Thoughts of peace under night sky

One of my favorite childhood memories is looking up at the night sky with my dad.

After pulling into the garage/tool shed following an evening outing, my four siblings and I would follow Dad across the gravel drive toward the back door of our farmhouse.

On clear, moonless nights, he would pause, tilt his head back and point out the Milky Way, the Big Dipper, the North Star.

Now I find myself wondering what was going through Dad's mind as he stood there, surrounded by kids and farmland.

A man of few words, my Dad, who died in 1983, never talked much about what he did as a pilot during World War II. I know he lost his best friend to the war, and flying plane loads of paratroopers into battle and wounded soldiers back into Allied territory surely took an emotional toll.

Perhaps that is what made him focus on what was in front of him after the war: a wife, five kids and crops that needed to be planted, tended and harvested.

Dad's reticence regarding his war experiences is why my siblings and I were surprised to hear in June 2015 about his key role on D-Day: As 1st Lt. Barney Blankenship, he was one of three pilots who flew That's All Brother, the C-47 that led the invasion over Normandy.

The plane had been discovered in an aircraft boneyard, mere days away from being destroyed. But a nonprofit group called the Commemorative Air Force rescued the plane and launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund its restoration.

I've closely followed the plane's progress, including two visits to Basler Turbo Conversions in Oshkosh, where much of the plane's restoration took place. My husband and I got to fly in the plane earlier this year, when a trip to the Texas Hill Country coincided with the plane's location at its CAF hangar in San Marcos.

The plane and the flight resonated with emotion. In this very same space, my dad had carried a heavy responsibility, probably trying not to think too much about the paratroopers sitting on metal benches behind him, waiting to snap onto the static line before leaping out of the plane and into battle.

The confusion and terror of the night that led into D-Day had to be in high contrast to the night sky my dad gazed up at not so many years later. Perhaps his thoughts on those later evenings were about how he was one of the lucky ones, standing under a peaceful sky sheltering the people he loved most.

- Denise Joyce of Hinsdale is a former contributing columnist. This column was first published Aug. 23, 2018.