The pointy-elbowed sumo wrestler on my right was beginning to cross the perimeter of my narrow coach seat as the Weight Watchers dropout on my left placed her large Coach bag on my armrest. The airline had promised “Friendly Skies” and, as I looked out the window over the huge bag, the skies actually did look friendly. There were no enemy fighters in sight as we flew over Akron, Ohio.
Suddenly, the NFL linebacker seated in front of me decided to take a nap and lowered his seat into my lap. I was firmly packaged and, although we’d been thumping through deep air pockets for a half hour, I just had to walk off the agonizing cramp in my left calf. As I rose, with a friendly nod to the sumo wrestler, I was accosted by an angry cabin attendant. “Never, ever leave your seat when the seatbelt sign is on!” he howled. At that moment I had a flashback.
It was to a similar moment on a very different airplane in 1949. I was one of seven Air Force hitchhikers aboard a B-25 bomber flying from Georgia to New York. This might have been one of the 16 Billy Mitchell bombers in the Jimmy Doolittle bombing raid on Tokyo soon after the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor.
The standard crew on a B-25 was five, so we passengers were crammed into the gunners’ space in the waist, sitting on bucket seats while we bounced through the storm clouds at about 9,000 feet. I overheard the comment of a nearby officer wearing bombardier’s wings. “I hate to go up in a B-25 in bad weather like this,” he said.
Suddenly I had a flashback within a flashback! As a Jersey teenager in 1945 I’d played hooky and took the ferry to New York to visit the Empire State Building which, a week before, had been hit by an Air Force bomber that was lost in the fog and crashed into the 80th floor. Oh my gosh!. That was a B-25!
Trying to calm down and needing to stretch I crawled through the short tunnel to the tailgunners’ bubble. What a wonderful, enthralling place, like flying backwards on a magic carpet at 200 miles an hour past towering thunderheads and high over brightly lit cities and colorful farmlands.
Eventually I became a little uneasy about being out of touch with the passengers and crew. What if everybody had left while I was back here? I crawled back to the waist and saw my barracks buddy, Sergeant Worjickowski, the flight engineer. “Newman!” he shouted above the roar of the twin engines. “Where the #@! * have you been and where is your parachute?”
“I took it off, Sarge, so I could crawl through to the tail.”
“Never, ever take off your parachute in a B-25, good weather or bad,” he growled and I noticed the bombardier nodded in agreement while holding what looked like rosary beads. We landed safely in Long Island an hour later.