Originally I thought that I would divide the next two stories of my war experiences. One reason was that the first of these stories is out of the time sequence of my other narratives and is not a wartime experience. On calm reflection, I came to the conclusion that the two complement each other. My “Beauty” is, universally, recognized as one of the finest art objects in the world! The “Beast”, in the second story, is brutal, dangerous, deadly, violent and any other bad name that you might call to mind! Yet, if you strip away all of it’s bad features and inject it into a visual picture, as only an element that the gives the scene composition and meaning, the results are, and can be, quite attractive - even beautiful!
First the “Beauty” –
As a youngster in public school, it was necessary to frequently purchase school supplies. One of the supplies was notebook paper usually of the three-hole type that would fit into a loose-leaf binder. One of the companies that manufactured such notebook paper was a company called Masterpiece, and its company logo was the Winged Victory of Samothrace. Every time I purchased notebook paper, I would try to get Masterpiece and this logo of the Winged Victory. Sometime later, I discovered that the Winged Victory was a statue that was located in the Louvre Museum in Paris. I always promised myself that if ever I were in Paris, I would go to the Louvre and see this beautiful piece of statuary.
Fast forward to 1945. The war in Europe was, just over, and guess where I am? Right in the middle of Paris. Here, I am a twenty year old, semi-barbarian, First Lieutenant with Silver Wings and lots of money, feeling that Paris was at my feet....or vice versa.
Fortunately, the hotel where I was staying was right in the middle of downtown Paris, an easy distance from most of the tourist attractions. The hotel clerk in my hotel was a temple of knowledge and he gave me specific directions how to get to the Louvre. He assured me that it was just a short walk from the hotel. Outside, I hit the streets. The weather was beautiful, Paris was beautiful and the young girls who were walking along the boulevard were most attractive. It was hard to keep my mind on going to a dusty museum, but I persevered.
After a short walk, I came to the intersection of two, rather wide streets. Near the center, a French policeman was standing, doing not much of anything at that time. I motioned to him to come to me, that I needed to ask him a question, and he did come over. This is the conversation, as near as I can recall, that transpired, which was being done in French.
Me: “Sir, Could you give me instructions as to how to get to the Louvre Muyseum?”
Me: “I need to get directions, sir, to the Louvre Museum.”
Officer: “What’s that?”
Me: “Sir, uh, I’m trying to get to the Louvre Museum of Art. You know, art museum? pictures? statuary?”
Officer: “Uh. Sorry, I, I, I don’t know.”
And, with that, he walked back out into the center of the street. About that time, I noticed that there was a finely dressed, elderly man walking up to me and, as he approached, he asked: “Lieutenant, Can I help you?”
And I said, “Yes sir, thank you. I’m trying to get directions to the Louvre Museum.”
He smiled, pointed and said, “It’s that building right across the street.”
Crossing the street, I found and did enter the Louvre Museum. Once inside, two things struck me. One, there was no one there and two, most of the walls were either vacant or only partially filled with the art objects. Looking around, I finally found an attendant who spoke excellent English and was most cordial to me. He said that the reason nobody was there is that they were just now bringing their treasures out of hiding or safekeeping and that a lot of people didn’t come and would not come until it was fully stocked. Also, it was early in the day, and people didn’t usually come at that hour, if they came at all. He assured me that I was most welcome and to feel free to roam around the Museum at my leisure and enjoy myself. Asking where the Winged Victory was located, he said it was right down the hall, and sure enough it was not difficult to find. And find it I did!
What a magnificent object and the way it was displayed in the Louvre, made it even more magnificent. It was situated atop an ascending staircase, semi-circular in form, that decreased in size as it went upward. The Winged Victory was positioned at the very top, almost as if it was on the front end of a ship. It was beautifully lighted.... it was a magnificent scene. At last, I had found the item that had instilled such emotion in me for so many years. I soaked in its beauty as long as I could and finally realized I had been there maybe ten or fifteen minutes. It was time to go on and see the other treasures of the Louvre. But, nothing could prepare me for what was about to happen.
