My family’s future began on an airstrip in Nuthampstead, England in winter 1945. Decades later, I flew across the ocean to stand on that forgotten slab of concrete in the countryside, less than 50 miles north of London. Once comprising three runways and two hangars, the area is now farmland and, disturbingly, a shooting range. Stretching hundreds of yards on each side of me, the surviving expanse of runway and its ghost counterparts shepherded fleets of bombardment aircraft to their destinations in Nazi-occupied Europe during the last years of World War II. A portal to some, and a hellpath for others. My grandfather was one of the inexplicably lucky ones who stepped through that portal.
As a member of the U.S. 8th Air Force, 398th Bombardment Group, Earl Brindley completed 25 missions from here as a radio operator in a B-17 Flying Fortress in the first few months of 1945. The Fortresses were engineered to carry bombs deep into Germany, destroying munitions factories, railroad tracks, and the like. The crews flew daylight missions, as opposed to the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) standard-practice night bombing. To them, the Air Force’s strategy was madness. I look at the heavy clouds and try to imagine Earl among and above them, fully visible to the enemy. He would have to fly in all conditions, punching in dits and dots of Morse code, aiding and depending on the eight other men in the bombarding plane.
All around me is an expanse of green, both fields and trees. An abundance of life. I conjure what the runway was like then, quickly constructed and full of noises at all hours. Here is where Earl, a child of poverty, learned to fly, and where he never forgot what it sounded like to go to war. Among so much death, this runway is where the universe somehow decided he could live. Fewer than one in four B-17 crew members survived their tours of duty, and two-thirds were killed in action or captured.*
It is both fulfilling and frustrating to be in a place of your family’s spirits. On the old runway, I feel I could reach down and peel the brittle concrete from the ground. Second growth. The interplay and life and death, mixed with the forgetting the years build, hangs in the air. Our family could just as easily been lost as found here in this idyllic place. Nothing is certain. But Earl, with the help of my grandma Ruth, hewed this flight path into something resembling a future. They never stopped looking to the horizon.
The sound of the war stayed with Earl forever. The B-17’s four Pratt and Whitney radial engines roaring, .50-caliber machine guns blasting from all sides, enemy aircraft circling – he heard these for the rest of his life, ringing endlessly in his ears. But I never grasped his personal din. For me, he made us toy cars and ice cream, put sugar on everything, and carried our first puppy into our lives. His was a sweetness from a hard beginning.
This flight path is part of family legends spooled over years and used as foundation. It’s there and not there, the origin story. It’s the subterranean waterway that can’t be fully mapped. As I did at Nuthampstead, I conjure the territory that leads back across the Atlantic. This runway was the beginning of my grandfather’s adult life, but I only know the outlines, just as the old airfield stands partially intact today. I salvage its bones. And on I go from there.
*Miller, Donald L. Masters of the Air: America’s Bomber Boys Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany. Simon & Schuster, 2006.