Years ago, a boy bought his first book, a paperback bound copy of The Day The Red Baron Died. The boy had thought the Red Baron was nothing more than Snoopy’s imaginary foe in the Peanuts comic strip he would read every Sunday in The Chicago Tribune. The boy was only twelve. He had not known the Baron had actually lived, had a real name—Manfred von Richthofen—and had been a German fighter pilot in World War I. His squadron was called The Flying Circus. All the planes were painted brilliant, taunting colors. The Red Baron shot down eighty Allied planes from his scarlet red Fokker triplane in the skies over France.
According to a blurb on the back cover, he was killed in action at the age of twenty-five on April 21, 1918, when he chased an Allied plane far behind Allied lines, putting himself in harm’s way, a mistake he had always warned his pilots against. No one knew who had fired the fatal shot. A Canadian fighter pilot or Australian and British anti-aircraft gunners? The book promised an answer.
The boy bought the book and read it quickly. Intrigued by the idea of fighter pilots and encouraged by a determined and curious mother, he also wrote to the author, Dale M. Titler, with questions.
His letter prompted a reply, and a correspondence ensued between the author and the boy that has lasted to this day, almost forty years later. Their relationship advanced and matured as the boy grew to manhood. In all that time, they had never met or spoken to one another.
Mr. Titler was an anonymous, benign presence. The boy put his thoughts and questions on paper and mailed his letters into a depthless void over hundreds of miles from his childhood home in suburban Chicago to Mr. Titler’s mailbox in Gulfport,
Mississippi. The boy was buoyed by the assurance that he would receive a kind and encouraging response.
Hang in there, Mr. Titler wrote on January 30, 1980. I think you have the spark and drive to accomplish what you want in the world. Don’t try to get it all at once, however. Remember that living is the reason for life.
Each letter from the boy, even as an adult, began Dear Mr. Titler out of an affectionate deference he felt toward the older man, both a stranger and friend, although Mr. Titler had long since signed his letters,Warmest regards, Dale.
As the years passed and the boy established himself first as the director of a nonprofit social services agency and later as a journalist, he had considered arranging a meeting with Mr. Titler, especially when Mr. Titler stopped responding to his letters. But he always hesitated, afraid that their relationship would somehow suffer if they met.
What if they had nothing to say to one another?
He regrets that now. Mr. Titler is among the missing in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. He should be seventy-eight years old. The boy is forty-eight years old, nearly the same age as Mr. Titler when he first wrote to him. The boy has called his house, but the lines are dead. He has listed his name on the Internet but no one has responded with information. Police, firemen and Red Cross volunteers don’t have his name either. Since the hurricane struck on August 29, 2005, the boy has watched television images of submerged houses in New Orleans on the nightly news all the while wondering, Where is Mr. Titler?
He has now decided to travel to the Gulf Coast to find him.
His trip will be an odyssey of sorts since he will pass through massive amounts of destruction and sorrow in search of Mr. Titler. He will stay in New Orleans to file stories for his newspaper and because the roads to Gulfport are closed.
Dear Mr. Titler, the boy writes on September 15, 2005, two weeks after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast. I’m flying to New Orleans today. I have tried contacting you but have had no luck. If you get this, call me on my cell phone, number below, so I know you’re alright. Otherwise, I’ll look for you.
In some ways, what the boy will see will be reminiscent of the destruction of war as seen from the air by the Red Baron when he raced across the sky high above the grimy trenches of World War I described in Mr. Titler’s book, which the boy read so avidly.
A taxi honks in the boy’s driveway. He has a Baton Rouge flight to catch in an hour. From there he’ll rent a car and drive to New Orleans. He lifts his duffel bag and turns off the TV. Whether he finds Mr. Titler or not he can’t say, but he knows he must try.
I am the boy.
We were a quiet a family.
Evenings, my mother cooked dinner in the kitchen with the radio on to the Arthur Godfrey Show, and my father read the Wall Street Journal after work in front of the television while news footage of dead and wounded American soldiers in Vietnam occupied the screen.
I read books in my bedroom. My mother had no faith in public schools and required my older brothers and me to read a book a week and then write a book report for her. If I didn’t understand a word, she handed me a dictionary. If I had other questions, she pointed me toward our collection of encyclopedias or drove me to the public library where she expected me to research my questions until I had answered them.
I enjoyed reading history, especially biographies of explorers. By the time I was twelve and had wandered into the local book store, The Booksmith, on a warm Saturday morning, I had also read my share of adventure novels, the Tarzan series being among my favorite.
The Booksmith has long since closed, and now the old, white brick building houses a real estate agency. Across the street, the hardware store has been converted into a restaurant. But when I visit my parents these days, I am still taken back to the way it was when I was a child.
Bells would ring when I pushed open the doors of The Booksmith. Slats of gray light shined through the shades of its storefront windows, and spools of dust turned above my head. It smelled of books, a kind of closed-in attic odor that made me feel I had entered into another time. An elderly woman asked if she could help me, and I told her, “No, thank you.” I was just looking. I stopped in front of a row of biographies and noticed The Day The Red Baron Died.
I thumbed through it and looked at World War I photos of muddy airfields and trenches. The dirt-grimed soldiers resembled the photos in The Chicago Tribune of men fighting in Vietnam. A photograph of the Red Baron peered out at me from an oval frame on the glossy black cover. His deep, stern eyes held me. The raised collar of his coat wrapped around his neck. His military cap slanted to one side.
I saw no photo of the book’s author. But a blurb on the back cover said he had learned to fly in Pennsylvania on an airfield named after a colleague of Amelia Earhart. He had flown open-cockpit airplanes and liked to parachute on Sunday afternoons. He served in the Army Air Corps during World War II and later graduated from the Pittsburgh Institute of Aeronautics. He lived in Gulfport, Mississippi, with his wife and three children.
