Tomorrow, he will be 85, the same age my dad would have turned last month. My dad also served in the Army Air Corps, a group that preceded the formation of the Air Force.
We were on a Southwest flight from Philly to Las Vegas, where he and his wife have retired, and they were sitting in the front row of the craft. That left one window seat, which I asked to have.
My first interaction with Dick was accidentally dripping water from my bottle onto his head as I attempted to shove my bags into the overhead compartment. I apologized profusely. He smiled his forgiveness and said, "It's nice and cool."
My second interaction, as I chatted with his lively wife, Molly, and propped my bare feet up on the carpeted wall in front of us was, "Nice pedicure."
(At that point, I didn't know who this affable gentleman was, which is a good thing, as I would have had to violate federal aviation regulations by pulling out my BlackBerry and texting everyone I know that one of the men who had dropped the first atomic bomb had complimented my toes! You can't make this stuff up.)
Molly flipped through a Vogue and told me about how she and Dick had been married previously, and after their divorces, each had married the other's spouse. Each couple having had three children, that made for interesting holiday get-togethers.
They enjoyed each other so much, and were so sweet toward each other, that I had to ask how long they had been married. Nearly 50 years, Molly said.
They had been at an air show in Reading, Molly told me. We started talking about checking luggage and all the new fees, and she mentioned that Dick had to pack a bunch of posters to sign. And I asked, what for?
Which is when I discovered I was sitting next to a living piece of history -- one of only two surviving crew members of the Enola Gay, the other being (I believe) navigator Theodore Van Kirk, who had been even younger than my plane mate. Pilot Paul Tibbets, after whose mother the plane was named, died Nov. 1, 2007. At the time of the mission, Tibbets was 30.
The first thing that flashed to mind was the book Hiroshima, by Paul Hersey, a fascinating but disturbing account of the destruction that I read in high school.
The second thing I remembered was that my father had always told me that, while many criticize the dropping of the atomic bomb, he knew that if it hadn't happened, Japan would have been the next stop for him and thousands of other soldiers. That mission, according to my dad, could have saved his life.
And I am selfishly thankful for that.
Politics be damned, I thanked Dick for his service and told him about my dad. And later, dagnabbit, I wished I'd gotten him to sign my toes so I could put them up for auction with all of the other Enola Gay memorabila.
But most of all, I really wished my dad were still alive. He would have loved that story.