|A Science Fiction Fanzine||Summer 2009|
Says Jeff Copeland: This article is an expanded version of my tenth speech for Toastmasters, the last one I needed to complete for my "Competent Communicator" certificate. I had far too much material to cover in the allotted nine minutes for the speech, had been throwing slides and paragraphs overboard up until five minutes before the meeting started, and so was uncharacteristically nervous as I stood up at the podium. And then about a minute in, I realized that I wasn’t delivering the speech for the thirty people in the room, but for the man it was about, the man who would see the video later, that I was speaking to...
The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit
Illos by Charles Williams and Lawrence Copeland
Once upon a time, I met a man. Or more accurately, he met me. And it was some time later that I understood that he answered to the name "Dad."
Like all parents, he has some quirks. He is always remarkably calm, which was a nice contrast to my mother’s tempestuous Italian nature. He doesn’t take life too seriously, which sometimes lead to problems when I wanted to have a sober conversation with him. He cannot stand waste, particularly of food. And he has a remarkably off-beat sense of humor.
Lawrence Gill Copeland was born in the flapper era, which meant he was reared during the Roaring Twenties and the Depression, in the deep South, in places like Knoxville, Tennessee and Florence, Alabama. When the time came, he moved on to Muskingham College in Ohio, which has had Copelands on its student rolls since it was founded – and which his own parents attended.
It was at Muskingham, on an afternoon in December 1941, surrounded by cousins, that he listened on the radio to the announcement that the United States was at war.
Over his parents’ objections, he enlisted in the Air Force on the understanding that he’d be allowed to defer induction while America spun up production of airplanes. So he did periodic familiarization and training, until it was time to head off to boot camp. After graduating at the top of his class in both Officer Candidate School and Navigators’ School, he was assigned to the 459th Bomb Group of the 15th Air Force.
Thence off to Europe to the headquarters of the 15th Air Force in Cerignola, Italy, from where in late May, 1944, he wrote a letter back home:
“We arrived safely in Italy, though I can’t tell you where. I’ve already flown three missions. Just 32 more. With luck, I’ll be home for Christmas.”
He arrived safely in Italy because he navigated 56,000 pounds of heavy bomber across the Atlantic, arriving within one minute of his ETA, winning a bet for a case of beer with his co-pilot in the process.
He’d flown three missions, earning combat pay of $9.70 for each one, a rate of about a buck an hour for flying five hours out, delivering thirteen thousand pounds of bombs – to the oil refinery at Ploesti or the railroad marshalling yards at Linz or a ball-bearing factory in the Ruhr Valley – and then flying five hours back.
He was twenty-two years old.
“With luck, I’ll be home for Christmas.”
No such luck. Six weeks later, the 459th was assigned to fly a mission to bomb the bridge at Avignon, France. Hearing this story growing up, I was always confused because I know the famous bridge fell down in the eleventh century. Finally, I understood that it was the railroad bridge they were being sent to bomb.
No order was ever given in the Air Force in World War II. Missions were posted, but no one was ever explicitly ordered to go on one. Every mission, every man: a volunteer. Thus, on the morning of 17 July 1944, following the flight plan of Lt Copeland, lead navigator of the 459th, the mission took off at 6 a.m..
Dad was standing in his non-standard, but accustomed, position on the upper deck between the pilot and co-pilot at 11:05 a.m,, turning to the southwest over Carpentras, when ...
Years later, he wrote:
"At that moment there was a burst of flak just outside the cockpit, shattering it, slamming me back against the turret and covering the pilots and me with a rain of glass. My first thought was that I was blinded. I covered my face with my hands, peeked between my fingers and discovered I could see. My relief was so great that nothing else seemed of great concern even though our transportation seemed incapable of transporting us further. So I turned to my desk, entered the instrument readings on the log, wrote `Finis’, carefully folded it, removed my ear phones and oxygen mask, hung them in their proper place, checked my harness to make sure it was tight, picked up my parachute and snapped it on."
Note, please, that he took the time to stop, clean up, and make a final log entry for an airplane that very shortly was going to be scrap metal. Neither grace under pressure nor savior faire begin to describe it.
