They call it the Vietnam Room, a section of the restaurant with its walls covered with photos of young men in flying gear and the airplanes that they flew. The room is not so different from the rest of the aviation-themed restaurant that sits at the approach end of the airport’s runways. The décor of the place is meant to resemble a Second World War airbase. People come to the establishment to soak up the atmosphere while they watch the planes come and go. Speaking of going, there is an endless stream of Winston Churchill’s speeches playing in the men’s room.
Most restaurant is kitschy, but in the Vietnam room there is something else happening. Once each week it hosts a lunch meeting. Every Wednesday it sees a bunch of gray eagles totter in to have lunch and regale one another with stories about flying. Some arrive on the arm of their caregivers, limping along. A few arrive in wheelchairs, pushing walkers or leaning on canes. They bear little resemblance to the sharp-eyed young men looking down from the images on the walls, and yet these are those same men. The years may have added ailments and pain, but they have not dimmed the deeds they performed.
The total number of flying hours of the group totals in the tens of thousands. Hours spent boring holes in clouds and bearing down on hostile targets. Some have been decorated numerous times for their bravery and service others have endured the heart-racing threats of emergency landings, ejections and crashes. Given that every one of the luncheon gatherers had learned to fly over a half-century ago their exploits are the stuff of adventure novels and yet none would brag that they were doing any more than their job.
These septuagenarians join together weekly to share the camaraderie that only those who have been molded and bonded by flight understand. Their love affairs with airplanes and all things aviation began in early childhood. Some grew up in families of Second World War pilots, a few were Second World War pilots. From stick and rudder, tail-dragging planes that bumped down rutted cow pastures to launch into the air to heavy multi-engine jets thundering off mile-long runways, the allure of flying was always there.
Looking around the room, it is hard to find a full head of hair. What is there is mostly gray, if not white and the long jowls of age belie the smooth cheeks of the photos of the aces. Still, these were the ones who made the “zero dark-thirty” launches up over the Ho Chi Minh Trail or were shot off the bows of carriers in the South China Sea to bring their ordnance to bear on the NVA as they tried to take Hue and Khe Sahn. Flak and SAMs did not deter them, they flew down the throat of anti-aircraft fire to complete their missions, and in truth some never returned.
If you look closely and forget about the gray hair and wrinkles you will see the shine in their eyes as they recount exploits and adventures. In those moments the years fall away, and they are young again and back in the sky.
They are a band of brothers, as Shakespeare’ Henry V put it…
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be rememberèd—
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother;