One thing I miss about my father, Billy Francis, 1922-2018, are his stories about serving overseas in World War II. They weren’t the glory or gory tales of the battlefield. My father was an airplane mechanic, specifically brakes, and he was far more necessary back at the air base than with a carbine over his shoulder. I’m sure then, like he did the rest of his life, he carried a pair of pliers in his pocket to fix – well, anything, as far as I could tell. Once in Abilene, a student was locked out of his apartment and my father used an old Chevrolet key, his pliers and some concrete to file the key and voila, the apartment door opened.
That was the greatest generation. Give them a pair of pliers and you could win a World War no matter how stupid the generals were.
Over the years, we heard plenty of stories. War stories? Yes, but really the stories of a 19-year-old boy becoming a man with the war as a violent, ever-threatening backdrop. They were my own living, breathing versions of the Nick Adams stories of Ernest Hemingway.
One tale my father told repeatedly involved a C-87 – a transport version of the B-24 Liberator – that had been overloaded with tires, equipment and 10 hitchhikers looking for a ride back to Paris from a makeshift airfield in rural France. As a mechanic, my father knew the plane’s landing gear had been reinforced, so he told the pilot he thought they could take off safely using the field at the end of the runway to gain enough speed to lift off. My father knew the pilot and was confident of his abilities, though he, too, was probably 19. With my father calling off the air speed, the overloaded plane rambled down the runway. My dad still remembered a man riding a green bicycle on the road in front of them ditching the bicycle and diving into the ditch and one of the passengers crying “Uh-oh,” as the plane – with just inches to spare – cleared power lines as it struggled to take flight. The pilot had been confident he could make it, my dad says, but he still let out a deep sigh of relief once the plane was in the air.
The story has so many elements, the countdown of my father calling out the air speed, the passengers and equipment adding extra weight to the plane, my father’s knowledge of the reinforced landing gear, the detail of the bicyclist, the passengers’ cries. It has all those elements that were indicating failure, yet also success. There’s something in that story that spoke to my father, who lived the experience, and speaks to me, too. How close they came to disaster but using their skills – and more than a little luck – were successful. I always pressed for details, like the green bicycle. I had always imagined it red when I played the story over in my mind. No, green, he said. No one wanted to stand out in the war, particularly in occupied France. A bicycle would be green so it would blend in. The red bike in the video version playing in my head disappeared, replaced with a green bike, still ridden by a beret-wearing Frenchman with his eyes wide, wide open as he scrambled crab-like for the safety of the ditch.
My father knew that take-off could have been a disaster. He once saw the obituary of a nurse he knew from his time overseas. He was pretty sure she had been on that flight. She had a big impact on medical care during World War II, saving a lot of lives, the obit said. My dad noted that if that flight hadn’t made it, if she had died, a lot of lives might have been lost. Left unsaid was that if he hadn’t have made it, my dad and I wouldn’t have been having that conversation.
Like that story, my father tended to tell some of the same stories over and over unless we could prompt him otherwise. But he was blessed to have relatively good health and a steel-trap memory even as he got into his 90s. And it was then, sitting with him in his apartment in Abilene, that I heard maybe his most mundane, but to me, most meaningful story. He had been lost.
I had been, too.
In the mid-90s, I had been working as a career journalist with several magazines, primarily covering the then burgeoning computer industry for over a decade. It paid well. I got to travel. What I didn’t get to do – really – was write. I wrote plenty about how Hewlett-Packard was going to have a new Pentium computer with 8GB of memory and a 50GB hard drive, but how satisfying was that? Geeks loved all those numbers, etc., but creatively it was somewhat south of William Faulkner in terms of compelling prose.
Taking stock of this, I began saving money to take time off and re-evaluate this writing thing that had been a part of my life since … well, since whenever.
I had already ditched a wife and so I tossed aside the mortgage and other non-essential items, moved into a small space and did that most un-American thing: saving. I thought about doing something I had always wanted to do in high school and college: study abroad.
Mid-life crisis? Probably, but studying abroad seemed healthier than buying a Miata and dating a blonde half my age. I think.
Turns out, the computer industry helped me in my quest to take some time off. When the downturn hit in the late ‘90s, expenses were cut. I was an expense.
I quickly picked up some other gigs but my overseas plan seemed unsteady at best. But I happened to meet a woman who was about to study abroad in England. I told her my plan and she had an idea. She had to lease her flat – Brit for apartment – for six months, but she was only going to be there for half that time. I could take her flat and find someplace to study.
I did. City University in London had some non-credit classes on writing, and, with a little skullduggery, I could take classes there. For once, I wouldn’t be writing about gigabytes and hard drives and URLs.
I headed over the pond, ready to study English where the language was invented and perfected, just blocks from Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. To write or not to write …
There’s one problem with a dream coming true. It can be gut-wrenching, brutal work. This was a non-credit class, but the Brits respected their language. Get it right, upstart American.
The first day the teacher told us to hand in our papers in “A4” format tomorrow. I raised my hand and in my Texas drawl, asked what “A4” format was. The class looked at me like I had stumbled in from the school for the deranged. The teacher held up a piece of paper and said “A4.” I nodded as if I understood. I did not in the least. I was here to learn English, right? I wouldn’t say I was on the verge of tears, but I was perplexed.
We broke for lunch, which meant in Britain, heading for a pub. Over a pint, a kind fellow student who had grown up in the U.S. informed me that this mysterious “A4” was what the Brits called our standard 8-and-a-half by 11 paper, though it is slightly thinner and longer than our standard paper size. Well, then.
