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Parachuting Artist


1944 | January 1945 | February 1945 | May 1945 | 1955

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  1944Off we go…

Dad was stationed, in November 1944, at Molsworth, England. He navigated B-17 bomber missions over Germany. It took guts to navigate a plane filled with gasoline and packed with bombs into an intersecting star pattern with eighteen-year-old pilots criss-crossing on take-off. The crews sang “Off we go into the wild blue yonder, flying high, into the sky…” at full force as they taxied to the runway. And it took guts to fly in formation on mission after mission into the wartime hazards of the sky, dropping bombs on strategic German infrastructure while dodging enemy fighter planes and exploding flak.

On both sides of the line, young men were risking their lives for what they had been told was their duty to their country. This selfless abandon was driven by what? by drill? by community? by patriotism? over and over again. Maybe it was by the mere fact that it was what everyone else was doing? There was nothing funny about it, but humor rippled through every conversation about this merry little war. Their “catch 22” was that while they were being shot at on each mission, they had to complete a set number of missions to get sent home. Dad navigated through screeching and whistling shells exploding all around him in the clear nose of a B-17.  When did his youth end? Was it his first apocalyptic mission? Was it one moment or a long series of experiencing, or making, the depths of hell?

Every five missions they’d get a three-day pass.  Dad went to the theatre in London or for a rollicking weekend to forget the flying circus. Dad’s friend Curly, a young British kid, invited Dad to stay at his family’s house in London. Then, he went back to his 13th, 14th then 15th missions. It was hard to guess when the vertigo set in. Was it from the constant migration across the eastern U.S. with changing labels: Navy officer; Army corpsman; 2nd Lieutenant (dog tags: 0 2065589); pilot; navigator, 303 Bomber Squad; POW (number: 9324)? Or from flying five miles above the ground in unpressurized planes? “I’m never going to get into one of those,” Dad stated firmly while gesturing towards one of the first helicopters. There were guys who had finished 50 missions and thought they’d be going home. Instead, the target was moved to 60.

 

Helicopter
Helicopter
Oil paint, encaustic on Masonite. c. 1957.

Navy sign gag
Navy sign published in
Extensions
magazine. c.1944.
Drawing cartoon: Patter on helmet sample
While stationed in Molsworth, England, Dad drew cartoons and mailed them to Extensions magazine in Chicago.
c. 1944.
   
London Bridge
London Bridge, created in United Kingdom
More caption to come
       
   

January 13, 1945Parachuting Artist

Dad’s spatial intelligence was trained to find his flight location by the early morning constellations. He did not know yet that below him Eliezer Wiesel and his father were trying to keep working through their night to survive starvation conditions in Auschwitz, then Buchenwald. Over Germany, the flak was moderate and accurate; the plane, Red, was hit. The head squadron banked, and they caught more flak. They made a sharp bank right to drop their bombs. The shells lit up with an eerie green light that reflected in the falling snow. As they continued out of the drop and turned, their ship was hit in the bomb bay. Smoke filled the plane, so the co-pilots couldn’t see the instrument panel, and they had to turn out of formation. The right oxygen supply was out at 25,000 feet, and anoxia was starting to take effect, along with fatigue and exhaustion. They took another hit under the chin turret, and ammunition started exploding, filling the cockpit with more smoke. Flake Dyson, the engineer, was blown out of his turret, ending up between co-pilots Jack Rose and John Cornyn. Then came the final hit behind engine number four, leaving holes throughout the plane. The crew prepared to bail out. The ship started to nosedive in a spin; Dad was facing down, spinning against his harness straps; he’d be the first to hit after a five mile drop. With the centrifugal force, no one could parachute out. Then the plane turned over, and he was whiplashed like the tail in crack the whip. Red wasn’t responding to controls, until Rose throttled back on engines one and two and the ship righted. Dad gave him a heading. With luck, they might make it. They were warned to prepare to abandon ship and training kicked in. The fire in the wing was now burning near the waist gunner. Anoxia was making them woozy. The captain rang the warning bell and gave the order to jump.

