For a decade, starting in 1995, I led a month-long reporting "boot camp" here in Washington that always included Memorial Day. Year after year, I was amazed at the personal stories that would emerge as I helped young reporters cover these events for local newspapers across the land.
You want symbolic details in poignant stories? Cover Memorial Day in greater Washington, D.C. I still have a soft spot in my heart for Memorial Day stories.
This brings me to an amazing Baltimore Sun story -- "Towson WW II airman's prayer book returned from Europe after 70 years" -- timed for Memorial Day that, for some reason, the editors decided to play on A2 with timid art.
This story really got to me, and not in a good way, in part because of how it failed to take seriously its strong and obvious religion angle. Let's start with the "probably" angle in a lede -- atop a story with a near miraculous fact that slid down a few paragraphs.
By the time he was drafted and deployed to Italy in 1945, Larry Hilte was probably familiar with one of the most popular songs of the World War II era, "Comin' in on a Wing and a Prayer."
The lyrics of the song describe the plight of desperate airmen trying to find their way back from bombing runs over enemy territory in airplanes either shot full of holes, on fire or both.
Little did the Towson resident know then that 70 years later his prayer book, which fell from the Consolidated B-24 Liberator he rode on a mission over Europe in the final months of World War II, would find its own safe landing. Hilte does not know exactly when the prayer book fell from the plane, and, at this point, it doesn't really matter.
Right. The details of a pop song the veteran may or may not have known are more important than the personal details linked to his "Jesus Teach Me to Pray" prayer book that fell from the sky onto a house, where it was retrieved and ended up, decades later, in a flea market.
More on that in a minute, but let's continue with the basic facts of how the tiny hardback prayer book made its way home to America, with the help of grandson Brandon Hilte and a stranger on Facebook.
That man, Chris Cornelissen, said that he was trying to locate the owner.
"Chris contacted me and asked if I knew Larry Hilte," Brandon, 31, said. "He said, 'You probably won't believe this, but I have his prayer book.'"
When he discovered the book, Cornelissen was on a historical walk through Bastogne, the centerpiece of the German army's last major offensive of the war in what turned out to be the renowned Battle of the Bulge.
Curiosity led the avid WWII buff to a flea market in the heart of the city.
"At a small bookstand in the middle of one of the rooms, a Dutch lady was selling old field manuals, song books, pocket bibles and prayer books," Cornelissen said in an email to CeCe Brooks Hilte, Larry's wife of 15 years.
"After looking through some of them, I picked up a small black prayer book. It was not in perfect condition, but there was something else what made me instantly very interested. On the first page I found a name and address for Joseph Frank Hilte. Who was this man? Was it a soldier? Where did he fight? Would he still be alive? No doubt about it, I just had to buy it and start a research."
The book was given to older brother Joseph by their mother at the time of his first Holy Communion in 1930.
Oh, right. We are dealing with a Roman Catholic family -- a detail never mentioned in the story. Maybe everyone with a prayer book is Catholic? In an online video that goes with the story, is that a family member's white first Communion dress hanging on the wall with some treasured photos?
Details, details. The story has tons of great details about the war, the B-24 itself, the fighter plans that protected them, etc., etc. But the actual contents or use of that prayer book? Apparently there were no important significant or symbolic details there.
Later, readers are told these interesting facts:
Still spry at 88 with a shock of gray hair, twinkling eyes and a toothy grin, Hilte said that he thinks he knows how the book fell from the plane at 30,000 feet somewhere over the European theater.
"Most of the missions took seven or eight hours," he said about bombing runs that could cover 1,500 miles. "There was a lot of waiting around and it could be boring, so I'd climb up into the body of the plane and wrestle around with the waist gunners to pass the time. The prayer book was probably in my top pocket, and I guess it fell." ...
When his grandson told him that the treasure was being returned, Hilte was incredulous. And when the prayer book arrived, he knew it was the real deal. "I recognized my mother's handwriting right away," he said about his late brother's name and address written in cursive on the first page.
By all means, read the whole story. This was a great, human hook for a story linked to Memorial Day.
Would it have been better with some of the religious details included? For example: Why did he take the book into his dangerous gunner's nest in the B-24? Were there favorite prayers in it that he read while flying into battle? Were the details of any of those prayers, just maybe, more poignant for a man in peril than, oh, the lyrics of a pop song that he may or may not have heard or loved?
Just asking. The Sun team had to work really hard to avoid the deeper religious angles of this human-interest story, but they pulled it off. Sad.