Like any boy at Christmas fifty years ago, I liked war toys. Not just G.I. Joe and such, but toy guns, helmets, camo stuff, and pretty much any accoutrement of war my parents would put under the tree. Living next door to Fort Bragg, NC, I also got the occasional real Army item like an old inoperable rifle or a web belt. I think there are home movies of me blasting, as any older brother was wont to dream of, my little sister to smithereens with my plastic toy machine gun that made this really cool rata-tat-tat noise. It came with a tripod and everything. Neato.
But for a kid immersed in Army, the present that had the most impact on me was not of the Army at all. It was a Revell model of a warplane even then decades old and mostly out of service. It spoke of sky battles with ultimate evil, the dashing young men who flew her to glory, and their victory in a battle to save civilization. It was a model of an RAF Spitfire.
She looked less like a machine than a bird, lines elegantly flowing from propeller to rudder. Her Brownings made her lethal and her speed in a dive made her difficult to catch and outmaneuver. There were comparatively few of them, as the Churchill line went, against hordes of ME-109s and their little friends who battled the RAF for supremacy over the skies of Britain in the summer of 1940. I think I was seven or eight when my Dad got me the model, just a year or so before he died. I was not a kid with a lot of patience, a trait that still plagues me today, but I put her together with meticulous detail and wondered why, after working with all that model glue, I couldn’t go to sleep properly for days.
After she was finished I put her on a shelf in my bedroom and gazed upon a machine that saved the world. It fueled many a daydream as I grew from boy to man and generally cast off the material details of my boyhood. But not this. Though the model eventually was slowly mangled in moves from one place to another, it was replaced time and time again by artwork and replicas. When I served in the Army in Europe during the 80s I spent a lot of my free weekends in the UK. At a British airbase there I managed to hang out with zoomies who hooked me up with RAF wings. I got them in trade for my rocketman Pershing patch and tab, while we all got plastered on pints of bitter and shots of Irish whiskey in an East Anglian pub. Later found a 121 Squadron patch to accompany it on windbreakers I have owned. 121 was an Eagle Squadron, American volunteers fighting for the RAF.
Over ten years later my staff, in the most brilliant sucking up move in the history of mankind, commissioned for my 35th birthday, after a particularly good professional year, an original artwork of a Spit on the six of a 109. My name, and enough kills to make me an ace, was stenciled below the left door of the Spit. I was suitably chuffed but then realized something. I had never actually seen a Spitfire in the metallic flesh. As my sons were very young then, I decided to take them on a pilgrimage to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, where I read one of the aircraft had a home. So began a tradition that leads me to this day and this Christmas.
Going in through the main entrance on the Mall, past the Pershing missile on your left (I used to tell my kids I knew how to arm the bird and would approach the missile to do it. It scared the bejesus out of them for at least one year), you go up to the second floor to a room on your right. There, grouped with other warplanes of the era, is a Spitfire.
She’s a high-altitude Mark VII of which only 140 were ever produced. The Smithsonian has had her since 1949. I’ve been paying my respects to her since that first time with my kids in the 90s and, since I’ve moved into the area not long ago, every Christmastime for the last three years. After a twelve-month break I always get a bit of a shock when I see her, for I forget how aesthetically beautiful she is.
Do it alone now; my kids have long been bored to tears with historical junkets to Dad’s shrines like this and Gettysburg. To get them to take their faces out of their cell phone screens is an endeavor akin to WWII itself, much less to get them to think for a moment about the legacy of an old airplane.
When I visit, usually the week before Christmas, I just stop and contemplate for a bit. I think of that first model, of all the times I’ve seen Spits in films and documentaries, and of those long ago childhood Christmas mornings when the world seemed safe and bright held fast by the love of my parents and the gallant sacrifices of the kind of men who flew Spitfires.
I stood there again before her just this past week.
My children have aged and I will probably be a grandfather soon enough. I think as the brood become parents themselves, they may start to get an inkling of the sense of family and mortality that binds me to memory.
Soon they’ll be putting presents under the tree for their kids. I’ll contribute a few myself. And maybe, just maybe, many years hence, a young Kamioner will remember how their grandfather gave them a replica of an old fighter plane and explained how his father, a WWII veteran, had given one to him. Perhaps they’ll get an idea of what it meant to the old man.
For sometimes presents are not just of holiday value. They can also speak of high valor, honor, and sacrifice for those you love. They can remind one of commitment to those things that have saved the world.