by Nat Frothingham
I am writing to thank and remember James “Jim” Facos who died in Montpelier on May 14 at the age of 92.
I want to thank him for his friendship and remember him for who he was and what he achieved.
Jim was part of what writer and TV anchorman Tom Brokaw in his book by the same title called “The Greatest Generation” — that generation of Americans, both women and men, who grew up during The Great Depression — then served their country during World War II.
According to the brief account of Jim’s life that appeared on the program at his funeral, Jim was born on July 28, 1924 in Lawrence, Massachusetts. He was raised in Springfield, Massachusetts.
In 1943, at the age of 18, Jim enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps and became a ball-turret gunner, based in England, on a B-17 Flying Fortress.
As part of a poetry reading that Jim gave this past October at Kellogg-Hubbard Library, he told his audience he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps because he wanted, in his own words, to find out, “Who I was and what life was all about.”
After his enlistment, in March 1943, Jim was on a troop train travelling west from Miami, FLA for training as an aerial gunner at Buckley Field near Denver, CO.
After gunnery training he was stationed at an airbase in England. From there he flew combat 30 combat missions as part of the Allied air war over Germany and Central Europe with a final run on “installations in France.”
Years later, reflecting on the hazards of flying those B-17s from England over enemy territory in the final years of World War II, he said, estimating the odds, “I’m not being melodramatic. Once you survived 11 missions, you were living on borrowed time.”
The first poem that Jim read to his Kellogg-Hubbard audience this past October was the poem he wrote on a penny notebook on that troop train going west from Miami to Colorado, a lyric with the title, “Lines Before Combat.”
Were I to see another spring,
The lilac tree alive with rain,
Or only hear the orioles sing
Their songs again another year,
I would go by and never know
The orioles’ low, melodious sway
Along the sky, nor pause to see
A single bough, a single spray
Of lilac tree – as I do now.
His war experience stayed with him.
As a young airman and throughout his life, Jim was highly decorated. His honors include the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters, at age 19, the Distinguished Flying Cross and last year for his wartime service related to the liberation of France, the Chevalier in the Ordre National de la Legion d’honneur by the President of France.
After World War II ended, Jim studied at Bates College and received a Bachelor’s degree in 1949. Later he earned a master’s degree from Florida State University.
Jim married Cleo Chigos in 1956. Three years later Jim and Cleo and their family moved to Montpelier where Jim taught English at Vermont College.
Jim was a teacher at Vermont College then at Norwich University for three decades. When he retired in 1989 Norwich University appointed him a professor emeritus and conferred upon him the honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters.
Jim had a formidable writing gift, as a storyteller, poet, playwright and novelist.
His only novel, “The Silver Lady,” deserves to be read and pondered. It explores in brilliant detail the differing personalities, convictions, psychologies, temperaments of the handful of men who made up the American bomber crew on The Silver Lady.
In a small excerpt from “The Silver Lady,” Jim allows his readers to take the measure of two members of the bomber crew: the casual Hagen and the very different, ball-turret gunner, Wyatt.
It is Wyatt from “The Silver Lady” who says of Hagen,
If only we could all be Hagens, thought Wyatt. The kind that don’t question, that just act and make the most of the consequences, to whom there is neither meaning nor purpose, only the physical Now of things, and only the sensual self.
Then Jim Facos, as novelist, explains Wyatt.
Life was too transient to Wyatt, and death too present, for him not to believe there was something beyond; and life, brief, intense as it was in a world precise with miracle, surrounded by infinite wonder, was in itself too much a miracle for him to believe it chance or accident. Somewhere, somehow, he felt, there was a purpose in his being here now; but whatever the purpose was, it still eluded him, fading always beyond the horizon of his searching thought — the insight that would bring again the conviction he needed if he was to hold together for the missions to come.
He (Wyatt) remembered how once his Uncle Seth had told him that a man grew in two ways, by insight and decision. Well, he had had the insight to know what he was and what he had to do, in spite of all opposition. He had known he could not, in all self-honesty, be the conscientious objector his folks had urged him to be, like his cousins, and let another man fight — and possibly die — in his place for the rights he would enjoy.
Jim was a soldier, airman and patriot. He was a college teacher and professor. He made his mark as a writer. Most of all, he was a husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather.
Life in its largeness, compass, beauty and mystery — its infinite value and wonder — what a great and unknowing and precious thing.
Jim and I were friends. I would go to his house, knock on the door. Jim or Cleo would open the door — and both — always, gave me a warm and energetic greeting — just like the greeting Jim gave me when I saw him about a month ago — for the last time.
In losing any one of the women and men of that “Greatest Generation” we are losing men and women we desperately need. Our thanks to them — for their lives of courage, patience and example — knows no bounds.