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The plane bucked, relieved of its load, and executing a gut-wrenching turn to evade enemy fire, the pilot banked into the clouds. The rest of the squadron tailing behind, they headed home. Without a single plane lost, the squadron touched down on the Corsican landing field, the smell of the blooming maquis greeting the flyers as they stepped down from the hatch.
The commander of the 57th Bomber Wing called the navigator into his office a few days later. The pilot had informed him about how they’d nearly failed the mission except for the one crewman who’d said to keep going. “You were right,” the commander said. “You got your squadron to the target, completed your mission, and you got them home.” He said he was recommending him for the Air Force’s highest award. When the war was over the navigator wore the Distinguished Flying Cross, as well the Air Medal with six oak leaf clusters, marking 60 missions.
Through the rest of his life there were other victories, large and small. Each time he set out, it seemed, someone was out there trying to shoot him down. Over the long haul, though, he kept going and he did all right. No one could say he didn’t. But to his own mind, nothing ever quite equaled that one feat accomplished that day back in 1945 when he flew with his comrades to the brink of death and he brought them home safely.
Now there’s the phone again. My mom says it’s getting dark and he’s still not back. She followed him one time, just to see where he was going. She shadowed him to Melrose where he boarded an eastbound bus. She sat a few seats behind him as he nodded and slept. A few blocks past Western, he jerked awake and disembarked. He seemed puzzled and confused. He stopped a passerby on the sidewalk but the man spoke only Spanish. She went to him and took his arm. Where did he want to go? He shrugged and couldn’t say. So she guided him gently across the street to the bus stop going west. They returned to their apartment where he sat and said nothing. But every few days, he disappears, and each time she fears the worst.
My phone chirped once more, and it was mom, her trembling voice telling me that he was back, thank God. Of course—what did she expect, I said. The navigator always knows the way.
But soon, one bright spring day, my dad took off on one more mission. Without his slide rule, compass or maps, and against the wishes of doubting comrades, he charted a course that we cannot follow. Across a distance I’ve never been able to fathom, and none of us ever will, finally he found his way home.
Philip Weiner, the father of the Forward’s West Coast correspondent, died in Los Angeles on May 8, 2005.