The way Robert Whitcomb sees it, he's lucky to be around for his 90th birthday on Dec. 7.
Whitcomb was a navigator in a B-17 bomber, flying his 20th mission in 1942 when his plane was shot down over Germany.
"We were bombing an airstrip near Cologne," he explained. "We were at 26,000 feet. They told us in training to wait until you're near the ground, so maybe the enemy won't see you. I tumbled out and couldn't tell up from down. I pulled the ripcord, but it was at 15,000 feet. Two Germans on horseback saw me."
He didn't even have his parachute on when the plane came under attack.
"I was the navigator, and worked down below the pilot's feet. The parachute was bulky, and hung on your chest, so I didn't have it on. It was at my feet, and hadn't fallen out of the plane yet," he said.
There were nine crewmembers. Two survived - Whitcomb and the pilot.
Whitcomb, the esteemed composer and professor emeritus of music at Southwest Minnesota State University, retired in 1987. He will be honored at a 90th birthday concert at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 6 in the Fine Arts Theatre on campus.
Whitcomb's musical career took him all over the country. He grew up in Cincinnati, and found himself becoming increasingly interested in music during his junior year of high school.
He received a scholarship to the College of Music in Cincinnati and attended there for two-and-a-half years before being drafted in 1942. He served three years, the last several months in a prisoner of war camp, and returned to the school for his undergraduate degree.
After teaching for a year at the Culver Military Academy in Culver, Ind., he returned to the Cincinnati College of Music for his master's in piano performance.
His teaching stops included the University of Wyoming, Powell, Wyo.; New Mexico State University, Las Cruces, N.M.; South Dakota State University, where he had two stints; Western Washington University, Bellingham, Wash.; and finally, SMSU, where he taught from 1968 until his retirement.
"I received a General Electric fellowship and went and got my doctorate (from the Eastman School of Music, Rochester, N.Y.) after four years at South Dakota State," he said. "I applied as a piano major and was denied, but they accepted me as a composition major," he said with a laugh.
He'd taken a composition class while an undergraduate student and had written a few things. But it was after his time at Eastman that he became incredibly prolific.
Two years ago, he donated copies of all of the music he'd written to that point to SMSU, a collection that encompasses 21 books.
"There's been a couple of pieces since then that aren't in the collection, but only two," he said.
He's been married to wife Lois for 58 years. They met when he was teaching in Las Cruzes, N.M.
"I was playing the organ for a church choir," he said.
Lois was a home economics teacher there and, coincidentally, a member of the choir.
"He stood up, said a word about something, and I was gone," she said.
They have three grown sons.
All of the music at the Dec. 6 90th birthday concert will be pieces he has composed, said Dan Rieppel, Southwest Minnesota Orchestra director who is organizing the event.
"It will be a number of different pieces - chamber music, a quartet, a Christmas carol by the choir, piano pieces. All the music is by Bob,"?Rieppel said. "His music has a real distinct American sound but still is part of the European tradition."
"When I came, I didn't expect to stay for 19 years," Whitcomb said. "I enjoyed my time at SMSU, I met good people at the university, and I still keep in touch with some of my students."