“To be perfectly candid, what happened on that crisp Spring morning in 1918 was a rather simple act of war,” I read at the end of the preface. “An experienced—and tired—fighter pilot violated his own tactical concept, and paid the price.”
I thought that was terribly romantic and bought the book for $1.25, $1.31 with tax, wiping out the small accumulation of allowance money I had saved.
My mother scolded me for wasting money on a book she thought I’d never read, but I finished it in a few days. It described fighter pilots as “knights of the sky.” They fought and died in the air far above the snail pace of the ground war below. The Baron’s pilots spoke glowingly of him. I imagined my friends on the soccer teams we formed in after-school sports clubs speaking of me as former Lt. Karl August von Schoenbeck spoke of the Baron in the book: “He had a noble way of speech and never swore or used foul language of any kind…. He shone with calm in the most critical moments. . . .”
By comparison, the sculpted neighborhood of our subdivision, with its well-trimmed lawns and uniform-styled two-story wood-frame houses, offered little excitement. I decided that if the Vietnam War lasted long enough, I would become a fighter pilot.
About a week after I finished the book, my mother showed me a story in The Chicago Tribuneheadlined, “The Red Baro’s Granddaughter.” It was about a German model who claimed him as her grandfather. The Red Baron, however, was never married.
“Ask him about it,” my mother said, suggesting I write to Dale Titler in care of the publisher.
That night, I drafted a letter. I wrote slowly, as if a teacher would grade my handwriting. I was impressed with the onerous responsibility of writing to a published author.
Dear Mr. Titler: In reading your book, The Day the Red Baron Died, which was a very good book from which I learned many things, I understand the Red Baron never married. (October 22, 1970)
I reconsidered and wrote above the first sentence, I am twelve years old. I then continued, describing the Tribune article and the woman who claimed to be the Red Baron’s granddaughter, Sylvie who is a model
I think the woman is a fake, I scrawled and then crossed it out and began again; I would like to know from you if this woman is pretending to be the Red Baron’s granddaughter. After some additional thought, I added, or not.
About a month later, I received a reply. I ran around the house, holding the letter to prolong the anticipation of opening it until I couldn’t stand it any longer. I dashed upstairs to my bedroom and ripped open the envelope, tearing a “Victory Over Communism” sticker Mr. Titler had used to seal it.
Dear Malcolm: Many thanks for your letter. I much appreciate your kind words and am pleased to know you enjoyed The Day the Red Baron Died. (November 25, 1970)
Mr. Titler assured me that the young lady in the article was not the Red Baron’s granddaughter. He offered a possible explanation, suggesting that the reporter had garbled her facts and assumed the model was related to the Baron von Richthofen of fighter ace fame instead of some other Richthofen of which there are many to this day descended from Manfred’s cousins.
I read the letter several times, especially the end where he thanked me again for writing and appreciated my interest and confidence.
My mother called me downstairs for dinner. I taped his letter to my draft version and put it in my desk drawer. I then wrote him a thank-you note. I asked my mother for a stamp. She told me to set the table.
My brothers and I stood by our chairs until she sat down. We put our napkins on our lap and kept our elbows off the table. I ate quickly, eager to read my letter again. My mother talked about draft dodgers in Canada and how they should never be allowed to live in the United States again. My father agreed but worried that liberals in government were too sympathetic to war protesters. I wished to be drafted. I soared above the dinner table in a scarlet red triplane, fending off gunfire from enemy pilots, filled with notions of what people one day would write about me.
September 16, 2005:
Dear Mr. Titler: I live in an RV parked in the driveway of a couple who rented it out to another reporter and me. I’m in the suburb of Gramercy, a forty-minute drive outside New Orleans. Evacuees and aid workers occupy all hotels and motels for miles around, and we were lucky to find this RV with a sign in the back window advertising its availability.
Families sit outside their motel rooms in T-shirts and underwear, slouched, limp in the cotton-thick humidity, heavy gray twilight. Clots of gnats rise above small boys dragging twigs on the pavement between their knees, while their parents watch them, holding sweating bottles of water. Interstate 10 just feet away. Squeezed with military trucks and Jeeps hauling supplies. Ambulances and police cars too make up this interminable convoy snaking its way past the stranded evacuees who stare openmouthed and exhausted at the sight of all this bustle. Helicopters hang motionless above the endless line of vehicles inching forward in fits and starts, bruising the sky with bursts of black exhaust.
The neighborhood beyond my driveway appears to have been untouched by Hurricane Katrina. A few heavy branches on driveways. One uprooted tree, its roots still clinging to ragged strings of dirt. Nothing more. I hear the cough of a lawn mower. Still, we have no phone service, and neighbors tell me mail hasn’t been delivered in days.
This evening, I stopped to eat at a jam-packed McDonald’s restaurant and watched men and women who had fled New Orleans work their cell phones, pleading with unheard voices on the other end to rent them apartments, sight unseen. They bid against one another, offering one thousand, two thousand, three thousand dollars a month and higher. Pacing. Back and forth, back and forth spilling coffee. The sweat stains under their arms pooling into lakes, phones pressed against an ear and shoulder to free their hands to pay for their meals.
Using a satellite phone, I called your house minutes ago, but again, no luck. I checked the Internet and found a “Katrina-Gulfport, MS” message board with this note: “9/14/05. Re: Looking for Dale Titler in Gulfport. Did you get in contact with him? Haven’t seen him in a while. I think he is still with the MS Gaming Commission.”
It’s too late to call the Commission today. I’ll try tomorrow.
I still had many more questions of Mr. Titler although he had settled the matter of the Red Baron’s granddaughter to my satisfaction. She was a fake, although my mother said that was no way to talk about people.
