Monday, May 26, 2008

Memorial Day

For the Fallen
by Laurence Binyon

They shall grow not old.As we that are left grow old.Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.At the going down of the sun ... and in the morning ...we will remember them.
It's been over 22 years now, but I remember it like it was yesterday. I was living in England. My first husband was a fighter pilot, then flying the A-10. It was a follow-on assignment; he had previously been flying F-111s at Lakenheath, a base a little further to the north.
I had two small daughters, one almost four, one not quite two and a half, so you can imagine, mornings were always hectic, especially when their dad was TDY (temporary duty meaning away from home), which was a fair bit. He was gone this morning, April 15, 1986. As I was getting breakfast for the girls, I turned on the BBC news, and saw the picture of a face I knew well. To my shock and horror, I heard the announcer say that the U.S. had bombed Libya the night before, in an operation called El Dorado Canyon. This was in retaliation for the bombing of a nightclub in Berlin, targeting US personnel there. This was arguably the first strike in America's ongoing fight against terrorism, and I urge you to read the first hand account I've linked to.
The shock was the face I saw, that of Capt. Paul F. Lorence, a WSO (pronounce Whizzo, meaning Weapons System Operator) in the F-111. The newsreader's voice was telling me that, incredibly, Paul and the pilot he was flying with, Fernando Ribas-Dominicci, had been lost in the raid. Paul was dead.
I didn't know Capt. Ribas-Dominicci (later posthumously promoted to Maj.), although I knew his wife slightly. God bless the poor woman; her first husband had been lost in Vietnam. But Paul was a dear friend, someone I loved very much. After we'd moved to our new assignment, we hadn't kept in as close touch, as often happens in military life. But that didn't change the devastation I and others who knew him felt at this loss.
You see, Paul was the last man you would have thought would die in this way. I spent ten years living in close proximity to fighter pilots. They are great guys for the most part, decent and brave, and just as cocky as they're shown to be. Top Gun is a bit of an exaggeration of the type, but not by much. Paul was as decent as they come, and just as brave, but I never saw any of the swaggering bravado in him that was in the other pilots. Paul was unique.
I first met Paul when I was only 19, at Cannon AFB in New Mexico. He was training in the F-111 with my then-husband, Mike. I was one of only two wives who had accompanied their husbands to training; most of the guys were bachelors, as was Paul. My memories of him are in snippets; this was a long time ago now, but they are very strong. He was a slight man, dapper in his flight suit, his carriage reminding me a bit of David Niven. I remember being at a toga party with him, both of us far more observers than participants, and the two of us playing a made-up trivia game to amuse ourselves. When I correctly identified who Bobby Sands was, I saw a change come over him. I wasn't just the child-bride of a fellow pilot, but someone with a brain. We started a conversation then that carried on over the next five years - two outsiders brought together by flying - him because he utterly loved the plane, me because I married into the life.
Paul was a history major in college, which he attended already as a member of the Air Force. His eyesight wouldn't permit him to be a pilot, but a WSO was the next best thing. He was cultured in a sense that few of the flyboys were; I remember being youthfully impressed that he had a device to keep his brandy warm in its snifter - certainly not typical for those guys! But emblematic of Paul to me.
After we all got to England, we saw a lot of Paul. It was my policy to invite bachelors we knew over for holiday dinners; it made being away from family at those times a bit easier on all of us. I could always count on Paul for interesting, intelligent conversation, never holding himself aloof even though his interests were more wide-ranging than many of my other guests. Paul was warm, caring and generous. I loved him dearly.
When we moved on to our new assignment at RAF Bentwaters, we heard bits and pieces about the friends we left at Lakenheath. Paul married a British woman, had extended his tour to stay in her country longer, and they had a baby boy, whom I now know was named Peter.
That's who he left behind to serve his country on the night of April 14th, 1986, and that's to whom he never got to return home. His flight helmet was later displayed on Libya television, and remains initially thought to be his were returned three years later, but were actually found to be his pilot's. Paul has never been returned to his family, and they've never had the comfort of seeing him laid to rest. There is a petition for the return of his body; probably a useless gesture, but one I feel is worth making. I hope you will too.
I have read that when the other planes made it home to Lakenheath, they flew over the base in the missing man formation. I cannot help but cry every time I see that formation flown. It will always remind me of all the men we've lost, but especially Paul, who never seemed to be a typical jet jockey, but so loved to fly.
For many of us, Memorial Day is a day off of work, the start of summer, a day for a cookout with friends or to head to the beach. And yes, a lot of us pause to remember those serving today, and those who've gone before. I especially think of two men on this day. One is the oldest living WWI veteran, Frank Buckles, who lives in my county and for whom I've had the honor of restoring photographs. One may be seen at that link.
The other, for whom I'll never cease to mourn, is Paul Lorence - the sweet, quiet, gentle man who gave his country his life. May he rest in peace.


Andrea Smith said...

I cried when I read your tribute to Paul Lorence. I, too was a friend of his while at Lakenheath, and you were spot on about him. He was the least likely man to be flying in Fighters, but one of the most interesting and unique people I had ever met. Another great thing about him was that Lotus he drove around in. Just not the car you ever expect him to drive in, but he loved that thing. The Christmas before I PCS'd back to the states he gave me a was a Christmas ornament....and the card that came with it said, "This is so you'll think of me at least once a year for the rest of your life. Whenever you hang this on your tree, remember me." And I still do......

Diana said...

Andrea, I'd forgotten about the Lotus! I think Paul loved excellence in all forms, including fine machines.

I envy you your ornament; how lovely to have something tangible from Paul.

May I ask how you found this post about Paul? It seems like such a longshot!