As Dad was standing in the bomb bay preparing to bail out, several things happened in rapid succession: the plane was hit by another flak burst and flipped, he hit his head on a 500 pound bomb (which, fortunately, wasn’t armed) knocking himself out, the flip tossed him clear of the plane, and his hand was on his ripcord, so he fell ten thousand feet with an open parachute rather than a closed one. (That last detail had severe existential consequences for this writer.)
* —- *
Allow me to take a moment at this exciting point in our narrative to flash forward in time. In June 2003, when my daughter Allie was graduating from high school, the family descended on us in Bellevue. My parents were here, as was my brother, Ian, and his family. That weekend the Collingwood Foundation, who own the last operational B-24 in existence and barnstorm it around the country every summer, were bringing it to an airshow about 50 miles south. As part of their fundraising, they give flights on both their B-24 and their B-17, and Ian had arranged for him and Dad to go on one. We bundled Dad into the car and took him, first, to the Museum of Flight at Boeing Field. Without letting on that there was another stop, we headed further south. We arrived at the airfield, explained that it was another museum, and led him around the hangers.
As he rounded the corner, flanked by his sons, he stopped mid-stride, cane poised in the air, and said “Wait: That’s a B-24!” His elder son replied, “Indeed it is,” and his younger followed up with, “Would you like to ride on it?”
He looked slightly goggle-eyed, and barely stopping for thought, he said, “Hell, no! The last time I was on one of those, it ended rather badly.”
Nonetheless, he did climb on board, and after the plane took off, he relocated himself to the upper deck, standing between the pilot and co-pilot, watching the instruments, and asking questions about what modifications they had made to the plane for twenty-first century use.
The pilots were a little taken aback by his intimate knowledge, but shortly twigged to the fact that here was a man who actually understood the B-24’s air-worthiness in combat, and started asking him questions. A lot of questions.
After the flight, as they helped this arthritic veteran out of their aircraft, they thanked him.
* —- *
Meanwhile, back in 1944, several days elapsed in Alabama before The Telegram arrived:
“The Secretary of War desires me to express his deep regret that your son Second Lieutenant Lawrence G Copeland has been reported missing in action since seventeen July over France. If further details or other information are received you will be promptly notified.”
On the ground in occupied France, the scene was a little different. Dad woke up from his head bump surrounded by parachute silk and terrified German conscripts, who herded him onto a truck to the processing center. In his sketchbook, he details the scene with a fanciful self-portrait, hair standing on end in shock, trying to climb back up his parachute rigging to get away from goonish Germans with stick rifles. The sketch is captioned, "For yew der var iss over!" So, thus he became a Kriegsgefangen –“Kriegie” for short – a German prisoner of war.
He had a brief stay at Dulag Luft, the processing and interrogation center for captured flyers. His drawing of that features a very realistic view of his solitary confinement cell, with the annotation, “Private office at Dulag Luft, Frankfort on Mainz, where entrance interrogation for Stalag Luft was held.”
That sketchbook is an interesting artifact by itself. Each POW was issued a blank “Wartime Log” book by the YMCA and Red Cross. Dad filled his with sketches and watercolors, interspersed with the occasional page of observations in his incredibly precise handwriting. He traded cigarettes for pen nibs and ink and watercolor blocks, and made his own brushes and pen holders. The book features a forged German censors’ stamp on the flyleaf, in the hope that if it was ever discovered the guard who opened it would look no further.
However, in spite of the deprivations and difficulties surrounding its creation, the book is amazing, not only as an historical record of life on the ground as a POW for the last year of the war, but because Dad’s sense of humor and awareness of the wonder of the world around him shines from every page. There are cartoons of mail call and stinky German cheese, the POW equivalent of filksongs, a contemporaneous recounting of the guards abandoning the camp as the Russians approached in May, and a page of pressed flowers, captioned “it is sometimes hard to see but there’s beauty even in kriegie camp – sunsets, snowflakes, flowers.”
