Memorial Day 2008

It is Memorial Day here again in the US. There are veterans honored on the front page of the paper, while just a page in begins the non-stop announcement of sales, presumably also to honor veterans, though I am not quite sure that purchasing a PlayStation 3 or a Mercedes-Benz would constitute a tribute to those who fell in defense of our country.

In the skies all week though, the sounds of the past have echoed. As it was last year, the Collings Foundation has vintage WWII bombers parked out at Moffett Field. The website says that there are three planes out there offering rides, but so far I have only seen the B-17G. But I have seen it quite a lot.

It was something of a childhood fantasy, to be able to go back in time to when the sight of such a plane would be common, when the skies were full of the sound of big, supercharged engines, to live through that time. A foolish thought of childhood, ignoring the suffering, sacrifice, and uncertainty that accompanied the times. Foolish too, in that the era when it was economically and militarily viable to have such huge numbers of aircraft available was a fleeting moment of history.

Time moves forward. The generation that flew those planes, that fought that war, who were in their prime when I was born, is slowly passing on.

One member of that generation I would like to remember today is Donald Lopez. He passed away on March 3rd of this year.

He joined the Army Air Corps after the US entry into WWII and flew P-40s and P-51s with the 23rd Fighter Group of the 14th Air Force in China, the successors to the famed Flying Tigers. After the war he became a test pilot, taught at the Air Force Academy, and work on the Apollo and Skylab programs.

Were that the extent of his career, it would be worthy of mention.

But in 1972 he joined the staff of the National Air and Space Museum and spent the remainder of his life working to preserve the memory of that fleeting moment of history in which he took part.

It was while he was working in that capacity that I had the honor to meet him.

In 1989 a friend and I went to a Virginia Bader dinner here in San Jose. The main draw, the big names, were Adolf Galland and Johnnie Johnson. A seat at their table was a bit pricey, but my friend and I wanted to be in the room at least, so we opted for a less expensive position.

That put us at the table with Donald Lopez. I did not know who he was at the start of the evening, but by the end I was quite impressed. He spoke a little of the war, but our conversation revolved mostly around the Air and Space Museum and the work that had gone in to preserving a physical record of the beginning of the age of flight. His passion and depth of knowledge were impressive and it was clear that it was work he enjoyed.

And so, this Memorial Day I remember him and the 90 minutes of conversation that took place in downtown San Jose some 19 years ago.

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