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The Big Sick



 

This is one of the few stories where we don’t change our protagonist’s name. We have a couple of reasons. One, this is a World War II story. This means that the chances of someone listening and knowing and recognizing our hero on this podcast are quite slim. Number Two, he doesn’t do anything dumb. Number Three: this is a story about my great-uncle, Bill Kobin.


Bill LOVED country music, cowboy boots, a nice meal, and above all else, a good story. He passed away last year at 96 years old. That time gave him plenty of material with which to regale anyone who was lucky enough to be in a listening situation. This is dedicated to him.

 

In 1942, every relatively healthy male in America was either drafted or willingly enlisted in military service. There was no doubting the validity or morality of joining up after Pearl Harbor. These men, from the fields to the cities to the universities was going to join the allied forces to stop Hitler’s evil.


(Just to oversimplify one of the most defining wars of all time, you’re welcome.) So the real question for these men was not ‘if’ but, ‘what branch?’

My Uncle Bill was a smart guy but was a bit untethered in regards to his future. Hovering over six feet tall with a mass of dark curls and an easy smile, he’d lost his father at a young age and had spent years traveling all over the globe with his mother and stepdad. He was worldly, in that, he’d been places. He loved to read. He loved people and music and travel. And like so many smart and interesting people, he wasn’t a great student. School was not his thing. He didn’t want to go into the apparel industry like his mother’s second husband. He didn’t know anything about cattle or ranching. He liked politics inasmuch as he enjoyed laughing about politicians. He just wasn’t sure where to go or what to do.

After graduating from high school with a solidly average GPA, he managed to get himself into the University of Iowa. There he enjoyed the midwest, made many close friends, and played his well-loved guitar on the grassy quad as much as daylight and attendance sheets would allow.


Bill was an easy guy, and that is a compliment. People gravitated towards him because there was no pretense. He was the definition of chill. He didn’t mind other people’s opinions and was perfectly content tending to the situations that made him happy. But, then, like everyone in that time, WWII changed everything. No one could afford to be indifferent. When his official card from Washington arrived in his mailbox, he brought it to the dining hall to compare with his friends.


Right there, in Iowa, over meatloaf and mashed potatoes and most likely, a lot of corn, Bill Kobin and his friends decided to take the trip across the country and register themselves for the war out in Southern California. They would take Route 66 from door to door. And, since none of them felt that strongly about the education that they weren’t overly committed to, they decided to leave the following afternoon.

This was almost a hundred years ago. It’s wild to think about generations on a centennial timeline. You could pack up your life in an hour because you only had a few pairs of pants. Maybe a couple of pairs of shoes. You didn’t need chargers for electronics and you weren’t tethered to a job. Now, it was probably a lot harder to find you if you went missing on a random stretch of highway but, of course, it’s so easy to romanticize the past.


And, we have to remember, not everyone had a car. Bill didn’t. Neither did his lunch room buddies. And, who knows if it was safer to hitchhike because everyone was doing it or if everyone was doing it because it was safe? Regardless, that’s what the guys decided to do. That’s how they were going to get to California. And California was where they would sign up to serve their country, having no clue what their individual or collective futures would hold.

Bill was the youngest of the group. Only by a year. And he had a twin sister, my Granny Carol. That was it, as far as siblings were concerned. If Bill had an older brother like the other guys on the trip, he could have asked his advice. And he loved his stepdad, Bernie was a good guy, but he didn’t need to enlist, so what kind of insight could he have provided our young here?

It made sense that Bill looked to Ralph and George for a little guidance. He knew his military division was a huge decision. He wasn’t sure how much control he had over it. He wasn’t sure where he would fit into this world war, or even, what it was, exactly. He pondered this question, tossing and turning in his twin bed, counting down the hours until he would leave campus, unsure if he would ever set foot on the university’s grounds again. His head spun: He liked to tinker. He could fix a car. He liked to read. And, of course, he loved his guitar. But Bill was not sure where this eclectic skill set would land him in the military.

The next morning, Bill met his friends at 8:00 on the dot with his duffel bag and guitar case.