Now I wanted a copy of The Red Knight of Germany by Floyd Gibbons, one of the first English biographies of the Red Baron published in 1930. It was listed in the bibliography at the back of Mr. Titler’s book. It wasn’t very good, Mr. Titler warned me, comparing it to cheap dime novels written about American gunfighters. But I liked the title and mindful of my budget—I made twenty-five cents a week allowance—I wanted a paperback.
Dear Malcolm: It’s good to hear from you again, and I’m sorry for the delay in answering. This time of year everything just seems to run together and there just aren’t enough hours in the day it seems. (December 18, 1970)
He suggested it might be something of a problem to find a paperback edition of Gibbons’ book but gave me names of five used bookstores, including one in London where I found a clothbound copy for $5.95. It arrived in the mail in brown wrapping paper with cool-looking blue stamps of Queen Elizabeth II. The bookstore owner called me “Master Malcolm.” I liked that. The book was dusty and worn and carried aromas of long ago. I liked that too.
“He killed one hundred men in individual combat,” Floyd Gibbons wrote, “shot them, burned them, crushed them, hurled their bodies down to earth.”
Gibbons was wrong about the number of planes the Red Baron shot down, but I didn’t care. My pilots and I would paint our planes the colors of the bald eagle and soar over the jungles of Vietnam and sow the same kind of destruction.
Dear Mr. Titler: Hi! I am now reading your book Wings of Mystery and am enjoying it very much. I also enjoyed Red Knight of Germany very much. Thank you very much in helping me find a copy. (February 24, 1971)
One afternoon, when I was showing my friend Andy Mr. Titler’s book and his letters to me, I noticed for the first time the acknowledgment page. The names there were the same as the people Mr. Titler had quoted in his book. A black and white photograph of British gunner Alfred Franklyn staring into the sky by an anti-aircraft gun was opposite the page. He was one of several men who claimed to have killed Richthofen.
In the photograph, his head was titled back, helmet pushed up from his forehead. Mouth open, eyes squinting against the sun. I knew that was how I would look too if I was in a trench firing into the sky. I’d be the one flying, however, immune to Franklyn’s bullets, but should I decide to let one hit me, I’d die magnificently with the sonorous voice of Walter Cronkite announcing my death in the skies of Vietnam.
Andy wasn’t interested in Mr. Franklyn’s picture. His parents opposed the Vietnam War. Andy said Mr. Franklyn never should have fought in World War I. He should have been a conscientious objector. I didn’t know what that was. I told him what I heard my parents say. The United States fights wars to spread democracy. We went back and forth like this until we couldn’t remember any more of our parents arguments for and against the war. Then we went outside and climbed a tree. As I crawled up the thick, twisted branches, reaching through leaves toward the sunlight above me, I wondered what it was like for Mr. Franklyn to have seen the Red Baron, to have fired his gun at him. That night, I wrote to Mr. Titler and asked for Mr. Franklyn’s address.
Dear Malcolm: Here is Sergeant-Major Franklyn’s address as you asked. When you write to him, please give him my warmest regards. I’m afraid I don’t really know why the Germans were called “Jerries” in World War I, but I imagine Mr. Franklyn could tell you. If you find out let me know; I’ve often wondered about it myself. Warm regards, Malcolm and all best wishes, Dale M. Titler. (March 30, 1971)
September 19, 2005:
Dear Mr. Titler: I am stopped at a military checkpoint on eastbound Interstate 10. National Guardsmen are turning drivers away in front of me. Only the military, aid workers, reconstruction teams, police, and reporters can enter New Orleans. No one questions the presence of the military. I roll through the checkpoint as if it was a tollbooth.
The interstate stretches before me gray and vacant. A damp, hollow wind whips around my SUV and across flattened swamps where broken tree trunks stand exposed, jagged and bitter above the grassy waters congealed with shorn branches.
I am alone except for the few military Jeeps racing past me. Vacant buildings ripped to shreds from Katrina gape at the vacant sky through the hollow sockets of empty, black windows, pocked and worn, battered by the heavy debris carried by the storm. Ply wood boards hang limply from the few nails that withstood the gusts. Miles and miles of these skeletal wrecks stretch past me as far as my eyes can see until they become tiny, blurred squares merging into a vast wasted horizon.
I see no one. Hear nothing but the wind through my window.
I miss my exit. I make a U-turn and drive back the way I had come in the same empty lane. A police car passes me and the officer waves and I wave back, old laws suspended for a deserted city that feels suspended in virtual time-warp set permanently at five o’clock on a Sunday morning. Piles of chairs and discarded clothing collect on the side of the freeway, the remains of what people took with them when they walked out of the city and sought refuge on the interstate from the floods. An old man sleeps in a cardboard box. Is he homeless or a Katrina refugee? Homeless now.
I turn onto the appropriate exit, childishly gleeful at breaking all these laws. The stoplights don’t work and I race through empty intersections into a world organized by a cubist sculptor. Boats sit on top of houses. Cars stand upright on their headlights. Dogs on top of pickup trucks stranded on median strips watch me. Spongy houses drool into the ground.
Passing a Civil War memorial, I merge onto St. Charles Avenue. Nineteenth century mansions with white columns and high front stoops and shuttered windows stand draped in vines, grave and quiet survivors of the storm, stalwart amid the ruin. Spray paint warning away looters cover the plywood boards over doorways: You will be shot. You’re no better than carpetbaggers. You must die.
I pull to the side of the road to use a port-a-potty. When I come out, a soldier with the 82nd Airborne asks for my identification. I show him my press badge.
“Thank you, sir.”
I get back in the SUV and call the Mississippi Gaming Commission on my cell phone and become ensnared in multiple voice prompts. I’m cut off, try again, can’t get through. “Dammit!”
I throw the phone out the window. It lands in some bushes.
