In order to sit on the seat where he sat, and view the sky as he viewed it, I had to step past the crew's rickety red bench and frayed seat belts; past rotating machine guns, ammo belts, and bombs; beyond black box radios, oxygen tanks, and fire extinguishers.
Brown foam bulged through torn leather seats. Daylight peered through holes in the metal body of the plane.
I crossed the slender beam that connected the belly of the Flying Fortress to the pilots' pulpit, trying to imagine ten soldiers at work in this small space; men in the throes of aerial combat.
The windows beyond the pilots' control panel tilted toward blue sky. Searching for a space that looked fit for a navigator, I could see only the dark shadow of propeller blades beyond plexiglass.
"The entrance is there, beneath the pilots' seats," the guide said from behind. "You have to crawl through that tiny rectangle to get into the nose. Or scoot on your bottom."
Seventy three years ago, my Uncle Joe worked in the nose of a B-17 bomber. Seated at a tiny desk in a plexiglass bubble - dressed in electric underwear to help endure temperatures of 40 degrees below zero, and often breathing through a fitted oxygen mask - he'd routinely look through the window beside his desk at swastikas on rudders and black crosses on wings of German aircraft sent to shoot his plane down.
A twenty-two year old navigator, Joe crunched numbers, read compasses and searched the stars; directing his crew through calm and chaos to ensure their safe departure, flight and landing.
To ensure his crew's lives.
My cousin, Vincent - an Air Force veteran - best described our uncle's routine ten-hour work day aboard the B-17, writing: "Hours of boredom, with moments of sheer terror and panic... being completely exposed and at risk, and still doing his job, his duty."
Last weekend, as I excitedly knelt in the nose of a restored B-17 Bomber, seeking to better understand Uncle Joe's WWII experience, American Nazis marched on the streets in Charlottesville, seeking relevance. As I photographed a technological marvel that helped win the war against Nazism and fascism, white nationalists carried semi-automatic weapons through the streets of an American city, armed more heavily than police. As I spoke to 90 year old veterans about their experiences in WWII, white supremacists shouted vile, racist and anti-Semitic chants to all who would listen. And as I watched the propellers of a B-17 sputter to life, smoke circling steel, an alt-right criminal shifted his car into reverse and plowed through a street filled with anti-protesters - killing, wounding.
Leaving a Flying Fortress that led the WWII bombing campaign against Nazi Germany's industrial and military targets, I had just begun scrolling through pictures on my phone when I learned that my country was in crisis; confronting the hatred, racism, anti-Semitism and entitlement of an enemy within. Days later, this enemy still seethes and plans, emboldened by the President of the United States - who has condoned the immoral and endorsed the unthinkable.
As America holds its breath through these unprecedented events, I can't stop thinking about my uncle - the navigator - who, like all soldiers in the Allied forces, considered it his job, his duty to defeat Nazis and fascists in WWII. He never thought twice about sacrificing his life to protect his country, his world, and the basic tenet of democracy and morality - that all people are created equal.
In the wake of Charlottesville, when we need a 'National Navigator' - an indispensable leader who will think, plan, and work to ensure the safety of our people and the sanctity of our democracy - we are governed by a National Instigator. An incompetent, delusional, defensive and dangerous Emperor of Emptiness.
Rather than despair, I'm looking to the example set by my uncle, and all Americans who endured the Great Depression, poverty, racism, discrimination, war, and the rebuilding of a world knocked off its axis by the Axis of Evil.
Remarkably, these Americans remained people of hope.
People of courage.
People of action.
History is surely watching - as deeply, but far more sternly than it did 70 plus years ago - because of the blood shed, the sacrifices made, the terror long perpetrated in foreign lands and on American streets, and the progress our nation has made, so slowly but certainly.
For Heather Heyer, murdered by a Nazi on a Saturday afternoon in America, for the police officers who died monitoring the riot, for millions who have lost their lives to murderous mobs at home and abroad, for the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have fought against tyranny and died for our freedoms, for all who continue to fight, accepting even death for our freedoms, we must work harder than ever to be the United States of America.
There is no navigator in The White House, or Congress.
Exposed and at risk, it's up to us. We, the People.
To remain people of hope. Of courage. Of action.
It's our job and our duty.