My dad, George, died in 2002. And I brought back home to the US all his papers and photos. Going through them I found an old, yellowed piece of paper, folded small to fit in a pocket or wallet. On it was typed a poem by a writer I have never heard of and can find out little about. Jon Etienne Verbeke. To understand why this poem would have such meaning for my dad you have to know that during the second world war he was a gunner in The Fleet Air Arm (the part of the British Navy that operates aircraft). He flew in a Grumman TBF Avenger off aircraft carriers in Asia. In this photo you can just see a gun facing backwards out of the turret behind the long cockpit. This is where my dad sat, his knees so high either side of that gun that when they landed after a lengthy mission it would be hard to walk, he told me.
But back to the poem, here it is:
THESE ARE THE BRAVE by JON ETIENNE VERBEKE
We spoke to him this morning
Before he fell, yellow ribboned
From the thoughtless sky;
I didn't know him well and smiled
At his frail enthusiasm.
He was afraid to fly;
These are the brave who fear
The scornful hours.
They spend centuries flying;
They say they love the air,
Pretend like actors,
And with a frenzied skill;
I knew he was afraid
More than most of us,
And with each trip he flew;
I know my dad saw and did things in that war that he would never talk about, even when I asked him. I think it's because we have to allow participants in war to "pretend like actors" - and carrying this poem, as I believe he did for the final year of the war, was my dad's way of acknowledging his fear without showing it.
If anyone has any information on Jon Etienne Verbeke please send it to me - even a Google search turns up nothing apart from a list showing this poem was published in 1944.