It sounded, sorry to say, like an urban myth.
Peyton Woodson III told me at a Rotary Club meeting two years ago about a local World War II flying ace who got blown out of the air, survived, and then decades later went and met the dude who blew him out.
Sensing my skepticism, Woodson – himself a WWII fighter pilot – asked, “You want to meet him?”
I met Barrie Davis a few days later and realized, if anything, that Woodson had undersold Davis’ adventures and heroics.
Davis, a retired colonel in the U.S. Army Air Corps, died last week. He was 90. After the war, he did a lot of living and contributing to his community of Zebulon. Among many other things, he took over the family printing business and its chain of weekly newspapers and wrote a column.
I spent a couple of hours that Saturday in February with Davis at the Zebulon condo in which he lived with his wife, Ramona, and felt honored to have done so.
In his study, the walls of which were lined with pictures of every kind of plane as well as some of his honors, Davis told of how he – a preacher’s son from a small town – had become a fighter pilot and a newspaper editor and columnist.
So engrossing was Davis’ story – of how his plane was strafed with 50-caliber, armor-piercing bullets, the propellers shot up, the canopy blown off at 30,000 feet where the temperature was 60 below zero – that I didn’t even notice when my tape recorder battery died in the middle of the interview.
It was only after I got to the office and became engrossed all over again in his story that I discovered that embarrassing fact and had to apologetically call Davis back.
Would you mind reliving those horrifying moments again for me because I’m an idiot? I asked.
The Davises lived on Nostalgia Lane, and Barrie Davis was glad to wax nostalgic upon request. A year after that interview, Davis published his autobiography, “A Pilot’s Story.” Most of his comrades had pictures of their girlfriends or wives taped up in the cockpits of their plane, but he hadn’t yet met Ramona, so, he wrote, “I placed a photo of my mother in an empty slot on the instrument panel.”
He also named his plane after his father’s pet name for his mother, Bee. “I often wondered,” he wrote, “what the pilot who inherited Mayfair 24 thought about the plane’s name and my mother’s photo.”
I wondered what he thought upon feeling Bee being sprayed by bullets at 30,000 feet.
“Golly Moses. That guy is a real good shot.” That’s what Davis said he thought while watching his plane’s canopy drift away toward the heavens and wondering who was trying to send him to hell.
He told me how he’d passed out, his head and body peppered by shrapnel, and awoke with the plane flying by itself at 20,000 feet. I did mention that it was minus-60 degrees up there, right?
After he came to and landed the plane – he found an unexploded cannon shell in the cabin as he stepped out – a thought came to him that he was unable to shake.
“Golly Moses” he said. “I wonder who shot me?”
It took 66 years, but Davis finally met Ion Dobran, the Messerschmidt pilot who’d snuck up on his rear and tried to turn him into a memory.
National Geographic magazine and the Romanian government brought the two men together, no longer enemies, but two old men who knew that their earlier confrontation above the clouds was nothing personal, just business.
If you feel at all as I do, you find yourself having to employ your anti-gag reflex whenever you hear all of the servicemen and servicewomen who served during WWII cloyingly referred to as “the Greatest Generation.”
Not everyone who served was great. In every war, in every army, there are laggards, ne’er-do-wells, cowards.
Barrie Davis, though, would’ve been great in any generation.
I’m glad I met him.