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WWII vet writes to stay busy

Springfield man shares stories of life, family and war.

It’s possible to be old and stupid.

You just start out stupid and stay the course.

Finding wisdom is the trickier thing.

And even for people like Bob Davis — people born with some smarts — it’s not a given.

A story about “Before I Forget,” his book on his World War II experiences, appeared in Monday’s edition. Another about “Growing Up and Then Some,” his account of a hardscrabble Depression-era childhood, will appear in tomorrow’s edition.

Both demonstrate that Davis is not only a good story-teller, but that he has good stories to tell.

That includes the story of how he came to write his books.

The first, his growing up book, is simple.

“I wrote it for my daughters,” said Davis, who graduated from Springfield High School in the spring of 1942.

Davis, who will turn 89 on St. Patrick’s day, showed off his wisdom early in the interview when asked his daughters’ ages.

Said he, “They’re getting to the age where you’d better not say.”

“Like all kids, growing up, they didn’t know much about what happened when Dad disappeared about 8 o’clock in the morning and reappeared after dark,” he explained. “What started out as a letter to them turned into a book.”

After reading that one, “they said, ‘Gee, we’d like to know more about your time during the war,’” Davis said.

As Davis told me for last Monday’s story, he ran into a little luck in that regard.

After his B-24 was shot down — not good luck, but not altogether unexpected, either — his flight log was sent home to his parents. That meant it didn’t go to a depository in St. Louis to be destroyed by fire, as so many other soldiers’ effects were.

He said he got lucky, too, when a YMCA-donated log book was offered up in his barracks at at Stalag Luft IV. That allowed him to record his prisoner of war experience. As important, he had the faith, presence of mind, dogged habit or need to hang on to the book on the 550-mile hike he took across Germany. As he got lighter from lack of food, he recalls, the book got heavier.

Davis wrote “Before I Forget” in six months.

“But that was every day,” he said. “I stuck with it.”

And he’s done other writing, too — a kind of fictional account of his factual experience.

“I find that fiction is more difficult, because it’s a big lie,” he said. “And as a liar, you have to be careful what you say.”

What he said in the non-fiction “Before I Forget” has actually lessened his worries.

“I had a pretty long problem with bad dreams” from the war, he said. “After I finished the book, I didn’t have the dreams any more. It was kind of cathartic.”

He also thinks the book “helped my kids to understand some of the things about their Pop that they might have classified as weird” — the kind of weird he suspects the children of many men returning from World War II were exposed to.

“I think a lot of guys that came back tended to be disciplinarians with their kids and maybe not as understanding as they could have been,” Davis said. With a sense that they themselves were supposed to “shut up and get back to work” and above all “don’t complain,” he said, they might have placed those same adult expectations on their children.

But all this — and the contact he re-established with his old Army Air Force friends — isn’t really why Bob Davis started writing.

“Getting physically old is the hard part,” said Davis. “The big surprise is when the body that has been so good to you for so many years starts to fail.”

In the dire times of the war and his imprisonment, “there were days I didn’t think there would be another day,” he said. “But you were young, and even though at times you weren’t sure if you were infallible,” that time of life also came with a physical and mental resilience.

For Davis, that ended suddenly.

“I was still active playing golf, racing around and doing good stuff,” he said, “when my legs started giving me a problem with neuropathy.”

“They said I had some damage to my legs because of the cold during the march we were on” in the war, he said, “but I was young enough that I threw it off.

“Then diabetes hit. And though I was lean and mean and doing good things, all of a sudden, bam.”

In four months the man who had been tearing around like someone half his age was in a wheelchair, facing a new and daunting problem.

“Just sitting. I figured, man, I can’t do that,” Davis said. “I have to stay busy. So that’s when I started to write.”

“I have a big desktop Mac. I can do three or four hours in front of that.”

But there’s more than that.

Instead of just remembering that he’s the last survivor of his soldiering group, he’s struck up new friendships with the film crew that’s making his book into a documentary and perhaps a dramatic series.

“I’m amazed at how young everybody is. They keep me on my toes. They’re a really fine group of guys.”

Faced with a challenging situation, Davis has embraced it and continues moving forward.

That’s a sign of wisdom at any age.

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