Traverse City Record-Eagle

February 24, 2013

Kathy Gibbons: Some bonds bigger than life


---- — It doesn’t take a lot to get me teary eyed: NPR’S StoryCorps. A snippet of music from a certain song.

Like a tropical storm, such episodes come and go — quickly forgotten.

Others? Not so much.

At the recent funeral of a 92-year-old uncle by marriage, the atmosphere, while very sad, wasn’t as devastating as some. His wife had died years before and he always missed her. He’d been battling various forms of cancer himself for many years, but it was cancer he managed to live with. And so up until a short time before his death, he continued to drive, go out to eat, smoke cigars, spend time with family and attend church.

Uncle John was a decorated war hero — a retired colonel in the U.S. Air Force and captain who flew 49 missions during World War II including a pivotal one where he somehow managed to bring his severely damaged B17 safely to the ground from 21,000 feet.

A direct 88 mm hit over Berlin tore out the floor and right side of the radio room, basically cutting the plane in half and creating 400 flak holes. His radio operator was killed. The rest of the crew pulled together, scrambling to unload weight and secure and repair what they could as the navigator mapped the shortest route back to England and Uncle John and his co-pilot managed to bring the plane down safely. After the war, he continued to complete a 26-year career in the military, including time at the Pentagon.

Well, one of his crewmen was there at the funeral. Frail and in a wheelchair, he was pushed in by a younger man.

During the service, one of Uncle John’s sons spoke of growing up, and how his dad’s crewmen were as significant in their lives as the many uncles in their big Irish family.

There were funny stories shared. Uncle John always said he wanted one song at his funeral, Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” There was no pretension. He did not suffer fools. He also did not like war, knowing only too well its consequences.

As the service ended, the men from the funeral home redraped the casket with the American flag. The pallbearers came forward, lining up around the coffin.

Then quietly, from the back, came his former crewman in the wheelchair. The man accompanying him turned the wheelchair around and lined him up next to the casket, in the front pallbearer’s spot on the right. And so he went, up the aisle, ushering Uncle John home as Uncle John had done so many years before for him, in the air over Europe.

Some bonds are bigger than life.

As for the tears? They came, to pretty much everyone in the church.

And this time, the reason won’t be forgotten anytime soon.