I sit still in the bright sun, the humid air weighty on my shoulders. Wind without sound. Not even the scratch of blowing leaves. This tepid breeze the last sallow breath to usher from the sky in an abandoned neighborhood. I get out of the SUV and search for my phone, very much alone, desperate for even the nerve-jangling monotone of a computer-simulated voice, or of a soldier doing his duty—something to break this hard quiet. I probe the dirt around some bushes. The sharp crack of branches beneath my hands like breaking glass makes me jump in all this silence.
Where are you, Mr. Titler?
Sergeant-Major Franklyn did not know why the Germans were called “Jerries,” just that they always were, and the French, he said were called “froggies.” He hand-copied the report he had filed in which he claimed to have killed the Red Baron. Rheumatism in his hands, he said, made writing difficult, and he apologized for the short note. He had written to me on an aerogramme. I held the flimsy, blue paper in my hand and imagined him folding it shut on his desk in his Birmingham, England, home. I called Andy and told him I had a letter from a man who might have killed the Red Baron. I put Mr. Franklyn’s letter in a shoe box, taped to the draft copy of my note to him.
Dear Mr. Titler: Mr. Franklyn answered me. Now I shall quote a sentence out of the letter that you will like: “Kindest regards to you and Dale Titler should you write him or see him.” If you could, would you please tell me where I could get in touch with Ted Mcarty, H. E. Hart, retired Major-General Leslie Beavis and Rupert Weston, who all saw the Red Baron shot down? (April 26, 1971)
Mr. Titler told me Mr. Mcarty had died. Rupert Weston, an Australian gunner who claimed to have killed Richthofen was alive, but he did not know how to reach him. He suggested I write to the postmaster of Canberra, Australia, where Mr. Weston lived, and ask for his address. I should do the same with Mr. Hart who lived in New South Wales. In the case of career officers, like Major-General Beavis, he instructed me to send my letter through channels such as the Australian War Memorial.
Malcolm, there is a certain protocol that is normally followed for high-ranking officers and your letter would be better received if it is followed, I think.
I wrote to Mr. Weston, Mr. Hart, and Major-General Beavis, as Mr. Titler suggested. I also wrote to other veterans who saw the Red Baron shot down, tracking them down through postmasters and British and Australian Army veteran-related agencies. Most of them answered me. They sent me photographs of themselves in their World War I uniforms, drew maps of the Red Baron’s crash site and wrote lengthy letters describing what they saw.
Dear Malcolm: Many thanks for the maps and photos. I spent a few enjoyable hours mulling over in my imagination what it must have been back then. Warmest regards, Dale M. Titler (June 8, 1971)
Most of the veterans I heard from were surprised and pleased that a boy coming of age in the Vietnam era would be interested in World War I, given the antiwar sentiment at the time in the United States.
“I remember how sad I felt when I saw the body of Richthofen,” former Sergeant H. E. Hart wrote to me. “A splendid young man looking handsome and peaceful in death before his time although all those years ago must make him seem old to you. I was twenty-seven then. I am eighty now and know now how young a man he was.”
I heard from about a half a dozen other veterans and copied all of their letters to Mr. Titler.
Dear Malcolm: I’m glad to hear you’re having such success with your correspondence in the Richthofen matter and getting such favorable response. I’m also pleased to know that Mr. Weston is going to send you some pages from his diary which relates to the Richthofen incident. I wonder if you could let me see these items when next you write. I’ll return them promptly. Your commitment to research is certainly very gratifying. (July 21,1971)
My parents thought I needed to give Mr. Titler a break. “You shouldn’t keep bothering him with questions,” my father said. “You don’t want to take advantage of his kindness.”
With deep regret, I sent him a short note. Dear Mr. Titler: This will probably be my last letter to you, I began. I thanked him again for his help. I promised to continue researching the death of the Red Baron. I almost told him about my plans for my own fighter squadron. But knowing I was no longer going to write to him punctured my fantasies about becoming a fighter pilot.
I gave my letter to my father to mail. He was in the kitchen talking to my mother about the son of a man he knew from work who had been drafted. The son had left for Canada.
Dear Malcolm: I hope you write to me again sometime should I be in a position to help you further. Warmest regards and all best wishes, Dale Titler. (August 18, 1971)
September 22, 2005:
Dear Mr. Titler: A deep black evening without power. Not even a glow on the horizon. Only stars and the sound of dogs barking, packs of them trotting down the sidewalks. I roam the French Quarter. National Guard soldiers pack the streets, stop me. I show them my press badge, and they let me go. Humvees barrel down Bourbon Street. Bags of garbage stand heaped and stinking beneath vacant apartments and closed stores.
I enter a bar that has reopened through the use of generators and order a beer. A string of yellow Christmas lights hangs above my head, coppering me in a filmy haze. I try calling you again but the line remains dead. I dial the operator to see if she can get through.
“Who are your trying to call?”
“Dale M. Titler in Gulfport, Mississippi.”
“I have two listings. A Dale Titler and a Dale Titler, Junior.”
She tries your number but she can’t get through either. I tell her to try the second number.
“I’m looking for a friend of mine lost in the hurricane.”
“When’d you last talk to him?” the operator asks.
“We’ve never spoken.”
“Well, when’d you last see him?”
“We’ve never met.”
The second number rings and I get an answering machine. The voice on the other end, “This is Dale Titler, Junior. We can’t come to the phone right now,” drawls each word out in a gentle twist of consonants and vowels. I leave a message.
Everyone smokes around me in the bar, and the smoke swirls above my head and clouds the ceiling in the absence of functioning fans. The warm beer still tastes good after a day of slogging through ankle-deep mud in deserted neighborhoods with search and rescue teams immersed in the ruins of water-saturated houses. Overturned sofas and tables tossed by the rising waters lay mired in tar-thick mud. A rescue worker vomited from the throat-tightening funk. Families smiled at us from water-stained studio portraits aslant on living-room walls above framed diplomas and awards from work.
