My Uncle, Frank Madden, had the most beautiful, syrupy, baritone speaking voice. He was a preacher by trade, affiliated with the United Methodist Church. And on summer Sundays, I remember the character and tone of his deep, hypnotically rhythmic speech as it echoed and volleyed off the walls of tiny Bemis United Methodist.
Uncle Puz -everybody called him Puz or Puzzems- wasn’t always inspired to speak upon God’s behalf, however. His journey to Methodist Seminary was quite the convoluted one, in fact. There are those that would be quick to point the common knowledge prior to 1940 that Puz was no saint. He was lock step with the rest of the male members of the family. Their adventures were created from the dirt streets and the quiet countryside and ranged from good natured mischief to out-and-out acts of deliberate criminality.
The outbreak of World War II pulled Uncle Puz free of the family and led him away from the Mississippi hill country. Soon enough, he found himself a member of an aircrew assigned to a B-24 Liberator named The Red Dog and holding a mission ticket that needed 25 combat punches for a return trip home.
Uncle Puz made the journey from buck private to staff sergeant quickly and without incident. The rank was needed as NCOs did the grunt work in a bomber aircrew. Speedy promotions were the norm in 1943 as the losses among United States heavy bomber wings engaged in precision daylight raids over Europe were astronomical. Sporting chevrons and a 19 year old, beer drinking attitude, he climbed into the plane and flew in the tail gunner position over Schweinfurt and the ball bearing works, the railroad marshaling yards in Austria, the Focke-Wulf factories in Bremen and Marienburg, Poland, and with elements of the 453rd Bomb Group, into the Krupp Tank Factory in Magdeburg and the marshalling yards around Cologne
It was after just such a daylight mission to a large railroad marshalling yard in the city center of Cologne that Uncle Puz said he felt the intense need to began his walk with the Lord in earnest. Their ship was full of flack holes from the carpeting of the skies with proximity-fused 88 FlaK rounds over the target. Once off target, the waist gunner and the engineer were in the process of counting the visible ones. Enemy fighters had been spotted, but thanks to protection from escorting P-51 Mustangs, none of the fighters had chanced an encounter. The crew was beginning to relax.
It was then that two of Willy Messerschmitt’s Bf-Hundert-Neun’s sliced through their portion of the formation. Everyone scrambled to their combat stations. Uncle Puz squeezed back into his end of the Flying Coffin just in time to witness a young Luftwaffe pilot tailing his ship, wings level, at about two hundred yards and closing. Uncle Puz dropped his twin .50 caliber mount to match the position of the fighter and was about to squeeze off a burst when a P-51 flashed past with guns blazing. The sudden appearance of the Mustang drove the German off the tail of the bomber.
After 25 relatively safe missions, Uncle Puz was able to soak in the statistics of the US Air War against Germany. There were a few figures that stuck out in his mind. Namely, that bomber crews operating in the European Theater had about a 25% chance of completing the required 25 missions unscathed. In other words, sample 100 air crews in any bomb group within the Eight Air Force. Fifty-five of them would die (or die of wounds sustained) in operations. Three would be wounded on operational or active service. Twelve would be taken prisoner (some of which would be injured). Two would be shot down and evade capture. Only 27 would survive their tour in the same shape as they started. I suppose Uncle Puz began to think there was more than luck at play when he and his crew called “feet dry” on that last mission to Germany. Regardless of the factors at play, he returned home and set a plan in motion to attend the Candler School of Theology, Emory University, in Atlanta, Georgia.
Uncle Puz married my mother and father- and yes, that is actually my Mom, my Dad, and my Uncle Puz behind them. He christened my sister and I. He presided over funerals. He served the Tennessee National Guard as Chaplain and retired as a Major. His sermons were of the common man and punctuated by wry humor. I remember him able to easily coax laughter out of even the most sacrosanct stiffs the United Methodist doctrine had to offer. His masterful elocution was accented by his jowly bulldog delivery. The memory of his sing song baritone is what spurred me to recall the faded green padded pews inside the vague Tudor facade of Bemis United Methodist. I truly enjoyed hearing him speak.
Uncle Puz died suddenly in 1980. Dropped dead in a doctor’s office, in fact. Not exactly the way a man of the cloth envisions biting the bullet, but I’m sure his earthly works kept him in good standing with heavenly record keepers when his number was called.