“You can’t hitchhike with that thing,” Ralph gestured to the instrument, “Who’s gonna pick us up with something that big?”

Bill didn’t miss a beat, “Girls who like music.” That was enough for Ralph. George grinned at his lanky friend.

And Bill wasn’t wrong. They found a ride West within minutes of leaving campus. The driver was a girl - sort of - a grandmother of about 60 who was heading out to help her daughter while her son-in-law joined the Marines. Bill thought of everything he knew about that specific type of soldier. He knew through a cousin that the Marines prided themselves on being a super-human level of tough. The cousin had told him about five mile runs in the dark, totally barefoot. Bill wanted to fight for his country. He wanted to do his part to stop the evil and end the war. But he didn’t think he’d last a minute as a Marine. He offered up this thought as a compliment to the driver’s son-in-law.

“Where do you think you’ll join?” She asked.

“Air wing of the army.” George said this so matter-of-factly that Bill instantly believed him. Ralph wasn’t so agreeable.

“Air Wing? My brother says Navy is where it’s at.” Bill cringed at the idea of endless, nauseous months at sea, rocking and stumbling and eating sardines. He suppressed the unhappy reaction of his stomach.

“Nope, not going on a boat.” George was adamant. “We’re gonna fight for freedom. And I dunno about you guys, but I’d like to live to see it.”

No one disagreed. Bill’s stomach turned again, remembering the roadside hot dog at the same time he first contemplated his own mortality. No one knew how long this war would last. Sure, they listened to Roosevelt and Churchill on the radio every chance they got. They even snuck into a downtown movie theater on the regular to watch the news reels. But there was still so much unknown.

“The one assignment you don’t want,” George continued, “that nobody wants, is tail gunner in a bomber. Maybe 95% chance of not making it out of that alive.”

“That’s true,” sighed the driver.

All of the college drop-outs agreed that those were terrible odds. Bill imagined himself hurdling through the air in a steel tube, taking out the Nazis and felt a rush of adrenaline. Then, because he was a pragmatist, he imagined the plane falling out of the sky and decided to put that thought out of his mind immediately. He looked out the window as the sun flickered through the flowering dogwood trees of Northern Kansas.

The cross-country trip was something that Bill would remember for the rest of his life. The hitch-hiking was easy for the group of young men with kind faces and funny signs. Their days were spent riding in the back of trucks and Chevys, Bill always pulling out his guitar to make the time go by and turn the rides into sing-a-longs. Music was his love language, even back then. He held his Gibson guitar with the new, steel strings, and played Bing Crosby songs the best he knew how. He watched the middle of the country turn into the West. How he loved the mountains, the farmers in their “dungarees,” and the young women with their straw hats and freckled faces.

Bill was always the first to laugh, whether he was the teller or the listener of the story. He had a way of so un-self-consciously putting people at ease. His buddies knew this and made sure that Bill was the man out in front with his thumb up for a ride. It was one of those trips where the end is too much to even think about. Your brain forces you to savor every moment as a coping mechanism. Each meal, each night at a road house or a nice family’s barn stall was seared into his memory for decades to come. It wasn’t that they didn’t understand the gravity of going to war, the guys did. But they also knew how important it was to enjoy this precious time together. The reality of their next move didn’t hit any of them until they pulled over to touch the ‘Welcome To California’ sign on the side of the famous Route 66.

The sun shone through the open windows and the palm trees reached up to the sky. Bill had visited the beach with his family years earlier but hadn’t remembered how vast the state felt. Instantly, the number of guys their age hitchhiking along the highway seemed to quadruple.

At the enlistment office, Bill surveyed the scene. It reminded him a bit of his university. There were guys playing catch with baseballs and mitts, guys smoking cigarettes and playing cards, and so many waiting in lines, getting weighed, signing over their lives for an unseeable future.

Bill, still carrying his guitar, followed Ralph to the shortest line and repeated his request for “Air Wing, United States Army, PLEASE, SIR.” The buzz-cut man behind the table grinned,

“Well, son, happy to here you aren’t looking to join Germany.” He looked at Bill: tall, lanky, and very healthy, as he reached over his desk and slammed down a stamp.