Two men at the bar next to me pose for pictures by a fallen neon sign of two huge breasts with red lights for nipples. Rudolph’s nose, I think and laugh, the beer kicking in on an empty stomach. I keep forgetting to bring food and water with me from Gramercy.
Everything in New Orleans is closed. No restaurants, fast-food joints. All locked and boarded with plywood. Nothing here but this bar and a strip joint across the street, and my laughter joins the rising voices around me, people shouting to one another above the music blaring from a battery-powered CD player, louder and louder, and then a Salvation Army volunteer laughing just a minute ago starts weeping. She covers her face, wails; “I’ve never seen anything like this,” and we look at her and one of the guys next to me says, “What is her problem? We haven’t seen anything like this either, ha, ha, ha!”
“Let’s go across the street, dude,” he says, and I go along with him, spinning off my stool, the sullen silence of her tears following us out the door.
We enter the strip joint packed with soldiers seated at small, round tables, green uniforms spotted with white dots from a mirror ball twirling in the ceiling. Several generators hum. I order a beer, watch a gal with tattoos snaking down both arms stomp on stage in huge black platform shoes, bra, and miniskirt. She bends over. The soldiers whoop, “You go, yeah, yeah, yeah!” One of the guys with me offers her five dollars, and she sits on the edge of the stage and wraps her legs around his neck.
“I can’t believe what I’m doing here. I’m a Cub Scout master at home,” he shouts at me and cracks up laughing.
A Red Cross volunteer jumps on stage, shakes her body and tears off her T-shirt, and wiggles out of her pants. The soldiers can’t believe her. They scream, “Yeah!” pounding the tables, “Go! Go! Go!”
She struts, kneels before them, and leans over the stage, burying her face in their laps. She raises her head and I catch her glance and wonder if it’s desperation I see in her bloodshot eyes or the mood swings of a drunk. Instantly she changes, covers her chest and shouts, suddenly agonized, “Get away from me; get away from me!”
“I gotta get a picture of this,” the bartender says.
He grabs a camera from beneath a shelf while the stripper steps around the sobbing Red Cross worker and slinks off stage. She makes the rounds of tables, finally sitting with some soldiers. She leans into their youthful acne-scarred faces, and I watch them melt before her.
“You don’t think bad of me do you?” the Red Cross worker asks a soldier. She slides off the stage and puts a hand on his shoulder.
“Naw,” he says and shakes his head, wipes beer from his mouth.
He notices me listening. Perhaps because I fit an image he has of stocky, long gray-haired guys with beards, he asks, “You in Vietnam, Jerry?”
“Jerry Garcia, dude. You look just like him.”
“No, man. I was too young for Vietnam.”
“Wish I could say the same.”
He turns back to the Red Cross worker rubbing on his lap. My cell phone vibrates.
I step outside. Soldiers still on duty, peer into the strip joint, rifles held loosely in their hands. Two uniformed police officers fight across the street, but the soldiers only glance at them before they turn their attention back to the strip joint.
“Hello?” I shout into my phone.
“Hello. This is Dale Titler, Junior.”
Months after what I thought was my final letter to Mr. Titler, I asked my parents if I could write to him again. I had successfully continued tracking down witnesses to the Red Baron’s death. My parents would tease me about being the only one in the house who received mail nearly every day. And from Australia and England no less! I wasn’t so interested in who killed the Red Baron as much as I enjoyed hearing from these forgotten old soldiers. One them sent me a piece of his plane, a small red square of fabric he had cut off after the Red Baron crashed near the Somme Valley. I had to tell Mr. Titler. My parents agreed.
Dear Malcolm: You’ve certainly developed a fine file on the Richthofen matter and I commend you for your patience and endurance. I am especially pleased you have obtained a piece of fabric from the Baron’s plane. Congratulations! The people who write to you are certainly at ease in telling you the details of the encounter, so apparently you have impressed them with your sincerity and interest. This is highly important in writing to anyone for information and recollections. (October 10, 1973)
I was in high school then. Bored with my classes, not good in sports, and equally challenged on the dating front, I walked home, retreated to my bedroom, and launched a new project. Inspired by the movieButch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, I began researching outlaws of the American West. I read biographies and tracked down some of their descendants using postmasters as my guides.
Dear Malcolm: You’ve done very, very well on the Butch Cassidy research. I’m proud of you for your obvious professional work on digging out the material first-hand. You must think seriously about writing accounts or even books about your subjects. (March 15,1974)
I hadn’t forgotten the Red Baron, but his hold on my imagination had diminished. The Vietnam War was over, and I no longer saw myself forming an air squadron. With the war off the front pages of The Chicago Tribune, I saw no glory in it. I also needed glasses and assumed that would disqualify me from pilot training. My C grade point average was too low to compete for admission in the Air Force Academy, a goal admittedly I had considered only casually.
“You don’t listen to me,” my mother said. “What makes you think you’d obey orders in the Airforce?”
I was more than a little embarrassed when Andy reminded me of the name I had given my imaginary squadron, The Bald Eagles. I felt at loose ends. I had been prepared to register for the draft and have my life decided for me by the military. I had expected to fall off the edge of a cliff, but instead I never even walked the plank. I wasn’t sure what was expected of me.
Still I daydreamed, but about more immediate concerns. Girls I had crushes on watched me perform heroic rescues. I started writing short stories in which I was always triumphant and walked off with Jill or Linda or whomever I fancied in school at the time.
As I grew older, more and more Australian veterans who had seen Richthofen shot down grew older too and died. Their widows responded to my letters with sad short notes about the sudden absence of their husbands after decades of marriage.
“It is very sad for me being alone after fifty-six years of happiness,” Mrs. Alfred Franklyn wrote to me when her husband died.
What letters from aging veterans I still received I passed on to Mr. Titler, along with my progress on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid research.
