A radical reconsiders vets' day

I was in the right place at the right time to be on the cutting edge of the counterculture - Washington, D.C. - as the 1960s rolled into the '70s.

For years I believed we were the bravest and the best. Milling outside the Pentagon chanting "One, two, three, four/We don't want your bloody war!" "Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh/Viet Cong are going to win!" Disrupting the bridges during rush hour, waving banners - "If the government won't stop the war, we'll stop the government." Retreating under clouds of tear gas, some of us were hauled off to jail.

That I didn't really know anyone in the military made it easier to feel superior. I was young and solipsistic - my thinking sloppy, my judgments unyielding. My loathing for the war spilled over to contempt for those in the military.

I was wrong on many counts.

That it took more than two decades for me to see it might seem remarkable. But let's face it: Despite its self-anointing as the Generation of Peace and Love, the counterculture could be quite dogmatic, callous, and cruel. Even our music was riddled with elitism and scorn for those we despised.

It's really time to right that wrong - to deal with the disconnect my generation had with the one before; to acknowledge that our fixation on the ambiguities of Vietnam - as well as our extreme narcissism - truly undercut our appreciation of the heroism displayed in the lives of our elders.

I was fortunate to meet one of these unsung heroes recently. As two of the youngest guests at a dinner party, my husband and I listened in awe as 70-somethings swapped World War II stories.

Later, I interviewed one, a former first lieutenant - Tom Mooney of Petaluma, Calif. He received his wings as an Army Air Corps bomber pilot in '44, with just time enough to marry his high school sweetheart before going overseas. Kit and her mother traveled from their hometown of St. Louis for a California wedding. Mooney's crew served as the wedding party before the 10 men boarded their B24 Liberator at Hamilton Air Force Base for Norwich, England.

Mr. Mooney's first mission, in August '44, was to Karlsruhe, Germany, right off the French border. The crew had heard this was a "milk run," because it took them across Allied-occupied territory. They came back with 345 holes in their plane.

"All I could think was that if this was a milk-run, what would it be like when we have to go to Munich or Hamburg?" he remembers.

When Mooney's crew arrived in Norwich, standard operating procedure was this: After 20 bombing missions, if a man was still alive, he was sent home, his tour of duty complete. But the Army kept upping the ante - to 25, 30, and finally 35 missions. That's how many Mooney flew in his eight months at Norwich.

What was his scariest flight?

"Our 12th," he answers without hesitation. "We were going in over the north end of the Rhine when we lost an engine. We were able to keep up with the formation with only three, but then we lost another. We headed for Holland, where we dropped our bomb load safe, then on over Belgium and France.

"We crash-landed at Lille. Our descent was so fast, there was an inch-and-a-half of ice on the plane, including the windshield. I had to open the window and stick my head out to see. I was standing with my body weight on full rudder."

Mooney came home and went on to earn a master's degree in history at Brown University. Now a retired Boy Scout executive and recent widower, he is an active father of two children and grandfather of five.

His life has been one of goodness and grace. What strikes me when I listen to Mooney's tales is the matter-of-fact, good-natured modesty with which he tells them. As Tom Brokaw notes in his book "The Greatest Generation," "They faced great odds and a late start but they did not protest.... They won the war, they saved the world.... They remain for the most part exceptionally modest.... They have so many stories to tell, stories that in many cases they have never told before."

On this Veterans Day (Nov. 11), I find myself reconsidering what is brave, what is heroic, and what things will stand the test of time. And I am grateful for men like Tom Mooney. Their patriotic and unflinching service ensured my freedom - though that freedom took many a strange turn before I gained the maturity to thank them for it.

* Barbara Curtis is a freelance writer living in Petaluma, Calif.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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