Flying the Hump

airplane

In Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, where I grew up, Rex Humbard was the first Pentecostal evangelist to have his own television program. Next to the Cathedral of Tomorrow, where he hosted his weekly broadcast, he also built an enormous tower—locally known as Rex’s Erection—with the intent of making one of those revolving restaurants like at Niagara Falls. But despite eventually officiating at Elvis’s funeral, Humbard ran out of money and, ever since, the tower has just stood there, tall and useless. Though my grandfather, who was a flight instructor at Kent State, once told me that pilots used the tower as a landmark when giving their coordinates over the radio.

Grandpa Dick had a stern voice, stayed impressively fit in his Red Cross red Speedo, and always kept at least four Fords in the driveway. Though he liked to see me swim the crawl, I was too shy in front of him to do the synchronized swimming routines I choreographed for my grandmother most summer afternoons when I was growing up and my parents were at work. If Grandpa sometimes came home in the middle of the day for a sandwich and a quick nap before going back to the airport, it always seemed to me like he was a little in the way. My interactions with him did not extend much beyond his asking me to repeat a few mangled Chinese phrases he learned during the Second World War. “Boo-how” and “ding-boo-how”—supposedly “bad” and “very bad”—seemed like some ominous fortune cookie when I was little. Later, I would wonder what other words, in war, would have been necessary.

Mainly what I knew about my grandfather was that he flew the Hump, which, as far as I could tell, meant he had once worn aviator sunglasses and a leather bomber jacket and piloted enormous C-47, twin-engine planes over what he called the “Him-all-yas.” Otherwise, I knew that he voted for Reagan, that my mother’s Mazda was ding boo how, and that, while Grandma and I seemed to prefer being by ourselves during those weekdays in July, on family occasions, Grandpa’s absence was both presumed and scorned. Dick was always at the airport. No one bothered waiting for him on Easter, but that didn’t mean we weren’t also listening for the sound of his car in the drive.

That he had flown the Hump was the answer or at least the reason for everything, or so it seemed when I was a kid. I wasn’t sure what the correlation was, only that there was one. Dick didn’t have to be on time to Thanksgiving dinner because he was at the airport, and he was at the airport because he had flown the Hump. No one was allowed to question or press for any other clarification. Once Dick was home, he ate quickly, said little, and yelled if something needed to be said at all, other consequences or privileges, I imagined, of having been In The War. Whether he’d ever stated so explicitly or not, I got the feeling that whatever he’d endured had so far outweighed what anyone else around the table had experienced, that he didn’t have to answer to anyone. He didn’t have to explain a thing. He didn’t have to say more thanding-boo-how when he came in the den and saw me watching I Love Lucy on the couch.

In the spring of 1942, Japanese troops captured the last stretches of the Burma Road, a gnarly, 700-mile string of severe switchbacks that Allied forces depended on for getting supplies to China that were then used in fighting the Japanese throughout the Pacific. After the fall of the Burma Road, the Chinese, American, and British forces fighting in the region had nowhere to look but up. Officially deemed Air Transport Command, flying the Hump required getting unarmed supply planes from India, over the Himalayas, to China—navigating blizzards and monsoons in the most treacherous mountain range in the world, along with the occasional Japanese fighter pilot.

In late 2006, I was visiting Bodh Gaya, India, a small town on the flat plains where the Buddha found enlightenment under the Bodhi tree 500 years before the birth of Christ. I’d been to Bodh Gaya several times and on that particular trip, I was working on an article about the ways in which the burgeoning Asian middle class was impacting the tradition of Buddhist pilgrimage. Bodh Gaya had long been a difficult and a fairly unpleasant place to reach, and the effort of travel, it was generally believed, contributed to the accumulation of good karmic merit. But by then, a new airport had opened and suddenly a quick flight from Bangkok or Rangoon replaced the hot miles of dysentery and cobras of centuries past. I wasn’t sure how efficiency might impact devotion, but I wanted to have a look.

In the Jeep on the way there, my friend Robert mentioned that the new Gaya Airport made use of an old runway, one left over from an American army base in World War II. “My grandfather flew the Hump,” I said then, aware of both a blurry familiarity with the history and an uneasiness for never before making the connection myself. A picture of my grandfather and his army buddies at the Taj Mahal had hung in the family room my entire life, but until that moment, I never thought about why.

