In Honor of Veterans Day: Films With My Father

By Robert Mark on November 11th, 2022

(Click the player above for audio)

Ed Note: Veterans Day was officially created in 1954 by President Eisenhower as a permanent remembrance of the day World War I ended. You might have heard someone say, “On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month …” November 11, 1918, is generally regarded as the end of “the war to end all wars.” How times have changed.

As a USAF veteran, I was trying to think of a unique way to remember my fellow vets, many of who gave their lives to maintain our democratic way of life. And since I’m allowed to whine here, a bit of advice for those who have never served … please stop using that catchphrase, “Thank You for your service.” It’s patronizing. When you meet a vet, why not ask where they served or perhaps what their role was? It will help them understand that you actually care.

Then our Airplane Geeks and Jetwhine contributor Micah, send this recording in which he explained his dad’s role as a veteran, but also how their mutual love of the movie scores created by Max Steiner helped America remember why we’ve fought the many conflicts of the past 100 years. Many of them had a military focus, which is why we’re talking about them today. If you still have absolutely no idea what kind of films I’m talking about, I’d suggest you check out a few on TCM for a look back in time at how America viewed the conflicts around the globe. You can listen to the audio, or read the script of the podcast below.

Rob Mark

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Lew and Micah Engber

Podcast Script

“King Kong, The Gay Divorcee, The Lost Patrol, The Informer, Submarine D-1, Gone With The Wind, Casablanca, They Died With Their Boots On, The Treasure of Sierra Madre, The Caine Mutiny, The Searchers. Does any of those titles sound familiar to you? Yup, they’re all films, from the 1930s ’40s, and ’50s, and they all have at least one thing in common.

Do you know what that is? Well, the thing, I am going for today, the person actually, is Max Steiner. Recognize that name? Don’t be concerned if you don’t, most people wouldn’t; but it’s a name I grew up with. Max Steiner who was born in 1888 and died in 1971, composed over 300 film scores with RKO Pictures and Warner Bros He was nominated for 24 Academy Awards. Why is his name so familiar to me, and why am I talking about a film score composer on The Airplane Geeks podcast? Well, as Jon Ostrower says, “There’s always an aviation angle.”

Some of you, of a certain age, may know what I’m alluding to. We Watch The Skyways by Max Steiner was part of the score to many of my very favorite films.

I love that tune, in fact, for me, it’s one of those Velcro tunes, an earworm. Once I hear it, I can’t get it out of my head for some time. It was the theme music for the films, Fighter Squadron, Dive Bomber, Operation Pacific, Up Periscope, and Submarine D-1 among others, including the 1943 Daffy Duck Warner Brothers cartoon, Yankee Doodle Daffy. Daffy even sings it! Yup, there’re lyrics!

“We watch the skyways, over land and the sea, Ready to fly anywhere the duty calls, Ready to fight to be free.”

OK, so we’re back to why I’m telling you about a song when this forum is all about aviation. I think I can put the blame on our friend, the late Launchpad Marzari. A few months before he flew west, he and I were talking on the phone when he said:

“You know Micah, I always wanted to ask you this. You don’t own an airplane, you don’t fly and have no pilot’s license, you don’t work in the aviation industry and never have, and you were never even in the armed services, how in the world did you ever become an Airplane Geek?”

Now I’d been asked that before but I never really gave it much thought. I usually roll off some kind of answer; “Well you know growing up my mom and dad… yadda yadda yadda….” But in fact, I couldn’t really answer Launchpad when he asked and I just rambled on for a bit as usual. Not that I’m not rambling now, but at least this rambling has a touch more thought to it. But it did get me thinking, and I may have figured it out, at least a little bit of it.

As I may have told you before, my father was a US Air Force retread. After being drafted out of engineering school for World War II, and serving his hitch in the Army Corp of Engineers in Europe, he was discharged an NCO. A few years later, during the Korean conflict, after finishing up his GI Bill-funded degrees in psychology, he was drafted again, this time as an officer in the US Air Force Medical Corps. That was shortly after the Air Force became its own branch of service. Back then, a person being drafted for a second time was referred to as a retread, the way old tires are re-used.

