Blood chit: A notice carried by military personnel, that carries messages aimed at civilians, asking them to provide assistance in case the servicemember is shot down.

We visited my grandparents every few years at their home in Vandalia, Ohio, under the landing pattern of Dayton International Airport. It was a tiny brick house, the garage stuffed to the gills with boxes and tools, and an ancient Studebaker. The backyard had no fence -- leading directly into the kitchens of the neighbors. The air smelled like stale popcorn, and felt like thick cotton for the entire two week visit.

My brother and I would take walks alone, every neighbor waving hello, nodding when we explained who we were visiting.

Time in the house was consumed by food, board games, and staring at the model airplanes. Perfect. Every detail.

And then "us guys" would all pile into the car, and head over to Wright-Patterson and the Air Force Museum, where full-scale versions of most of those models hung from the ceiling. Every time we came, we'd stop at a particular marker in the grass outside, and stand quietly for a few minutes.

Inside I'd hear about all the planes. He seemed to know everything, about all of them. But he spent the most time on the B-70 -- the Valkyrie, one of which hangs from that ceiling, and 3 copies of which sat on the shelf back at the house. Grandpa would tell us about trying to fix the landing gear, which melted on the first test flight.

And the chase plane that got too close.

Mom remembered later that the following week at school had been terrible. All of the pilots had had children at her school. And there were rumors that one of the pilots had a drinking problem.

He didn't actually talk very much about his own plane, the B-25 Mitchell. I only heard a few buzzwords. North Africa and Italy -- 70 missions.


And once or twice I heard about something called The Hump -- who knew what that was about.

As I grew up, I turned into a pacifist, and assumed my grandfather thought I was an idiot. Add this to the facts that we were both unnaturally quiet, and we didn't talk much. Even when he and my grandmother moved across the country to live with my parents.

Things started to change a little bit after September 11, 2001. I found out he was a rabid union man, that my mother had rebelled against him by turning Republican, and when the air strikes against Afghanistan were announced during a football game, he walked out of the room disgustedly muttering, "What the hell for? It won't make a difference. It never does."

Of course, it was already too late. I am too quiet. I didn't know what to talk about. And there was too much baggage, inferred from my mother's issues, which I have decided to leave out of this story.

After my father died, and after my grandmother died, he and my mom had very little to talk about. She moved away. I moved away. I called him every week for a while, and we had awkward conversations. I meant to call him more. To write. To ask about the things he had done, to tell him how much I admired how he had cared for my grandmother. To find out what the hell he had done to my mother.

In the end there was only silence

I learned more from helping to sort through his things:

  • 40 years worth of pristine National Geographic magazines
  • Sealed boxes from his move back to Ohio in 1968
  • Medals belonging to his first wife, who died when my mother was 11. She had been an officer in the WACS.
  • Medals belonging to his second wife's brother(the woman I knew as "Grandma"), who didn't survive the war.
  • Medals belonging to him, including the Distinguished Flying Cross
  • Indications that he worked for the Wright brothers when he was a kid growing up in Dayton, Ohio
  • 40 years worth of canceled checks
  • Pocket calendars indicating the topic of every Sunday sermon, every letter ever sent, and whether a reply was received, covering over 40 years. In my grandmother's handwriting.

The most interesting item was a pouch made from two pieces of leather, about 6"x12", sewn together along one side. It had clearly once been sewn into a pocket, and attached to something else. One piece had an American flag sewn onto it and faded writing in Chinese. The other piece had a flag I didn't recognize.

I soon learned the meaning of the Blue Sky, White Sun, and a Wholly Red Earth. Apparently, if he was shot down, he was supposed to first figure out whether he was in a region controlled by the Communists, or by the Nationalists. If he was in a Communist region, he was supposed to destroy the flag and show the text to whoever found him. If he was not in a Communist region, the flag was safe, and he was to show the entire patch to whoever found him. The text read:

I am an American airman. My plane is destroyed. I cannot speak your language. I am an enemy of the Japanese. Please give me food and take me to the nearest Allied military post. You will be rewarded.

I learned that The Hump was one of the most dangerous flying assignments of the war, that nearly half of the assigned planes were lost. That it was the second largest sustained airlift operation in history. That it kept Chiang Kai-Shek alive.

He was a complicated man, and I failed to understand to him.

I am standing in the shade of a large oak tree, talking to my other grandmother, who I have not seen in two years. It is stupid hot, but movement in the branches makes it feel as though a light breeze has kicked up. I turn slightly, and notice an elderly man in a uniform and beret, his hand shaking as he reaches toward me. I reach to grasp it, but find that he is pushing a small metal object against my palm.

I thank him quietly, and he salutes me -- turning crisply away before I realize that I am holding a spent shell casing.

"On behalf of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, Post 6420, we are here to pay honor to Richard -----, Captain, United States Army Air Corps. We've learned a bit today about Richard's service in the Second World War. Richard was a patriot who served his country with distinction. We are honored to be here."

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