I had been travelling somewhat regularly to Bodh Gaya since 1994, when I lived there for several months as an undergraduate, studying Buddhist meditation. After college, I returned, and five months into my stay, I found out I was pregnant. By the time my one-year-old son, his father, and I returned to Bodh Gaya the following year, I had come to think of it not only as the most formative place in Buddhist history, but also the most formative place in my own history. I knew the contours of its flat horizon by heart and everyone from the cobbler to the tailor had said my son’s name before he could even pronounce it himself.

In Bodh Gaya, I’d seen a Hindu holy man bury himself underground for ten days and live. I’d seen a wild pig the size of a small polar bear stoned to death for eating the crops. I’d seen a line of beggars—every version of blind, disfigured, and emaciated—stretch for over a kilometer while waiting for the alms Buddhist pilgrims gave out for karmic merit. There, the course of my own future had been altered forever, and this was where I came, along with millions of other people, to renew my faith in the present moment. All of which was to say that Bodh Gaya had long been familiar to me and there wasn’t much about it, I thought, that could take me by surprise. But I also never expected to find any association to my own family there, particularly my quintessentially American grandfather, who drove a ’67 Mustang convertible, coached high school football, played “Moon River” on the mouth organ, and always kept a tire gauge in his shirt pocket.

On the way to the airport, though, I remembered, or believed I remembered, the loopy, shaky script of a letter my grandmother wrote me during my first stay in Bodh Gaya, explaining that Dick had flown there exactly 50 years earlier and that they had both recognized the name when my father showed them a map of India. (Gaya is a larger city about 12 kilometers north of Bodh Gaya; the airport sits in between the two.) But at 18, I hadn’t understood the politics of the Allies and certainly not those played out in remote regions of Burma. Even if I had received such a letter, I would have burned it under the water pipe for a hot shower, like I did with all my mail back then. And over the next decade, I forgot all about my grandfather having ever been anywhere other than the abstracted somewhere else of overseas.

The new Gaya airport looked like a big, concrete Bhutanese Temple, with red-and-yellow-checkered eaves under the flat roof. During that first visit, however, I was not allowed in, even just to have a look around. I learned of the day’s four outgoing flights by reading a small chalkboard by the front door. The flight numbers and destinations were hand-written, as was the sign on the glass door denying entry to anyone who was not a passenger.

Behind the new airport sat a little house with fresh yellow paint and well-tended dahlias in pots out front. “Aerodrome Office 1937” was embossed in concrete above the front door and right away, I felt some jolt of validation, certain that if my grandfather had ever flown into Gaya, he would have crossed that threshold or his voice would have come through the radio I imagined had once been inside. Not far away were the former barracks. Although in ruin, with sunlight pouring through what could no longer be called a roof, the buildings looked distinctly American, something out of Gomer Pyle or M*A*S*H—my only visual reference points for Army living quarters—and in strange contrast to the otherwise flat fields of the Indian countryside, where wheat and rice and mustard flowers grew, dotted with coconut palms and guava trees and water buffalo.

My whole life, the idea of flying the Hump had hovered over my family like some kind of myth, and staring up at the physical proof of history, I was also shocked that any of it was real. I shot a roll of film, anxious to show my dad and my grandma what I’d found and wondering if my grandfather, who was by then in the throes of Alzheimer’s, would recognize the Aerodrome Office or remember something, anything, about what he’d done at the Gaya Airport.

That night, I sat near the Bodhi tree surrounded by 5,000 Tibetan monks and nuns in town for an annual prayer festival and tried to figure out if anything was different. I had never come to Bodh Gaya to escape myself or my childhood, though I always liked how far away I felt while I was there. But then, listening to the monks chant, I thought of the uneven, rubbery bottom of my grandparents’ aboveground pool and learning to drive stick in the Pinto and the way my father and grandfather yelled at each other about what was, on the surface, the First Gulf War but was, really, everything else. I didn’t know what to make of the facts: that here, amidst the dust and the cows and the call to prayer from the mosque, there was an American Army post, just down the road, where my grandpa had once been homesick, longing for what would become his future, which I grew up thinking of as the past.

“Do you think his reluctance to have talked about the war with you was just typical of that generation?” I asked my grandma on the phone the subsequent father’s day. By that point, Dick’s memory had deteriorated even more, and though he’d surprised us all with his new, gentle demeanor, he also spent most of each day in the Barcalounger, napping and asking about lunch. I was planning another trip back to India and called my grandma hoping to talk about the Hump. But when I started by asking her simply what she remembered, she was taken off guard.

