On a Wing and a Prayer
In Memory of Lt. Robert Langdon Coleman, 1924 – 1945
The first letter I ever wrote was to Mom. On a very small piece of paper, in tiny printed letters scrunched ever so close together so no one ever would be able to read them, I wrote: “Sometimes I hate my mother.” I rolled it into a tiny little ball and dropped it behind my bedroom bureau where no one would ever find it. Ever. Or so I thought, way back then.
At the time I did not think of it as a letter. Though uncertain of my age, I was young, uncertain of myself. Why I was was upset with Mom I do not recall . Rarely did I think of her as anything less than an angel, thinly veiled in human form. For my wonderful childhood I am forever grateful. That said, Dad was a thoughtful disciplinarian. I became troublesome during my tumultuous mid-teens. On occasion, Mom stood calmly between us like an invisible yet invincible shield.
Two days later as I was getting ready for bed I heard three knocks on my bedroom door. “Come in,” I said. Dad entered, closing the door behind him. He opened his hand, revealing that small piece of paper with the tiny, handwritten letters. “Your mother found this,” he said. Stunned, words failed to capture what I was feeling inside. “You know,” he said, “your mother loves you very much.” He said it in the kindest way I can imagine. “I know,” I replied, feeling two inches tall..
Years later, I discovered that I had been born into a family of letter writers. A rich trove of our family history is inscribed in letters preserved from my grandfather James Coleman, from Chiles Coleman, Mom’s older brother, and a love letter from Dad to Mom as well. Most treasured, though, are the letters we received from Lt. Robert Langdon Coleman, Mom’s younger brother and World War II fighter pilot. Bob’s letters home reflected his youthful spirit, his love of family, and his determination our the crusade against Hitler, of which he was glad to be a part. He described Jefferson Barracks in Missouri where he underwent basic training in 1943 as a “hell-hole” and “a great place to be from.” He added: “The army is something I’ve needed and it’s going to do me a lot of good.” The letters continued through his training, embarkation to the war front, and later from his battle station in Belgium. After his third mission he recounted that he “lost an engine over Germany. It wasn’t due to enemy action; just a case of engine failure – very rare over here. At any rate the thing blew up and caught on fire. I got the fire out and came home on my one good engine. Can anyone blame us if we like P-38s?” His final letter came from Belgium on March 27, 1945, after flying his ninth mission over Germany, escorting a Patton bomber brigade to its target. “I’ll write soon,” the letter ended.
Four days later, his luck ran out. He was killed when his plane was shot down on April 1, 1945, over Gottingham, Germany, just five weeks before the Nazi surrender. I was born a year and a month later, his namesake. Mom and Dad rarely spoke of him. Partly, I think, because the pain of his loss was deep and enduring. And, I imagine, they did not want to burden me with the responsibility of being like Bob. Yet, I could not help but love him, and want to be like him. The losses of those we love trail us doggedly through our lives. Throughout my youth, Bob’s picture hung upon my bedroom wall. Though I never knew him, I have always wished I had.
Mom wrote the best letters of all. With never a harsh or judgmental word, they were chatty, optimistic, and filled with reminders that life is to be cherished, no matter what the current circumstances. In April 1973, she exulted that “Spring has come at last to Vermont – but not before a few great heaves of winter! Last week it was 17 degrees, with an 18-inch snowfall – and yesterday it was 74 degrees and I was out cleaning up brush in the woods! It seems so good to get out and work in the woods again. I just love it.” In the winter of 1974 she wrote: “On Tuesday of this week Dad and I drove to Stowe, where they have much more snow than we have here, and spent the day at the Trapp Family Lodge going cross country skiing and we just had a marvelous time. It is such a thrill to be able to do something that I never in my wildest dreams ever thought I would be able to do. In all it was a most delightful day.”
Mom was a great comforter. “It seems to be the fabric of Life,” she once wrote to guide me through a difficult time, “that joys are tempered by sorrows, and then sorrows are tempered by joys – and I know there will be other joys for you. Needless to say, I grieve with you – and for you – for you are my child, and what hurts you, hurts me also.”
The letters that Dad wrote to all his five children once they grew up and flew, fluttered and flopped out of the nest were voluminous, exfoliating advice. (Though treasured over time, they were not always appreciated in the moment.) In my case, the letter writing between Dad and me started while I was still living at home. I am past remembering all the things I wanted to do that seemed so vital then, and that so adamantly he opposed. Talking was folly, maddening at times. As I got madder I’d stammer. Thoughts precisely formulated in my mind would fail to materialize in the English language.