“Tail Gunner. You’ll be in a bomber. Welcome to the Air Force, Son.”

Bill looked as his paper, then up at Ralph and George. The color drained from all of their faces. Remember, this was the only designation that the guys were told to avoid.

Sleepwalking through orientation, Bill’s entire demeanor changed in that line and with that stamp. Suddenly, his easy-going, easy-to-smile outlook disappeared. He didn’t know a thing about airplanes, didn’t particularly enjoy heights, and didn’t trust his reaction time in such a high-pressure situation.

He didn’t eat his dinner. He didn’t call his mom. And he didn’t sleep. He figured the only thing he could do was study. This all happened on a Monday. His test ride would be that Friday. He had exactly a week to get his head around the situation. And he tried, he really tried.

He went over the thick training manual as many times as his be speckled eyes would allow. He memorized codes and alarms and emergency maneuvers. He looked at the other tail gunners. They seemed different. They were all small, intense, and had aircraft experience or at least could build a motor car with their own two hands. Let’s imagine them as 1940s Tom Cruises. Bill felt out of place. And, of course, terrified. He sat at the end of the dining table at night, pushing his potatoes around his plate, dreading that Friday with every inch of his body.

That Thursday night, he skipped dinner all together. He sat on his bed in the empty dorm room and picked up his guitar. He closed his eyes and strummed a couple of chords. Then a few more. Then a few more. He felt himself disappear into the music, belting out a swing song that made him smile in spite of himself. When he opened his eyes on that sagging bunk bed, he was not alone.

It was one of those moments that should have been a movie scene. All of these young men crowding into a room, about to change if not give their lives entirely for war, putting their arms around each other’s shoulders and singing. All the Tom Cruises sang. The levity in the air was something that all of them would remember over the next years. This continued for another song, and then another. Soon the guys were calling out requests and Bill was more than happy to keep going. They laughed and yelled and a few of them danced around the beds because moves like that weren’t weird back then. That night, Bill slept.

The next morning, the horrible pit in Bill’s stomach had lessened. He joined the other men at the breakfast table and felt fine to eat, starving after skipping last night’s dinner. Over coffee and biscuits and gravy, the guys laughed and chatted as if nothing that day was a big deal. Bill recalls enjoying this breakfast as much as any he had his entire life. Dressed in his government -issued jumpsuit and leather helmet, he made his way into his designated aircraft. And his studying paid off.

This was just a test run. Bill was partnered with an experienced pilot who was pleased with Bill’s knowledge. He watched the very tall man squeeze himself into the seat, laughing at how difficult it was for Bill to find a place for his knees.

“Funny designation for a man your size,” the pilot remarked to my uncle. But it shouldn’t have been Bill’s knees that the man was worried about.

As the deafening engines roared and the plane sped up along the runway, Bill focused on the dials and switches and checklists that he’d forced himself to memorize. The plane gained speed down the military runway, quickly leaving behind the ground and catapulting itself up into the cloudless California sky. This is when Bill felt that big, fun, breakfast in his stomach. And this is also when the big, fun breakfast insisted on leaving his body.

Bill used to crack up at this point in the story. He threw up once. Then again. Then again and again and again. The plane turned left and right and soon the trained pilot could barely see out of the shield of the cockpit. He actually had to reach up and wipe away the vomit just to perform an emergency landing a mere eight minutes after takeoff. Bill tried to apologize but each time he opened his mouth, he would puke again and make the situation that much worse.

That day marked the most excruciating clean-up duty that Bill Kobin would ever have. It also marked the day that he became a mechanic for the airplanes who’s inner working he’d memorized. His feet didn’t leave the ground for the entirety of the war.

Bill lived a long life near Boston. He married one of the most interesting women that any of us could ever hoped to meet. She was one of the first women to work for NASA. He worked as a real estate appraiser and developed a fondness for poodles and country music.

And, one of the last things he did before he died, was play the guitar. The same one from 1940. Of course, he’d gotten new strings.

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