Now you may ask: “How did a man drafted out of a school of engineering end up becoming a psychologist?” I asked that too. That was one of the few questions my father would answer regarding his military service, but he would do so somewhat flippantly. My dad would say, I used to get so angry building bridges in the European theatre, and then being required to blow them up, I just couldn’t be an engineer anymore and wanted to learn more about why I felt that way.”

You see, my father didn’t talk much about his service. As a kid, I had a bunch of questions, and I was fortunate that my relationship with my Dad allowed me to ask them. I was also fortunate that his training and background as a psychologist allowed him to answer in ways, that as a kid, I could understand, but also in ways that allowed him to process some of his own feelings.

There are only a few real stories from his time in the military that I remember him sharing with anyone, including me. One is about how he fell off of a truck in England just before D‑Day which left him with a concussion and hurt his back so badly that it affected him for the rest of his life. He looked back on it as his lucky day. You see, as part of the Army Corp of Engineers my dad would have been one of the first on Omaha Beach. That now fortuitous accident kept him out of the D-Day invasion and Operation Overlord went on without him. Who knows if I would be here if he hadn’t fallen off that truck?

Another one of the few stories he would tell took place post-war; somewhere along the Belgium, Luxembourg German border, he never said exactly where, I don’t think he remembered, or maybe he never really knew. It was after VE Day and things were relatively safe so he was able to go out to a local bar and drink … apparently quite copiously! He told the whole story as a joke about being drunk as a skunk, how he ended up capturing a German Colonel who had not surrendered, and how he confiscated the Colonel’s 1914 32ACP German Mauser sidearm, and Iron Cross. If for some reason you want to hear the details of that story, you can find them in a piece titled Veteran’s Day that I wrote for The Airline Pilot Guy podcast back in 2016. It’s episode number 246.

There are a couple of other stories my dad would sometimes tell. One about how when in the Air Force in the early 1950s, and stationed in Texas, he went flying with a friend who owned his own small airplane. Apparently, they got “disoriented” while flying although he used the word lost, but you and I know pilots never get lost, but can occasionally get disoriented. Anyway, they were lost over the plains of Texas, and back then there wasn’t any real radio communication in personal GA aircraft. They spotted an unmarked runway and set down to get directions. All of a sudden they were surrounded by MPs holding rifles on them. My dad and his pilot buddy explained they were lost and were looking for Austin. The Officer in charge raised his arm, pointing off in the distance, and said “That way, now get outta here.” Many years later my father realized he and his buddy had stumbled upon some secret testing grounds for the atomic cannon.

The only other story I remember him telling me was about the two watches he used to wear. One was given to him by his Aunt Esther just before he was called to basic training in the Army. It never left his wrist while he was overseas and he wore it on and off until he died. Aunt Esther was my brother Rick’s Godmother; Rick has that watch now.

The other watch, my father described as his first professional fee as a psychologist. He was in the Air Force and a friend of a friend needed counseling. Technically he wasn’t allowed to take her on as a patient but my father was always ready to do what he could to help. He wouldn’t accept any pay but treated her as a client as one would in private practice. He never really told much else of the story but explained that when treatment was completed, he was given a gift for all those counseling sessions. It was a Longines watch he would alternate wearing with the one given to him by his Aunt Esther. I still have that watch today.

Now I loved those stories and still do. Sometimes I can hear my Dad telling them over again in my head, and he’s been gone close to 15 years as I write this. But I had more questions about his service, questions that as I think about it, he probably couldn’t really answer for so many different reasons. He’d seen the elephant, I hadn’t, and never would. But he did want me to understand and help me the best he was able; so to do that we would watch films together. He actually took me out to the “movies” to see The Longest Day and The Great Escape; he also took me to the theatre to see Tora, Tora, Tora, and Patton.

Most of the time though, we would watch movies on TV at home. The 1949 film Battleground with Van Johnson, John Hodiak, Ricardo Montalbán, George Murphy, and James Whitmore was one of his favorites, and one he said was the most realistic. He told me that the first time he saw it in the theatre, after returning from the war, he was taking cover behind the seats as he was watching it because it felt so real to him.

