Neighbor, glider pilot, bringer of perspective

Austin American-Statesman, April 11, 2012

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Jack taught me something about loyalty. And perspective. He had seen real tragedy, and it didn't look like a failed black forest cake.

From 1981 to 2004, I had the incredibly good fortune of living on Scott Crescent, a crescent-shaped street about a quarter-mile long. Most of my neighbors had built their homes and planted their cedar elms in the 1940s. My neighbors were as captivating as the tree-lined street.

One neighbor was Jack Lambrecht. Retired from the military and a construction business, he watched out over all of us, whether we were at home or at work. Before we awoke on trash days, our cans were standing at the street, and they were returned before we got home. A giant branch fell into my yard, and there he was at age 85, sawing it up. This quiet, calm gentleman was all about loyalty.

Jack died last week at 94. His obituary made brief mention that he was a World War II glider pilot.

I worried that so many readers wouldn’t know what that meant. I know about them. But only because of Emeril Lagasse’s four-layer Classic Black Forest Cake.

In 2003, Ian and I became empty-nesters, and feeling romantic for Valentine’s Day, I set out to treat him to a spectacular chocolate cake.

In an act of insanity, I spent serious cash buying the ingredients and drove all over town buying weird things like an elevated cake turner.

I robotically followed Emeril’s directions exactly, but his cake didn’t rise. Frantically, I made another chocolate cake from scratch, made the horizontal cuts, lavished expensive kirsch syrup over each layer to soak, and dutifully assembled layers with dark, sweet cherry filling poured between.

But when adding the frosting, time broke into freeze-frames as the entire cake and filling began to fall apart and drip down from the elevated perch onto the counter — despite my frantically piercing it with wooden skewers and weaving a tapestry of obscenities that could be heard throughout the magic that was Scott Crescent.

Alarmed, Ian rushed out of the shower onto the unholy scene and froze. Endless seconds ticked by as it dripped.

I collected myself enough to call Jack. He would know what to do, and he always wanted leftover desserts. He arrived instantly to find me like a stick of lit dynamite and Ian like he were about to wade ashore at Normandy.

He commenced to laugh — heartily! We spooned what we could into a bowl, and he left with it, absolutely thrilled.

Jack’s reaction changed the mood, and we went on to have a romantic Valentine’s evening.

The next day, I spoke with Jack about perspective. It was then that he told me he was a glider pilot in the Second World War. I had no idea what that was. He told me, but to this day it seems surreal.

There were only 6,000 glider pilots. They volunteered for their do-or-die mission to fly glider planes loaded with troops, cargo, vehicles, anti-tank guns and explosives to the front lines.

To save weight, these pilots wore no parachutes. They knew that with each mission, 20 percent of them would die and three times the number killed would be wounded or taken prisoner.

Everyone knew the “G” on their silver wings stood for guts.

Spearheading the major invasions, glider pilots would crawl into their unarmed, motorless, wooden planes and be hooked by tow planes — swept airborne from a dead standstill to 120 mph in seven seconds.

After detaching, their planes would float in the dark of night deep into enemy lines amid anti-aircraft and sniper fire.

Utter pandemonium would ensue as the planes crashed on land or sea. If they survived the landing, the pilots helped unload the gliders, fought alongside the glider troops and guarded the nearest airborne division headquarters.

The glider pilot program ended after the war and is widely considered to have played a decisive role in the spectacular air operation success of World War II.

Jack was with the 76th Troop Carrier Squadron in campaigns in Sicily, Normandy, southern France, Holland, Bastogne, the Rhine crossing and Central Europe. He flew three glider combat missions beyond enemy lines into Normandy, Holland and Germany, for which he was awarded a Bronze Star. Like the glider pilots before him and the few who remain, he will be inurned in a national cemetery with military honors.

Jack taught me something about loyalty. And perspective. He had seen real tragedy, and it didn’t look like a failed black forest cake.

Toni Inglis, MSN, RN, CNS, FAAN, is a lifelong Austin resident and retired editor and neonatal intensive care nurse. She writes a monthly opinion column for the Austin American-Statesman editorial page.