MY FATHER SAVED TAGS from bombs. I imagine they littered the floor of the Flying Fortress, and he picked one up each time he left the plane. On one side were printed instructions about when to remove the pins from the bombs, and on the blank side, he wrote a few details of each mission he flew.
The first said, "Nine flak holes in ship, 'My Gal II.' 7th July, 1944, Leipzig, Germany." After mission number 13, he added the comment, "Roughest yet." The next reads, "8th Sept., 1944, Deputy wing lead, Ludwigshaven, Ger. Lost 2 engines over target. Came home on deck." He was given the Distinguished Flying Cross for that one. As navigator of the B-17 with two engines and all instruments except the pilot's compass knocked out, he guided them safely back to their base in England. The progression of the tags continues, "11 Sept. 44, Meresburg, Ger., Low group lead. Shot up by flak on Rhine."
The tags are just part of the contents of a big carton of old war memorabilia that I take down from the closet every few years and look through. There are photos of him posed on airstrips with different crews in front of their bombers.
There's a letter written on the 9th of May, 1945. In it, he celebrated victory in Europe and talked about his pride in helping bring it about, but added: "I haven't written for the past few days as I have been on the continent -- France, Belgium and Germany, inspecting the results of some of our bombings. It is unbelievable. Cities the size of Washington without a single building left undamaged. I can't put on paper the things that I saw. I can just thank God that my family did not have to go through what we saw. I both flew over the places and then viewed them from the ground. Complete destruction as far as the eye could see."
And then there are two photos of the site of his plane crash -- the skeleton of a tail section and charred pieces of crushed metal, none of them very big, on a hillside.
The facts of the crash are simple: A month after V-E Day, my father -- a veteran of 30 combat missions -- and 19 of his buddies were killed instantly when the plane that was taking them home to America developed engine trouble, lost altitude and, shrouded in fog, crashed into a mountain in Wales.
He was 22. I was 9 months old and had never seen him. By the time I was old enough to understand it, his death was just a fact of the past.
That crash in Wales changed the course of my life in ways I can only guess. It wasn't devastating, by any means. My childhood was comfortable and happy, with my maternal grandmother coming to play an expanded role and the Veterans Administration sending some money every month. I turned out just fine, I think. I emphasized the positive side -- that growing up without a father had made me a stronger person. If nothing else, the timing of the accident, so close to home and safety, gave me a sense of irony that has served me well through the years.
Whenever people learned that my father was dead and tried to express sympathy, I cut them off, saying, "I never knew him," not realizing that while I tried to deny feeling any real loss, I was describing the nature of the loss. It was the loss of a potential relationship; I never had a chance to love him.
I tried to make up for the loss by creating an image of him in my imagination. My mother and his mother told me about him many times, of course, but as an adult, I have relied more on the contents of that cardboard carton. I looked at the items one by one. There's a fancy citation, "In grateful memory," signed by Harry Truman. There's a 48-star cotton flag with a printed note, "This flag . . . is being presented as a token of the sympathy and appreciation of a grateful nation with the thought that it may be of sentimental value to you."
Sorting through those issues of Stars and Stripes, the bomb tags, the yellowed obituary notices, the programs of memorial services, the V-mail, I tried to form a view of my father and the relationship we might have had, examining my own qualities as a daughter as well as his as a man. Yet, however many times I handled and studied the objects in the box, I never felt I had many answers.
He was buried in an American military cemetery in Cambridge, England, and, though I had been in nearby London many times, I had never visited the cemetery. Perhaps, I decided finally, a pilgrimmage there would make him seem clearer to me. When my husband and I planned a brief trip to England this fall, I said, "I want to go up to Cambridge." He gladly agreed, but asked, "What do you expect to find there after 40 years?"
I didn't know.
Before we left, I called the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) to ask details about the cemetery. The ABMC oversees 38 cemeteries and monuments in foreign countries that include, from both World Wars, the graves of more than 123,000 dead, and names of 83,000 missing, yet the woman on the phone had the particulars on my father within seconds.
"He's buried in row D, plot 6, grave 65," she said, "but there will be someone at the cemetery to show you to the grave." She told me the hours they were open and gave me clear directions to reach the place. "We'll send you a pamphlet with more information today," she added. And they did.
We landed at Heathrow early on a Sunday morning and decided to drive straight up to Cambridge. It was a damp, partly cloudy day, unseasonably warm for England in September. As we drove through the countryside, I read about the cemetery.
