I am fascinated by World War II aircraft, although I don't fully know why. I'm not a pilot and so can never operate them, as I could a 1967 Shelby if I were a car aficionado. I'll certainly never own one. And, in actuality, I hate flying. But armed with a deep appreciation for history, I drove the 75 miles to the Reading, Pa., airport for the Mid-Atlantic Air Museum's annual "Gathering of Warbirds" weekend.

I deemed the drive worthwhile even before exiting my car, thrilling to a gleaming, silver B-17 Flying Fortress rumbling airborne in a humbling combination of power and elegance. I cannot decide whether I derived more wonderment from coming face-to-cowling with these beautiful aircraft that helped save the world from the tyranny of Hitler and Hirohito, or from watching them roar through the air.

Seemingly everyone's favorite is the P-51 Mustang. If an aircraft can be described as "sexy," it's this slender predator of the skies. She was almost as sexy as the heavily lipsticked redhead sporting a 1940s USO dress posing alongside her.

I walked under the wing of a rugged B-25 Mitchell - the plane that captured my imagination while watching "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo," the first war movie I remember viewing - marveling from closer than the USS Hornet's flagman giving the "go" signal to Jimmy Doolittle and his raiders that they somehow flew these twin-engine behemoths off the short, pitching deck of a carrier.

I touched the propeller of an Avenger, the big-bellied torpedo bomber that blasted holes in many a Japanese ship and, even on the ground, looks like it's aching to do damage.

The curvy Corsair was the terror of Japanese pilots. It gracefully chewed up the sky as it zoomed by in a parade of Pacific Theater war birds, leading the Avenger, the Navy Helldiver and the savior of the Battle of Midway, the Dauntless. Among them zipped a Japanese Val, targeted by a barrage of very realistic-sounding machine-gun and anti-aircraft blanks, which provided an electrifying, and sobering, flashback to deadlier days.

Then, strolling through a re-created Normandy village, I saw a sea of tents displaying shadowed glimpses into the hard life of a wartime soldier - from the unforgiving Army cot, cumbersome gas mask and medical instruments to old bottles of Coke and the cathedral radio. Re-enactors representing various nations, military branches and ranks demonstrated service life, staged an infantry battle and walked among the crowd (too many German and SS soldiers, with their eagle-winged swastika insignia, for my liking). American GIs looking sharp in the leggings, field jackets and pre-Kevlar helmets of bygone days made me wish our military would institute throwback uniforms on Sundays.

Before returning to the airstrip, I admired President Franklin Roosevelt's official car and sat down to enjoy Vera Lynn, the Andrews Sisters and Doris Day, as sung by Theresa Eaman, whose angelic voice could make even the most battle-hardened Marine swoon.

And then the treat of the afternoon: Fifi, the only B-29 Superfortress in the world still flying, rose majestically into the sky. On the third flyby, her enormous wings banked to the crowd in a "photo pass," and somewhere between the pride and awe of this sight, I grinned incredulously at how the Axis could have been so suicidal to pick a fight with the United States.

This wasn't merely a weekend of vicarious thrill-seeking or a tenuous connection to a simpler time; it was a setting in which to remember - or, for those born after the war, imagine - a nation unified, a Congress not perpetually divided and chronically counterproductive, a government focused on the common good and its reputation on the world stage - a spirit too seldom seen and felt in America since the end of World War II.

Randy S. Robbins, 45, has lived in Margate, for nine years. He is a freelance editor of pharmaceutical materials.

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