Walking down one of the corridors which was quite long, I strolled aimlessly along looking at the various pictures that were on the walls of this corridor. I noticed that, about two-thirds down this corridor (which was maybe a hundred feet or more) over against one side of the corridor, was a three-legged tripod and on this tripod was a framed, rather large something. I couldn’t see what it was because the back of it was to me. Being in no particular hurry, and nobody there to bother me or interrupt my viewing, I took my time and walked down and turned in front of the easel and “My God! It’s, it’s the Mona Lisa!” Can you imagine, being alone, face-to-face with, and a foot away from the Mona Lisa? After the initial shock wore off, I had time to really look at this visual masterpiece. The first thing I noted were her eyes. Her eyes locked onto you like iron rods and no matter where you moved, the eyes followed you. Then slowly, I saw it. This faint, sweet smile came on her face. It was almost as if she were saying, “Hi, Lee!” And, out loud, I replied, ”Hi Mona.”
Fast forward thirty-five years, which was the next time that I saw the Mona Lisa. This time she was hanging on a wall in a glass case, hermetically sealed and climate controlled, about fifteen feet above the floor. Underneath her was an armed guard. In the room with me were approximately one hundred people, who were all milling around and jockeying for a position to take a look at this painting.
Being in such a crowd, you moved with the crowd and, finally, through that motion, I ended up in front of and under the Mona Lisa. Again, I looked up and the one thing that first came to mind was those eyes. They locked onto me as before. As I looked, again, here it came that slight, sweet, little smile. Was my mind playing tricks on me, or did I hear her say, “Hi, Lee!” And, then it struck me that she remembered. She remembered that intimate moment that we shared together. And I said, out loud, “Hi, Mona!”
As the character in Monty Python says, “Now for something entirely different.”
The “Beast” in this story is an airplane. To be specific, it is a Messerschmitt Model 109, German fighter. To a member of a B17 Bomber crew, this craft has all the bad features, or characteristics, stated above. It is truly a thing of terror! Now, catch this “beast” in a millionth of a second of time in space and see the scene through the eyes of an observer - my eyes! I hope, you will find this visual impression to be all that I claim for it. Come, fly with me!
Date: Wartime. Time: Approx. 4:00 a.m.
Location: Approx. 25 miles inland from the West Coast of Holland
Weather conditions: high clouds, an all pervading blackness of pre-dawn with exception of one little sliver of orange and gold light between the horizon and the edge of the low clouds on the eastern sky
Occasion: Bombing mission heading east into Germany. A bomber stream, maybe of as many as one thousand airplanes.
My plane was in a formation that was somewhat back in the bomber stream. There were bombers ahead of me, back of me and to the right and left of me as far as I could tell. Even though the conditions were very dark, there was a sky light and I could distinguish the planes in your formation and the formations around me, even though I could not make out any great details. Since nothing was happening at that particular moment, I stood up in my astrodome, which is that little plastic bubble on top of the nose, for the purpose of looking around to see all of these planes in this tremendous formation that just seemed to be everywhere. When I was looking down and in front of me, I got the impression that I was looking at the backs of huge animals that seemed to be raging, stampeding and running right straight into the blackness of hell!
Out of one corner of my eye, over on the eastern horizon, I suddenly saw a little dot. A little, black dot. It caught my attention, because it was not moving in the same direction as we were, but rather coming toward our formation. As I watched, this little black dot got to be a bigger black dot. Then it changed or metamorphosed into what looked like a black pencil line. It was horizontal to the ground. Then as I watched, this little pencil line became a stick. Slowly, it rolled up, until it was vertical to the ground and seemed to be coming straight at me. This plane had rolled up on its wing. All of a sudden, little lights started twinkling from this thing that looked like a stick.
Now, hold it right there - this is the view – that is the scene. This is a German fighter plane, shooting and, making a pursuit curve attack, on a plane near me. It was not shooting at me. This is the scene that I want remembered, right there. Truly it was violent, it was deadly, and all of those other things that you could say about it. But stripped of these bad characteristics, think of the panorama, the surreal atmosphere of it all. The interplay of lights, the blackness, the bare wisp of dawn, the lights from its guns, the mood, the time, the place, the emotion, the action, the drama, all of these put together. It was a scene of incredible beauty. I claim this scene to be one of the most impressive, visual images that I have ever witnessed! It has been painted on the canvas of my mind!