1. Flying Tigers
The news media around the world was going nuts. During the late spring of 2003, Bird Flu was making people sick across Asia, resulting in the deaths of tens of thousands of birds in an attempt to control a growing epidemic. To say that these reports were merely in the back of my mind as I awaited lunch was a lie. It was all I could think about. In this little village located in the mountains of Yunnan, chickens were all over the place, running in and out of the open door of the little stone farmhouse, carving figure eights between me and my friends. To make matters worse, we were seated on the tiny, standard-issue, stools of rural China – lowering us almost eye to eye with the birds.
“Tea?” Since the birds had been drinking out of the water pots on the floor, it was an easy answer: “Bù, xièxiè” – “No thank you.” “Beer?” Ah, that was easier. It was warm but it came with a cap. With bottles of Dali in hand, we were safe – for the moment. We were having goat for lunch. This was the first time I had ever eaten goat but certainly not the last. Earlier in the day we saw a goat tied conspicuously to a nearby tree and decided to name him, “Lunch.” We were right. We looked on with fascination as two men butchered the goat, burned off the hair in an open fire, and then cut the meat into chunks with a questionable knife and an even more questionable cutting board, a well-worn, well-used piece of plywood. The meat was simply cooked in water with mint leaves and hand-stirred (literally, hand-stirred). When lunch was served I was handed a bowl containing a scoop of rice and a ladle full of cubed goat meat – and something that didn’t at all look like a cube of anything. Unbelievable! It was “Lunch’s” left eye socket complete with a hairy eyebrow. What to do? I couldn’t really throw it away, I might offend someone? Maybe a chicken would eat it? But that would be tough to pull off undetected in the crowded room. So I grabbed my chopsticks and jammed the eye socket deep into the bowl, burying it at the bottom of the rice, carefully eating off the surface, and PRAYING that the eyeball was in someone else’s bowl.
Right before our hosts came around with seconds an older man with white hair, a thin mustache and a chin beard, pulled up a stool and abruptly sat down across from me. He wore the usual “Mao-suit” – a blue button-up square-tailed shirt with matching pants and cap. Over it he wore a brown-grey sport coat with the manufacturer’s label still tack-stitched above the left wrist, a cigarette protruding between the fingers of his farm-worn right hand. He reached inside the left breast pocket of his coat, pulled out the cigarette packet, and offered me one. “Bù, xièxiè.” (Mandarin’s not so tough, I’ve got this!)
For a moment we sat there politely chatting, with broad smiles, even though neither of us knew what the other was saying. When Michelle, our interpreter, realized my predicament she came over to help. He told me his name and asked mine. It is apparently difficult to transliterate the name “Mike” into Chinese. Michelle, (I discovered later that she knew exactly what she was doing) offered one he might recognize. She called me, “Mickey”- right out of the Disney portfolio. “Mickey Mouse! Mickey Mouse!” the old man said over and over while laughing and coughing his way through the cigarette smoke.
Suddenly he was silent, standing, and then gone, kicking at the chickens, and walking straight up a path and away from the house. He was back within minutes carrying a little boy, a three-year old, dressed in a red fleece sweatshirt with black trim in the style of a traditional silk jacket. On the sweatshirt were two machine-embroidered goats. (Yea, goats. It was the theme of the day – it’s hard to make this stuff up.) A soft smile returned to his face, he looked straight into my eyes, and said in translated Mandarin, “Sixty years ago I met an American. Today I bring my grandson to meet you.”
So, what American did my new friend meet 60 years before? It turns out that he met a member of the famous Flying Tigers.
I have always been a huge reader and, as a Junior Higher, I was fascinated by stories from World War II. I especially enjoyed reading about the exploits of the Flying Tigers in China and their single engine fighter planes with the painted tiger’s teeth on the nose. This group was officially called the 1st American Volunteer Group (AVG) of the Chinese Air Force and was composed of pilots from the United States Army Air Corps, Navy, and Marine Corps, recruited under President Roosevelt’s authority and commanded by General Claire Lee Chennault in the days before Pearl Harbor. At the time of the AVG’s inception, Chennault was a retired U.S. Army Air Corps officer who had worked in China since August 1937, first as military aviation advisor to General Chiang Kai-shek in the early months of the war, then as director of a Chinese Air Force flight school headquartered in Kunming, Yunnan Province. The Tigers trained on the west side of the Himalayan Mountains from Yunnan in Burma during 1941. Later two squadrons were based at Kunming and a third near Rangoon (now Yangon, Myanmar). One of the things they were assigned to do was protect both ends of the vital Burma Supply route, as the C-47s and crews “Flew the Hump” to supply the American and Chinese war effort against the Japanese.
The Tigers saw their first action against Japanese forces on December 20, 1941, less than two weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Their success was the first positive American military action to take place in the bleak days following the “Day of Infamy,” bringing a glimmer of hope to a devastated nation. Tiger pilots earned official credit for destroying 296 enemy aircraft, while losing only 14 in combat between the winter of 1941 and the summer of 1942. On July 4, 1942 the AVG was disbanded and replaced by the 23rd Fighter Group of the United States Army Air Forces where they went on to achieve similar combat success, all the while retaining the tiger teeth logo painted on the remaining P-40s. To this day, older Chinese fondly remember the brave American Heroes of the Flying Tigers. Two Flying Tiger museums – the one in Kunming that I’ve visited and another in Chongqing – continue to tell the Tiger story in China.
This day, he brought his grandson to meet me. Man, I hope the little guy isn’t too disappointed when he’s older.
It goes without saying that there was no way that I could have imagined the possibility that I would make a new friend and meet his grandson because of a sixty-year-old chance encounter between a young Chinese boy and an American flyer during World War II. Who knew that I would be following in the footsteps of my childhood heroes – “following in the train” (the old hymn says) – of a Flying Tiger! God is sooo cool to do that.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9)