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Monday, February 18, 2013

Honor Flight: Spending a day with the Greatest Generation changed my life

2010 was not my best year.  I was going through tough times in my personal life and uncertainty in my job. When a friend called me and asked me if I wanted to be a volunteer for an Honor Flight in September, I was thrilled to have an opportunity to do something that would take my mind off my own worries and give me a chance to experience something quite special. There was no way I could begin to know how special that day would be and how it would truly touch my life.

If you don’t know what Honor Flight is all about, I strongly suggest you look into it and sign up for one. Time is running out. There aren’t many left from the Greatest Generation, and every year their numbers dwindle further. 

As I am thinking back on that day, I realize that I am not going to be able to do it justice with this one blog post. There is simply too much to capture. But there is a reason I am writing this now, almost three years later.  Recently, I found out that the man I spent that beautiful day with, recently passed away and I want to honor him once more.
My friend picked me up very early that morning and we headed out to Dulles to meet the “old guys” we would be assigned to escort that day. 

                                                        Waiting to greet the WWII veterans and be paired up. 

My friend had already volunteered at a few times and she explained the whole procedure and what to expect. Depending on the health of my designated veteran, I should expect to have to speak loudly, walk slowly, and patiently listen to war stories. No problem!  I was up for it and prepared for the worst. If my assigned veteran is in a wheel chair, I can push him all day long. I was just grateful to have the chance to interact and connect with one of these men. Little did I know that the man I would spend the day with was like no 89 year old I would have imagined. 

                                 They landed! Getting ready to greet them inside the terminal.

Robert B. Kalnitz. That’s the name I had on my piece of paper. He arrived with his group from Chicago. He was one of the last ones to disembark the plane. They allow the less mobile veterans off the plane first- those in wheel chairs and walkers. But Robert, or Bob as he asked me to call him, stood tall and capable.  

                                       Robert Kalnitz taking my photo as I took his. 

As he walked toward me, I got a deep sense of slight shyness and could see he felt a little uncomfortable with all the attention that was being given to the group. I would come to learn that he was a modest, humble, sensitive man who was deeply grateful for the opportunity to come to Washington, D.C. to see the World War II monument with his fellow Greatest Generation. Bob also was moved by the idea that all the volunteers had, in his words, “taken the day off from work and using their vacation time” to spend with strangers who had fought a war before many of them had even been born.

So we were given a chance to spend time together on the bus from Dulles to D.C. and Bob was so bright and sharp that I soon began to realize that he was unlike most of the others in the group. I asked him the usual “get to know you” questions about his life since the war, what he did in the service, and his family. He answered and engaged me about my life and experiences too. It was delightful and I wasn’t bored for a minute. We had really hit it off, and I felt so fortunate and blessed to have really hit the jackpot by being given this gentleman to spend the day with. 

                                                              Friends already! Enjoying our time at the WWII Memorial   

As I write these words, tears well up as I remember the sweetness of that day. It was perfection from start to finish. The weather in D.C. was simply amazing. Blue skies and lovely sunshine, with a light breeze. Once we got to the monument, we walked around and I took photos. Bob had a camera too and he took snaps of his state monument- Illinois. Seeing all of those old veterans, I couldn’t help but imagine them in their youth and what they had been through during the war. It was especially poignant, and a bit ironic, that Bob had been a flyer who flew missions from England to Germany. I shared with him that my mother had been there, a small child, living in Köln, Germany.
Perhaps Bob had flown over her town. You might imagine that fact may have been something that put some awkwardness between us, but it didn’t in the least. 

                                    Bob showing pride for his home state of Illinois.

There are no accidents. I could have easily been paired with a veteran of the South Pacific or France, but the universe has an interesting way of  teaching us lessons and in those difficult days of 2010, I needed to feel like life had a deeper meaning and that this experience was a gift I had been looking for. 

So we spent that beautiful day together, enjoying an outdoor lunch and talking for hours. We saw the sights and walked the steps of Mr. Lincoln’s memorial. Not all the veterans were able, but Bob was so strong and in such great shape, he was able to keep up very well. As the day wound down, we headed back to Dulles on the bus, and it started to get dark. I shared some of my personal woes with Bob, who was kind and thoughtful with his advice. 

He talked about his marriage and his daughters and grandchildren. That day we shared truly wonderful conversations and we really bonded.
Bob even mentioned me when he spoke to his wife, Shirlie, on the telephone. I felt special and appreciated. How did Bob know how much I needed that feeling? He just did; that’s the kind of man Bob Kalnitz was. 

When it was getting close to the time to say goodbye, I started to get a really big knot in my stomach. I didn’t want to cry, but I had a feeling I was going to do just that. So when they called the veterans to line up to board their plane, Bob and I exchanged contact information and we hugged goodbye. And we both had tears in our eyes. Just like I do right now remembering it. 

We are very fortunate to have things like Facebook and email to keep us connected. Imagine how thrilled I was a few weeks later to receive an email from Bob’s daughter, Leah.