After his stay at Dulag Luft, he was off on a long, very roundabout rail journey through Germany. (Roundabout because there were chunks of railroad that were missing, thanks to Dad and his chums.) He arrived in Pomerania, at his home for the rest of the war, Stalag Luft I, which he occasionally refers to as “The Baltic Resort.” Surrounded by guards, German shepherds (of which he still isn’t very fond), and housed in rickety shacks, he hunkered down for the duration, taking his turns cutting other Kriegies’ hair and cooking.
Food, of course, became a constant concern. The meager rations from the Germans were supplemented by parcels from the Red Cross, culminating in a spectacular Christmas parcel for each prisoner – cheese! canned meat! plum pudding! tinned cherries! jam! However, immediately after Christmas, the British bombing campaign became so effective that supply lines were cut off, and they were forced to survive on what they could get locally: rutabagas, sparrows, and the occasional cat.
The winter of 1944-45 was the coldest winter of the twentieth century in Europe, and so the ten thousand men of Stalag Luft I huddled, shivering and starving, waiting for spring. When the ordeal was over, Dad weighed eighty-five pounds.
All good things must come to an end, even the Second World War. And so, after being liberated by the Russians, and spending a stint in a military hospital in Paris (which are stories deserving their own articles), and another recovery period in Delaware, he was back to Alabama, and then back to Ohio State to finish his interrupted undergraduate studies.
He was soon back off to Europe, this time courtesy of the GI bill, to study painting in Paris and, more importantly, to apprentice in Stockholm with Baron Eric Fleming, the silversmith to the king of Sweden. It was with Fleming that he perfected the craft that would be his passion for the next four decades. After Europe, he was off to Cranbrook Academy for his MFA. A project from that period is the chess set on which he taught me to play, based on his first stint in Europe. It features as the king and queen Roosevelt and Churchill on one side and Hitler and Mussolini on the other. From Cranbrook, Dad moved to the School for American Craftsmen, which had just relocated to the Rochester Institute of Technology.
The Rochester years were remarkably productive. Cigarette boxes, decanters, ceremonial plates, tableware, and one traditional Swedish wedding crown worn by Mary Cuteri on the day they were married. One of the decanters is a favorite of mine. A confection of graceful pewter curves, bulging at the middle, with a wide lip at the top, it was borrowed by the State Department for the 1958 Brussels Worlds Fair. Alas, his government didn’t dare display the piece under his fanciful title: the Pregnant Nun.
With a second child on the way, Dad moved from Rochester to Oneida Ltd, where he became Designer in Residence. Even though he made friends and did good work, the experience had to be frustrating: many of his prototype designs were too avant-garde for Oneida. His joke was that he’d design a piece, and the chief designer would assign some junior guy to graft a rose onto it before putting it into production.
Several years later, with his third kid not yet walking, he moved the family to Hackensack, New Jersey, and moved himself back to academia, to City College of New York, where he spent the next two decades training the next generation of craftsmen while rearing the next generation of Copelands.
But, with retirement, he was far from finished. For an encore, he took what he’d learned in four decades of practicing design, three decades of building his own furniture, and two decades of critically examining dwellings, and designed and built a seven thousand square foot house in Warwick, New York. When I say “built,” I mean that literally: the framing and outside sheathing were contracted out, but most of the interior was completed by Dad and Mom with their own hands. With typical humor and understatement, he dubbed the place “The Braecroft,” which is Scots Gaelic for “little stone hut.”
It was there, in September 2006, that Dad suffered a stroke, leaving his left arm and leg partially paralyzed, and left him unable to walk.
And so, with much sadness, he had to leave the largest and least portable of his creative endeavors. Mom and Dad moved to Boulder, to share a sprawling house with my sister and her family.
But, even if his mobility is now limited, his outlook is not. This art student turned Air Force officer turned prisoner of war turned silversmith turned art history professor turned architect turned carpenter faces each day with the wisdom he’s gained over four score and seven years:
Always take your afternoon nap.
Waste not, want not.
Don’t take life too seriously.
Look for the joy and wonder in every day.
The past is past – don’t let it get in the way of the future.
Keep your sense of humor about you always, especially in the bad times.
Don’t make the mistake of letting the facts get in the way of a really good story.
But always, always, always, always start that story with the most magical words in the English language: “once upon a time.”