Living on a Wing and a Prayer
Dedicated to Maj George R. Shannon, USAF
October 14, 1933 - May 22, 2011
This is the prologue from my historical novel (unpublished), Living on a Wing and a Prayer. I tried everything to find a publisher in those days before self-publishing became available. Three publishers liked it but did not feel it would earn enough to pay to publish it. Alas!
17 February 1973
Travis AFB California
The longest held prisoner of war knelt on the tarmac and kissed the ground. He was on American soil. He was home. We all were home, some of us after only a year, some of us after nearly ten years. He had been a major when he was shot down over the demilitarized zone nine years earlier; now, he was a colonel. There were promotions for putting in time at the Hanoi Hilton.
Now, he asked everyone to sing Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” We all sang along with him, even those of us still on board the gray-and-white C-141 StarLifter that had brought us home, and even those who had come to welcome us home. Most of us had tears in our eyes. I was glad that no one could see me grab a corner of the pillow case on the litter, where I lay. Of course, they would have understood. They were drying tears, too.
It finally was sinking in that I really was home. This was not a cruel trick by the North Vietnamese (the Vs, we had called them), soon to be exposed for what it was under a barrage of gunfire as they shot us dead in our tracks.
"Better get up," a voice said.
I looked up to see Aaron Rosenthal. Before—long before—he had been my instructor pilot; now, he was my escort officer. He had met me when I had boarded the aircraft in Hanoi, and he would remain with me until I was at my destination Stateside.
"It's time?" I asked him.
"Almost. They just called Andy Nowell's name."
Andy Nowell was the fifty-first pilot among the returnees in this sortie of returnees; I was the fifty-fourth. We were being presented in order of capture. A lot of the men with whom I had been incarcerated were captured in 1965, it seemed. I was captured in September of 1968; therefore, I was near the end of the roll call aboard our plane.
Rosenthal offered me his hand and helped me to pull myself into a sitting position.
"We're at Travis?" I asked him.
"Yes. This is Travis."
I started to ask him if it was for real, but I decided not to. After all, our stop at Clark AB in the Philippines had been for real. So had our refueling stop at Hickam AFB in Hawai`i. The guys at Clark had fed us steaks and scoops of every flavor of ice cream they could find to give us. That had been real enough. This was real, too.
"I know you told me," I said, "but I can't remember."
"What can’t you remember?"
"Why did they paint our plane? The gray-and-white looks nice, but it looked just fine in its aluminum skin."
"Wear to the skin. Pitting and peeling. The paint helps to protect it," Rosenthal repeated patiently.
I nodded. Our plane, yes. Once upon a time—seemingly in another lifetime—I had flown the C-141 StarLifter. Rosenthal had taught me her finer points after I had finished my transition training. The C-141 had been fresh off the assembly line in those days, mid-1965. She had made her maiden flight a year-and-a-half earlier, on 17 December 1963, the thirtieth anniversary of the maiden flight of the DC-1, prototype and precursor of the legendary DC-3/C-47. Now, she had brought me home from hell. She still was my plane. She still is.
"Robertson?" came a call from the doorway.
"Soon. They just called Anderman," replied the Loadmaster. I was unable to remember his name. It still escapes me.
As I arose, Rosenthal ran a comb through my hair, straightened my tie, and helped me into my coat. Yes, we were debarking in full uniform.
"You want to look sharp for your family," he reminded me.
"They're here? I thought I wasn't going to see them until we got to Keesler."
"I suppose they couldn't wait to see you!" Rosenthal exclaimed happily.
"Nor can I, but how do I act around a child?”
I had not had a son when I had left home to fly that last sortie. We had thought Courtney might be pregnant, but she had not had her appointment with the doctor, yet. All my random thoughts were pouring forth. I could not sort and sift them all in order to present myself as a mature adult. It seems odd now, but it does show the state I was in.
"Why don't you let him take the lead?" Aaron suggested.
I nodded, took the pair of crutches that the doctors at Clark had issued to me to give me more stability while walking, and made my way on rubbery legs toward the aft portside door through which I would debark. No, I had not injured my legs, although the beatings I had received had done my knees and shoulders no favors. Primarily, I was weak. I had weighed in at Clark Air Base at 97 pounds. There, I had been carried off the plane on a litter. Now, with several good meals inside of me, I was able to get about slowly under my own Adrenalin-powered steam.
Rosenthal followed closely behind and, at the door, laid a reassuring hand upon my shoulder. As the reception committee called Dick Prindible's name, he stepped outside.
"Relax," Rosenthal told me. "Enjoy it. You're home."
I nodded. I had decided to check out Travis and that, if it were real, then I would believe it. I knew Travis. I had flown into and out of it more times than I could remember. No one could fake Travis on me.
As Prindible made his way down the receiving line, saluting to the top brass, who had turned out to welcome us, I heard my name being called: Captain Charles Theron Robertson, Jr.
It was my turn. With Rosenthal's help, I stepped over the lower edge of the door and onto the top platform of the steps that would carry me down to the tarmac. After being in the dim light of the aircraft, the bright, California sunshine momentarily blinded me. I paused a moment to become accustomed to it, then started down the steps. Rosenthal stayed close by, just in case I needed his help. I did need his help on the steps. On the ground, however, I regained my balance and made my way down the receiving line, receiving warm greetings and salutes along the way.
