There’s No Time Like ‘Now’
A little time travel with some World War II aces – 70 years in the blink of an eye
In a post earlier this year, I wrote about photographing the 2012 Heroes of the Childrens Cancer Association. One quality that made these little Buddhas heroes was that they did not seem to grieve for a future they may or may not have. I didn’t sense any obvious bitterness for their lives to-date, but instead felt a serene joy of being in the moment – in living each day as it comes.
As impressive as they all were, I could easily rationalize this “live now” attitude as being the essence of childhood – until the next round of heroes I met:
This project, possibly still underway, has been to photograph American World War II aces for an author in the UK who’s working on a book. I found it coincidental that I was photographing another set of heroes, except these guys were all in their 90’s. Then I realized that they, like the children, don’t know how much time they have.
I guess I expected them to live relentlessly in the past; After all, that’s why they’re famous. They are at the core of what Tom Brokaw called the Greatest Generation. Yes, they’re proud of their role in what many people call the “Last Good War” but I found them without exception to have a dignified humility, and a deference to people who they feel did more than they did.
They don’t gloat in their victories, and they don’t cling to a glamorized view of the war. One of them, an avid hunter in the depression years before the war, told me he gave away his shotguns when he came home, because he “never again wanted to shoot at anything that couldn’t shoot back.” Years after the war, some became friends with their former adversaries – even pilots they had personally shot down. But they often credit their bravery and their wins to their youthfully reckless sense of immortality.
What they all had in common is that they’re still very much living their lives, even if their health isn’t perfect. They have passionate interests in contemporary things, in causes, hobbies and in family. They travel. They talk to school kids. They all intend to be busy this summer. One 93 year old said “You have to have a plan. A goal. And someone to share your life with. If you lose your wife, like I did a few years ago, go get a new one. Don’t waste time sitting around and feeling sorry for yourself.”
Early in the project, there was a shot of a pilot that while unintentional, looked remarkably similar to one that was taken over 70 years earlier. What struck me was not only that it was clearly the same guy, but he had the same impish expression. The same humor. The same spirit. Maybe the same dreams. So I shot a few more sets, just for fun (see a few below). Although so much time has elapsed since their youth, it’s reassuring that some things never change, and one’s essence stays the same.
If you saw the man in his 20’s and the man in his 90’s walking down the street, they would seem to have nothing in common. But in their faces I get the sense that when the guy on the right looks into a mirror, the guy on the left is winking back.
The children and the aces are seemingly sitting at opposite ends of this experience we call life. We naively presume that one group is facing a future, while the other group is living in the past. But while no one knows how much time they have left on this planet, the ability of these special people to be fully present and participating in their lives ‘right now’ is much of what inspires us, and makes them heroes, at least in my eyes. There’s something to be learned about life from all of them.
[Note to self: It didn’t escape me that out of 9 pilots, exactly 9 of them have a lot more hair than I do. I should have asked them what they eat for breakfast.]