On 30 acres of land donated by Cambridge University, it's the only American World War II cemetery in the British Isles. The site was chosen, in part, because the relatively level landscape had provided many spots for landing strips for Allied bombers, hence, many of the casualties occurred in that area. There is, in fact, a plaque given by two nearby communities honoring a bomber crew who went down with their disabled ship rather than abandon it over a residential area. There are 3,811 graves, and the names of 5,126 missing are recorded on a wall.
When we arrived, we saw that the pamphlet had not prepared us for the beauty of the place. There were flowers and trees and reflecting pools. An expanse of brilliant green grass covered the graves that fanned out in a quarter circle like the spokes of a wheel. It wasn't huge or ostentatious -- you could see from one end to the other -- but quietly dignified, full of natural beauty and very well maintained.
We went into the visitor's building, gave them my father's name, and a kind man named Heath walked us to the grave, making small talk as we went, chatting about the English weather and the history of the cemetery. He mentioned that a group of German students had visited recently. "And last month," he said, "a woman came to visit the grave of her father, who died two weeks before she was born. She brought her own daughter." He looked into the distance, eyes misting over. "Ah, that was something!"
As we walked along, he cut a lovely, big rose -- yellow, with pink at the edges of the petals -- and when we came to the stone cross that marked my father's grave, he placed it on the grave and took a Polaroid picture of the headstone and the flower. He pointed out the memorial chapel building and asked us to stop back by the visitor's building before we left. "I'll have this photo and some other things for you," he said. "Now, I'll leave you alone."
I stared at the headstone for a long moment, then ran my fingers over the carved-out letters. I looked around among nearby tombstones and found two with the same date of death as my father's -- probably friends who died in the same crash.
We passed Mr. Heath leading another family to another grave as we walked to the memorial building, part of which is a chapel and part of which is a huge map showing the progress of the war. (A record of the accomplishments of our troops is required in all of the American World War II overseas cemeteries.) The juxtaposition of devotional and militaristic under one roof seemed odd to me at first, but I found myself pointing out places on the map, explaining to my husband details I had gleaned from the bomb tags. "He was stationed here, and he bombed Munich, here, and other places in Germany, and he had a few missions, here, in France."
We spent more than an hour wandering around the cemetery, past the names of the missing and the long reflecting pools, up to the flagpole, the base of which is inscribed with a line from John MacCrae's poem, "In Flanders Field:" To you from failing hands we throw the torch -- be yours to hold it high!
We went back to my father's headstone, where I spread my raincoat on the damp grass and sat by the grave, wondering what, exactly, I'd come looking for and whether I'd found it.
A cemetery is a place where we confront our dead and try to interact with them. The place itself and the people who keep it are conduits of a symbolic communication between the living and the dead. The staff and surroundings say to te dead, "You did a good job. It was worth doing. We thank you for your sacrifice. We miss you. We hope your soul is at peace. We honor your memory."
The message the living receive from the sensitive attitude of the staff is, "You've suffered a terrible loss. We're sorry." And the implications of the verdant surroundings are, "You're alive and growing on a base of sacrifice and accomplishment of those who are dead." Those message were as much as I could hope to gain on this visit.
What more I really wanted was a clue that my father would have been pleased with me. Never having seen myself reflected in his eyes, I longed to ask important questions any daughter would like to have answered by her dad. "Are you proud of me? Have I done a good job? Do you think I'm pretty? What are your ambitions for me? How am I doing?" Silent questions, met by silence. What I had missed most was a sign of fatherly approval, but I was glad to have gotten the more general consolations symbolized by the cemetery.
We strolled back up to the visitor's building. Mr. Heath was ready with a folder for me that contained the Polaroid shot he'd taken of the headstone, more booklets about the cemetery, a form I could use to order flowers for the grave, a program from the past year's Memorial Day service and some moving poems that had been written about the cemetery. I thanked him and tucked the packet under my arm, thinking I would put it in my box of memorabilia.
Before I could turn to go, he handed me a bunch of those yellow-pink roses. The eloquence of that perfect gesture to a daughter who never got flowers from her father was profound. That bouquet betokened for me affirmative and reassuring answers to all the silent questions I wanted to ask my father. It left me beaming and breathless, with tears beginning to spill.
"You know, these are Peace roses," Mr. Heath added. And I realized that I no longer would have to search for peace in my cardboard box of relics.