We reached the pinnacle of our disaffection shortly after I turned 17. In the spring of 1963 during my junior year in high school, I became eligible to drive. Two of my friends had purchased motor scooters. Rode them to school. Jealous, I rode the bus. Occasionally I got to drive Mom’s car. On errands. My two-wheeled dreams wheeled around within their cage.
Dad was opposed. Adamantly. I begged him to go with me to the scooter dealership two towns and 45 minutes away. No, he replied. Suspicious I might venture there on the sly, he forbade me to use Mom’s car for any such clandestine mission. I did anyway. I was discovered. It was not pretty.
I had the money. For the past two Christmases I had run a holiday wreath business. I bought wholesale, hired my friends to sell and deliver them. Pulled in a tidy profit. About eight hundred dollars from the prior year, sitting in the bank, doing nothing. I had my driver’s license. I was a freeborn citizen of the United States of America. How could he deny me?
Tethered by his obstinance, I wrote a letter. Dear Dad… More than a single sentence this time. I separated a sheet of yellow legal-sized paper from the tablet in his desk and started to write in small letters to get everything I wanted to say on to that single page. Did he understand that he was ruining my life? Violating my constitutional rights? Long-repressed (yet curiously liberating) words spewed forth. A dam broken, its water running free. A Mississippi River of words plunging headlong to the Gulf of Mexico. As though riding my bike again for the first time, asking Dad for a final push and to let me go.
In his wisdom, for which I give him great respect, Dad did not respond to my letter. Instead, he marked it up. He noted every misspelled word, every grammatical error, every instance of imperfect punctuation, every superfluity, and every insufficiently nuanced sentence that left him not understanding precisely what I wanted to say. I was impressed that he had read it so carefully, so methodically, so meticulously. Hardly a sentence escaped editorial advisement. Not bad, he seemed to be saying, but you can do better.
This changed our game, I followed suit. Instead of pointing out that he had failed to respond to what I was saying, I took his suggestions to heart, corrected every misspelled word, fixed every grammatical error, grew punctilious about every item of punctuation, and rewrote every sentence muddled by ambiguity.
He returned version two, praising the improvements and suggesting further refinements. I responded in kind. So it went, back and forth. I would write passionately about my issues. He responded without judgment, and with suggestions for improvement. The question was no longer about whether I was right or wrong; rather it became about how I might better express whatever the hell it was that I wanted to say. The tensions between us did not disappear, but they lessened. I began to feel better about myself, about him, and about us. As I think about Dad today, I think about the wonderful gift he gave me. Teaching me to think. To write.
I got the motor scooter. I do not recall how, or why. I am only speculating, but Dad may have reached the inevitable conclusion of parenthood that sometimes, though your kids are wrong, it’s best to go along. I imagine that Mom put in a good word for me as well.
In the fall of 1964 I began my freshman year at Hamilton College in Clinton, NY. My sophomore year English professor was George Nesbitt, renowned for his scholarship, writing, and dedication to the teaching profession. I recall spending twenty hours writing five-page essays. One was to demonstrate the necessity of God for the universe to exist. Naïve as my youthful dissertation must have been, Nesbitt took it seriously, commenting on the arguments, critiquing the sentence structure, complimenting sentences or phrases he felt were illuminating and well-crafted…and, most of all, taking me seriously. This one earned an A-minus, a rarity in his class.
My journalism career began at Hamilton. By my senior year, I had one thing in mind. To get the hell out of there…and to get out there where the world was happening. Vietnam. Race riots. Politics. Sex, drugs and Rock ‘n Roll. Robert Kennedy visited our campus in the fall of 1967. Richie Havens, too, belting out The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” and Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm,” giving each song a whole new meaning. The next year, 1968, would be a pivotal year for the Boomer generation, of which the class of ’68 was the leading edge. Johnson would resign. MLK would be assassinated. Then RFK. The morass would deepen in Vietnam, where nearly 60,000 U.S. soldiers would perish. Some felt it their duty to serve. Others, including me, became increasingly radicalized by what we saw as an unjust war; we were determined to resist. Though safe for the time being (shielded by our college deferments), Dylan spoke for to many of us cloistered up on College Hill, pondering our futures as he sang: “Meanwhile life outside goes on all around you.”
I was already plotting my escape.