 By proper procedure, Dad was to be the first one out of the plane. He looked hard at the .45 pistol and realized he wasn’t going to shoot his way out of Germany. Instead he pocketed his silk map of the German landscape. The bell rang and he kicked out the escape hatch. He looked through the clouds to the forest from four miles up, thought about the fire in the wing, the plane exploding, his lack of oxygen, the nine guys behind him and… jumped. “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, spare me.”

Dad gasped a thin breath of a freezing blast of air at 200 mph. That kept him from passing out. The free fall stripped off a boot. Shrapnel sliced at his coat and face. Blood froze, as did tears. He’d been up here before, but not in this flak-filled arena. Dad focused on the pull chord of his parachute. He knew the guys at Fort Meyers that packed the parachutes; he hoped they’d packed this one right. A lot of the guys free fell over 10,000 feet to get to oxygen before pulling their cord. Dad didn't remember waiting, but may have counted to ten—one one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand—to clear the plane before he pulled the ripcord. The parachute opened; silk straps flapped in his face. Then there was a tremendous jolt.  Some time had passed, and the plane had dropped a distance. He could now breathe. He had time to get his wits together. He pulled the shroud lines on the sides of the chute to aim a landing. He dropped through the icy smoke, past the smell of burnt metal as the humidity rose. Then he smelled hay and manure, and whiffs of evergreens and wet, mossy stones. The smell of hearth fires triggered vague memories churning of jealousy, anger, desire, home.

Dad landed silently in broad daylight, smack dab in the middle of a soccer field in Pirmasens, Germany. Civilians, police, soldiers, kids and stray dogs saw him, and he saw them. They were running down the street towards him as he landed.  He was scared.  He struggled to get the parachute harness off, then sprinted with only one boot. Lopsidedly, and feeling he hadn't had enough oxygen, he ran through the snow into a cave near the soccer field. In the cave, he ripped the inside of his jacket sleeve and stuffed the silk map down to his elbow. The Gestapo was a concern, but more immediately he knew the German citizens thought of him as a terror flugzeuge. His primary concern was about the civilians who might pull him apart, limb from limb. Frayed nerves stood on-end, seemingly outside his skin. Fear smelled like metal, permeated his damp, musty stone shelter. He surrendered to German soldiers with relief. This parachuting artist landed in the middle of the living hell of Germany with only one boot and the Geneva Convention to protect him.

 


Helicopter in flight
Helicopter
Encaustic on Masonite c. 1957. 9” x 22”

Helicopter drawing
Helicopter 3
c. 1957

German countryside
German Landscape
Watercolor on paper. c. 1945.

Farm Sunrise
POW Barracks
1945.

"Still in the middle" cartoon
Still in the Middle
Cartoon. 1945.
Buy War Saving Bonds cartoon
Savings Bonds
1945.
 

   
    February 1945The March

Dad was force-marched out of the gray of the camp into a foot of wet spring snow. “Be careful what you wish for, it could get worse,“ he’d said. The hundred -mile march from Stalag XIII D near Nuremberg to Stalag VII A at Moosburg landed him close to both the not-yet-known-about gas chambers at Dachau and the always prominent lure of a possible escape to Switzerland. He was marched from Nuremberg to be moved away from the liberating Allied Third Army. Dad’s replacement boot didn’t fit well. The eyelets were kept together with a length of wire. The 15 miles of daily trudging pinched his toes and chafed at his insole, heel and the ball of his foot. Painful sores blistered and could become fatally infected. The boot opened the blistering wounds every morning; they bled all day. There was occasionally a soapy cleanse.

