Monday, June 22, 2009

The Bridges at Toko-ri

I first saw The Bridges of Toko-ri when I was a teenager. I was youngster who felt himself small and unimportant, and I was the sort of callow romantic who sometimes imagined himself celebrated for what he was not -- a hero. Even a dead hero in a cold, muddy ditch in a war-torn country a half a world away.

I remember being entranced by the cool blonde beauty of Grace Kelly, admiring William Holden, and laughing at Mickey Rooney. And I remember the F9F Panther jets flashing across the Technicolor sky to light up my soul with a passion I couldn't explain.

I wanted to take my heroic fantasies to the air. I wanted to be a military pilot, but, as with many youthful enthusiasms, passion outweighed reality. It did in this case, at least, for I was too blind to see that my poor eyesight and thick glasses would keep me out of the cockpit.

To say I loved airplanes is a spare description of my obsession. Better to say airplanes consumed me. I sketched out their images on my school notebooks. I collected magazines with airplane photographs. I assembled countless models of my favorites. My dreams soared as I read about aircraft, talked about them with my friends, and attended every movie that promised to give me wings -- The High and the Mighty. The Strategic Air Command. The Flight of the Phoenix.

And most of all, The Bridges at Toko-ri, one that fed my reveries of glory in the skies and a tale that still resonates after nearly five decades.

It is the story of Lieutenant Harry Brubaker, a World War II naval aviator turned influential civilian lawyer. It is 1952, and Brubaker has been called back to active duty and sent to fly bombing missions in the forgotten war, the Korean Conflict.

I was growing up in the shadow of the Brubakers of the world, almost every one a veteran of World War II or Korea conflict or both, veterans who rarely talked about the terror that had stalked them through the skies or the lonely battles in muddy ditches.

Brubaker was my hero, a familiar face in the world in which I lived. He had the same intense, electric smile as a friend's father, a navigator on long-range bombers. His uniform jacket was flush with the same sort of decorations as the paratrooper lieutenant who lived upstairs.

And so, with my quarter and my free Saturday afternoon, I sat, watching Brubaker's death, caught up in the illusionary romance of war. And I believed.

Nearly half a century flew by before I saw The Bridges at Toko-ri again. Late one afternoon my wife was tuning across one of television's classic movie channels. "Isn't this the movie you told me about watching when you were a kid -- the one you said you watched three times in a row?"

There was Brubaker, flying his jet from the aircraft carrier Savo Island on dangerous raids deep behind the Communist lines.

Brubaker, rescued from the cold Pacific waters by Mike Forney and Nestor Gamidge after his jet flamed out.

Brubaker, the admiral's favorite, shot dead in a muddy ditch by North Korean soldiers after he crashed his plane during the dreaded raid against the bridges at Toko-ri.

I am older now, jaded, and I have learned few real heroes are framed in Hollywood film. All the same, I carried images from that old film into my sleep that night, and I dream of my youth among warriors, but I have also lived long enough to learn there is no romance in a hero's death, no matter how noble. Brubaker served and died, a parable on film.

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