An airman son: The words 'Desert Shield' are in his new address BUILDUP IN THE GULF

November 18, 1990|By Malcolm P. Stevens

A short time ago a jet aircraft circled over the university campus where I work. I saw it first through my office window and I immediately recognized the sleek, unpretentious shape of the Air Force T-37. I hurried outside and watched as the plane continued to circle, banking steeply over the building that houses my office. I waved and the plane's wings dipped in response. After several passes, the pilot dipped the plane's wings in farewell and sped away.

It was a rather noisy interlude, but I hope it didn't disturb anyone. The pilot was my son. This is his exuberant way of letting his parents know he's in the area. Usually he just "buzzes" our house, always being careful to maintain the correct altitude. This was the first time he had greeted me at my workplace, the same campus from which he had graduated a few years ago.

Such overflights were the signal that my wife and I could shortly expect a phone call from Bradley International Airport. He might suggest that we drive out and have lunch, or ask if we could put him and his co-pilot up for the night, or say he had no time to socialize and must refuel before heading home.

Ordinarily he flies a much larger plane, the type that refuels other planes in flight, but budget constraints now limit his flying time in that behemoth. To hone his piloting skills, he flies the T-37 (a small training plane), along with a co-pilot, whenever the opportunity arises.

It's always a thrill to see his plane fly over, knowing our son is at the controls. We don't normally worry about him; the Air Force does a superb job training its pilots. Our other son, who spends his working days in the Hartford business world, is probably more at risk in rush-hour traffic.

Lately, however, we have begun to worry.

The year began on such a hopeful note. Thanks in large measure to the wisdom and political courage of Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the glowing embers of World War II finally have been extinguished, and a truly free Europe is rising from the ashes. The Cold War has become a thing of the past and, Panama notwithstanding, the chance that our son might find himself in a combat arena seemed remote.

But this was before Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. What had seemed like the beginning of an era of peace and international cooperation was suddenly overshadowed by the gathering clouds of a new conflict that threatened to engulf the entire Middle East.

As I returned to my office, I found myself thinking of a monument I had seen earlier this year in a cemetery in Scotland. My wife and I were vacationing and exploring the habitats of her Scottish forebears. We were searching the stones for the MacKenzie family name when I chanced upon this inscription below an engraved Royal Air Force insignia:

"In loving memory of our dear sons

"Ian MacKenzie, who died while serving in the

"Royal Air Force on the 8th November 1942, Aged 21 years."

This was followed by:

"Roderick MacKenzie, who died at the Royal Naval

"Hospital, Gosport, on the 21st April 1943, Aged 20 years."

A biblical inscription followed, then the words:

"Finlay MacKenzie, Royal Navy, Killed at Sea

"16th January 1945, Aged 21 years."

That a single family -- perhaps bearing common roots to my wife's -- could suffer such a devastating loss overwhelmed me and kept me rooted to the spot for some time.

I was carried back in memory to the great war that provided the framework of my childhood in London.

It was a time when we recognized the approach of German bombers by the distinctive sound of their engines, when we spent many nights sleeping in an air-raid shelter and when every schoolboy harbored a collection of shrapnel gathered from the streets after heavy raids. My father had worn the uniform of the Royal Air Force then.

Now my son wears the uniform of a different air force. When he flew above me on the campus, he had already told us by phone that he was on standby for a long-term deployment abroad and that he had to return promptly to base. The dip of his wings was a wave goodbye.

He didn't tell us where he was going. He was authorized to say only that it was somewhere in Southwest Asia. But the words Desert Shield are in his new address, and we tremble with each new clap of thunder that reverberates from Baghdad or Washington. More recently, we have learned that he is stationed in Saudi Arabia.

We are proud of our sons. They are distinctly different individuals, but each has done very well in his chosen field of endeavor.

Like parents of all nations, we want our children to live long, happy lives. Ironically, our children spent much of their childhood in the Middle East because that is where I began my teaching career. We love that area. For many years now we have longed for peace there.

More recently we have even pondered whether the Gorbachev influence might somehow bring men and women of wisdom and political courage to replace the extremist elements that dictate both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

And we dream of a future in which parents of all nations will no longer be compelled to erect monuments that speak in anguish to future generations of the violent deaths of their beloved sons.

Malcolm Stevens is a chemistry professor at the University of Hartford in Connecticut. He wrote this commentary for the Hartford Courant.

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