As I saluted the final officer, I heard footsteps running across the tarmac. I dared not break form to look around. Still, a sense of fear arose within me. Was it friend or foe? Were the Vs rushing in to recapture me? But, no. I did not hear a group of feet, only a single pair, and they sounded like the footsteps of a young child.
When my salute was complete, I looked around. Sure enough, I found a young boy standing beside me. He was dressed to the nines in white shirt, navy knee pants, tartan plaid suspenders, red knee socks, and black shoes. His right hand was extended to his forehead in a salute to the officers. Each saluted him. Then, he turned toward me and looked up, his face breaking into a huge grin. He raised his hand again and saluted me. I saluted him in return.
"Dad-dee!" he shouted.
My own response was to gape at him, overcome by the sight of this child, who had called me Daddy. Yes, Daddy. He was my son! He had to be. I mean, he looked just like me!
Our salutes broken, he charged against my legs. Using the crutches for support, I knelt onto the ground and gazed upon him as I tried to comprehend that he was real, that all that was happening around me was real. I was home, and I had a son! A son!
"You're home! You've come home, Daddy!"
He threw his arms around my neck and planted a sloppy kiss on my face.
I gently stroked his soft hair and studied his beautiful, innocent face.
"You're my son," I heard myself whispering softly.
He nodded up and down vigorously as if to tell me that I was getting the general idea. I felt a gentle hand come to rest upon my shoulder and heard my wife's soft voice.
"Charlie, this is your daddy. Theron, this is your son, Charles Theron Robertson, III."
"He's so beautiful," I whispered as my gaze slowly traveled up to see my wife.
Again, relying on the crutches, I tried to lift myself to my feet. Actually, I wobbled and nearly fell. Courtney steadied me and helped me to stand up. She beamed upon me and allowed me to draw her into my arms and kiss her for a nice, long time.
"Daddy!" Charlie exclaimed. "We're in public, you know!"
Clearly, my son intended to see that a certain degree of decorum was maintained. I had to grin.
"Yes, son," I allowed. My eyes were upon my wife. Not having the first idea what to say to her, I did the only thing I could think to do: I wrapped my arm around her shoulders and continued to gaze upon her. And, as I did, words slowly began to come to me.
"You waited for me?"
She nodded. "Of course."
"Of course? As I recall, I could be totally dense sometimes."
She smiled. "Yes, but I like you that way."
She grinned and nodded.
This was too good to be true!
"Do you suppose we could get that on tape?" I asked.
She replied by playfully swatting at me. "No, Theron. I don't."
"Oh," I replied flatly. "Well, how about in writing?"
"You have it in writing."
"Yes. It's called a marriage license."
"Oh! That's what that's for, huh?"
"That's what that's for."
I nodded and glanced down at our son to find him watching us intently with nothing short of complete bewilderment on his face. Winking at him, I ruffled his hair, then bent to pick him up.
“Easy, now,” Courtney said as, yet again, I wobbled.
“I’m picking up my son!” I declared defiantly. I suppose I said it as much to give my body incentive as in reply to Courtney. When Charlie was settled within my arms, I told him, "Your mother and I carry on sometimes."
"That's what that is?"
"That's what that is."
"Oh, okay! If you say so!"
Something told me that my son was quite a young man.
"I hope you have a little affection left for the rest of us," I heard a very familiar voice declare.
Turning, I looked down to see my mother standing closely by my side. Handing Charlie to Courtney, I bent over her petite frame and gave her a secure hug.
"Mom," I said softly. "Are you okay?"
She beamed up at me. "Yes, Dear. I'm quite well."
She did not look well to me. Although she always had taken care of herself, she now appeared too thin. She still wore her hair in the bouffant style she had adopted in the early sixties, although it was clear that its dark color now required a bit of assistance. Some grey was starting to show at the roots. Yes, it would have to. Mom was in her mid-fifties, now. Too, there was a sadness in her eyes that not even the excitement of the moment could erase.
The past four-plus years had been hard on Mom. The Air Force had told her that her son had been killed; his body had not been recovered from that foreign soil. Now, as she stood with her arm around my waist, her fist gripped the fabric of my coat. She could not let go, nor could she take her tear-filled eyes off of me. I nodded to her to let her know that I understood and bent to place a gentle kiss upon her forehead.
With Mom were Courtney's parents, Clara and Branton duPerier. I greeted them, sharing a warm hug with Clara and a hearty handshake and firm pat on the back with Branton. Branton passed me his sunglasses. I suppose he felt a need to do something for me. I accepted them and put them on.
Absent was my own father, as painfully and noticeably as when I had looked out over the audience during school plays, hoping against hope to see him but never realizing my dream. What did I hope? That Dad would have come back in my absence to be reunited with my mother? Yes, I think a small part of me did.
"Is something wrong, Dear?" Mom asked.
"No, Mom. Everything's fine."
"Who are you looking for?"
I shook my head but said nothing. What was there to say, after all? Dad never would be there. He could not be there. He had not come home from his war.
A C-141 StarLifter is seen on the ramp at
Tan Son Nhut Air Base, South Vietnam, in 1966.
United States Air Force (public domain)
Copyright (c) 1987, 1993, Virginia Tolles. All rights reserved.