The Belle and I

Prose and Photography: Richard Souza

 

Every morning, at the same time and same place, I am greeted by my likeness. It is that one moment of the day that I have the chance to look myself in the eyes… deep into my eyes. I have noticed, with every passing day, how the color of my hair has changed. Once dark brown, I used to count each gray hair. Now, I count the brown hairs that are left.

When I stare into my eyes, I fade off into a world of nostalgia. This is that world where time stands still. It is in this world where we remember people, places, things, experiences and emotions. It's where we dig deep into the closet of our mind and find the dusty old shoebox of faded memories. It is a ritual repeated day after day, year after year. The clock ticks, I shake off the thoughts of that nostalgic world and proceed with my morning routine. As I take the first step down the stairs, I pause, and ponder at a memory. I turn my head… then my body and I instinctively walk toward a closet. I open the door and see, within the clutter of forgotten belongings, the shoebox… that dusty old shoebox of photographs.

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I reach for the box… blow off the dust and make my way to Granddad’s rocking chair. When I remove the lid, I can hear the sound of air rushing into to the box as if it had been sealed for centuries. One by one, I come across those photographic treasures. Each one evokes a unique emotion and transports me back though time, to that place, and that moment. I begin going through the photos like a librarian would go through a card catalog... flipping past a dozen… pulling one out… flipping past another… pulling one out. Some small, some large, some faded, some crisp. As I sift through the box, I think how words like Kodachrome and Instamatic are no longer part of the English lexicon.

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Somewhere between the summer of ’79 and Christmas of ’83, I find a set that seemed out of place. These photos were taken 20 years ago. Wow! I forgot all about this. These are the shots I took when I met the B-17 “Memphis Belle” on the banks of the Mississippi. I try to recall what lead me to travel to the Grind City and then I remember. I am not afraid to admit that before the 1990 film, I had never heard of the “Belle”, but by the time the closing credits rolled, I knew that I needed to know more. I never thought that she was still around. Once I knew the “Memphis Belle” was on display in Tennessee, I began my quest to see her.

Gazing at the photos, I drift back into that nostalgic world. “Memphis, Tennessee 1999” appears at the base of the screen as a Red Buick pulls into the visitor’s center at Mud Island. The door opens and a younger version of myself gets out, stands and looks for the “Memphis Belle” pavilion. There were only yards left in this four thousand mile journey. As I slowly make my way toward the pavilion, I can hear the sound of my every step. I stop at the plaque that greets visitors. I have reached my destination. I adjust my collar to look my best, and put my right foot forward and walk in.

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As I approached her, the signs of age became evident. The elements have taken their toll on this aged beauty. I noticed the scars from years of wandering. The “Belle” was moved from place to place until she was moved to this island she calls home. The “Memphis Belle” had a caretaker. The Memphis Belle Memorial Association did everything in their power to keep the “Belle” and her memory alive. I walked around her and was amazed how this aircraft, which had been through hell and back, was a shell of its former self. As much as I wanted to believe that she looked good, I knew the power and grace she once had… were gone. I know we just met, but my time was up. I walked slowly and looked back every 5 paces. The further I got, the smaller she became. As I opened the car door, I paused and listened. I was hoping to hear that voice calling, just like little Joey called out for Shane. But all I heard was the birds and the wind.

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As the years rolled by, I would always look for news about my beloved “Belle”. I knew that there were difficulties and challenges in maintaining the bomber. I was shocked and saddened when I read the news that she was going to be evicted. Say it isn’t so! Only a miracle could save her now. Miracles come in all shapes and sizes. I am not talking about miracles in the religious sense. I am talking about the “Things Happen for a Reason Miracles”. This is when sequences of events and decisions intersect with other sequences of events and decisions. You don’t know what will happen 'til it happens and the result is just a miracle.

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The Memphis Belle Memorial Association knew that they had done all that they could do for this ol' warbird. Since the city of Memphis didn’t welcome the “Belle” and did not support the efforts to save her, the association knew it was best to let her go. The fate of the “Memphis Belle” would lie in the hands of a benefactor. This bird was going to be repaid for her service those many years ago. The miracle was a modern day version of Dickens novel “Great Expectations”. Like Pip, the “Memphis Belle” rolled out of the factory and jumped in to help an Able Magwitch named United States Army Air Force. Magwitch then became The United States Air Force. The time had come to step in and save this treasure on the verge of the abyss. The “Memphis Belle” was dismantled, placed on a lorry destined for Dayton, Ohio.

