Some books are fast reads. In fact, being a fast read is one telltale measure of a story’s greatness. This book, this story, is all that.
It still took me a year to finish it.
I didn’t get sidelined by the busyness of kids graduating — one did — or a new job, although I did start one. No, I needed a year to read this book because it was the last adventure I took with my Dad.
For as long as I can remember, Dad was my hero. I don’t know why that is so often the case for fathers and daughters. I thought it was because Dad had learned to fly before he could drive, because he had been in the original astronaut program and was sent to Europe on a goodwill mission for President Kennedy — all of this before he finished college. It’s cool stuff, but I have a feeling that daughters thinking their fathers are heroes is a daughter/Dad thing pure and simple.
But when I got the text message a little over a year ago that Dad had fallen for a second time and was going into a surgery he might not survive, I was . . . conflicted. My relationship with my parents had gotten complicated. Tolstoy said it best: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Still, I had a choice. I got on a plane home.
Dad was not in good shape. The rehab staff was the kind of honest you long for but that destroys you. They were preparing my father for hospice care. He was struggling to find his way through this last stage of his life. His spirit was so strong. He longed for one last adventure. And his favorite adventures had always involved a cockpit. But he was bedridden and in a lot of pain.
I am a writer. If I couldn’t get my father in a cockpit literally, I would do it figuratively. I scoured the internet for a flying story Dad hadn’t read yet. I came across two books. One was about letting go. My uncle the Buddhist read that one to Dad during his visits. Devotion was about adventure, friendship and doing what’s right, even in the face of death. That was the one for him and me.
Published in 2015, Devotion takes the reader from the beginning of Jesse Brown’s and Tom Hudner’s careers as U.S. Navy pilots. It recreates the 1950s, when Brown became the first African American naval aviator, and explores what that meant in the Mississippi town where he grew up, across the United States, in the military, and among the Navy air corps.
Dad and I began to read. I didn’t get through more than a few pages at a time before he would fall asleep. This went on for about two weeks, until he finally got a spot in hospice. At that point, well, family got involved and there wasn’t much time for reading. There was a lot of getting together, a lot of sharing stories, a lot of waiting for my brother to get back from an overseas deployment.
Dad waited for more than a week without any food or water. The night my brother arrived, we sat around my Dad and told stories the way he used to, with so much laughter and mischief. When I left, I was sure the call would come that night that he had died.
But Saturday morning dawned bright and glorious. I was the first to arrive. It was just Dad and I, like it had been when we started down this final stretch. Dad was having trouble breathing. I had that feeling, the way you do around death, and he had always said if he could choose his way to go, it would be in a plane. This was closest I could get him. I began to read. He died a few minutes later.
I put the book down for a long time. I didn’t want to finish. This was our last adventure together. But things happened that made me feel as if Dad was my wingman. Two weeks before the anniversary of his death, I decided it was my turn to be his, one last time. I started to read.
It is a riveting book and story. The author, Adam Makos, did soooo much research. He interviewed, he dug, visited, learned, pieced together, and he wrote, wrote, wrote. He built the setting from every angle. The result reads much the way active service people talk: honest, straightforward, with just the right amount of razzing.
Makos puts readers on Hudner’s first flight over Hawaii and relates his intense air sickness — so bad he initially steered away from being a pilot. We see him meet Brown at an air base in Rhode Island. We get to experience what it meant for the pilots, especially Hudner, to meet Liz Taylor in Cannes and go to the casino with her. And then how abruptly life changed when Brown and Hudner were called up for duty in Korea.
Devotion marvelously sets the stage for the Korean War. It takes the reader through mission flights, bringing home just how dangerous naval aviation is before the pilots even get into combat or drop their payloads. We get an almost visceral view of the bitter conditions Marines fought under at Chosin Reservoir, only to be surprised by a Chinese attack that outnumbered them eight to one. And we feel the tension the pilots felt, grounded by bad weather when all they wanted was to get into their fighters and provide air support. The reader has a truly aerial view of what happened during that battle, and how.
When Brown’s plane is strafed and he goes down, Makos has prepared the reader for what that means, what the chances of survival are landing in the mountains during a brutally cold winter, why no other pilot was allowed to crash-land their plane to try to save him, yet why, ultimately, Hudner did.
There is so much story in Devotion, so much true story, so much friendship, compassion and sacrifice.
It is absolutely my Dad’s kind of flying story. I have a feeling he read them as much for the adventure as to try to understand his father, a World War II bomber pilot. Maybe Dad did little hero worship of his own.
I hope it will be your kind of story, too, full of all kinds of heroes: Brown, the helicopter crew that saves Hudner, all the soldiers who went into battle.
Hudner heroically continued to tell his friend’s story and worked until his own death to have Brown’s remains brought home. I have thought a lot about why he did. Maybe there was some hero worship there like I had for my father, and he for his.
And, maybe, he was keeping a part of Jesse Brown alive for himself and for everyone. Stories do that. Despite the ache that sometimes brings, it brings so much warmth and joy.
Devotion does all of that. Dive in. Discover. And if you love flying, soar. I’d like to think my Dad did.
Stacy Nyikos is the author of award-winning books for children. She has worked in higher education with active military, first-generation and low-income students as well as students with disabilities. Currently, she is the director of marketing and proposals for a small, service-disabled, veteran-owned company in San Diego. Find more of her writing at stacyanyikos.com.