Bernard Bail and his brother went to war. He in the sky. His brother on the ground. World War II had a way of causing separation. Men from home, from family, from themselves.
“I didn’t want to fly again, in case there was another war,” Bail said. “One war was enough. I decided to become a doctor.”
So, the kid who grew up tough in a South Philadelphia Jewish ghetto went to Temple, which has a reputation for giving opportunity to those who need it most.
For the first time since 2002, Bail was back in Philadelphia late last month, attending a medical school reunion.
Bail turns 87 next week, but is hardly retired. He is still a practicing psychoanalyst in Los Angeles and just published his memoirs, Irmgard’s Flute. It is the story of his life, effected most clearly by his time in World War II.
It marked him. On his last mission, leading a flight over France in March 1945, his crew was shot down and he was taken captive.
“My two pilots were dead, the plane was gone,” he said. “I had to leave the plane. I remember wondering ‘How would they kill me? Would be it with a bullet, with a knife, or with what?'”
Half a year later, he enrolled as an undergraduate at Temple.
“I didn’t really have any clothes, so what I wore when I was shot down, when I was a prisoner, those were the same clothes I wore when I enrolled at Temple in September,” he said. “It was very shocking. You’re flying combat, and it’s a different mindset. And then here I’m a student.”
He finished medical school in 1952, ending a seven-year tenure on North Broad Street. He was finished with Philadelphia, too.
“I didn’t like the weather,” Bail said. “I didn’t like the rain. I didn’t like the snow. I didn’t like the cold.”
So he moved to Los Angeles in 1953, which was no small feat. Bail left a lot behind him. Memories. Love. His brother.
“He was very much traumatized by combat,” said Bail of his older brother, who died in 1979. “He didn’t do very much.”
Today, Bail is soft-spoken with an intellectual edge. He is small and challenging. He speaks with confidence and assuredness. It’s a commonality of his generation. Men who saw war. Men with ghosts they don’t discuss.
Bail has Air Medals, Battle Stars, Flying Crosses and a Purple Heart. In late February 2006, the White House awarded Bail with the Distinguished Service Cross. He received the award more than 60 years after another earlier brush with death. In June 1944, anti-aircraft fire killed his pilot and wounded other crew members. Bail took control and prevented his team from plummeting into an English village.
“The French Ambassador gave me the French Legion of Honor, France’s highest award,” he said. “I guess people would say I was a very brave soldier.”
Like a brave soldier, Bail continued flying missions. He wasn’t so fortunate a year later, when much of his crew was killed and he was captured.
His experience as a prisoner of war would shape the rest of his life. While under care, he caught the eye of a young German nurse named Irmgard.
As a prisoner, he was given just scraps of bread and water. Irmgard began to sneak him red wine at night. They could never have more than a few short minutes together at a time, so they would trade brief notes.
“She would write to me,” he said. “We fell in love.”
But time passes fleetingly. The Germans surrendered. The war was over. Bail left Germany. And he left Irmgrad. His time in captivity showed him he didn’t want to see war again.
“I had a goal,” he said. “I wanted to become a doctor. I got swept away with all the needs of being a doctor. I was busy living my life.”
Years after leaving the hospital, Bail felt the desire to find his prohibited love. But the hands of time made it harder than Bail could ever imagine. In 1985, while attending a conference in Germany, Bail purchased advertisements in a handful of newspapers. The advertisements included pictures of himself, past and present.
“When no one was forthcoming, I knew that it was over,” Bail said. “That’s the final chapter. I don’t dwell on these things. To be healthy, you don’t want to dwell on the past.”
It wasn’t all for nothing, though. Before he returned to the U.S., someone anonymously slipped a sketchbook under his door. In it was a handful of drawings, and one was unmistakably of Bail’s lost love. Irmgard was playing the flute.
“I remember pretty much everything about her,” he said.
Now, Bail is living a different type of life. At 86, he is still a practicing psychoanalyst, housed in a small clinic not known outside of Los Angeles. But he has his followers.
“His understanding of the subconscious is extraordinary,” said Dr. Lynda Share, who has had a 25-year friendship with Bail. “He’s the finest dream interpreter in modern time.”
And he remains active outside of medicine. In addition to Irmgard’s Flute, he has completed a book on his dream analysis theories and is working on a manuscript about the spirituality of the subconscious. He plans to write more. His age doesn’t seem to be a consideration, yet.
“My secret is very simple,” he said. “I live a very simple life and keep good thoughts.”
Tyson McCloud can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Christopher Wink can be reached at email@example.com.