SOUTH BURLINGTON, Vt. - Bobby Noble grew up knowing everything; his mother didn't hide from him the fact that he was born in England and that he was adopted as an infant in the late ‘70s. He also grew up honoring his father, Capt. Robert William Noble, who had died serving his country as a Vermont Air National Guard pilot.
Even though only 2 years old when it happened, Bobby Noble said he vividly recalls the black car pulling up to the house and two men talking to his mother.
At the Vermont Air National Guard Base, Sept. 3, 2015, Bobby Noble stands in front of the same type of aircraft that his father flew while serving as a pilot in the VTANG. Noble's visit was the first time he had seen the memorials bearing his father's name, who died in a training mission in the early 1980s. (U.S. Air National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Victoria Greenia)
“I remember wondering what the men could have told her that made her more upset than I had ever seen,” he said about the day he and his mother learned his father had crashed in an EB-57 airplane just a quarter of a mile south of then Plattsburgh Air Force Base during a routine training mission Feb. 2, 1980.
In honor of Robert Noble, his name was etched in brass and placed on the Honor Roll plaque as a reminder of VTANG pilots' sacrifices. It was this memorial that would bring Bobby Noble back to the base more than three decades later. While in conversation with Master Sgt. Brent Farnham, manager of VTANG's Services Flight, he mentioned that his father had been a pilot in the Guard.
A longtime Green Mountain Boy with a deep sense of pride in its heritage, Farnham felt the name Robert Noble was familiar. Eventually he remembered seeing it on a plaque in the Operations Building and then realized Bobby Noble was part of a Vermont military legacy.
At Farnham's invitation, Bobby Noble visited the base on a warm September day. Having grown up watching “Top Gun” and loving airplanes, things that would connect him with his father, he was excited just by being at an air base. But he was also echoing the footsteps his father had walked decades before, a man he mostly knew only through other people's memories.
The first stop was the Honor Roll plaque, the link that had brought him to the base and his connection with the Guard. He quietly read the swirly letters of John Magee's poem “High Flight,” which gives praise to the lives of former aviators and their adventures. Toward the end near the words, “And, while with silent, lifting mind I've trod/The high un-trespassed sanctity of space/ Put out my hand, and touched the face of God,” he found his father's name. Reaching out, Bobby Noble touched the brass plate, bent his head and closed his eyes.
Later he said, “Realistically we're talking about something that happened 25 years ago. But all the feelings, all the emotions, are put into a special little place in the back of your mind where you don't necessarily forget about them.”
The feelings compounded when Farnham led him to a small field where legacy airplanes the Vermont Guard have flown now rest. On the EB-57, a plane from the 1980s, he saw again his father's name. Just paint on a metal shell, yet buried emotions bubbled to the surface as he thought about his father's sacrifice.
After taking a photo and then running his fingers over the stenciled letters, he stepped aside to have some time to himself. Farnham, also moved by the profundity of the moment, respectfully stood a distance away.
“I don't think the word ‘family' is just a buzzword around here on base,” Farnham said about the strong relationships formed among the Green Mountain Boys. “I think we really are a family, and I wanted him to know he was a part of that. And I think he did see that.”
Farnham was also able to give Bobby Noble archived photos of his father in his pilot uniform, as well as pictures of his mother holding him in her arms while receiving the Air Force Commendation and Meritorious Service Medals for Robert Noble posthumously.
Again, Bobby Noble was overcome by this window into the past where his childhood had been melded into Vermont Air National Guard legacy. Later he would bring these mementos to show his mother.
“It was incredibly powerful,” he said. “Not only the extent to which [the VTANG] went to make the experience amazing for me, but what really struck a chord with my mom was that the brotherhood that was present for her in 1980 is extended out to me so many years later.”
It's a feeling he said he wants to share with his son as well. He said he was going to plan a day where they could visit the base together and he could show him his grandfather's name and see how his memory is still honored.
After a childhood full of love with a step-father and siblings whom he described as incredibly nurturing and loving and a mother who went to all his sport games and practices, Bobby Noble said he holds no resentment toward the military for the loss of his father; in fact, he said, he finds it honorable that he died serving his country. From it, he has another family: The Green Mountain Boys.
He said he thinks his father would have had it no other way.
By U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Victoria Greenia
DOD News / Defense Media Activity
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