Dad had packed Red Cross jelly, cigarettes and scraps of soap for the forced march. He traded these with the ‘volks’ along the way for eggs, vegetables and bread. Don’t confuse the ‘volks,’ ordinary folks, with the ‘volkisch,’ or racial-nationalists. The 12-hours-a-day march, while it was long—over a week, featured about the best provisions he’d eaten while being a prisoner. The villagers were eager to trade with him. They were beyond hunger too. Dad saw the want and sorrow that had rushed over the outside world like a deluge. It would take time to recede. His exchange of cigarettes for eggs with the villagers offered something fresh to eat, but also someone other than prisoners to connect with. Was it a connection to life? or at any rate, hope? He liked the villagers. His woolen sock was his ongoing concern. It kept embedding in the numb sore at the back of his heel and would rip open scabs each night. Maybe tomorrow he’d try a piece of cotton undershirt between the sock and the foot?
           
Dad hadn’t gotten a letter from Irene and didn’t know if she had received his marriage proposal or if her response had been mailed as he was marched farther and farther from the security of what he had known. The Germans marched them at their own peculiar gaits both day and night. He shivered in the wind. They’d been on half-issue food portions for a month before the march. It was a grim trip. “We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it,” Dad often said; “Don’t project.” They were given only one meal of barley soup each day. The soft snow was their water source. They’d pour sugar over the snow and call it ‘ice cream.’

The everlasting sun shone down with blinding brilliance from a resplendent blue sky onto the white, reflective, waning snow. Sunspots pierced their headaches while red noses dripped onto frozen wet feet. Occasionally, friendly bullets rained down along-side the gray-faced marchers from Allied fighter planes, splashing Dad with slimy mud. Allied shells landed on nearby trucks, spewing flesh and twisting dented metal, preventing further movement and creating utter chaos. He jumped into ditches as the Army Air Corps swooped over and sprayed fire, reminding them that the war was nearly over. Men were hit, the landscape was blasted; then moaning and putrid smells emanated from the edges of old puddles. They cheered! The melting snow had turned the earth into rotting slime. It decomposed his socks into slippery webs that pulled the pickled flesh from his feet. His ears still rang from the strafing. Freezing temperatures cut the foul smell of their ragged army clothes. His body was not his own. Fatigue ruled.

Through the fuzzy, blinding, disjointed whiteness, Dad saw a Todt worker—a conscripted laborer— just a boy in ragged clothes, crawl into a garden for a left-over potato or spring garlic. Just under the fence, the boy collapsed and lay there, thin, wasted and covered in vermin. That poor boy couldn’t feel the lice and maggots crawling from his hair, over his eyelids, and down his face. To do this to mere boys! Maybe this was when Dad became the least judgmental person on earth. He saw that eachperson was just striving to survive—Volks, Todts, Air Force and Goons.

A hungry German soldier caught a feral cat by the tail, meaaaaAAW! Then screamed “MEAAAAAW” as he whipped it around and bashed its head against a tree trunk. Loud, childlike meaaws echoed in the twilight. The cat was decapitated. A quicksilver textured stream of red blood rippled down the bark, across the trodden ground and along the slushy road in front of the march. It reddened mud puddles. Boots stomped in its plasma. Its smell lingered in the air. It streamed across rivers and bridges and through cobbled streets. The sky at dusk reflected its fiery red up into the low flying purple clouds, lined from below with dark gold. The colors changed shades and shapes, then shot up in a rush of liquid red, streaking the deep purple, wispy horizon until darkness descended. Dad trudged with one torn foot southeast through puddles reflecting constellations. Orion’s belt twinkled from a dark moonless sky onto the luminous, slimed snow.

“Pass’ auf! Pass’ auf!” “Keep your eyes peeled!” He had learned to avoid starving, fatigued and trigger-happy guards. Of the rest of his mates, 70 percent were sick and each had lost 30 pounds in this week, from already thin bodies. A lot of men collapsed, many were left along the way due to illness, and some were simply missing. “Maybe escaped, maybe shot.” Dad tried not to keep track. The living automatically resented the dead. A violent, unexpected death was ugly and embarrassing. Dad had slipped into his torn inner sleeve a cryptic, military-anodyned letter from Mom and his penciled portraits of perpetrating guards. These warmed his core with a mission. He kept his wits peering at the sky for his location in the universe and inward for his heart’s guiding purpose. Stars were his guides in space and time—he navigated over land now. The stars were the basis of calendars, and the visual reminder of values that were essential to his harmony.