It was an early Monday morning in late January, two-thirty a.m. I had just returned from nearby Utica to my off-campus apartment in Clinton. Now employed while still enrolled in Hamilton, I was going through the motions and counting the days to my June graduation. Or, perhaps not. A new, two-wheeled dream lay coiled in the womb of my imagination. Longingly, I stared at an advertisement for a BMW R60 motorcycle advertisement taped to the wall above my desk. Though just months short of graduation, in a few short hours, at 9:00 a.m., I was planning to walk into the Dean’s office to withdraw from college. Stupid! A bad decision. I lay awake, fearing the dawn.
Just weeks earlier I had taken a night job on the copy desk of the Utica Daily Press. Eight hours a day and eighty dollars a week after taxes. From 6:00 p.m. in the evening to 2:00 a.m. in the morning. Crazy for a full-time student. But I needed the money. For this beautiful BMW R60 touring bike, aglitter in silver and black, soulful steed of my salvation. It may as well have been the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child hanging on my wall, bathed in a swath of light, heralding possibilities almost holy. Rebirth. Freedom. Adventure. Danger maybe. Take me, I pleaded. Take me from this parched and cloistered existence. I barely cared where. Better by far than this ivy-walled prison. So certain I was of this. Certain that one day I might have a worthy tale to tell. Or so I thought, way back then.
As much as I suffered at Hamilton that final year, I loved working! Doing something. Fancying myself a journalist. Editing copy. Writing headlines. A byline in my future. I pitted these green pretensions against the skills of the crusty editor-in-chief Gene and my sophomore-year roommate Alex who also worked on the night desk and was instrumental in my hiring. Mostly I wrote headlines. Which fewest words might relay the most information while enticing the reader to want to know more? I found this more engaging than researching and writing my senior thesis, a philosophical treatise intended to disprove the theory of B.F. Skinner (himself a Hamilton grad) who viewed consciousness as an inconsequential affect of human behavior, rather than a self-conscious mediator between the world as I perceived it and the way I wanted to act within it. At the time, I felt it my personal mission to quash Skinner’s maniacal notion. Failure would require understanding my noble self as an inconsequential automaton in a universe devoid of meaning and dignity. It would force me to ask – Do I even exist at all? Back then, Skinner was considered by some the most influential psychologist of the 20th century. Was I up to this task? I spent hours staring at blank pages, even as I longed to hit the open road, feel the wind in my face, and imagining the wondrous adventures that lay before me.
The most exciting day during my short tenure on the night desk was Sunday, March 31, 1968. The Monday morning edition was already churning forth yesterday’s news. Luck had it that I was the only person assigned to the late night/early morning shift, every 10 minutes reviewing the AP wire as it rattled in over the teletype. A rare assignment for me, sitting in the editor’s chair, hoping that something would happen. Something big. It did. “Johnson Won’t Run,” the AP announced in the same small type it used to note a death, or a winter storm. But this? This would be heard ‘round the world.
“Stop the presses!” I yelled. Then of course I realized I had to call down to the press room to make this happen. I jumped into action. New front page! New lead (Johnson!), suborning the old to beneath the fold. New headline (“Johnson Won’t Run!”). Carry the lead inside. Proof! Proof again! Deliver to the print foreman. New plates. Forty-five minutes later the presses were rolling again. I drove back to campus energized, energized.
Back in January, I had written a letter home announcing my ascension into the working class. I expected this to be greeted with applause and approbation, especially by Dad, who had serious doubts that a philosophy B.A. would qualify me for anything more than a weekly trip to the unemployment office. What the hell will you do with a philosophy degree? he asked many times, often while writing my tuition check. Think, I would reply. I’m going to think.
I was not thinking clearly at all as I continued:
I’m saving to buy a motorcycle. (It’s beautiful. Wait’l you see it.) I’ll be spending a month at home after graduation (is that okay?). Then I’ll be taking off to God-knows where for God-knows long. I’ll end up in San Francisco, I think. Not sure exactly what I’ll be doing then. But I’m thinking about it. Love, Bob.
Earthquake tremors surely rattled the rooftop after Dad opened my letter.
He quickly replied. We are so proud of you for getting a job, he wrote. Had I considered staying in Utica after graduation and establishing my credentials as a journalist? After a year, maybe two, I might be positioned to jump to a daily paper in a larger city. Had I considered business school? (Dad, an Eastman Kodak company executive, was the only one considering this for me.) He continued:
I don’t think I ever told you this, but in my senior year at Stanford I was the editor of the Stanford yearbook. It was almost a full-time job. I was paid well for it. In fact, I earned enough money in my senior year to completely pay for my tuition and living expenses. And I did, something for which my parents were most appreciative.
