A man stumbles upon symbols of an uncle he never got to meet
From the time he was a little boy, in the 1920s, he collected postage stamps.
And when he grew older and went off to war, along with most others of his generation, he continued to collect stamps wherever in the world he happened to be, and mailed them home to his parents and sister for adding to his collection.
My uncle’s other passion was flying.
On the night of Feb. 29, 1944, at the tender age of 21, my uncle flew a B-24 Liberator on a mission over Burma.
His plane got hit by anti-aircraft fire. My uncle ordered the crew to bail out, and most of them did, sailing by parachute to the ground. They were captured by Japanese soldiers and held as POWs for the duration of World War II.
Because two of his crewmen were wounded, Flight Lt. Edward James Douglas Stanley chose to stay at the controls of his plane, hoping to crash-land them to safety.
But the plane disappeared and was believed to have crashed near Rangoon.
My mother was only 18 when her brother was reported missing in action. Every week she wrote letters to The War Office and the Royal Air Force begging for information. They never answered her, and she resolved that none of her three sons would ever go to war if she had anything to say about it.
Refusing to give up hope, my grandmother kept my uncle’s possessions – including the skin of a python that he discovered slithering inside his tent when based in India – lest her son return.
In the mid-1990s, a decade after my grandmother died, someone who had extensively researched my uncle’s doomed flight, contacted me. He primarily wanted to know what had become of my uncle’s family but also wanted to share his findings, which, while detailed, did not pinpoint the remains of my missing uncle though confirmed that he had most certainly perished.
What this fellow really wanted most, he told me after we became acquainted, was to organize a memorial service at St. Clement Danes, the RAF church. I assisted with both moral and financial support and the result was a poignant Service of Celebration and Thanksgiving attended by my mother (and father), for whom, after more than half-a-century, it was a kind of closure.
Later that day, my mother gifted me with her brother’s stamp collection.
Three years ago, I visited London as part of a mystical journey I’ve been on and I asked a muse who guided me during part of that trip to take me on an adventure by subway, ideally to some part of the British capital I’d never been before.
At Green Park tube station, our starting point, she led me to an eastbound platform, onto a train, off a train, onto another, and joked about going to the end of the line and getting lost in Epping Forest, which would have been fine by me.
But that’s not what happened.
She chose for us to alight at Chancery Lane – not 200 yards from St. Clement Danes, the RAF church – and ascend to Lincoln’s Inn, where the law was born six centuries ago.
Two symbols (messages from the universe) immediately caught my attention: A prominent old clock set into bricks and mortar (now’s the time, it said to me) and a prominent weathervane (follow the wind), and soon – at the muse’s invitation – I was inside the round Temple Church, a place of worship built in 1195 by the Knights Templar, a medieval order created to protect Christian pilgrims and which also invented the West’s first banking system.
Prominently engraved upon Temple Church’s marble floor:
“Remember in your Prayers Those Who Died in the Second World War 1939-1945.”
Climbing the spiral stairs to an upper gallery I noticed they were decorated with ornate tiles depicting Pegasus, the mythical winged “horse of muses” that symbolizes the harnessing of magic in the material world.
And then, outside Temple Church, this mythical horse was everywhere around us: a bar relief on a wall, a medallion on a gate, a metal sculpture, even a café called Pegasus – the running theme of a neighborhood chosen by the muse.
Pegasus was the “nose-art” nickname of the B-24 Liberator my uncle flew.
My mother also gave me my uncle’s python skin, which I took to a master bookbinder for crafting into journals I’ve been saving for the cross-country road trip I’ve forever intended to take.
Snakes, because they shed and grow a new skin, symbolize renewal.
Renewal is what happens after wars end, the dead are counted, and people try to move forward with their lives, as painful as that may be if a loved one has been lost.
My muse walked me to the Golden Jubilee Bridge.
“I’m leaving you now,” she said. “Cross the bridge.”
And I did, leaving me to muse about the symbolism of bridges: progress, unity – and a spiritual “crossing over” to the other side.
And so, on this Memorial Day, I’m thinking of the uncle I never met – and saying a prayer for those who, in the service of their country, crossed over so that others could renew their lives in freedom.