It had been many years since I first sat down at the picture show and learned her name. It had been a few years since the day we met. The words of Bob Seger never rang so true… “Twenty years now, Where’d they go? Twenty years I don’t know. Sit and I wonder sometimes, where they’ve gone”. I never stopped looking for news about her. I would search the internet for any news of her recovery. All I wanted was a glimpse of how she was looking. What little I saw made me happy. I knew she was on her way to recovery. The days become weeks and the weeks become years, the years roll on and the scene repeats itself. Same time and same place, I am greeted by my likeness with those words of Dire Staits’s Romeo & Juliet ringing in my ear… ”you know the movie song”. I finish my random and empty thought, grab my phone, scroll aimlessly through the news but stop at the one that catches my eye. This one makes me smile. My beloved “Belle” will be back. She will make her public debut at the National Museum of the United States Air Force on May 17, 2018.  

After a year of planning, I loaded up the car and headed to Dayton, Ohio. Every mile on the road, I thought about what the “Belle” and the exhibit would look like. I had never been to the Air Force Museum, so I had no point of reference. All I knew was that the lighting was low and the atmosphere dark. As I walked in the main entrance, I was like a child in a candy store. The distraction of all the historic aircraft took my mind off the anticipation of the unveiling of the exhibit. Picture the scene… an empty museum and the sound of my footsteps as I wander around the labyrinth of aircraft. Every turn, I see an aircraft and quickly recall a motion picture with that aircraft type. But this isn’t the Secret Life of Walter Mitty, this is me walking through the galleries along with the hundreds of people that visit the museum every day.

I look at my watch and realize that I need to check into the event desk at the main entrance. It is then that I am randomly picked from the entire crowd and escorted to the museum theater. Before the museum volunteer opens the door, she turns to me and says, “The 1944 William Wyler Memphis Belle Documentary has just gone through an extensive restoration and today is the first time the restored film is being shown in a theater. The only people watching the film is the production company… I hope you enjoy the film”. I walk into the near empty theater and find a spot. I look over my shoulder and see the production team gazing at the huge screen. I sat and watched attentively and saw my beloved “Belle” in her heyday. Not the Movie Memphis Belle, not Sally B, but the one and only. The images were real, the combat was real and that same B-17 in the thick of flak, now sits less than a block away. I feel a chill run down my spine and a lump in my throat. As the credits begin to roll and the lights turn on, those who witnessed this historic cinematic event erupt in applause. I smile when I think…..Isn’t this how this love affair began all those many years ago? It was at the movies when I first learned her name.

I find my place among the media crews and sit through the wonderfully organized ceremony. While I am trying to focus on what is going on, I cannot keep my eyes off the large black curtain that hides the special gal. She is there, I can feel it. My heart races as the drum rolls… then silence as the curtain falls to the stage. A moment that should only be replayed in slow motion. The darkness of the museum is overcome by the rays of light coming from the exhibit. There she is, I cannot believe what I am seeing. The sound of the cheering crowd is mute by the sound of me gasping for breath so I can utter the words, beautiful, Baby… you look absolutely Beautiful!. I move through the crowd to reach her. Just like the lovers in that film who struggle though the wave of people at the train station so they can embrace. The “Memphis Belle” finally has a home. There she sat, elevated on stands, looking majestic, powerful and graceful. You are that friend that was down and out, with nowhere to go. Your cries for help were answered. The National Museum of the United States Air Force gave you that life saving hand. Finally, after all these years we meet again. I stood under the cockpit, looked up and smiled. Then with a crackle in my voice, I whisper… “It is so good to see you Babe!"

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As I drift out of a daze, I open my eyes and I see myself. That same time, that same place. As I lean toward the mirror, I wipe the tears from my eyes, stare at myself… smile... No it wasn’t a dream. FADE TO BLACK