Soliloquy 31


On a recent Sunday afternoon it was Ms Keogh's turn to sit at the Artists' Gallery in Lambertville, New Jersey. Ms Keogh is my spouse, an artist when she isn't working as a health care practitioner. She is a member of the cooperative that operates the Artists' Gallery on Coryell Street. I came along to keep her company. Lambertville is a quaint town of galleries and antique shops. We took turns sitting at the gallery's desk and watching over the merchandise while the other took a stroll around town. It was a perfect day for it, breezy and sunlit. The Delaware River that separates Lambertville from New Hope, Pennsylvania was high and excited from the recent rainfall.

During one of my strolls, I walked over to J. B. Kline & Son. This is a store that sells toys, hobby goods, art supplies, and is also the local stationer. Old Mr George Kline, Jr himself haunts the store, although younger personnel replenish the stock and take care of the cash register. And when I walked into the store, George called out, "Have you ever seen a shop so full of junk?" I told him yes, every time I visit his store. I went on to complain that he always makes me buy something.

Kline's has been forever in the heart of Lambertville, near to the bridge to New Hope. The family has been stitched into Lambertville's history for the last 140 years. "The family migrated here," George likes to say, "from Pennsylvania."  They have been on this side of the Delaware River ever since. His family has been on this side of the Atlantic Ocean since the eighteenth century, when German Catholics forced his German Lutheran ancestors to leave Germany.

George has decided to stop selling toys, hobby stuff, and stationery goods, and to dedicate the shop exclusively to art supplies. I was thinking he might not succeed. The art supplies will be too expensive and folks will venture to the discount art supply centers even though they are thirty miles and more away, or order all their needs via the Internet, which is what many of the regional artists must do. But I've since had conversations with several local artists who think Kline's will be a success. Their reasoning is the superabundance of artists in the community. And I was reminded of how often artist found themselves in instant need of something, something they cannot bear waiting for.

I quickly passed through the narrow front room filled with toys and modeling tools and kits. I took a couple of steps down into the backroom to browse the stationery, looking for forgotten bargains. It was a much larger room with rows of counters and shelves stocked with the remnants of a formerly bustling business, but now with plenty of gaps. The big stationery chains that occupy the strip malls, places like Staples and Office Max, are killing the small shops.

Old George drifted in behind me, turning on more lights and eager to gab. I had noticed a photograph on the wall of a B-17 (Flying Fortress) bomber with most of its crew posing before the airplane. "Unfinished Business" was painted on the nose and the photographer was careful, George told me, to not show the nude that had been painted on the fuselage. The men were all wearing the same leather flying jacket that I bought from L.L. Bean. The picture wasn't there the last time I visited. He asked me if I could guess which one was him.

On this afternoon I learned that George had been a pilot during the Second World War, the captain of Unfinished Business. There he stood, second from the right in the back row. I could recognize him, even though it is more than half a century later.

He flew thirty-five missions with the American Eighth Air Force, flying out of England for daylight bombing raids in Nazi Europe, the 487th Bombardment Group (Heavy). "The Gentlemen from Hell" reads their patch, a devil in tuxedo. More than once, he had to wrestle his crippled airplane home, but he brought his crew safely back thirty-five times. Quite an accomplishment. Once they had been so badly damaged, sixty holes in their fuselage, two of the four engines feathered* and a third beginning to fail, that they couldn't make it back to their station at Lavenham in the county of Suffolk. Instead, they chose the recently liberated airfield in Rheims. Just missing the towering Cathedral at Rheims, they discovered at the last possible moment a bomb-cratered runway being bulldozed flat by heavy equipment. They couldn't land and had to go around again, once more nearly toppling the Cathedral. George brought their bomber down in a muddy field, sliding to a stop just in front of hangar doors marked "Achtung!"

In telling me his story, he laughed and remarked, with tongue in cheek, how he could have avenged his family on the Catholics. And he considered aloud how, had he been wicked, his name would have entered history, infamous for the destruction of the Cathedral at Rheims.

I was born six years after the Second World War. The war was close enough in time that it felt contemporary. The fathers of my generation fought that war. The father of an elementary school friend, Jeremy, was among the first who clawed their way up a beach in Normandy on D-Day. The fact that Jeremy's father had his heel blown off, was left unconscious and thought dead, is perhaps the reason he survived.

The father of my childhood friend Scott,was a photographer during the war. Scott shared with me a collection of photographs that his father secretly sent home during the war. Eight by ten glossies were spilt from manila envelopes and we perused them with curiosity and horror. They bore images of a real war, the gruesome results that the public wasn't supposed to see.

I remain fascinated by the great event on which the fate of the free world turned and almost was lost. I was honoured when my next-door neighbour invited me into his house to see his photographs from the Second World War. He had been an officer in the Navy. It was his ship that was to land the invasion force in Japan and he has no regrets as to the dropping of the atomic bombs. They did land an invasion force, taking no chances should the Japanese not live up to the surrender; there was no army to oppose them on the beaches. Eventually a few brave Japanese vendors appeared to sell them fruits.

My life of comfort and freedom are a direct result of ordinary people who were willing to make extraordinary sacrifices. These were ordinary people who risked their lives because of a virtuous sense of duty. They don't think of themselves braver than the next average guy, but merely as the ones who were caught in events and did the job that had been assigned to them. They did not do it for fame or to become celebrities. About most other wars i have very mixed feelings, but I feel tremendous gratitude to our Second World War veterans and the sacrifice they made on the world's behalf. I, too, lost family in the Death Camps.

So, this particular afternoon I made a point of thanking George Kline for his service, but old George denied he has been a hero - this despite the fact that the Distinguished Flying Cross is somewhere lost among his possessions. Before leaving I bought a bar of "The Masters" hand soap - removes grease, paint, stains, inks, and dyes. $2.99.

Epilogue:  A search of the Internet turned up a second photograph of George's airplane, the last photograph taken before it was scrapped. This time the nose art was apparent and I got to see the lady. Someone with a broad brush had crossed out the "Un" in Unfinished Business.

Bruce Bentzman

* Feathering propellers is a means of locking them when confronted with
engine trouble. It is meant to reduce drag when the airplane has to continue
flying, and also to eliminate vibrations to the wing from a damaged engine.

This is the thirty-first in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any comments or suggestions, the writer would be pleased to hear from you.