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Gilford's Room

09/26/07 5:55PM By Howard Coffin
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(HOST) Commentator Howard Coffin has been watching Ken Burns' series The War this week on PBS, but he was taken completely by surprise on a recent morning when one of the most iconic relics of that era appeared for real in the sky over his house.

(COFFIN) The distantly familiar, deep throated, throbbing roar of a big propeller-driven airplane’s engine awakened me the other morning in my Montpelier home and I looked out the window to see, what? Yes, just having watched Ken Burns’s World War II the night before, it really was a B-17 Flying Fortress lumbering through the sky. It recalled a 1940s early childhood when we Woodstock kids, sometimes, saw a real bomber.

To the Berlin airport I hastened and found three relics of the air war over Europe with a lot of elderly people looking them over very closely. I climbed into the B-17’s cramped interior where once American airmen manned the controls, the machine guns, the radios, the bombsights, over fortress Europe. The giants of my childhood had become antiquated mini-monsters who looked like sitting ducks for flack and fighters. Then I thought of North Shrewsbury.

Pierces Store was the center of that mountain community where I lived for a decade in the sixties and seventies. Siblings Gordon, Glendon, Marjorie, and Marian Pierce ran the 1840s establishment their father had purchased, a classic Vermont country store. They operated it with loving care until they all died, or got too old to tend it. Now it is an empty ghost filled with memories of about the kindest people I ever knew.

But there was an older brother, Gilford, who I never met. He joined the air force in 1941and commanded a B-17 he named Vermont Lady. Gilford came home on leave and married Florence, his high school sweetheart, before departing for war and England. He survived a dozen missions before the Vermont Lady was hit on a bombing run over Europe and plunged into the Bay of Biscayne. Gilford was never found, though his parachute was seen.

The Pierces prayed that he was a prisoner. Then in 1946 they placed a memorial stone in the family lot. His mother was never again the same happy person. Florence, lovely in every way, never remarried.

In their last years I often visited the Pierces and was honored by being given "Gilford’s Room," kept exactly as it had been when he went to war. There on the bureau was a photo of Florence and Gilford, all young and in love.

The other morning I thought of Gilford climbing into his cramped cockpit on a foggy English morning, surely with a thought of home, to roar off over the Channel’s white cliffs with a bay full of bombs.

The writer Henry James, on first visiting Harvard’s Civil War memorial, expressed amazement that "the Civil War reached even here." So I have always felt on seeing Gilford Pierce’s stone in the North Shrewsbury cemetery, beneath the soaring green of our Coolidge Range. The air war over Europe reached even here.

Howard Coffin is an author and historian whose specialty is the civil war.
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