With no radios, they didn’t know that the Allied Forces had crossed the Rhine, after Patton pissed in it, and were surging towards them. The Germans, under Himmler’s orders, were trying to eliminate any evidence for possible post-war testimonies of maltreatment. Germans marched the prisoners as far from the invading, liberating Allied forces as possible. The march to Stalag VIIA was perfectly designed to give a sense that life is arbitrary. On May 1, 1945, Patton’s 3rd Army freed Dad’s new POW camp. On May 8, VE Day, Dad was already in Paris, as Europe exploded with displaced persons wandering to find family and home. On May 15 he sent his first telegram to Gram; he was intact and headed home.

 



Stalag XIIID drawing
Goon Drawings
1945.

Note from Irene
Mom's Note
1945.

German barn
German Barn
1945.

Auschwitz gate
Auschwitz Gate
Pope John Paul II’s tour of Poland. c. 1979.
22” x 30”

Spring comes
Spring Comes to 1100 (109)
1945.

Paris, the Sienne
Pont Alexander III
Painted in Paris. 22” x 30”



       
   

May 1945Homeward Dove

Dad landed safely, this time at 10 W. Elm Street on the exuberant Near North Side. He was eager to make a long-term commitment to his city and his peaceful dove, Irene. Gram couldn’t get enough of Dad being home—she was giddy. Since he’d been gone, Irene and Gram had become close. He was tired, but as soon as he fell into sleep, the nightmares of flak and spinning planes woke him. Soldiers in fatigues and dirty boots with big rifles gruffly barked orders. The refrigerator was filled with pineapple juice, from hoarded rations, that his stomach couldn’t tolerate. Gram now used precious food rations to buy oatmeal and potatoes. “That’s the way it goes,” he told Irene, hoping at least one thing would go smoothly. He was bewildered with his army friends’ lack of compassion for the civilians who had manufactured the steel bullets and cannon shells and made the planes too thin due to cost. Barracks humor didn’t fit into this placid affluent city life. Women had changed after running the world and earning a salary for a few years. Perplexed, Dad watched as the Rosie the Riveters held strikes for higher pay and rushed to wash their hands after greeting him. In the movies, soldiers wore crisp, ironed uniforms and saluted officers with bright smiles. “Well, if that’s what they want to think,” he said to Mom as they left the theatre early. “If we saluted a superior, the enemy would know who to shoot first.” While Dad was adjusting to define himself in Hollywood’s version of the war, Mom was busy flying the country as a stewardess, caring for airsick headaches, stomachaches, and relieved soldiers limping home with lightly packed duffels and looks of dim distant loss in their eyes. She saw broken arms, legs and spirits. She tended the bandaged heads of her wounded generation. Her sisterhood of Teacher’s College was redirected to her sisterhood of being a stewardess for American Airlines. Returning veterans had lost so many comrades and seen such unmentionable horrors. She understood more of what Dad’s intact health compared to, and she lifted his spirits with no judgment of his wide-eyed distant stares. Mom was his homeward cooing dove and eager to begin nesting.

They dined, actualizing the life they had imagined when apart, at Chez Paree and Chez Paul, Armandos, the Erie Cafe, Riccardo’s and Mona Lisa’s. They gleefully and somewhat guiltily courted. Dad had no injuries; Mom had savings.  While planning their wedding in Rush Street restaurants, they embraced their freshly found love. They laughed at their starting anew and the mistakes made during their growth to become one. Free at last to be together, they reminisced about high school, tracked who was returning, who was still in Japan. Just as Mom was telling Dad that her American Airlines job would no longer be available after their wedding day, the organ grinder’s squirrel monkey leapt onto her shoulder and tried to pinch her hat pin. Little toes gripped her shoulder, tiny fingers caught in her hair, the “che-che-che” horrified her. Dad lifted the leashed monkey and handed it back to its grinder at arm’s length.

