In early January my wife Mary and I were fortunate enough to take a one week vacation with another couple on The Big Island of Hawaii. Early one morning the four of us flew to Oahu for a tour of Pearl Harbor, which included a visit to the Pacific Aviation Museum. The photo above is of me standing beneath a plane labeled “Strategic Air Command." I’m not sure whether it is a B-47 or a B-52, both of which were used by SAC, but I asked Mary to take the picture because the plane reminded me of an incident I mention in my memoir to be published by Oak Tree Press next month and entitled Unsuitable Treasure: an Ex-Jesuit Makes Peace with the Past.
It was 1958, I was nineteen, and in my third year as a Jesuit seminarian at Bellarmine College near Plattsburg, New York. Across Route 9 was Plattsburg Air Force Base, now Plattsburg International Airport but then a SAC base—part of the force whose overall commander was General Curtis LeMay. LeMay inherited SAC after establishing himself as an organizer of “successful” bombing raids over Germany and Japan during World War II, including the 1945 firebombing of Tokyo that killed roughly 175,000 people. He had just been relieved of the SAC Command when we seminarians were transported over to the base and taken to a high security building with a huge theater. There an airman docent, using a map that lit up SAC bases all across the country, showed us how a pilot could have breakfast with his wife and kids in Plattsburg, fly from there to, let’s say, Omaha, and return to Plattsburg in time for dinner. As children of the Cold War in our late teens, we were awed by the airman’s explanation of how SAC bombers could refuel in midair, foil a nuclear attack or, on that off chance that failed, respond with one of our own.
It is a measure of how the Vietnam War was to change awe to skepticism that by the arrival of the nineteen seventies two of the seminarians with us that day were to be charged with raiding draft boards. By that time I was five years removed from the seminary, but as I mention in my memoir, I have a vivid memory of one of those two making pizza for the rest of us by the shore of Lake Champlain, our innocence still pretty much intact.