by Bonnie L. Sherrell
Port Townsend, Washington, USA
My dad, Owen C. Bickford, was a pilot in the Army Air Corps. In 1949 he was transferred to San Jose, Costa Rica, to fly diplomatic missions and give air support to the survey team mapping the mountains of Central America.
One day the people at the local hospital approached him to ask if he could fly a young boy suspected of having infantile paralysis to the Army Hospital in Panama City. Dad was very concerned. He and Mom had a young son almost four years old, and Mom was pregnant with me at the time. Little was known about polio in 1949, and no one was certain how it was spread.
After failing to raise his superior in Panama to get permission to make the flight, Dad made the decision himself to do it. The boy was loaded on a stretcher and placed in the smallest plane at Dad’s disposal. Dad didn’t take his copilot or navigator along — there was no room for them with the stretcher there, and he didn’t want to expose others to the disease. He took off for Panama City and the Canal Zone at sunset, calmly talking to the sick little boy, who was awake much of the way, although too ill to talk much.
When his superior finally learned about the rescue mission, he was both upset and relieved. As a human being he knew that my father did the right thing. As a superior officer, he knew my dad had no authorization to risk his life by flying in a U.S. military plane at night to Panama with no copilot or navigator aboard. He did not give my dad a disciplinary comment in his record, and told him off the record that he was glad that he had not been available before he made the flight so that he was not put into the position of having to say no.
A few months later, just before I was born, a car pulled up to my parents’ home in San Jose, and a young couple got out with a little boy. The man reached back into the car to bring out a pair of crutches for the child, but he would not accept them. He said loudly, in careful English, that he wanted to walk by himself to thank the man who had saved his life. He carefully, one slow step at a time, made it up the walk and up the steps to where my parents and older brother were standing and threw his arms around Dad’s legs, thanking him in Spanish and English for taking the time to care for him.
My father died a few months later in a plane crash, but my mother never forgot the gentle way the two of them smiled at one another that day, and the pride both of them had that this child was able to walk by himself to greet the man who had flown him to the hospital.