They danced on and on, to their July 27th wedding day at Our Lady of Sorrows Basilica on Jackson Blvd. As Dad dressed in his lieutenant’s uniform that morning, he decided that none of the invited guests could possibly know the satisfaction that was his. He was alive and he was marrying Irene. Irene had sent Rita and Charlotte to find her a new stocking when the catch on the garter had caused a run. She’d barely had time from her last flight to pack for the honeymoon.  Rita and she gathered some of their best cleaned sweaters, blouses and skirts. The sisters still exchanged clothing. The Catholic church sent them scapulas with advice to pray to Blessed Mary, “My Mother, my confidence.”  His hung beneath his uniform, hers beneath her wedding gown. In a hanging bag was her post-wedding dress for the Knickerbocker Hotel reception. In another bag was the borrowed long wedding dress train Rita and Charlotte would attach at the Basilica. Irene had purchased the simplest ivory dress she could find.

• • •

Dad continued to cartoon at Extension magazine during the day and to take night courses at the Institute of Design in the old Historical Society building on Ontario. Lazlo Maholy-Nagy said art was about tools and perception. The artist was a witness, and his media could be print reproduction and film. The New Bauhaus recreated Chicago as the city grew exponentially with the solidity of molten steel and an ambiguity of corruption.

Dad learned methods to create and replicate his works of art and incorporate them into society. Reproduction was identified as an opportunity. Ideas floating in the air were to be snatched and utilized to effect societal change. The artistic individual could connect to, interpret and bond with his or her community. At its essence, Art (with a capital A) was the act of making art and the serious play of experimentation. Dad learned that art, by its nature, is political. Making art acts as a corrective to greed and power. By uniting art and everyday life, the artist can change the world, can make it better. Vision was the 5% inspiration.

After Dad unfolded and set his 8” x 10” wire and canvas camp stool on the sidewalk, he sharpened his pencils with a straight edged razor and sat down to draw. Now came the 95% perspiration when the pencil hit the paper. He had to let go and allow his will to take over for his art to make his vision; “Put your pencil on the paper and make your line with authority.” He drew elegant, but emphatic, lines connecting time and place to capture history. His impeccable humor and cartoon enhancement rippled through in his Artist Reporter style. He submitted to the process of art that allowed his eye, consciousness and hand to make an image. He became his own tool. He became one with the pencil and paper, and his flow of energy prevailed. Dad got lost in the 22” x 33” arches paper. He could dive into the image and be surrounded by it when the edges curled up. Back in the studio, he painted in watercolors, weaving these ideas into art while listening to Paul Rhymer’s radio show, “Vic and Sade,” whose quirky sense of humor was unmistakably Midwest.

 

 


Escalator
Escalator
Oil paint, encaustic on Masonite. c. 1957. 33” x 38”

Street scene
Street Scene

Franklin and Irene McMahon
Photographs of
Irene and Franklin McMahon
from 1945, with flight wings of
American Airlines Stewardess
and Army Air Corps navigator.

       
   

1955Shucking 300 years

When his oldest son was eight, our dad landed in Sumner, Mississippi, to cover, with drawings, the Emmett Till trial for Life magazine. “Historically, artists had been in the courtrooms before the invention of the camera, so there was no precedent for a photographer,” Dad explained. “The judge would make the decision, and generally speaking photography wasn’t allowed.” He shaved cleanly in the morning, tightened a tie and slipped into a suit coat to fade into the press section. Southern whites were still peeved about the recent Brown vs. the Board of Education federal decision ensuring African Americans an equal education. Amidst Northern court reporters, Dad hoped the trial onlookers would think he was just another reporter doodling or taking notes. The story unfolded about Emmett Till, a black 14-year-old from Chicago who had been taught to whistle to calm his stuttering. After struggling through b-b-b-b- to ask Mrs. Bryant for bubble gum, he let out a bit of a whistle to calm himself.