Dear Malcolm: Sorry for not responding sooner. I came down with pneumonia and was in bed for two weeks. Have lost a lot of weight, but I can stand that, and am still fairly weak. (January 2, 1975)
Saigon fell to the communists later that year in a renewed offensive that barely registered on my consciousness. I was about to graduate high school and had begun applying to colleges. I overheard my parents in the kitchen lambast President Ford for not aiding an ally, as I wrote to Mr. Titler from my bedroom.
“If Nixon were still president…,” they said, still stunned by his resignation in August from the Watergate break-in scandal.
Politics and foreign policy mattered little to me. I told Mr. Titler I would major in English and make my living writing fiction. He advised me to study the magazine market carefully, short stories are hard to market; articles are easier but perhaps the trend will change before long. Your college courses should prepare you, especially English Comp and Creative Writing.
He expressed regret he could not go to school full time himself. He didn’t have a college degree and was enrolled in one night class which takes a long time to accomplish anything.
I was seventeen years old the summer of my high-school graduation and finally dating my first girlfriend. She bought me a clothbound copy of The Day the Red Baron Died for my birthday. I couldn’t imagine where she found it, because it was out of print at the time, and she wouldn’t tell me. Despite this show of devotion, I was worried I’d not hang on to her.
Dear Malcolm: Am pleased that your girl and you have a common interest in the Red Baron. I sometimes get letters from the female sex on the subject of the German ace; apparently they find him “irresistible.” But hang in there. Maybe some of his charm will rub off. I keep hoping it will in my case, anyway. ( July 23, 1975 )
As always, he wished me well. Normally, he signed his full name and then typed it beneath his signature. This time, however, he just wrote Dale.
September 24, 2005:
Dear Mr. Titler: I spoke to your son and am pleased beyond words to know that you and your wife are fine. He teased that you might not remember me, “Dad’s getting old, you know.” Just joking I know. I’ll leave it to you to get even with him.
I called you on the cell phone number he gave me. Mrs. Titler answered. She sounded as if she was expecting my call. I asked if I could drop by when I finished my assignment in New Orleans. You were out of the house, but she said that would be fine. Any time. Just let her know.
Small signs of life have begun trickling back into New Orleans. Some families have been allowed into St. Bernard Parish where I am now. I drive down streets, deserted except for the few pickup trucks filled with cleaning supplies parked outside one level ranch style houses. Dried, cracked mud covers the ground like a desert floor. Filmy water lines stretch across the tops of houses. Men and women in hip waders walk without a word through the havoc of their homes.
One woman shows me a teacup. She rinses it off with bottled water. The Asian characters on it rise dancing through the dirty runoff.
Soldiers with the 82nd Airborne stop and ask if they can help. Have you heard shots? they ask. Have you heard from FEMA? The Red Cross?
No, most of them reply.
Aerosol cans explode in a garage from the heat pop, pop, pop. The soldiers raise their guns. Gangs wander the streets at night. Few people observe the 9:30 p.m. curfew, especially in the French Quarter. Yesterday evening, I heard military vehicles behind me on St. Charles Avenue but couldn’t see them. I pulled over. They used their night-vision goggles instead of headlights.
“We own the night,” a soldier in a darkened Jeep told me after I showed him my ID.
Pop, pop, pop. That’s not aerosol cans we hear. The soldiers drive toward the shooting. Families run into their houses, slipping on the mud. No matter the damage, still home, still a refuge. I get in my car. A helicopter flies overhead. It follows me to a checkpoint and then turns, banking into clouds. I enter the empty freeway and head for Gramercy and the sanctuary of my RV trailer. On the car radio I listen to forecasts for a second storm. Hurricane Rita.
I was a rebellious college student. My research into the death of the Red Baron did not translate into scholastic excellence. I skipped classes, argued with my teachers, and barely maintained a C average. I wrote a commentary in the school newspaper blasting a drama teacher for his affairs with students. An uproar from alumni followed its publication. The teacher threatened to sue me. College administrators encouraged me to leave, and I transferred to another college my junior year. That summer my parents and I traveled to London for vacation.
Dear Malcolm: Don’t be upset by raised eyebrows and the loss of administration friendship. It’s people like you who change the world for the better. Good luck at your new college. (June 8, 1977)
Mr. Titler was researching a book to be titled Ghosts in the Tower of London and asked me to make casual inquiries of people who might know British experts in psychic phenomenon. Also any old bookstores that might have old volumes on the Tower would be helpful.
I spoke to some guards at the Tower of London who informed me that the only spirits familiar to them came in a bottle. I did find a few books to pass on to Mr. Titler, however.
In the fall, I started at my new college and auditioned for the Fall play on a dare from my roommate, a drama student. I got a small part in a Noel Coward musical and decided then and there I’d be an actor. Mr. Titler lent his encouragement.
Dear Malcolm: I’m pleased to hear how serious you are about drama. So many people are content to just get along and take things as they come today. Believe me when I say your dedication to a job well done will pay off later in life. (April 14, 1978)
After I graduated college in 1979, I moved to New York to pursue an acting career. I rented an apartment in a condemned Brooklyn building. The man living below me was an alcoholic. He collected stray cats and allowed them to use his bathtub as a litter pan. In the winter, the stink rose through my noisy radiators making my room nearly unbearable.
Dear Malcolm: Nice indeed to hear from you again and hear of your new experiences in the big city. The only time I was ever in NYC was at a stop over in LaGuardia. Never really had the urge to live there—it’s safer not to, I think. It’s dog eat dog, but if you can survive a year of it, the addition to your writing repertoire will be well worth while. Warmest regards, Dale (January 30, 1980)
I conceded after a year in New York that I’d never make it as an actor. I had little natural talent and stage fright sealed my doom. I followed a friend to Idaho and trained as a white-water rafting guide for the summer. When the season ended six months later, I joined another friend for a frigid winter in Minneapolis. Miserable, I returned home broke, uncertain of my next move.
