I pull up to the gate and I see the old man out front of his brick home. I drive in and park next to a pickup truck. As I get out of my car, roosters squawk and three buffalos chomp faded grass out back and the smell of large animals fill the December air.
I’m a little anxious as I walk up to greet him. I’m running behind schedule. It’s after 11 a.m. and I was supposed to be here at 10:30 a.m.
“I’m sorry I’m late,” I bellow to announce my presence. He doesn’t hear me. His back is turned and he is holding a plastic container and spraying weeds. I knew hearing was hard for him and now I understand he is really hard of hearing.
He turns to face my way.
“You’re not any more organized than I am,” Lt. Col. Richard “Dick” Cole says. I apologize and explain I got lost trying to find his home on the back roads of the Texas Hill Country.
I witness for the first time his open-mouth smile that exudes enormous warmth and I see his blue eyes shining.
I’m at ease. Dick is a sport.
He welcomes us inside and we enter a living room with comfortable furniture that I learn later Dick made himself. Not a light is on. I’m with photographer E. Joe Deering. E. Joe asks whether Dick has any vintage photos from the war. Dick fishes one from an old file, a black and white that shows Dick in his mid-20s, wearing a flight suit. He is standing with his hands grasping the straps of a parachute and in the background I can see the tail of a plane. We go outside and E. Joe takes photos of Dick holding the photo of a time long ago, when this flyboy was among 80 men who carried out one of the most daring missions in the early months of World War II.
Dick was a pilot on a crew that would become known to history as Doolittle’s Raiders, men who in April 1942 flew modified B-25 bombers to drop explosives on Tokyo. Unless you are a World War II geek, you may not have heard about this mission, which was designed to give Japan a shock and provide a lift to the United States, whose citizens were still demoralized by Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.
Dick, 97, is one of only five of men who can speak firsthand about the mission. All the others have flown west, parlance for airmen who have died.
I will post more about this extraordinary man, whose memory I come to find is sharper than mine. I’m posting a photo I took on my iPhone; E. Joe’s will be better.