Here she is - the Billings Belle, as flown by squadron commander Major Earl Depner of the 354th Fighter Group! As near as can be figured out, this P-51B had its first combat mission in late December 1943 and was destroyed in a non-operational accident* on May 1, 1944. From assembly line to scrap heap, Billings Belle was alive barely nine months.
Here's a picture of Earl in front of his Belle taken some time in March or April of 1944.
Yesterday, however, I finally got around to asking Earl his birthday and he replied, "Eleven, twelve, seventeen." Or put a little more commonly, November 12th, 1917. I'll save you the math. Earl is 94 years old. Ninety. Four. Years. Old. When he was my current age, I hadn't even been born yet! And furthermore, the man has lived my entire lifetime BEYOND my current years.
In other words, Earl Depner is far more experienced at life than I am. And, now you know why I ask the seemingly crass question of, "If you die today and I become the last person you talk to, what do you want me to know?"
Old guys know stuff.
Now, before I write what Earl told me, you should know that his response was nearly an hour-long discussion, during which topics of Natural Law, individual freedom & responsibility and the spiritual aspects of wealth were examined. This was not superficial water-cooler talk...and it never is with any "Old Guy." However, in Earl's case it struck me how utterly important the topic was for me and how damned rare it was that anyone of my age was having the discussion at all!
How often have you discussed life with someone twice your age?
Give me a second for a rabbit trail - Earl described being a boy of fifteen and how he would hike to streams and fish for trout. The freedom he and his friends experienced was total. His parents didn't think to worry about meth, porn, SAT scores. But most telling was that his parents didn't restrict the boy's life in the wild, among his buddies. There was a trust that part of figuring life was figuring life and somehow, it'd all work out.
I've heard similar stories from Old Guys a thousand times if not a million. I'm still a little struck by remembering how Bob Goebel told me how he hitchhiked from Indiana to Texas (hitchhiking is supposed to be dangerous if not deadly!) Life truly was different back then... just like life is ALWAYS different back then.
But things are 'different now' too, right?
Yeah, yeah. It's easy to be nostalgic. And, the point of this isn't to rile up some old hankerin' for better days long past. The point is this - the lessons of our past are lost if we don't inquire of them.
So anyway, you want to know what Earl told me? He said, "John, live life like you're going to change the world."
"Well Earl? Have you?"
And indeed he has. At least mine. That's him signing my artwork - you have no idea how cool that is - and Billings Belle gets reborn.
*The pilot at the time, Lt. Richard Hughes, was killed.
**Many thanks go to the historians behind the 354th Fighter Group, Syd Edwards, Matt Jolley of Warbird Radio, Father Don Brownstein, George Depner, Dave Nordlund and of course, Earl Depner.