Thursday, January 6, 2011

Spiritual Heirs

Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth,
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds...and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of...wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov'ring there,
I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up, the long, delirious burning blue
I've topped the windswept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, nor even eagle flew.
And while with silent, lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space...
...put out my hand, and touched the face of God.

John Gillespie Magee, Jr.  1922-1941

Norma R. Downing  1922-2010

On New Year's Eve of 2010, Norma Raley Downing left this temporal world and returned to the eternal abode from whence she came.  The words above were written by a young pilot, describing an ethereal experience in "High Flight", but they could just as well be describing the spirit of Norma Downing who experienced more in her lifetime than most of us could ever imagine. 

Norma Raley met Wayne Downing in southern England during World War II.  She was a nurse with the 298th General Hospital, he was an A-20 Attack Bomber pilot with the 2911th Bomb Squadron.  Their courtship was far from ordinary.  Wayne was transferred to the 416th Bomb Squadron in the early Spring of 1944, making visits complicated, but manageable with some creative maneuvering.  Shortly after D-Day, Norma was transferred to France while Wayne continued to fly out of Wethersfield in Essex.  They received permission from higher headquarters and were wed at Cherbourg in the Fall of 1944 after the 416th had transferred to Melun-Villaroche near Paris.  As the front was pushed eastward, Norma was transferred to a hospital in Liege, Belgium treating casualties from the Battle of the Bulge and the Rhineland campaign.  When Wayne's 65 mission quota had been reached, he volunteered to continue flying combat missions so that he could be nearer to Norma.  How he managed to visit her in Liege is a story for another day.  Where their lives took them from then to now is really a book in itself.

The story of Wayne and Norma Downing is a classic love story and an inspiration to the generations that follow them.  In a recent email referring to the couple, Ron Wintjens wrote: "They were both witnesses and active players in an important part of our history. Every time a veteran passes away, we, the next generation, become the spiritual heir of their experiences and memories. Younger people should realize this." 

There is a lot of truth in that profound statement.