At the Top


There were 27 of us that day, all 18 or 19 years of age, except one fellow, 21, whom we called “Pop.” Three more had started out with us in our flight but had washed out along the way, unable to keep up with the grueling physical discipline of basic training in the Royal Canadian Air Force. We had been training hard for months to take the place of young men not much older than ourselves who, at watch behind machine guns and plexiglass bubbles, were still giving their lives over Germany.

Traditionally, completion of basic training called for a fitting “graduation ceremony.” Each flight was confident that it could outperform any other group in almost any sort of physical contest. The flight party at the end of basic training had become the recognized way for flight trainees to prove that they were second to none.

Our flight was no different. A youthful eagerness seemed to be pushing us to throw off the discipline for a night, to noisily proclaim that we were the top, and to somehow cram into one furious evening enough pleasure to last a lifetime. And so 27 of us sat down on the grass that day to discuss our flight party.

I sat down feeling very alone, and for the first time since our flight had been formed, I felt absolutely no desire to be part of the group. I watched the others smiling and laughing as they agreed that only a top night club would do, and I sensed the mounting excitement as they discussed the activities that they felt would be the most entertaining. It was suggested that each of us had an obligation to contribute his best thoughts on the matter, and after five or six fellows had enthusiastically expressed their ideas, someone said: “Let’s hear what Green has to say.”

Green was the only Mormon in the group and had no desire to say anything to anybody. All he wanted to do was withdraw. How do you tell 26 non-Mormons about the branch you attend every Sunday with a fellow Mormon from another flight? How do you convey the feelings you have about the mission home where you have a standing invitation every Sunday for dinner, and where you gather around the piano every Sunday evening to sing with the missionaries just before you and your buddy leave to catch the last streetcar back to the barracks before lights out? What could you say to 26 non-Mormons planning an all-out bash in a night club about how cold and dismal that Sunday night ride back to the barracks seemed? How sensitive would they be to your observation that you loathed setting foot in the barracks every Sunday night because you knew that the first word you heard would make a complete mockery of the word love.

The answer to all those questions, as they passed quickly through my mind that day, was: “They wouldn’t understand. They wouldn’t care. They’d probably sneer or laugh. Their idea of a flight party is a good indication of what they find important in life, and therefore it’s pointless to talk to them.” But somehow I had to come up with something that would get me off the hook, that would let me withdraw from the flight party. I was angry with myself because, after months of working together as a team with these fellows, I was going to suddenly and painfully resign. I was angry at them for putting me in a situation that I knew I was going to mishandle. They were going to judge me as the last type of person they wanted at the flight party, and I had already judged them as incapable of organizing a party I would want to attend.

“Let’s hear what Green has to say.”

“Yeah, Green. You haven’t said a word. What do you want to do?”

Green drew a deep breath, and looking rather sullenly at the grass in front of him made his brief withdrawal speech: “Well, if I were to go to a flight party … I’d be taking a pretty decent girl … so there’d be no drinking … and no smoking … and no swearing.” He didn’t dare look at anyone, and he gathered himself as best he could against the sudden onslaught he knew was coming.

And then it happened.

There was a good minute of utter silence. It was so still you could have heard a pin drop on the grass. Then someone from across the circle began to speak:

“Well …”

This was it. This was going to be the start. They would all have their say and then Green could beat his solitary retreat, leaving his worldly buddies with their frivolous taste for life.

“Well … I’d be taking a pretty nice girl myself …”

From beside him, “Who wouldn’t?”

There was another good minute of silence and then, from off to the right, “I nominate Green as master of ceremonies.” There were no other nominations.

A week later, all 27 members of the flight brought their beautifully dressed dates to our party. No drinking. No smoking. No swearing. Just lots of good food, good music, good dancing … and good memories of a flight party that was rather unique.

I remember, not without embarrassment, my thoughts on that sunny afternoon in 1944 as we sat down together on the grass. I remember that, unintentionally, I touched the lives of 26 young men. I thought I was putting them down. Generously, they put me at the top, and in my memory that’s exactly where I see them.

[illustration] Illustrated by Ed Holmes