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Our last few hours in Tucson were spent being one of the 150,000 annual visitors to the Pima Air and Space Museum.

The Pima Air & Space Museum bills itself as “one of the largest aviation Museums in the world, and the largest non-government funded aviation Museum in the United States.” Built in 1976, it now stands on 200 acres and is second only to the Smithsonian in the size and diversity of its collection.

The museum has over 275 air and space craft from military, commercial, and civil aviation, including Russian MIGs, a B-29 Superfortress, the SR-71 Blackbird, a rare World War II German V-1 “buzz bomb,” the Air Force One used by President John F. Kennedy, and the presidential planes used by presidents Johnson and Nixon.

On the museum grounds are five enormous hangars and a Memorial Museum to the 390th Bombardment Group. A paid bus tour takes visitors to the 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Center (AMARG), known as the “Boneyard, ” across the street at the Davis-Monthan Air Force Base.

When we arrived at the museum, the first thing we did was take the bus tour to the AMARG. Well worth the cost, it takes an hour to weave through the many rows of planes as a guide rapidly explains what they are and how they were used.

Like astronomers, the military chose Tucson as the site for the AMARG deliberately because of its climate. Low humidity reduces rust and the ideal weather, low precipitation, and low threat of natural disasters make it possible to store the planes outdoors, eliminating the need to build many expensive hangars. The desert ground is also hard enough without paving to drive the planes across. Even though the planes are stored in open air, they are protected. Each is coated with several layers of spray latex that is easily removed if the plane is sold or returned to action.

If you’ve always wanted to own an old fighter jet, the AMARG is the place to buy it. Though it’s called a “boneyard,” many of the planes are still in working order or can be with little work. Most of the purchase orders come from other countries who use them for their military. Australia, for example, supplies its Air Force with Ardvarks and consequently pays for one-third the cost of operating the AMARG through its purchases. There are also private buyers, who I guess buy the planes to be cool, because what’s cooler than inviting a friend for a spin on a F-15! The only thing you can’t buy is the F-16. Iraq uses them, so the U.S. has been destroying every plane or part of one (even buying them off of Ebay) that it can get its hands on. For every dollar the military spends in operating the AMARG, it receives $2 to $3 back in profits. Finally, a profitable government program!

While I admit that I didn’t expect the Museum to be one of the highlights of our trip, I was impressed with how much I enjoyed it. The boneyard had more planes than I’ve ever seen in one place. While I’m not brave enough to confess just how ignorant I was/am in the ways of military aircraft, let’s say I learned a lot, leaving me with still very little knowledge.

When we returned to the museum, we headed for the hangars and a walk around the planes stored on the museum grounds. The best of these was the Air Force One used by Kennedy. Visitors are allowed to board the plane, still well-preserved by Plexiglas covering most of the interior. Whatever I expected it be like, it wasn’t. For one, the sixties décor was almost comical. More than that, the interior was striking in its simplicity. Not ornate, not opulent, and in fact, not even comfortable, with one narrow aisle and few amenities. Maybe for its day it was nice. Even so, what was so notable was that the décor didn’t just reflect the taste of a different era, but revealed a less complicated age. Maybe I’m wrong, but I imagine that the modern Air Force One is outfitted with the best of our time, sophisticated equipment, conveniences, all designed for maximum comfort and show, proving the status of our president in its gadgetry. Kennedy’s plane reflected an age when the average home was only 1500 square feet to house bigger families, with fewer appliances, and without things that today we consider necessities, like air-conditioning and dishwashers. How our expectations have changed!

The absolute best part of the day was when we happened upon John Day. Looking up inside the belly of a “Flying Fortress,” I asked my husband a question. The elderly gentleman standing beside us answered, and went on to share details about flying it, using words like “we” and “I.” He seemed too spry and looked too young to be a WWII veteran so I tried to make sense of his sentences. I asked incredulous, “Were you in World War II?” “Yes,” he nodded. At 83 years old, he was living history.

John had three other brothers who also served in World War II. He admitted to having some guilt, “While my brothers were having a miserable time stationed in places like Asia and Germany, I was living it up in London.” His face broke into a broad grin as he laughed, “What was it that the British complained about American soldiers? ‘Too much time, too much money, too many women.’” All of John’s brothers survived the war. John went on to extol the benefits of the GI Bill, which was an opportunity for someone like him from a small town in Maine to get a college education.

I have spent a lot of time pondering that, imagining Day and his brothers settling in at a college after being at war, what life must have been like for them, the ups and downs after they returned to the States.

I stood before him in awe and appreciation. There’s a lot of rhetoric today about the soldiers in Iraq fighting for “our freedom.” I have the utmost respect our soldiers who enter our military with the intention to protect our country, many of whom are sacrificing their lives, limbs, relationships, and mental health in Iraq for a war that some don’t even believe in. What I take exception with is Bush’s campaign of deception. We know that Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11. Hussein is evil, there’s no question about that, but he’s not stupid. Before he invaded Kuwait, he gave us warning, and when we said nothing in reply, he perceived our silence as tacit approval. Iraq was no threat to the US. We had no more reason to invade Iraq than to invade Darfur, or Myanmar, or any of the other beleaguered and tragic places on earth. Standing before John Day though, I was in the presence of someone who really did fight for the freedom of our country, and for the free world at large, from real and menacing threats, that had they been the victors, would have created a much grimmer life for us all. I was choked up then as I am now writing this. I thanked him for serving, but the words seemed empty. How can “thank you” capture the gratitude of generations, millions who have been the beneficiaries of these veterans’ selflessness, enjoying a world of peace, freedom, and prosperity because of them?

Day was only one of the volunteers at the museum. There are over 250, who serve over 66,000 hours as docents, tour guides, and aircraft restoration technicians. All of the volunteers we met were veterans and each one warm and kind, answering our questions and sharing stories eagerly. I asked another veteran to explain the Nose Art. “Well, when you get a big group together, there’s always someone who knows something, so we could always find an artist.” The paintings were often done by someone in the squadron and the name of the plane was decided collectively, though the pilot had final approval of the naming and artwork. He went on wistfully, that many of the planes were named after the pilot’s wife or girlfriend. I smiled and replied, “That was a different era, huh?” to which we both got a little misty-eyed, he maybe in reverie, and me, I can’t say why exactly, except some combination of respect and a longing for simpler times myself.

Whatever I expected to experience at the museum, it wasn’t that it would be one of the highlights of our visit to Tucson. We left the museum for the airport and I felt grateful to have been reminded of one gift we seldom remember. It was the day after Memorial Day. Our visit couldn’t have been a more fitting end to our Memorial Day vacation than by having first-hand contact with veterans who made me remember, feeling humble in their presence, and grateful for the lives their service has granted us.

My pictures of this excursion
Pima Air and Space Museum
Nose Art

June 2008