When I graduated in 1935 (you do not recall it, but you may have heard of The Great Depression), the unemployment rate was over 20%. Fifteen million people were unemployed. Half the U.S. banks had failed. Do you understand how lucky you are? (You will, just as soon as your beautiful motorcycle runs out of gas and you have run out of money!) You have a job. A job that might quickly turn into a career. A livelihood! You are going to give that up?
I feel quite certain that you have already anticipated what I am about to say. I simply cannot support what I consider to be your reckless idea of buying a very expensive motorcycle (!), tramping about the U.S. with no destination in mind, no plan for your future, no job, and very little money. Remind me again. What exactly have you been going to college for? For what reason have your mother and I been supporting your life and your education for the past four years if not to provide you with the opportunity to find your own way in the world, to support whatever lifestyle you might aspire to, and to find a meaningful life and career? I hesitate to ask this but – have you lost your mind?
Your mother and I talked this over, and she fully supports what I have decided to do. Effective immediately, I am withdrawing financial support for the balance of your school year in the amount of your projected income from the Utica Daily Press for the balance of your senior year. In doing so, we realize that you are too old (I would like to say “mature” but that word eludes the present situation) for us to prevent you from doing whatever you might be planning to do (including your ill-considered motorcycle purchase). These decisions are now yours. We can certainly continue to offer our love, encouragement and advice. However, for as long as we are continuing to support you, we are not at all happy with the thought that the funds we are now providing you will in a significant way support a decision we so manifestly oppose.
A gauntlet had been thrown. I had expected him to push back. But this? Was I not showing the forethought and initiative he often thought I lacked. I had a job. I was graduating from college. Would my life ever be my own? My feelings quickly moved from shock to anger.
I responded in what I thought were measured tones. Dear Dad, I wrote:
I received your letter. I am writing back, but not to counter your arguments. They make a lot of sense. I cannot reasonably argue that what I am planning to do makes any sense at all. It probably does not.
What you may not understand is that I am going crazy. I am miserable here. I have been at this god-forsaken place high on a hill in the middle of nowhere for four years. It’s been 20 degrees below here for the past three weeks. I walk from class to class, leaning against the freezing wind penetrating to my bones. The first two years were palpably fine. The third felt longer than the first two. This final year feels like an eternity. All I do is study. Study and work another eight hours a day (the only part of the day from which I derive any pleasure at all). I am doing this for one reason. One reason only. So that on the day of my graduation from Hamilton College I can reclaim my life. To see, within me, if there is any life left at all. To climb on that motorcycle, pointed west, and to see, at long last, the beautiful world.
On Monday morning I am going to the Dean’s office to withdraw from Hamilton. I will continue to work until late May, when I plan to purchase the R60. (I have already put down a deposit.) In June, I will drive home (if you’ll have me), stay a while, then head west in July.
I send this letter with all my love. And to apologize. I feel I have deeply disappointed you. This is a heavy burden. I do not bear it lightly. However, please try to understand. I must do this.
I sent this letter in an overnight envelope on Thursday morning. I heard nothing. It was now Monday morning, 2:30 a.m., as I sat pondering my decision, and the fate that might befall me. The Dean’s office opened at 9:00 a.m.
At 3:30, the phone rang. In his firm, steady voice I knew so well, Dad spoke to me:
Your mother and I have been talking. As you know, we are concerned about your plans. We hope you will give them some more thought and consideration. We also think that it is foolhardy, only five months until your graduation, to drop out of college. We simply cannot allow that to happen. There’s lots more to talk about, and we will. But we are restoring your funds for the balance of your senior year.
There was a long silence. “Thank you,” I said. “Thank you. This means everything to me.”
For better or worse, I had grabbed the reins of my new life. It was unfolding before me. So, why was I fighting back tears? A victory clearly won, but it felt hollow. I felt hollow. I regretted the pain I had caused Mom and Dad, who loved and wanted to protect me. Who loved another Bob, Lieutenant Robert Langdon Coleman, who twenty-five short years before went flying off to war.
I wanted to be like him. Willing to wing it. One engine down, one engine left…and a prayer. In the end, giving his all. Mom and Dad wanted me to have the chance to do the things that Bob would have loved to do, if only he’d had the chance.