I was bicyling along Zachary Taylor Drive, the street that parallels Interstate 610 as it cuts across City Park, one Sunday morning when I heard a rumble in the sky. I looked up and saw it — a four-engine propeller-driven aircraft, World War II-era. The man about a quarter mile ahead of me had stopped his walk to look up too.
It was the weekend of the World War II Airpower Expo at Lakefront Airport, which featured vintage military aircraft.
As the man and I got closer to each other, it became obvious that he was itching to share something. Finally, when we were close enough, he yelled out, “Ya see the Flying Fortress?”
I was already past him by that time, so I could only cock my head to the side and shout back, “yeah!”
It was hard to tell from our brief encounter, but I think the man was younger than me. That’s a pretty good guess since most folks I see out and about these days seem to be younger than me. It is a testament to World War II’s enduring place in our national psyche that someone so far removed from the event still shows interest in it.
I was born five years after World War II ended. My received knowledge of the war was conveyed first as oral history with my mother’s stories of life on the home front. She told us about rationing and how the local Civil Defense wardens would get angry if the minutest sliver of light leaked through the heavy cloth tacked to their windows during nighttime air-raid drills.
Movies and TV shows told the stories, too. Well into the early 1960s, the local kids shows were still showing cartoons made during the war. There were old Looney Tunes with Bugs Bunny or Daffy Duck fighting Nazis wearing military hats with exaggerated high peaks that mocked those worn by Hermann Goering and Joseph Goebbels.
Popeye, Donald Duck and even Superman were all enlisted in the fight.
There were caricatures of Japanese, almost always wearing spectacles. Hitler was usually depicted very small, an evil but bumbling homunculus, easily outfoxed by the craftier cartoon characters on our side.
We had the documentary series “Victory at Sea,” with its majestic orchestral theme. And the war movies that had been made shortly after the conflict were already making their way to television as afternoon or late-night movies during my childhood.
I remember watching “Thirty Seconds over Tokyo,” about the Doolittle Raid on the Japanese capital. Later, I would read the Landmark Books version of the original volume that was the basis of the movie.
The war loomed large in our lives for the first two decades after it ended. Even now, as we approach the 73rd anniversary of Pearl Harbor next month, we find it hard to forget.
From where the man and I first spotted the plane, it was still a good three or four miles before I got back home. Several times along the way, the Fortress flew by at a low altitude. It appeared to be crisscrossing the city so it could be seen by anyone who looked up.
It was loud. I wondered how a whole fleet of those flying over in wartime would sound, and how the noise would resonate with fear in the hearts of enemies and joy in the souls of the Allied soldiers on the ground.
I could still hear the rumble of its engines throughout the day even after I was home. Then, finally, it faded away; the sound of history stilled again, but for just a little while.
Dennis Persica’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.