Wile, Wit, Wisdom & Weaponry

Ruminations, Opinions & Debate about the world as I see it and the toys that make it bearable!

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Location: TEXAS, United States

-Defender of the Second Amendment, the "little guy", free market system, liberty and freedom from government!

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Hey, Stirman- school is now in session…

It was supposed to be another routine visit to yet another donor’s home to express my general thanks on behalf of my alma mater for this particular person’s latest gift to the university. Little did I know that I was about to benefit from a fantastic schooling on history…

For nearly seven years I served as a Development Officer for my alma mater raising funds for the 100 year anniversary of Abilene Christian University. The Centennial Campaign (as it is referred to) was the largest fundraising endeavor the university had undertaken in the school’s history. It was an honor for me to participate in this enterprise and afforded me the opportunity to come into contact with thousands of alumni I wouldn’t ordinarily meet in my lifetime. Many of these invited me to their homes or offices in order to ask questions about the latest programs of interest, different schools/majors on campus, or simply to learn what the Centennial campaign would do for the university in years to come. These visits were almost always exciting to me as it meant I would get to hear another person’s story about their time on the ACU campus. On rare occasions, I was able to visit with those who were not alumni, but who supported the university for various personal reasons.

On one such trip to south Texas, I took the chance in calling on an elderly widower in a town I had never visited (which shall remain anonymous for this retelling), but for whom I wanted to meet and express our thanks for his recent donation to the university. As a gift of thanks, I had a special book I had brought along with me to present to the fellow. So I called him a couple of days in advance of my trip, told him who I was and why I was calling and asked if it would be alright if I could drop in on him while I was near his home. He was very quick to answer “sure” and the date was set.

Over the course of my experience in serving as a fundraiser, I learned a few things about visiting strangers. Either they loved to visit with you about their time on campus, or they would like to discuss (and I use that term loosely) some issue that they didn’t necessarily agree with as it pertained to the school. In most cases, the latter was not usually the case. But I quickly learned the initial conversational tone employed needed to be established early in meeting with the donor. It tended to relax both parties and made for a very pleasant first meeting. (The last thing one wanted was a confrontational or negative experience to begin the relationship.)

Not everyone I met with had identical thoughts or views about various topics associated with the conversation. As a former salesman, I knew enough about initiating the conversation to keep things light and moving along so that I could discuss the one or two main points that I intended to convey. When this is done in a sales office, car lot, or other business office- the customer is usually on unfamiliar ground which gives the salesperson the edge. But fundraising is different in that most of the conversations take place at the donors’ place of business or at their home. This meant that I - as the fundraiser - was on unfamiliar ground. Depending on the environs of such meetings, it meant I was the one who would feel a bit out of place. So, to counteract that personal feeling, I devised a method in starting the conversation so that I could direct the general flow of discussion. This meant getting familiar with the surroundings. If I was in an office setting, I would quickly look at the person’s office walls to see what photographs, citations, awards or diplomas were displayed. Nearly everyone had these walls of shame- and they are great conversation starters. But for those meetings taking place in the home, sometimes these items would be tucked away in a bedroom or hallway far removed from the main entry or living room where these conversations typically took place. So what would I do? Well, everyone loves books. I would move around the living room until I found a series of shelves containing books. In nearly every instance there was at least one volume I could personally identify with- a certain author or title would catch my eye. Now I had my conversation starter…which would always come full circle to the book I had brought with me.

(Clever, no?)

Back to my south Texas donor…
Upon arriving at my intended’s home, I noticed two things right away: the house was very small but tidy, and every exterior window and doorway was covered with wrought iron bars. This person was serious about personal security!

I rang the doorbell and a kind southern gentleman greeted me at the door and showed me into a large living room. To my sheer joy, the room was lined with floor-to-ceiling bookcases! As we made initial small talk (standing) in the living room, I couldn’t help but notice that nearly every book centered on World War II. I had hit the jackpot. This fellow and I were going to get along nicely today. This was a subject I could talk about for hours. I had read most of Stephen Ambrose’s books and several volumes by other WWII authors, and had watched all the notable movies and documentaries ever made on WWII. So, after being ushered to an overstuffed chair and without much consideration on my part, I blurted out: “So, I guess you’re a WWII buff?

(LONG pause as the gentlemen slowly lowered his head and stared at the floor…)

Well”, came the reply, “if you call flying 42 bombing missions in a B-24 over Nazi Germany between 1942 and ’44 a history buff, then I guess that’s what I am…

(My turn for silence- and not just a little red-faced as I stared back at him in disbelief…silently acknowledging my unintended blunder.)

Upon closer inspection, EVERY single volume in those bookcases centered on the 8th Air Force group which dominated the skies over the European theater. I asked him, “Why so many books on the 8th?

His reply caught me off guard once more, “Every time some yay-hoo decides to write a book about that period of our nation’s history as it relates to the 8th Air Force, I buy the book to see for myself if they got it right…most of the time they didn’t. They weren’t there. They don’t know what happened. I do…

At this point, I’m WAY off script and I let this gentle giant in front of me wax on about his time serving our country during WWII. Come to find out, “Bill” (not his real name) had flown 7 missions over the required quota of 35 to qualify for rotating out of the front line bomber groups. (Side Note: actor Jimmy Stewart flew at least 20 such missions during his time in the service.) On two occasions, Bill had lost a plane to anti aircraft artillery flak that the Germans were known for all over that part of Europe. Many of his crew sustained injuries or died from wounds caused by these flak bursts- or who were too weak to pull rip cords on their parachutes when they had to bail out of a crippled B-24. Bill bore many scars on his body where shrapnel had punctured his body. Initially in our visit, I noticed the rather large indentation at the top of his forehead. He explained that a piece of flak had entered the plane’s belly between his feet and continued through his seat (between his legs) and hit him in the head. It knocked him unconscious and his co-pilot took over the mission and landed the plane back at the base. They took him to a hospital were the surgeon replaced the shattered skull fragments with a steel plate to protect his exposed brain. Since the steel plate is thinner than the skull, the skin grew over the gap haphazardly causing an indentation the size of a golf ball.

Our WWII pilots, co-pilots and crews were very efficient at their jobs. There were so many missions flown over Germany that the total tonnage of bombs dropped exceeded 434,000. (That’s 864.4+ million pounds of munitions.) Total number of sorties flown by bombers alone during the war exceeded 754,800. But with this success came a high price; over 160,000 allied airmen lost their lives during the European campaign. Bill survived, and was sitting across the room recounting his experiences.

Yeah, school was in full blown session and I was the grateful pupil soaking up every consonant that dripped from this man’s lips. I was rendered speechless at his courage, daring, and sheer luck of surviving those ominous daytime raids over Germany. The ‘greatest generation’? You better believe it…and I’m honored to know a few who sacrificed so much for so many. Bill went on to his reward soon after our meeting. I was never able to speak with him again after that visit. In a strange way, I miss him. He imparted a bit of himself to me during our meeting. And what, you may ask, was the reason for his donations to the university? He quietly answered that question during our visit. “I just appreciate what ACU does in educating [preachers] to serve all over the world. I wasn’t able to attend school- I was too busy flying ‘Liberators’…”

And liberating his countrymen as a result.

(And we are most grateful for your sacrifice, Bill. Most grateful...)