Finally, I decided to enroll in the creative-writing program at the University of Missouri. I asked Mr. Titler for a recommendation which he kindly supplied, I can without any mental reservation endorse his continuing efforts in fiction writing, although he was clearly discouraged at the time.
Dear Malcolm: Not to throw a damper on your efforts, but I have given up writing. It’s just too much bother to fight with publishers by long distance, and the rank and file of publishers aren’t, by any means, an honest lot. I say this after six books and half a hundred articles in periodicals. It’s just not worth it any more, Malcolm. Enjoyed your short stories you sent me; I think you’re off to a fine start. Every good wish as always. Excuse the brevity of my note, please. Warmest regards, Dale. (October 27, 1980)
I attended the University of Missouri-Columbia for one semester. I fell in love with a twenty-four-year-old woman who was as far from being monogamous as the moon is to the earth. In my heartbreak, I missed classes, drank too much, and dropped out. My parents were disgusted, and I’m sure Mr. Titler had his doubts as well, but if he did he kept them to himself.
Dear Malcolm: No, I’m certainly not disappointed in you. I believe you have to do what you feel you can do. The important thing is to keep going. The voice inside you will tell you when to take a different course or change gears. Hang in there, Malcolm. You’ll make it yet. (August 17, 1982)
I left Missouri for a buddy in Dallas. Unable to find work, I moved to San Francisco and stayed with a childhood friend for about a month before she put me out because her boyfriend was jealous.
With only a few dollars left, I stayed in the St. Vincent de Paul Society’s homeless shelter where I had been volunteering. Just a few days before, the shelter supervisor had offered me a job. After my eight-hour shift, I found myself sleeping beside homeless Vietnam veterans on the floor as if I were unemployed and homeless which, until I saved enough money for an apartment, I was.
The vets thrashed the ground in their sleep, screamed in the middle of the night, and woke up from their nightmares wild-eyed, breath raw from the booze they had drunk the day before. Mentally toasted, spiritually fried.
Where was the glory? I became active in antiwar protests opposed to U.S. military involvement in Central America and the Persian Gulf. I was twenty-five, the same age as the Red Baron when he was shot down. What would anyone say about me if I died now, I thought.
I moved through the ranks of St. Vincent’s, earned a master’s degree in social work and in three years became the shelter director.
One man I helped enter an alcohol detox program was a former English teacher with a professional background in advertising. I hired him as an assistant and together we published a book of poetry and artwork written by homeless people in the shelter. Then we started a newsletter that evolved into the monthly newspaper, By No MEANS with articles by the homeless about their lives. I collected their stories with the same diligence I had applied to the Red Baron.
This is original research, Mr. Titler often told me, the kind that’s hard to argue with.
At the same time I earned a master’s degree in social work, and we soon expanded the circulation of By No MEANS to 15,000.
Years had passed since I’d last written to Mr. Titler. I had felt too much like a bum to contact him. Now, instead of whiney letters about my life leading nowhere, I could tell him about what I had accomplished. I sat down and dropped him a line.
Dear Malcolm: So there you are! I’ve thought of you many times and have wondered how you fared in the world. Now I see you’ve done well—with your own newspaper! Not bad going at all. I’m proud of you. (November 7, 1991)
Mr. Titler had reestablished his bearings too and had resumed writing. He was working on his “final volume”: the mysterious death and disappearance of the big-band conductor Glenn Miller. He was also writing screenplays, a few of which were making the rounds. His three children were grown, and he was a grandparent of a two-year-old boy. His wife had retired from teaching, but continued to work part-time.
Dear Malcolm: All of those who helped me so generously with my book on von Richthofen have passed away, and I’m not even in touch with their survivors any more. Time moves on. I hope they are not forgotten. Really good to hear from you, Malcolm. Keep going. You have a just cause. (November 7, 1991)
My social services career collapsed in 1994 when The Tenderloin Self Help Center, an agency I started for homeless, mentally ill people with an special emphasis on Vietnam veterans suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, closed as a result of state and federal funding cuts. At loose ends again, I used my experience publishing By No MEANS to get freelance journalism gigs. I used my dwindling savings to self-publish a book of short stories which in retrospect wasn’t very good, but was something I needed to get out of my system.
Dear Malcolm: Congratulations on your first book! I want to see you go on and do more books and receive distribution through a commercial publisher. Keep going; you can do it. (February 26, 1994)
I left San Francisco to take a newspaper job at the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1997. I wrote Mr. Titler before I moved.
Dear Malcolm: Nice to hear from you again. Keep going. I am confident you will make it to the top. I have had to cut back in my writing because of my arthritis and carpal nerve problem in my wrists. I had a triple by-pass last November and am just getting over that. At 68, one doesn’t bounce back as quickly. (June 11, 1997)
I loaded my 1983 Toyota Tercel hatchback with a week’s worth of clothes, two bedsheets and a blanket, and a box of books and began my long journey east. I wrote to Mr. Titler several times from Philadelphia and later from Kansas City, Missouri, where I joined The Kansas City Star in 1998 as its social services/veterans affairs reporter. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, I covered the war in Afghanistan and was sure he would want to know all about it, but I never heard from him.
I thought he may have died—after all he was getting on in years—but I never really believed it. I’d always assumed one more letter from me would prompt a response. That he was still in Gulfport. That he was just older, slower. That he was still there.
September 25, 2005
Dear Mr. Titler: Hurricane Rita hit western Louisiana last night. My RV swayed and I felt it lift off its cinder-block mounts. I stuck my hands out against the walls for balance. The door snapped open. Gray clouds swirled in a black sky, and tree branches rushed overhead in a psychotic orbit carried by a raking wind. I watched people leaning against the storm, trying to get inside their houses. Hair blasted back from their foreheads, windbreakers inflated. Tossed off balance, they rolled bouncing against the rain-slashed ground.
