little puddle-jumper. Only, this was my old man at the stick. Who had been at Iwo Jima. Who, for 30 years, in any kind of weather, had flown in and out of those intense Chicago rookeries named Midway and O’Hare.

That was in the late 1980s. Over the next years, as his health slowly declined, our relationship grew better, more open. The flyer kept flying. But a quadruple bypass and valve replacement in 1994 effectively put an end to his solo days.

In October 2002, he turned 84. The following March, we were talking on the phone. “Paul, it’s time for me to leave the earth,” he said, just stating a fact. In mid-April, I learned he was in the hospital and that they’d found a tumor in his stomach. Marty was living nearby.

My kid brother, Mark, flew in from Illinois, my little sister, Jeannie, from Ohio.

We were all in the room when his chief doctor walked in. The doctor, who knew my dad pretty well and admired him, said: “Joe, I know you like things straight, so here is the straight: I’ve studied the X-rays. We’ve gotten the latest labs. One problem cancels out the other. We can’t operate on the tumor in your stomach because your heart would never take it.”

I couldn’t see my dad’s face. From behind, I saw him nod. He was nodding almost before the doctor was done. He said — and not weakly: “Right. Okay. I understand.” It was as if he’d just been briefed in the big squad tent in the low-wattage Ready Room at South Field on Iwo Jima. He had received his orders.

I thought to myself: This hard and often uncommunicative and occasionally violent man — which is to say the figure I had known through my childhood until I could escape from home for the seminary at 14 — is now showing me how to die. He had been all those things through my childhood, yes, but he had also been all the other things, teaching me, by example more than word, about self-discipline, about completing a task, about self-respect, about honoring one’s obligations. He was about to complete a task now, about to honor an obligation.

The night fighter died in the dark. When it was light, Jeannie called me in Philadelphia. That afternoon, I went out to my local trout stream, at Valley Forge, where George Washington headquartered the Continental Army in that terrible winter. I had on my waders and fishing vest and boots, and my fly rod in my hand, and my net hanging from a lanyard on my back. I didn’t fish. I just sat on the bank and watched the water purl over the clean stones.

We buried him five days later, at a family plot in my mom’s hometown of Xenia, Ohio. His stone is there with his name on it, and my mom’s. Jeannie arranged for a local stonecutter to do a rendering on the marble of a Black Widow above the words “WWII Pilot Night Fighter CPT.” You can see the propellers on those Double Wasp 18-cylinder radial air-cooled Pratt & Whitney engines. The wheels are down. Only thing, you can’t quite tell whether the Rita B is just lifting off, with the wheels about to retract, or about to land, with the wheels locked in place. I’ve decided it’s the latter. My father is feathering her in, getting back down one more time.

Paul Hendrickson, a former Post reporter, teaches nonfiction writing at the University of Pennsylvania. His memoir about his father, “Fighting the Night: Iwo Jima, World War II, and a Flyer’s Life,” will be published next spring.

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