“Dick was never home, you know,” she said at first, which I did know but was still startled to hear in this context. As if, in 65 years of marriage, there simply hadn’t been time. I worried that on top of everything else she had already lost, I was calling attention to something she had never known to begin with.

Having read several first-hand accounts, I understood that even Hump pilots compelled to write about their experiences stuck to the concrete details of plot and the humility that had once been a trait as vital as courage. Theirs was not a confessional era, particularly in the Midwest, where emotional introspection would have been seen as self-indulgent. So when my grandmother said that no, her husband never told her much, I didn’t want her thinking I thought that was unusual. “Wasn’t that just how things were?” I asked.

“Maybe,” she conceded, seeming to welcome the recognition. “But he would have talked about those things,” she said, meaning war things, “with other men, at bars, over beers.” This startled me. I’d never seen Dick drink more than a half a beer out of a jelly jar, and even that was rare because it only happened on days he wasn’t going back to the airport. Grandma then let her voice get very big for a moment, as she told me that men “lu-uhhhhhved” to talk about the war. By this, she was implying the glory more so than the hardships, but perhaps in separating the two, I’d already missed the point.

Then she said something far more direct.

“Just the other night, we had a big storm. It was raining hard, and Dick and I were in bed.” The bedroom in their little bungalow was a solarium, all windows. I imagined them listening to the rain and watching the lightning, the drops streaking the glass.

“Dick said to me,” she said, stressing his momentary clarity, “that even when it was raining that hard, nothing kept his plane or anyone else’s from taking off. He said when it was your time to go, you went.” I’d read about this. No weather they called it— meaning monsoons or blizzards or fog or night didn’t matter. There was no excuse not to fly. I wondered if he had had that same thought in every downpour since 1944 or if it just came to him abruptly, while watching the rain from his bed.

As people with Alzheimer’s regress, they tend to become very polite. The exchange of pleasantries—How are you? Fine, and you?—is one of our earliest learned behaviors and therefore, apparently, one of the last to go. That ‘no weather’ had so permanently burnished itself on my grandfather’s psyche—remaining after he could no longer recall anything else about himself or his family—seemingly said more about his time flying the Hump than he ever could, or would have, otherwise.

During the spring and summer, hot winds like an open oven blow across the Indian plains, chase all the foreigners away, and, in good years, bring the rain. Which was why, the following August, it took a while to convince my friend Uttam to drive me back to the Gaya Airport when he knew it was closed and I wasn’t flying anywhere.

The old barracks were more decrepit than a year and a half earlier, but I found comfort in seeing them again. I’d looked at the pictures I’d taken so many times that each individual, moss-covered building appeared deceptively familiar. But as the Jeep pulled in front of the Aerodrome office, I noticed right away the absence of dahlias. The yellow paint had faded and peeled. When the rainy season did come, the monsoons tended to be so heavy that everything had to be repainted, and all the roads repaved, ever year, to keep from getting dilapidated, but the Aerodrome office had not been maintained. As Uttam turned off the ignition, I spotted a lock on the door, hanging from a chain. Peering through a broken window, I saw an empty file cabinet with open drawers and a broken chair on its side.

For as intrigued as I’d been on my first visit to the airport, I was then equally discouraged. Presumably, this office had been kept running for 70 years until closing sometime in the last 18 months, making clear, I thought, the analogy: by the time I bothered to care about my grandfather’s time in India, he was too old to remember it; by the time I returned to the building I hoped would provide me with his flight log or a map of the route to China or a photograph of the Americans, it was abandoned.

 

Two guards, a tall, skinny man with a horsey mouth and a short, round woman, both dressed in khakis, intercepted me as I hopped out of the car again. Despite the fact that no flights would be taking off or landing until fall, the new airport was surrounded by dozens of workers, presumably to keep out the either real or imagined threat of Pakistani spies. While Uttam explained I was there for historical research, the guards squinted at me, dubious, and we were neither told to leave nor granted permission to look around.

A Visitors’ Ticket Window offered entrance to the airport for 30 rupees a pop, which I thought would be my way in until I saw an additional sign declaring that no visitor tickets would be sold between the 4th and the 20th of August. It was the 7th. Convinced I’d hit nothing but roadblocks, I then noticed a man, in sharply creased slacks and a western-style shirt, walking with an entourage past where the guards were still standing in the parking lot.

