Tuesday, May 29, 2007
Smoke 'em if you got 'em ...
When I was a young man, I worked briefly in a couple different metals warehouses, one in South Gate, one in Gardena/Watts, in Southern California. The companies sold aluminum, brass, copper, mostly to the aircraft industry, did some precision sawing of small extrusions, like that.
I was a back-up man at the second company, did a little of everything. One day, I'd be in the warehouse running a forklift; the next day, in the office, taking plate or bar orders over the phone; day after that, I might be working with the dispatcher, sending out the loaded trucks.
This was in 1968, which wasn't so far from the days of WWII that there weren't still plenty of veterans of that conflict around, some of whom worked at the company.
One day, on lunch break in the warehouse, I was talking to an older black guy named Benny, the company mechanic. Most of the guys working there were black -- at the time, that was the demographic in Watts. Benny was a happy-go-lucky fellow, always smiling, who had the magic touch when it came to machinery. He could lay his hands on a motor that wasn't working right and could feel what was wrong it -- and then fix it, usually with a screwdriver and a pair of pliers and some wire.
During the war, Benny told me, he had been an aircraft mechanic for the Army Air Force, and did most of his time on Guam, and some island called Tinian. Mostly what they did was repair or tune up planes that were flown in from elsewhere, not a lot of action. It was hot, rained a lot, and boring, as he recalled. They played a lot of cards.
One day, a plane arrived, a big ole B-29 Super Fortress, he said. It was supposed to be rigged for some kind of special mission, and Benny and the crew attended to the craft. He didn't know what the mission was, but he figured it must be important, way everybody was whispering behind their hands and all. He did his part, the plane left, and that was that.
That would have been the summer of 1945, July, August, he reckoned. Never knew what it was all about. But -- even though it had been more than twenty years, he remembered that plane. He had even taken some pictures of it, but hadn't been able to get the film developed until he left the service after the war.
You, uh, still got those pictures? I asked.
Sure do. You wanna see 'em?
Oh, yeah. Because I had a feeling I knew more about this mission than Benny did.
Sure enough, he brought some old black-and-white photographs the next day, more sepia- toned, actually, the size of those old brownie camera prints. Had six or eight of them, and the markings on the plane were easy to see.
Benny's mystery aircraft was the Enola Gay.
I thought he was pulling my chain, but it became obvious he really didn't know. It had been a big deal at the time, but he didn't have a clue how big a deal it had been. He somehow never made the connection later, when he heard about Hiroshima, he wasn't much of a newspaper, guy, didn't really learn to read too well until long after he was out of the service.
I found this fascinating on several levels, not the least of which was that sometimes you are connected to things and you don't have the slightest idea what they wind up being about ...
In the end, I decided not to say anything to Benny about it. I admired the pictures, and we talked about something else. Life went on.
I left my job and went to work as a private eye after about a year. Eventually, the metals company, which had been family-owned, sold out to a major aerospace aluminum company, and I doubt seriously whether anybody I knew then is still there -- the warehouse at which I worked was closed long ago.
If he's still alive, Benny would be eighty-something. I like to think that by not saying anything, I might have saved him a few sleepless nights. Or maybe not ...
Truth is much stranger than fiction. I'd never have thought to make something like this up, it would have been too weird ...