This morning the winds remained fierce. My editor sent me to Lake Charles west of New Orleans to file my last news story. The rain clouded the interstate, and I felt as if I was swimming under water without goggles. Lines of military trucks doused my SUV with tidal waves of gray water. Wind-blown cars swept across lanes, and drivers in the military convoy laid on their horns, swerved out of the way. I saw several roll into ditches. I kept on, fearful of the same fate.
Nearly three hours later, I am now standing in the Lake Charles Civic Center. It was turned into a makeshift shelter. Men and women sit in chairs facing a line of FEMA officials. They remind me of people trapped in a Greyhound bus station, exhausted, waiting for a schedule update. Their wet clothes cling to their bodies, and I smell their sweat and the puddles of dirty water widening beneath them.
Buses stand outside to take these evacuees out of town, but to where? No one seems to know. Behind fogged glass, I see the smudged faces of passengers looking out a bus window at those of us still in the Center. One man complains to me that the police rousted him out of his house without giving him time to take anything other than a pack of cigarettes. A woman tells me an oak tree fell on her roof nearly splitting her house in two. The hurricane, she said, sounded like an infant shrieking, the cracking of the house like crushed bone.
Another bus pulls up. The woman next to me refuses to get on it. Instead, she decides to go to her daughter’s house which she is convinced has been spared. She doesn’t say why. She wants a middle-aged man and his elderly mother to come with her, but the man shakes his head. His mother can’t take any more surprises, he explains.
The woman leaves holding two paper bags. She moves against the wet wind. Rain ruins her bags until they shred and what dry clothes she had fall about her arms and legs. She keeps walking, a trail of socks and underwear dropping behind her.
The flood waters spreads deep into downtown Lake George, a growing stain consuming neighborhoods pocked with the debris of houses. I leave while the roads are still passable and stop at a gas station. Lines of cars stretch for blocks. Drivers mob the locked doors of a convenient store demanding to be let in for supplies. The clerk shakes his head, backs away from the door as raised fists pound the bulletproof glass, distorted faces pressed against one another snarling to get in.
I piss in some bushes. A truckload of soldiers stops and watches me. I show my press badge. They nod and leave. I get back in my car and file my news story. I drive onto the interstate, meld into an endless convoy of evacuees, aid trucks, and military Jeeps. I am driving now deep into the rain and wind and the long night ahead toward Gulfport and you.
September 26, 2005:
Dear Mr. Titler: I am not writing this but thinking out loud in the only way I know how to speak to you. I am turning down 47th Street in Gulfport, and I see your brick house. I pull into the driveway behind a black pickup truck and park. I look up and remember as a boy how my imagination carried me into a limitless sky without clouds, only the glory of blue spaces ever widening into infinite possibilities.
Frankly, I don’t recall all the details of the Red Baron’s final flight any more. I concluded long ago that it was not important who shot him down. He lived too short a time to matter in this world beyond the distortions of legend and folklore. He is lost to me within the meandering contours of my own life, lost so often on journeys that seemed to lead nowhere but which circuitously and with their own veiled reasons gave me purpose and a career and brought me finally here to you.
I can still see myself at the breakfast nook table with my mother writing my first letter to you, Mr. Titler, slowly and carefully, feeling very bold. At the start of something but I didn’t know what. It is that boy now who I watch get out of the car and knock on your door.
An elderly man with thinning white hair brushed back from his high forehead answers. He adjusts a thick pair of brown glasses and tips his head back. appraising the boy. He has a stern look and appears to be puzzled. The boy assumes he has the wrong house.
The old man looks past the boy at neighbors cleaning their yards of branches and other debris from the hurricanes. He sees the neat piles tied in bundles at the end of their driveways. The streets clear, cars washed of grit, plywood removed from windows. Glass sparkles in the renewed ordered burgeoning across the neighborhood. He turns back to the boy.
“You’re taller than I thought you’d be,” the old man says, the slow indication of a smile creasing the corners of his mouth.
The boy does not feel the bitter, bitter irony of meeting him now just weeks after Mr. Titler was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease because he doesn’t know, can’t possibly know, and won”t until they are inside drinking coffee and eating pie and only then does Mr. Titler tell him.
Nor will he know that the balsa wood box on Mr. Titler’s bookshelf in the study, just below all his aviation books and yellowed magazines where he was first published in the mid 1950s, is the urn he carved himself for his cremated ashes. To be buried in the backyard, to dissolve into the ground of the house he has lived in for more than thirty years and where the boy’s letters arrived mixed with bills and magazines, wrapped together with rubber bands to land with a plop on the front stoop week after week, month after month, year after year.
“You’re thinner too than I imagined, but other than that, you turned out just the way I thought you would.”
He had read the boy’s letters after he left San Francisco. Bad health and carpal tunnel defeated his efforts to reply, but he had wanted to respond as much as he wants to say something now, damn this Alzheimer’s!
Yet he can still remember when he saw his first plane two hundred feet over their house in Altoona, Pennsylvania. Orange and black, top wing swept back. And later when he tested for his pilot license in an open cockpit on a frigid December afternoon.
Mr. Titler will tell the boy these stories soon enough. For now, he waits and contemplates him a moment longer. Then he takes the boy who read The Day The Red Baron Died and asked him so many questions and gave his knowledge a value he had never contemplated into a deep embrace; his breath warm against the boy’s ear, his memory clearing for this moment, past and present merging into the now middle-aged man he holds against him, no longer a boy although he can’t help but think of him as that driven youngster, so different really, dropping into his life like he did through the mail, to impart one final observation.
“You made something of yourself, son,” Mr. Titler says. “You made something of yourself.”
© J. Malcolm Garcia