R.K. Sharma, I soon learned, was the Chief Security Manager for the Gaya Airport. He also looked like he had just toweled off after hitting a bucket of golf balls at the driving range. I put myself in his path and at his mercy and, after listening to me describe Gaya’s sudden prominence in the outcome of World War II and my own grandfather’s heroic feats at this airport and others like it across the subcontinent, R.K. Sharma surprised everyone by flashing me a big grin and exclaiming, “Actually, Madam, you are right!”

The English expression “the big cheese” derives from Hindi, in which the word “cheez” essentially means “thing,” but can include a person. The chorus of one of the biggest film songs of all time rhythmically and repeatedly establishes that “Tu cheez bari hai must must,” which roughly translates as “You are the really cool, big thing.” During colonialism, the British heard the Indians use the word ‘cheez’ with the frequency we all say ‘thing’ and adopted it. Seeing the extent to which all eyes, and suddenly all smiles, were on R.K. Sharma reminded me just how big a big cheese in India could be, even in the middle of nowhere. Mr. Sharma invited me into the airport, and the automated glass doors that had been so impenetrable slid open.

Bypassing what may or may not have been a functioning x-ray machine and metal detector, we climbed the stairs to the second floor and walked down a long, dirty corridor. The building felt unfinished and under construction but also already broken and grimy. Not for the first time, I wondered if this was how everything “new” in the state of Bihar, the poorest in India, was destined to be.

As we entered an office, the man at the desk introduced himself as Prabhu Dev, the air traffic controller. That he happened to share a name with the Tamil film industry’s most fantastic dancer went unacknowledged. I was given a Coca-Cola in a sweating glass bottle while the men lit up their Wills cigarettes and looked at me expectantly, as if my arrival would provide us all with a purpose nobody had quite figured out yet.

Prabhu Dev explained there had been two runways used during the 1940s, one running east-to-west and one running north-to-south. He stood to show me the diagrams on the wall charting both, pointing out that the one running east-to-west had been re-opened for the 21st century. Charming as I might have been, though, I was not allowed to take a picture inside, he said, citing security reasons.

“What happened to the Aerodrome Office?” I asked.

“Everything has been shifted here, Madam,” Prabu Dev said, moving his head back and forth in the way that, despite all the time I’d spent in India, I still didn’t know how to interpret other than as an indication that there was nothing more that he could do.

“Is there anything left from the war that I can see?”

“No, Madam. There is really nothing left to show.”

When I was 11, Dick gave me a single flying lesson, in a two-seater, prop plane. We sat side by side and our steering wheels, which were not round but “W” shaped, moved in unison. As we hurled ourselves along the runway, he pulled up on his “W” and I held my hands in place, feeling his strength and restraint as the plane rose.

Unlike in a commercial jetliner, we didn’t keep going up through the clouds. Instead, we stayed low enough so that Route 59, with its churches, ice cream stands, and strip malls, unfurled with captivating accuracy. My grandparents’ pool made their house easy to find, but what struck me most from the air was how irrelevant it all seemed. Up in the sky, the movement and the hush changed everything. The world outside our windows was silent and far away, and I got the impression that the novelty of looking down would wear off while the lure of looking out would only intensify.

At the Gaya Airport, I wanted something similar—to see what he saw, to glimpse the physical world from his point of view. I thought if I could imagine him on that runway in 1944, I would understand something about him and therefore about myself, which I hadn’t known before. I wanted some evidence that my coming to Bodh Gaya for all these years had been fated, sealed with familial ties that granted me some claim to this land that I loved but where I was also always foreign, an outsider. But as I climbed back into the Jeep, I just felt hot and sweaty, embarrassed for thinking I’d have known what I was looking for even if I’d seen it.

That evening, walking around the Bodhi tree, I noticed a group of Indian businessmen stopped to pray. As I passed, one looked up; our eyes locked and I realized that he’d been in the airport office that morning. “You are here!” he said to me with delight.

Aware of the “Silence Please” sign directly in front of us, along with a group of chanting Sri Lankans plum in the middle of their puja, I smiled back and said simply, “You are also here,” before continuing on my way. While the impulse to chat was strong, the pull to follow decorum was stronger.

