In his book, On Writing, author Stephen King observes that a book is something of a time machine. You open it and as you begin to read you are transported back years, decades, and even centuries to whenever that author first set down and begin to put pen to paper or hand to keyboard.
I experienced this firsthand recently when a client of mine ran a review I had written about Jeff Sharra’s No Less Than Victory back in November of 2009. Historically accurate and vividly told, this third in his series on World War II transported its readers back to 1944 as that conflict was swiftly headed toward a final reckoning. Of course all the well-known figures are prominent including Eisenhower, Montgomery, and of course Patton. But it is the stories of the foot soldiers and lower ranking pilots, only known because of personal interviews, that makes No Less Than Victory so powerful.
Not long after writing that review, I had the honor to interview the author while he was visiting the Naval Air Station here in Pensacola. Better yet, I was able to take my friend, Captain Harry Bachus (ret.), along with me. Harry flew dozens of B-29 missions over Germany, was shot down twice, a POW once, was liberated, and then volunteered to return and fly as one of the famous “Candy Bombers” after the fall of Germany.
While we waited to meet the author, I read my review of Shaara’s book to Harry and then he told me about a book, The Candy Bombers, that contains his name. The Candy Bombers were men who volunteered to fly missions over Germany just after the war. Their duty was to drop candy and leaflets over villages, letting frightened citizens know the GIs were their friends and to not be afraid. Harry then told me about a reunion with a man who was a nine-year-old boy in one of those German villages. He could have spoken with bitterness about his treatment as a prisoner, the friends he lost, or many other horrors of war. Instead all he wanted to talk about was his honor to serve his country and joy to meet that little boy grown up so many years later.
Just as Harry finished telling me his story, Jeff Shaara approached our table. This New York Times bestselling author talked very little about himself over the next hour. Instead, he engaged Harry Bachus, never once addressing him as anything but “Captain.” And then something magical happened. With recorder running, the interview ended up being not just the author and me. It became a roundtable with Captain Harry Bachus filling in the blanks with his living history. This was something more than books and authors and publicity.
Here was a man who seldom spoke of that war so long ago as though he was still piloting that B-29, naming one German city and village after another, recalling the name of a German captor who treated him with kindness, pausing to whisper the name of a friend who died in the cockpit beside him, and humbly refusing to be called a hero.
For months after that, I never met Harry that he didn’t remember that day when an important author treated him with the respect many in our time forget to show. He placed the autographed copy of No Less Than Victory in an honored place on his shelf and showed it to me every time I visited.
Harry Bachus was a time machine in his own right. Though he had seldom talked about the war through all those years that interview with Jeff Sharra opened a floodgate of memories. Every time I saw him after that he made some mention of that one hour trip in a writing time machine.
Even as I read my own words that time machine is whirring. I see myself getting a little salute, greeting him as Captain, and hearing his small voice come back, “Just Harry will do”. Like so many of his generation Harry Bachus never thought of himself as a hero. He just did his job. He answered when called upon and then went beyond that call of duty.
Barely a year after that amazing discussion between a New York Times best-selling author and an old man made young again through the time machine of words and memories, no doubt with the Blue Angels flying somewhere through the crystal skies of Pensacola, Captain Harry Bachus received his final flight instructions. His battle with a failing body was past, and he could finally land in a place where there will be no more wars forever.