Pi­lot, pa­triot, friend

Re­flec­tions on the 41st pres­i­dent’s visit to Is­rael in 1986

The Jerusalem Post - - FRONT PAGE - • By DANNY GROSS­MAN

Like most Amer­i­can im­mi­grants to Is­rael, my story be­gins with a re­quest from an Is­raeli buddy, “Can you spend 15 min­utes trans­lat­ing a page into English for me?”

In this case, the buddy was my boss, the Is­rael Air Force com­man­der who was slated to host an IDF dis­play, in­clud­ing an air show, for a visit by US vice pres­i­dent Ge­orge H.W. Bush in 1986.

I knew that 15 min­utes would turn into at least a few days’ work, telling my two-star boss that we shouldn’t just give him our usual show but should use the op­por­tu­nity to truly con­nect with him.

In those pre-In­ter­net days, I turned to AIPAC’s Is­rael of­fice, which briefed me on the VP’s history. I was cap­ti­vated to learn how he went off to war im­me­di­ately after Pearl Har­bor and be­came one of the US Navy’s youngest avi­a­tors. Bush had an amaz­ing war story, hav­ing been shot down in the Sea of Ja­pan and res­cued by a sub­ma­rine. To his for­tune, the sub was Amer­i­can and one of the sailors even cap­tured his dra­matic res­cue on film.

I read how Ge­orge, like his wife, Bar­bara, was a “peo­ple per­son” and a fam­ily man who cher­ished the demo­cratic val­ues that are so im­por­tant here in Is­rael.

The IAF com­man­der then sent me to the com­man­ders of Is­rael’s ground forces and navy, to help pre­pare their parts of the IDF dis­play.

So, be­yond em­cee­ing the for­mal air show, I found my­self es­cort­ing the vice pres­i­dent from the minute he stepped out of his he­li­copter to­gether with de­fense min­is­ter Yitzhak Rabin. I re­in­forced key points about Is­rael’s mil­i­tary and care­fully in­ter­jected hu­mor. For ex­am­ple, when Mr. Bush squeezed into a sleek Merkava tank, I re­marked that it was known as “the Yid­dishe Mama tank” be­cause it pro­vided extra pro­tec­tion to the crews – an im­por­tant les­son Is­rael had learned from its ex­ten­sive bat­tle­field ex­pe­ri­ence.

Bush dis­ap­peared in­side the tank and they closed the hatch on him. I found my­self stand­ing on top with Bar­bara, who feigned a wor­ried look and said, “My God, you’ve kid­napped my hus­band!” I re­sponded, “They’re not gonna let him out un­til he agrees to pay for the Lavi fighter,” which was a hot-but­ton is­sue at the time. With­out miss­ing a beat, she turned to the re­porters and said, “Well boys, Ge­orge doesn’t scare eas­ily, so it looks like I’ll be need­ing a new hus­band in case any of you were are avail­able.”

SINCE THIS is Is­rael, de­spite all the se­cu­rity, I brought along my 10-year-old daugh­ter, who was watch­ing from a dis­tance to­gether with one of my ju­nior of­fi­cers. Bar­bara spot­ted this cute lit­tle girl with curly hair and Shirley Tem­ple dress and waved her over, and was amazed to hear my daugh­ter’s per­fect English. From that mo­ment they were BFFs, and Bar­bara had her sit by her side dur­ing the air show which was about to be­gin.

The aerial dis­play opened with an F-16 roar­ing over­head. As em­cee of the pro­gram, stand­ing a few feet in front of the VIP sec­tion, I said over the PA sys­tem, “Mr. vice pres­i­dent, as one fighter pi­lot to an­other, wel­come again to Hatzerim and I hope you en­joy the show.” He was all smiles as he re­laxed into his chair.

A few min­utes later, when a C-130 demon­strated an ex­cit­ing short-field take­off, I said, “Mr. Bush, th­ese are the same US-made Her­cules trans­ports that res­cued our hostages at En­tebbe on July 4, 1976. On the day that Amer­ica cel­e­brated its bi­cen­ten­nial, Is­rael re­minded the world that free­dom is a value you have to fight for in every gen­er­a­tion.”

That line made the front page of the next day’s New York Times.

The show ended and Mr. Bush was whisked off to the bus that would take him to his he­li­copter. Sud­denly the bus stopped and an Amer­i­can cap­tain came run­ning over to find “the young Is­raeli ma­jor” and rushed me over to the bus. The VP shook my hand and said, “Good job, son. I re­ally en­joyed to­day’s show and your ex­pla­na­tions. Tell me, is there any­thing I can do for you?”

I won­dered if I had any park­ing tick­ets in Wash­ing­ton that needed to be fixed, but quickly re­acted like any good Jewish boy would. Scrib­bling a number on my notepad as I spoke, I asked, “Mr. vice pres­i­dent, Sir, if it wouldn’t be too much trou­ble, when you get back to the States, could you call my mom?”

I for­got about it, but he didn’t. Four months later, my mom was put­ter­ing around her kitchen in the hous­ing area of the US Veter­ans Hos­pi­tal in North­port, Long Is­land, where my dad served as chap­lain. The phone rang. “Mrs. Gross­man?” asked an un­fa­mil­iar voice. “Hi, this is Bar­bara Bush.” My mom thought for a sec­ond, then asked, “Bar­bara Bush, like from Hadas­sah or the sis­ter­hood?”

Bar­bara an­swered, “No I’m call­ing from Kennebunkport. Ge­orge and I snuck away from DC for the week­end and I’m catch­ing up on calls. We saw your son in Is­rael with his lit­tle girl Nelly.” My Mom promptly cor­rected her: Nelly was Nili, named after the heroic Is­raeli un­der­ground group.

To both their cred­its Bar­bara and my mom then spent 45 min­utes, say­ing how they missed their grand­chil­dren and wish­ing their chil­dren could live closer to home ,but proud to see that their kids were car­ry­ing on their val­ues.

As the world bids farewell, one thing stands out to me: Ge­orge Bush was a man who loved and served his fam­ily and his coun­try – a mentsch.

The writer is a re­servist lieu­tenant-colonel who flew fighter jets in the US Air Force and was a ca­reer of­fi­cer in the Is­rael Air Force, earn­ing the IAF Com­man­der’s Medal for a strate­gic re­con­nais­sance mis­sion to Iraq.


THEN VICE-PRES­I­DENT Ge­orge H.W. Bush kisses the Western Wall in Jerusalem in July 1986.

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