Hi Diana,
I wanted to thank you for your kindness and sensitive attention to my Dad, Bob Kalnitz, during his time in Washington Tuesday. He got off the plane raving about you nonstop. His conversations with you and your interest in and sharing with him were more of an honor to him than the WWII Memorial. He was amazed that you would take a vacation day to spend with an elderly veteran. We are so touched by the generosity of spirit (not to mention time and thought) of all the Honor Flight volunteers. You made a great day even more special, and our family can't thank you enough. 
All the best,

So Leah and I would touch base from time to time.  I wrote to wish Bob a happy birthday when he turned 90. Life took off for me and I was distracted by my own issues, family, health concerns, and relationship. I changed jobs, got married, and just did all the things we do in our day to day lives. 

I thought of that day, and Bob, often. I encouraged my family and friends to sign up for Honor Flight and I told my mother about the day I spent with the lovely, kind, intelligent, Jewish man from Chicago; who just happened to be an Air Force pilot who flew a bomber over Germany during the war. She also appreciated the rich coincidence and how interesting it was for me to share a day with someone who had lived through a dangerous experience and time. She said I was fortunate to have had such a chance to hear firsthand what that must have been like. And I knew I was.

A few weeks ago, I got an email from Leah. It may seem hard to believe, but her words brought me to tears that would resurface many times since. This is what she wrote:

Dear Diana,

It has been a long time since I've written to you, but it is not because I don't think of you often. I especially have been thinking of you every day recently and every day put off writing this particular e-mail.

I am very, very sad to tell you that my dad passed away on January 15th. He got the flu towards the end of December and then developed pneumonia and was hospitalized. It was a rampant infection and the doctors couldn't get rid of it and Dad couldn't fight it off. Despite the fact that he was 91.5 years old and we knew we wouldn't have him forever, we simply were not prepared to part with him quite yet. He was engaged, vital, independent, and wonderful--not at all like a man of his years. We all thought he was going to conquer the illness--and he especially did. 

I sit at my Dad's small writing desk just about every day, going through paperwork and helping my Mom. A note in his handwriting with your name and contact information is right there on the desk, sometimes covered in piles of bills and letters. It is a testament to the special place you had in my dad's heart and the impact you had on him that your name and address remained on his desk where he would always see it. I am so grateful for the day you shared together, and I want you to know how meaningful it was to him and to us.

I hope the New Year has begun well for you and that life will be very good to you always.

Sending warm hugs,

I wrote her back and let her know that I was so deeply and sincerely sorry to hear that Bob had died and how I understood the depth of their loss. You might think it presumptuous of me to think that I knew someone I had only known for a single day, but I believe I got to know the very best of him in those hours and I fully understood what his family meant to him, and what he meant to them. I have no doubt in my mind that his spirit will always be with them, as I feel it is still with me. Certain people in this world have that gift and Bob Kalnitz had it more than most. He was the most decent and righteous kind of man, who had the perfect combination of strength and tenderness, self-dignity and respect for others, and most of all, gratitude and humility for his blessings large and small.

If you ever find yourself losing faith in life or humanity, as I had in 2010, I hope you have the opportunity to reach outside of yourself and do something for someone else. In doing so, you may find- as I did, that in the end you will receive a lesson, a gift, an opportunity that changes you and your perspective on life. 

I challenge you to go out and find that person, or thing, that restores your faith in humanity and lets you see firsthand that good people, really, really, good people, exist and are among us. We just have to open our hearts and minds and invite them in. I did such a thing in September of 2010, and now I am one of the fortunate ones who can say that their life was deeply and profoundly changed by the most unlikely of people, in a completely random encounter.

Many, loving thanks to Bob Kalnitz for the wisdom and advice, and example, he gave me that day. I feel the bond and connection to him even now. I’ll never forget him and I honored to have had the chance to meet him and share a day with him. And thanks to Leah and Bob’s family for allowing me to share this remembrance with all of you.

In his daughter Leah’s own words:

Dad was a First Lieutenant in the Air Force, 305th Bomb Group. He was a B-17 pilot, and his plane was a Triangle G. He was an instructor in Ft. Myers for a year and then was sent to England, stationed at a base about an hour outside London, in Feb. 1945. He flew missions over Germany and perhaps other countries. After the war, he was kept overseas to help photograph Europe to create a map--and also to survey damage, I believe (can check on that). His love of planes preceded his service--he was determined to be a pilot--and continued until his death. Our childhood and even adulthood included going to air shows with him. His grandchildren went, too. He wore his Air Force ring proudly every day.

He and my mom (Shirlie) were married in Columbus, Ohio on Feb. 20, 1944. Next week would have been their 69th anniversary. When they got married, he hadn't yet received his orders and didn't know if he was shipping out overseas. But they heard either that day or right after that he was being sent to Ft. Myers to be an instructor, so Mom went with him and they were there together for a year. I think he left the U.S. right around their anniversary and came home a year later, right around their anniversary.

1 comment:

  1. This brought tears to my eyes! Thank you, Diana for volutneering with me. I had no idea I was helping you when I asked you to volunteer. I must have done 6 or 7 Honor Flights in 2010 and organized volunteers from my company in 2011 when I couldn't participate due to a broken ankle. I have thought so many times that I need to follow up with the veterans I met but life has gotten in the way. The first veteran I met was named Rudy. He was a kind, sweet, quiet man who never married but chatted about his nieces and nephews. We spent most of the day quietly taking in everything. I felt so honored to share this experience with him. When we parted at the airport that evening, he had tears in his eyes and so did I.