George Bush: pilot, patriot, president and friend

Like most American immigrants to Israel, my story begins with a request from an Israeli buddy, “Can you spend 15 minutes translating a page into English for me?”

In this case, the buddy was my boss, the Israel Air Force commander who was slated to host an IDF display, including an air show, for a visit by US vice president George H.W. Bush in 1986.

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I knew that 15 minutes would turn into at least a few days’ work, telling my two-star boss that we shouldn’t just give him our usual show but should use the opportunity to truly connect with him.

In those pre-Internet days, I turned to AIPAC’s Israel office, which briefed me on the VP’s history. I was captivated to learn how he went off to war immediately after Pearl Harbor and became one of the US Navy’s youngest aviators. Bush had an amazing war story, having been shot down in the Sea of Japan and rescued by a submarine. To his fortune, the sub was American and one of the sailors even captured his dramatic rescue on film.

I read how George, like his wife, Barbara, was a “people person” and a family man who cherished the democratic values that are so important here in Israel.

The IAF commander then sent me to the commanders of Israel’s ground forces and navy, to help prepare their parts of the IDF display.

So, beyond emceeing the formal air show, I found myself escorting the vice president from the minute he stepped out of his helicopter together with defense minister Yitzhak Rabin. I reinforced key points about Israel’s military and carefully interjected humor. For example, when Mr. Bush squeezed into a sleek Merkava tank, I remarked that it was known as “the Yiddishe Mama tank” because it provided extra protection to the crews – an important lesson Israel had learned from its extensive battlefield experience.

Bush disappeared inside the tank and they closed the hatch on him.  I found myself standing on top with Barbara, who feigned a worried look and said, “My God, you’ve kidnapped my husband!” I responded, “They’re not gonna let him out until he agrees to pay for the Lavi fighter,” which was a hot-button issue at the time. Without missing a beat, she turned to the reporters and said, “Well boys, George doesn’t scare easily, so it looks like I’ll be needing a new husband in case any of you were are available.”

SINCE THIS is Israel, despite all the security, I brought along my 10-year-old daughter, who was watching from a distance together with one of my junior officers. Barbara spotted this cute little girl with curly hair and Shirley Temple dress and waved her over, and was amazed to hear my daughter’s perfect English. From that moment they were BFFs, and Barbara had her sit by her side during the air show which was about to begin.

The aerial display opened with an F-16 roaring overhead. As emcee of the program, standing a few feet in front of the VIP section, I said over the PA system, “Mr. vice president, as one fighter pilot to another, welcome again to Hatzerim and I hope you enjoy the show.” He was all smiles as he relaxed into his chair.

A few minutes later, when a C-130 demonstrated an exciting short-field takeoff, I said, “Mr. Bush, these are the same US-made Hercules transports that rescued our hostages at Entebbe on July 4, 1976. On the day that America celebrated its bicentennial, Israel reminded the world that freedom is a value you have to fight for in every generation.”
That line made the front page of the next day’s New York Times.

The show ended and Mr. Bush was whisked off to the bus that would take him to his helicopter. Suddenly the bus stopped and an American captain came running over to find “the young Israeli major” and rushed me over to the bus. The VP shook my hand and said, “Good job, son. I really enjoyed today’s show and your explanations. Tell me, is there anything I can do for you?”

I wondered if I had any parking tickets in Washington that needed to be fixed, but quickly reacted like any good Jewish boy would. Scribbling a number on my notepad as I spoke, I asked, “Mr. vice president, Sir, if it wouldn’t be too much trouble, when you get back to the States, could you call my mom?”

I forgot about it, but he didn’t. Four months later, my mom was puttering around her kitchen in the housing area of the US Veterans Hospital in Northport, Long Island, where my dad served as chaplain. The phone rang. “Mrs. Grossman?” asked an unfamiliar voice. “Hi, this is Barbara Bush.” My mom thought for a second, then asked, “Barbara Bush, like from Hadassah or the sisterhood?”

Barbara answered, “No I’m calling from Kennebunkport. George and I snuck away from DC for the weekend and I’m catching up on calls. We saw your son in Israel with his little girl Nelly.” My Mom promptly corrected her: Nelly was Nili, named after the heroic Israeli underground group.

To both their credits Barbara and my mom then spent 45 minutes, saying how they missed their grandchildren and wishing their children could live closer to home ,but proud to see that their kids were carrying on their values.

As the world bids farewell, one thing stands out to me: George Bush was a man who loved and served his family and his country – a mentsch.

The writer is a reservist lieutenant-colonel who flew fighter jets in the US Air Force and was a career officer in the Israel Air Force, earning the IAF Commander’s Medal for a strategic reconnaissance mission to Iraq.

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