By Ray Morrison
It’s easy to underestimate the energy of a great-grandchild who’s only today lived a dozen years. Ben and I had already been through the Air and Space Museum, the Holocaust Memorial Museum, and visited the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial.
We stand on the sidewalk outside the Natural History Museum along the National Mall in the late afternoon, clouds doing little to ease the oppressive humidity of a Washington, D.C. summer. Heat rises through the soles of my shoes.
“You ready to head home, Bucko?” I ask.
“What’s that building, Grampy?” Benjamin points east, toward another massive granite building a block away.
“That’s the Museum of American History.”
“You mean, like the Civil War and stuff?”
“Cool. Can we…?”
Ten minutes later we are walking through the cooled, slightly musty air of the museum. I’ve been in the building too many times to count but the excitement on Ben’s face makes me glad we’ll end our special day here. We wander the floors, passing through the victories and failures of our country’s history. I’m consulting a map, searching for Civil War exhibits, when I feel a tug on my arm.
Through a large door leading to a wide hall, I see an actual Curtiss P-40 Warhawk suspended by cables from the ceiling, the fuselage painted with the distinctive razor teeth which grimace at the curious visitors below it.
Benjamin releases my sleeve and runs toward the fighter plane. I follow him into the large wing dedicated to the Second World War. While the boy ogles the aircraft, I wander over to a familiar section of the exhibit hall, to the long wall of the chamber dedicated to telling the story of the Allied invasion of Normandy on D-Day. The ramp from a Higgins Boat used that day is angled against an enormous, vivid photograph of Omaha Beach mounted on the wall, sharing with museumgoers what would be, for most of the young seasick infantrymen that June morning, their final view of life.
My objective is just beyond this, to a small section dedicated to the paratroopers who had dropped into France five hours before the boats arrived at Utah Beach. The first thing the majority of tourists to this display notice is the authentic parachute used by a member of the 101st Airborne Division. I can’t help smiling when I look at the rough khaki canvas of the tightly packed reserve chute at its front.
One just like it saved my life that day.
Displayed on the wall above the parachute are maps detailing the drop zones and bridge locations over the Merderet and Douze rivers which were our objectives that morning. Additionally, several photographs show paratroopers before and after the mission, their expressions shifting from nervous excitement to grim reality. One photo was taken on the plane of a group from the 82nd Airborne en route to Normandy over the icy waters of the English Channel. Lined across from each other in the narrow compartment, anxious young faces force smiles for the camera. The man closest to the camera is holding his fingers in the V-sign popularized by Churchill. His name is Jimmy Kelly, a wisecracking kid from Connecticut, who was my best friend at that time. Seated next to him in the picture, I sit gripping my pack, looking to my mind’s eye impossibly young. Each time I revisit this image, I realize our youthful naiveté was a blessing. I wonder if any of us would have climbed into that plane had we knowledge of what awaited us. I study the ten faces in the photograph, reciting their names silently, all of them gone now but me, and mostly remembering the six that didn’t return home with us, including Jimmy.
My hands are shaking so hard I squeeze the sides of my reserve chute so the others can’t see. The engines roar in my ears and the plane bucks like a wild horse. We are buffeted by flak. My stomach rolls, threatening to empty itself before we jump. Bill Marsten stands unsteadily, facing us with his camera. I can read his lips saying “smile,” but no one can hear him over the din. Jimmy flashes the V-sign, mugging like he’s ol’ Winston himself and I can’t help but grin. No sooner does Bill snap the picture when the green light over the jump door begins flashing. All our smiles disappear in an instant.
We stand in unison, clip our static lines to the anchor cable running the length of the cabin, and begin checking the gear of the man in front of us. I double tap Jimmy’s helmet to let him know he is good to go. Behind me Abe Green does the same to me. Somewhere in front of me I hear someone vomit. I close my eyes to force an image of Mary into my mind. For a brief moment, my breaths slow. Then I’m pushed from behind and I start shuffling forward toward the open door, concentrating on not falling as the plane bucks. And all at once I am standing at the jump door. It is pitch black outside. I hear the jumpmaster holler, “Jump!” but as I leap my main chute gets caught on something in the lower corner of the door, so I swing out, come back and hit the side of the aircraft, swing out again and come back. Desperate, I push against the fuselage with my feet and suddenly I am free and falling.
As I clear the door, tracers are so thick it looks like a wall of flame. Concussive blasts from flak make me flinch. I yank the rip cord on my main chute but the handle comes loose, drooping limply in my hand. I am plummeting in the eerie darkness. Instinct and training kick in, and I pull my reserve chute. I can feel the rush of air, hear the crackling of the canopy as it unfurls, followed by the sizzling suspension lines, then the connector links whistling past the back of my helmet. I exhale, not realizing I’ve been holding my breath.
It’s impossible to see below me and it’s not until the last moment that I see the metal fence surrounding a small stone church. Too late to maneuver away, I fall fast, my right leg impaling on one of the fence’s spikes. I fall backward, dangling upside down. I try to pull myself up, but 70 pounds of gear weigh me down. Blood rushes to my head as I strain to reach the fence post, but it is just beyond my fingertips. I struggle to release my pack but cannot. I’m woozy, certain that I’ll pass out and bleed to death. Suddenly, I feel hands under my shoulders and hear Jimmy’s familiar voice.
“I got you, buddy.”
The leg of my pants is soaked with blood and Jimmy rigs a tourniquet with the belt from his jump jacket. With his aid, I hobble inside the church and lie in one of the pews. He puts his hand on my shoulder and tells me he’ll track down a medic. I watch him hurry toward the rear of the sanctuary.
“Earth to Grampy.”
I look down at Ben who has come over to where I am standing.
“Did you like the warplane?” I ask.
“Yeah, it’s super cool. What’re you looking at?”
I nod toward the paratrooper exhibit. “These soldiers who parachuted into France during World War II.”
I watch him study the display. Suddenly, his brow wrinkles and he leans forward toward Bill Marsten’s photograph.
“Hey, Grampy, that one soldier looks just like my dad.”
“That one behind the guy giving the peace sign.”
I pretend to study the picture like I am seeing it for the first time. “I guess there is a resemblance.”
“Did you fight in any wars, Grampy?”
I glance at my great-grandson’s curious expression, then back at the photo, at the image of Jimmy’s beautiful young face taken only ten hours before he’d be killed by a German sniper.
And only twenty minutes before he saved my life.
When we walk outside and cross the Mall on our way toward our Metro station, I think about the cigar box tucked away on the shelf of my bedroom closet. Inside, it contains my dog tags, my Purple Heart medal, my garrison cap, and the dried remains of a poppy given to me by a young English nurse who’d helped at the Army hospital I recovered at in Dover. But most important to me is one of Jimmy’s own dog tags, the one he always carried tucked in his shoe, given to me by his parents when I visited them after the war.
Holding my great-grandson’s hand, I glance up at the empty sky. “Ben, when we get home, I want to show you something. And I want to tell you a story about a great war hero by the name of James Kelly.”∎