As I write this post, Team TTT&T’s Oliver Latsch is in Utah, USA, interviewing Gail Halvorsen, aka “The Candy Bomber,” aka “Uncle Wiggly Wings,” aka “The Chocolate Pilot.” He's the post-WWII US military flyer who, in 1948, came up with an ingenious idea for delivering treats to the children of Berlin, then trapped by Soviet Russia's blockade of the city. Gail's story is the inspiration for Oliver’s upcoming Time Traveler Tour to Berlin, slated for publication in 2018.
When the Soviet blockade of the western sectors of the German capital began, the city only had 36 days worth of food for its 2 million inhabitants. Coal for energy and medical supplies were running perilously low as well. Neither train nor automobile nor river barge could penetrate the Soviet sphere of influence that surrounded Berlin. The only way into the city was down – from the air.
It took a joint allied military operation to save Berliners and to keep Berlin from falling into Russian hands. The Berlin Airlift, officially called "Operation Vittles," could be considered the first battle of the Cold War. But rather than a battle of weapons, it was a battle of wills. One the allies eventually won, at least in part.
The airlift – and the stand off it represented – lasted 10 whole months and spanned a harsh German winter. In addition to “lifting” food and supplies, the allies looked for ways to lift the spirits of the people as well. The key was to give them hope as they struggled to stay warm and stare hunger in the face.
It was Halvorsen who, after meeting a group of kids through a fence at Berlin's Tempelhof airport, came up with the idea of using handmade miniature parachutes to send them candy, bubblegum, and chocolates. He and his crew fully expected to be reprimanded for this action was unauthorized. But by the time the generals found out, they’d already received sacks full of letters, cards, and pictures expressing gratitude for the kindness. Even the tiny parachutes were returned, to help with the next run. The people didn't want it to stop!
The military government quickly realized this was a public relations coup and let Halvorsen and his friends continue the drops. Their “Operation Little Vittles” would go on to shower 23 tons of treats over the Berlin landscape. Each time the Candy Bomber delivered his sugary payload, he would rock his plane, left-right-left, several times to wave at the waiting children. With this gesture, Uncle Wiggly Wings reminded them that they were not forgotten; he encouraged them to hang on. And they did.
Through this story, we will bring Gail's amazing story to life while providing young people a window into the complex and devastating ideological conflict that divided Berlin, Germany, and the world for 45 years, until 1989, when Berliners, using hammers, axes, even their hands, broke down the wall that separated former neighbors, family, and friends.
Oliver is now trying to “crack the character code” for this story, a process I explained in last week's newsletter. But his task is more complicated than it would seem…
To create a successful Time Traveler Tour, it’s not just about who the main character is, but how he or she is able to speak from the past in an authentic and believable way today. It’s what we term “the time-traveling device.” Though Gail looms large in this historic tale, Oliver must determine if he is the best 1st person narrator for the story and tour.
Maybe someone close to him would be more effective, like another pilot? Or someone charged with making the tiny parachutes? Or one of the hungry children whose life Gail so sweetly touched?
Indeed, the right choice of character might actually turn on the device: Will the story be better told from the air? Or the ground? During the Soviet blockade? Or once it’s finally broken? Will it be best recounted from the cockpit of a C-54? Or from the city streets daily littered with candy? Or perhaps from the point of view of a young Russian conscript powerless to stop the kindness (and hungering for a little vittle himself)?
In researching Charlotte’s story, Beware Madame la Guillotine, I discovered that she spent the day leading up to her twilight beheading writing letters. In a desperate bid to explain and justify her act of murder, she wrote not only to her father and sister, but to the citizens of France as well. This became my time-traveling device, and so Beware Madame la Guillotine acts as Charlotte’s memoir written from prison on the day of her death.
To lend dramatic tension to Michelangelo’s tale, Mary Hoffman placed him in his self-imposed exile of 1530 where he waited out possible arrest and execution not knowing whether he would live or die. To pass the time, and probably keep from going mad, he drew with charcoal on the walls of his cold, stone cell, whose location was lost to history until 1976.
Now, with Gail's help, Oliver searches for the time-traveling device that will bring The Chocolate Pilot’s tale of the Berlin Airlift to life for 21st century kids, who know nothing of Cold War and fallout shelter drills, while tying that story to histories being made today.