Monday, November 21, 2005

Touching History

Anyone who knows me at all knows that I am a real history buff. I have waaaay too many books at home (my wife is on me to buy more bookshelves), and I was one course short of a history major in college.

Interesting day on Sunday. Having heard the advertisements, I went out to the Dulles Expo Centre for the Nation's Gun Show, and got to meet someone I've wanted to meet for years: Theodore "Dutch" Van Kirk. World War II buffs will know that he was the navigator on the Enola Gay, the B-29 piloted by Paul Tibbets that delivered the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

Well, it turns out that, like me, Ted is from Northumberland, Pennsylvania, a little borough at the junction of the North and West Branches of the Susquehanna River. Northumberland is a town of fewer than 3,000 people, and isn't known for much more than the fact that English chemist Joseph Priestley, discoverer of oxygen and the guy to thank for carbonated soda, emigrated and conducted many of his later experiments there. As for me, I just remember playing Little League baseball on the field between Priestley's home (now a museum) and the Susquehanna.

It's rather odd, or perhaps a sad commentary on the woeful state of history education in this country, but in that small town, I never learned in school that a local man had played an important role (at church yesterday, a retired Air Force officer commented to me, "Well, he got them there") in one of the most historically significant events of the Twentieth Century. As I told my sons, who were with me, long after we're dead and gone, people will remember what Ted and the crew of which he was a part did to end World War II.

I was also happy to introduce my sons to a truly history-making man, the only one among the Enola Gay's crew who is healthy enough to do public appearances. And equally important, to demonstrate to them what Admiral William F. "Bull" Halsey said so well, that "There are no extraordinary men ... just extraordinary circumstances that ordinary men are forced to deal with." As it happens in a small town, Ted and I knew many of the same people. Indeed, while I introduced myself as a fellow Pineknotter, and mentioned that he might have known my grandparents, who ran a restaurant in Northumberland before and during the war, Ted prompted me by noting that my grandfather became the Pontiac dealer in Sunbury immediately after the war, and that he had bought his first Pontiac from him!

Life in a small town!

Well, Ted's nickname fits him, 'cause he's a Dutchman, and we spent quite a bit of time --- probably more than I should have, but there was nobody waiting behind me --- reminiscing about our home town, and the people we both knew there. Of course, they were quite a bit younger when Ted knew them.

And my oldest son, Jimmy, simply ate it up. He's old enough to remember his beloved "Gramps," and was excited to meet a man who did business with him. For a nine-year-old, he's got a great head on his shoulders, and has a keen sense of where he comes from.

So Ted signed a copy of the book on the 509th Composite Group for me ("To a fellow Pineknotter"), and I know that someday, my oldest will cherish it as a link to his past. As for me, I was just privileged to have a pleasant conversation about small things with a man who, in his early twenties, was engaged in great things, dealing with some truly extraordinary circumstances, and who now gives of his time in the twilight of his life to share his experiences with a generation all too oblivious to the deeds and sacrifices of those who have gone before them.


Riley, Not O'Reilly said...

I thought that Joseph Priestley was the star of "90210."

Discovering oxygen isn't THAT big a deal. All he had to do was breathe.

I give him props for the carbonation of soda, though.

Just kidding, Jim. Intersting stuff.

James Young said...

Yeah, I remember him. Must be related.

And obviously, carbonation is the more important discovery. A lasting contribution to the good of mankind.

And dentistry.

Anonymous said...

That was Jason, not Joseph.

So sad that I know that :(