Dad had relaxed his judgment to allow his compassion to guide him. He grasped for a vision that would tell the story of the trial. He captured a coifed and elegantly dressed Mrs. Bryant in his hand sized spiral notebook. He set the tone of non-sympathetic white male jurors in a wash of ink. Accused of flirting with a young white grocer, Emmett was abducted from his uncle’s home that night.  He was found, beaten, shot and mutilated, in the Tallahatchie River. Then the dramatic moment happened! Dad captured with pencil on paper Mose Wright, Emmett Till’s uncle, rising up and pointing to identify the two white men on trial. “When he pointed like that, Mose Wright had the guts to shuck 300 years of history,” Dad explained. They were the men who had abducted and lynched Wright’s visiting nephew. Dad’s cartoon background informed him to make something of the shaky, outstretched and elongated arm, the force of gesture in the stance, the suspenders on the pants. When he and a reporter walked across the street for a cup of coffee, they were surrounded by a few white male citizens and roughly asked, “Why don’t you go back up North and leave us Sumner folks alone.”

In his hotel room, Dad redrew the sketches on a larger sheet of paper.  In that moment, his heart and mind guided his hand to tell through publishing what he witnessed of this southern atrocity. Dad mailed the drawings in a flat brown package from the hotel desk to Life. “I wasn’t thinking ‘history’ when I did the Till trial; I did it as a job,” he explained. He had to rush to get the artwork finished by Life’s Saturday night deadline.
                       
Though the perpetrators were acquitted by an all-white, all-male jury, the public response and northern press coverage of the trial became a catalyst for change. Dad recognized that “art could effectuate social change.” The Life magazine Emmett Till trial article changed a cartoonist father into an Artist Reporter. Rosa Parks later recalled that on November 27, 1955—only four days before she refused to give up her seat—she had attended a mass meeting in Montgomery which focused on the Emmett Till trial. She said that Emmett Till was on her mind when she refused to give up her seat. The Civil Rights movement peacefully began.

In April 1957, lucky number seven, newborn Margot Ann McMahon was brought home from the hospital to an Edward Hemrich designed home. Through my blurred vision, as my eyes came into focus, I observed the visceral connection of the interior with the surrounding woods through a thin veil of glass, framed in cedar. Dad’s studio was just a short walk through the woods. Six sets of blue-eyed brothers and sisters peered over my crib rail while Mom was in a hubbub. All summer she was packing for our upcoming year in Spain. Before I was six months old, we nine were on a ship, headed to a Spanish farm in Torremolinos.

Mom, who had long ago traversed the country by air, felt like she’d never see Europe with seven children underfoot. Dad was reacting to McCarthyism and eagerly arranged to take the whole family to see post-war Europe. He wanted time to continue his encaustic series. We nine boarded a boat and settled in Torremolinos, Spain, where bull fights, home-farmed turkeys, and picnics in Portugal became our life. I was called “Bonita Chickadina” by my brown-eyed Spanish-speaking nanny, while my parents toured Europe in an “If its Tuesday, this must be Belgium mode. Dad layered wax and oil paint on masonite panels, then heated the mixture, melting it into translucent symbolic encaustic images of helicopters, farm equipment and shoppers on escalators, while I learned to crawl and walk.

 

Emmett Till trial
Emmett Till Trial
1955 Sumner, Mississippi, trial where Mose Wright
pointed to Mr. Bryant in Courthouse trial, drawn
for Look magazine.

Trial of a boy
Trial with Boy
Graphite and acrylic on paper. 14” x 17”

Swallows in Spain
Swallows in Spain
c. 1958.

Swallows in Spain
Blacklisted musician Pete Seeger sails the Hudson
on his boat Clearwater. Graphite on paper. 22" x 30"

        —page top—


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