Tuesday, October 16, 2012

31 Beautiful Things, Day 16: Family Legends 2

I mentioned two days ago that my daughter and I were both collecting family legends this week, her for American history and me for my writers' group.

Click on the link about for her story about the Civil War table; here's mine about my Uncle Max.

Max in the Sky

Max knew he really wasn’t supposed to do it, but the idea pulled at him and he couldn’t shake it. Other pilots did it, and his mother would be thrilled. He could see her laughing, her head tilted back, blue eyes on the sky. She’d smile wide and then put her hand up to her lips and close her mouth the way she did, hiding her crooked teeth. Dad would stand next to Mother, looking gruff, thumbs tucked under his suspenders and a cigarette dangling from his mouth. He had to do it.

Here’s how it was in the spring of 1943. Max and his crew were issued a new Martin B-26 Marauder bomber, direct from the factory at Omaha. He had to take it on a cross -ountry flight of at least 1,000 miles in order to make a precise fuel consumption test before crossing the ocean, overseas to Europe, to the war. As Max mapped out the course, starting at Barksdale AFB in Shreveport, Louisiana, he found that a perfect flight path just happened to include his hometown of Mt. Vernon, Illinois.

And so Max and his crew took a little side trip—just a small one— on their test flight, in what became known as the dusting of his hometown. About the middle of their flight, they came upon Mt. Vernon. They flew low, so low, from west to east and back again. There, Max saw clearly, was the Courthouse, the library, and the Rogers Building. And the folks lived at 600 Main Street, also right on course.

As this rumbling, thundering airplane with two big engines flew low over the city of Mt. Vernon, windows rattled, dogs howled, and the townspeople hurried out to see what all the noise was about. In the streets they looked up and involuntarily ducked at the low-flying bomber. Were they being attacked? Had the war come to America? Was it another Pearl Harbor?

The plane tipped its wings as if waving, and there on the front porch of 600 Main Street, Helen Firebaugh laughed. That was her Max in the pilot’s seat. She took a violet-edged handkerchief out of her apron pocket and waved ‘til she thought her arm would fall off. “That’s Max!” she yelled to the next-door neighbors and the people on the street. They laughed too and shouted the news on down the line, and soon it seemed the whole town was waving at Max and his crew, flying so low they could just about touch him.

The Balwig sisters, who lived near the Catholic church, marched right over to Verner Pigg, Chief of Police, to issue a complaint, but Verner Pigg refused to call Scott Air Force Base since the sisters couldn’t identify the plane. Mildred Metcalf, the librarian, said the vibrations sent some of the books flying off the shelves.  She spent the afternoon picking them up and placing them, one by one, back in their rightful spots. She thought about Max Firebaugh the whole time, and about the other hometown boys who were over there already or about to go, boys who once checked out adventure books or asked her, with cheeks flushed, if she’d help them find a certain novel.

Back at 600 Main Street, Helen Firebaugh, a poet herself, took out a piece of creamy white stationary, and in her loopy cursive, wrote a letter to the famous American poet Edgar Guest, describing her son’s flight over his hometown as he prepared to go fight overseas.

Edgar Guest crafted the poem “Dusting Off His Hometown” in response to my grandmother’s letter. The poem was published in syndicated newspapers across the country as well as The Saturday Evening Post on July 27, 1943.

Max Firebaugh, at 20, was in England when the poem was published, thousands of miles away already from his hometown. He’d imagine those books toppling off the library shelves sometimes when the sky was bright with search lights and thundering with the sound of anti-aircraft guns hammering away at a German aircraft.  And when the Germans would drop butterfly bombs on base, he’d think about the fluttering white handkerchief in his mother’s hand. He could see how proud she waved.

Family stories: ask about them. Write them down. Legacies are a beautiful thing.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful story! You did a beautiful job. I think you and your daughter should do more of these and make a little book to give to your family.



I love comments! Thanks for taking the time to leave one. I have comment moderation on, so your comment will take a little bit to appear.