For everything I would never know about my grandfather’s time during the war, there was exactly one story he had told me. When I was nine or ten, standing in the sunny driveway at my grandparents’ house and warming up after a swim, Grandpa Dick pulled up for lunch. Shutting the door to the Tempo, he took off his sunglasses and bent down to my level. “One day when I was flying the Hump,” he started, surprising me and already implying gravity by straying from our usual boo-how script, “the Japanese came up behind the wing of my plane.” He put one hand next to the other, overlapping a bit at the index fingers. “Just like that,” he said.

Normally, Dick would have said “Jap.” But on that day, he did not. “He didn’t fire,” Grandpa continued. “And I watched him fly away.” Inexplicably, the Japanese pilot left my grandfather alive and even then I understood that my own eventual existence had been contingent on that moment, too. But I was too intimidated to ask any questions. He had invoked the Hump and I responded with what I’d learned was the appropriate response of reverential silence for what he’d made clear his family would never understand. As Dick walked into the house, I stood wrapped in a towel, watching the pool water drip from my hair and darken the cement around me.

Walking in my bare feet past the Bodhi tree, I first regretted brushing past the airport worker, thinking it another missed opportunity. But as I kept going, I wondered what more I could have said. I was here; he was also here. That much alone felt remarkable.

During the rest of my stay, though, I was preoccupied by what I couldn’t find. Once Dick could no longer remember who he was, I felt obliged to uncover something new about the man he had been. Because my father and my son had also both travelled to Bodh Gaya with me, I couldn’t help but put a grandiose spin on the circumstances. We were a nondescript family from Ohio, a family of lifeguards and teachers, who ate corn on the cob on the porch in summer. But now, I thought, we were also four generations of Americans who had, however inadvertently, walked in the footsteps of the Buddha, which I wanted to be worth something.

That fall, my requests for my grandfather’s military records were returned, along with a form stating that they’d been destroyed in a 1973 fire at the St. Louis archives. The following summer, I returned to Bodh Gaya again, but I didn’t go back to the airport. When Dick died the year after that, I understood my search was irrevocably finished. No letter or other artifact had surfaced to reveal any cosmic providence. I had neither confirmed nor disproved that Dick had indeed slept in the Gaya barracks. Nothing about our overlapping geography seemed any more predetermined or extraordinary. Though I tried taking comfort in the mystery, telling myself that significance was not like an old key to be found or excavated and that meaning had to be made to be understood, I didn’t really believe that either. I still thought I’d failed at something, even if I wasn’t quite sure what.

Dick always wore two watches—one set to Ohio time, Eastern Standard, the other to Greenwich Mean. Of all the things he must have done in the war or as a result of the war, this residual habit was likely among the most benign, but also the most visible. In the mid-80s, when stacking Swatches was popular and I was in fourth grade, I took to wearing two watches for a bit, too, but he could never understand why when they were set to the same time. For a while after he died, I thought that the flat, dusty plains of Eastern India would be nothing more than this—something we appeared to have in common but that didn’t amount to anything more than a coincidence or a fluke.

But the last time I was in Bodh Gaya, walking on the far side of the river from the Mahabodhi Temple, I was reminded of its height. The temple itself, which was built at the site of the Buddha’s enlightenment, is shaped like a tall, skinny pyramid. From far away, I could see how much bigger it was than everything else around, how it dwarfed even the trees. Restoration of the temple, which fell into ruin during India’s Mughal Empire, began in the late 19th century; by 1944 it would have definitely been visible, especially from overhead.

Like Rex’s Erection, I have come to wonder if the Mahabodhi Temple, where for thousands of years, millions of Buddhists and Hindus have come to worship, also served as a geographic reference point for pilots flying the Hump. It seemed entirely possible that when they were coming in from Calcutta or Lahore and talking all “Alpha Beta Charlie” over the radio while they scanned the horizon, the American Army boys were looking for what the Buddhists believe is the center of the universe. I cannot imagine the sense of purpose my grandfather must have felt, but I know the landscape. This is the confluence I am left with—that in getting our bearings, we both looked to the same landmark. He was here. I was also here. That much alone was remarkable.

 

Liesl Schwabe is a Lecturer in Writing at Yeshiva University.

Photo by Wikipedia: File:Douglas C-47 Skytrain.jpg.

Flying the Hump

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