Once I had that down, there were plenty of other struggles. I felt like a fool plenty of other times. My fellow students were good, sharp writers. While I had been writing about bits and bytes, they had been perfecting their craft. It was catch-up time for me. The routine was this: We would get an assignment, write a first draft in the afternoon, then read it at the end of class. We would then go to a writing room and work on changes, sometimes alone, sometimes in groups. And, of course, turn it in on our “A4s.” Those damn “A4s.”
Eventually, I worked out a routine. At the end of the day, I would walk from the school, near Tottenham Court Road, to Piccadilly Circus and then to Leicester Square, about a mile walk. There was a Starbucks there that played what was then a hot, new style, NeoSoul. The manager had an in with the latest NeoSoul bands and he played their tapes. Amy Winehouse came from that movement. Every time one of her songs comes on the radio, I’m taken back to that Starbucks.
There, I would sip on caffeine, listen to that great music and edit and re-edit what I’d written for the assignment. It was a grind. Sometimes I’d meet someone who would read over what I’d written and take their suggestions into account. God bless those strangers who let a man with a Texas accent talk them into reading his words. Once that was over, I’d head back to my flat in Greenwich, collapse and prepare for the next day.
I truly thought that all my years traveling the world and earning decent scratch writing about computers had robbed me of what I really wanted to be: a writer. I wasn’t a writer, just a man who made money using words.
But another student – god bless her to my dying day - convinced me to take a second class, so I did. Suddenly there, all the things I thought I’d failed to learn in the previous class came together.
I continued my routine and my walk from Tottenham Court, to Piccadilly Circus and then to Leicester Square. After all, that formula worked.
Near the end of my time there, I walked out of the Starbucks and walked around a bit. I walked past a street and looked down the road. No, it couldn’t be. I walked around a bit more. No, it was. All this time I was walking from Tottenham Court Road to Piccadilly Circus and then to Leicester Square, when all the time Tottenham Court Road was just a few blocks away from Leicester Square down Charing Cross Road? How had I missed that after all this time? I felt like I was in some magical Harry Potter location.
I felt like a fool. All this time I’d been here following this routine. Then this. It wasn’t the first time I’d felt like a fool here. But at least I could keep this one to myself. Or so I thought.
You sort of know the rest of the story. I came back to Fort Worth, and if you read some of my early work for this newspaper and others, I stretched myself as a writer and tried some different things. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. But at least I’m not just telling you about some new computer with a badass hard drive.
I had been lost.
I wasn’t the only one.
As I said, we often tried to get my father to talk about his World War II experiences. One day I was with him and showing him some photos we’d unearthed of him in Paris and London during the war. He started talking about the people he had met. He began talking about going to the cinema in London. There were a lot of theatres around Leicester Square, then and now. He would often have dinner at someone’s house and then go the theatre. He would take the Tube to Tottenham Court Road, then walk to Piccadilly Circus and then go to Leicester Square.
I stopped him for a second.
I did basically the same thing, I said.
I asked him what it was like then, with the war on. He said it was still a bustling place. And it is. If you’ve ever been to Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square or Leicester Square, you can hear nearly every language spoken in the world in just a few steps.
Then my father told me about being lost.
“You know, I did that walk so many times and then one day, I looked up and noticed that if you go down Charing Cross Road from Tottenham Court, you’re just a couple of blocks from Leicester Square and all this time, I’d been walking way out of the way, going to Piccadilly Circus.”
I had trouble keeping my bearings when he said that.
“I did the same thing,” I said, at least once, probably more like 100 times.
I don’t think my dad knew quite how to respond.
“You did the same thing?” he said. “Must be something about the way the road is laid out.”
“No, I did it. I did the same walk, over and over,” I said. Then I told him about my routine from the writing class. Walk down Tottenham Court Road to Piccadilly Circus, then head to Leicester Square. He went to the movies. I went to Starbucks.
I couldn’t help rolling it over and over in my mind that my father, 50 years earlier and nearly 5,000 miles away had been lost, walking the same path I had.
Some fathers and sons make connections over sports, jobs, whatever. We made ours over getting lost in London.
Why? Was our DNA just wired to seek the bright, sparkly lights of Piccadilly Circus over the sedate walk of Charing Cross Road?
And what does it mean? Some cosmic plan? Some heavenly guidance? Some weird version of a father’s blessing to his son?
To what end?
I don’t know the answers to those questions, though I’d be a fool to say I haven’t attempted to unlock some deeper meaning. All I can say is it happened.
I was over in London a few weeks back and tried to navigate the area again. It was so crowded, and I just wanted everyone to disappear. This was a sacred spot to my father and me, after all. Seems like there should be some respect. But maybe it’s better this way. A sacred spot where millions of others are oblivious. It remains our own. Others may hurry by, but now they’re the lost ones.
My father and I were the lost boys of London. Fifty years apart and 5,000 miles away, bonded to each other in a way time, distance and, really, even death can’t rip asunder. For one of his final tales from World War II, it was like I was there, walking with him as he became the man who would be my father.
As for me, I’ll roll this story of being lost with my father 50 years apart and thousands of miles away in my head like a rough stone, making it smooth enough so that eventually it glistens; enough that I can take it out in the bright moonlight to reflect the light of my father’s life into my own, bright and warming.
Robert Francis is editor of the Fort Worth Business Press