Now I know that most of the films I’ve mentioned so far are ground-based, I haven’t even started on the list of sea-based films. And don’t even get me started about the submarine films my father and I would watch together. If you do I’ll tell you how Captain Edward L. Beach Jr. the author of Run Silent Run Deep was a distant friend of the family, but I’ll save that for another time.

But then again, even one of the submarine films I used to watch with my dad, one I still watch regularly is aviation related. The plot of the 1943 film Destination Tokyo, with Cary Grant, John Forsythe, John Garfield and my favorite, Alan Hale, Sr., is all about a secret submarine mission to get weather readings over Tokyo for the Doolittle raid. Plus, it was in that film that I saw a PBY for the first time. It became one of my favorite aircraft right then.

The 1945 John Ford film They Were Expendable, featuring Robert Montgomery, John Wayne Donna Reed, and my two favorites Jack Holt and Ward Bond was all about PT Boats. But it was in that film I saw my first C‑47. I’ve been in love with DC-3s and C-47’s ever since.

In that 1965 epic naval film, In Harms Way, Otto Preminger’s attempt to try to make a Navy version of The Longest Day, we watched Kirk Douglas fly a PBJ solo from the right-hand seat. (Even then I was a critic of aviation flight sequence inconsistencies) And by the way, a PBJ is not a sandwich; it’s the naval version of a B-25.

But my dad and I would watch a bunch of military aviation films too. Some that come to mind include God is My Co-Pilot, Air Force, Bombardier, A Guy Named Joe, The Wings of Eagles, Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, The Flying Tigers, 12 O’clock High, Flying Leathernecks, This Man’s Navy, which by the way was also known as both Airship Squadron No. 4. and Lighter Than Air, yes, it had three titles. But Command Decision, Strategic Air Command, and Fail Safe also come to mind.

Oh, and in getting back to what I started this whole thing with, let’s not forget Max Steiner, the films Dive Bomber, with Errol Flynn, Fred MacMurray, and Ralph Bellamy, and Fighter Squadron, with Edmond O’Brien, and Robert Stack, both feature We Watch The Skyways as the musical theme running throughout both of them.

Now when I was growing up, I never realized that while my father always enjoyed these films, and really liked to see them with me, they also affected him in ways I truly didn’t or maybe couldn’t understand. Not that he had PTSD, but remember, he had seen the elephant. Maybe I was dense but it wasn’t until I was in my 40s that I started to get it, maybe just a bit.

In 1998 when Saving Private Ryan came out I went to see it right away. As you all know, it was a fabulous film. I knew my father would love it and I was going to be visiting him a few weeks after I saw it for the first time. I suggested that we go see it together. My father was excited to go, both because he really wanted to see the film, and also, I think because he wanted to see it with me, his oldest son, who he had shared so many films with as I was growing up. This time though, it was me sharing a film with him.

Now my dad knew this would be the second time I would be seeing Saving Private Ryan, I had told him all about it without giving away any of the plot twists and turns, and I told him how I thought he would really enjoy it. But it was during that film when I realized that while he did enjoy watching films with me, they really did affect him in ways I just never formerly understood; you see, all of a sudden while we were watching the film, he was sitting next to me quietly crying. I asked him if he wanted to leave but he said no. We sat through the rest of the movie and afterward my dad told me he really enjoyed it and thanked me profusely for taking him. Although we’d bonded over films all our lives together, this was unique for us both. We talked about Saving Private Ryan a lot, for some time to come, but as you might imagine, we never did discuss how or why it affected him as it did. But we both knew it was a special time for us as father and son.

So in a long way around, and to answer Launchpad’s question from well over a year ago, the same question I’ve been asked by so many of you: How did I become an airplane geek? I think it was through questions and answers, watching films with my father, and perhaps a few other things. And I suppose that’s about the best answer I can give you.

For the Airplane Geeks, here in Portland, Maine,

This is your Main(e) man, Micah

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