A Solid Eight Hours in the Sack
After a solid eight hours in the sack, I moseyed around, lazed in the shower, shaved up as best I could, and futzed around in general. Being away from our normal base, there were few routine chores. Basically we were just killing time.
Reluctantly, I toyed with some food, but sooner or later I had to get back to work. I have to admit to a kind of bone-weary fatigue, though.
About six o’clock, the bunch of us rendezvoused in the empty hangar reserved for our briefings. It was our office and command facility here at St. Omer aerodrome.
Minimalist, to say the least.
“Have a coffee, sir?” Jaeckl offered, reaching for the cups lined up by the urn.
“Major Dawley, bring us up to speed, please?” I asked.
The assembly quieted down a little, although they were pretty subdued to begin with.
Everyone was dead tired by this time, after working on the AEG’s all night long.
Poor guys could barely think straight.
“All righty, then. Gentlemen, listen up please.” He began, standing by the blackboard.
“So far, the two Handley-Pages are in running condition, and Pete is working on the AEG’s.”
“So. Last night was a bit of a non-starter, but Lieutenant-Colonel Tucker decided to drop his bomb over the North Sea, rather than try to land with it. But that’s good, actually, as we have now confirmed that the dropping mechanism works just fine, if nothing else.”
“We enjoyed the flight, burned off fuel, and just cruised around in general.” I reported, and the boys all nodded and smiled.
“We had a blast.” Bernie, eyes all bloodshot.
He looked kind of hung-over.
“Pete thinks he has the problem cured, and assures us the Handley-Page airplanes are top-notch.” The Major continued. “Referring to the AEG’s, we just don’t know yet. But it is still early. The basic plan is to try again. We take off at the same time, and proceed to the target with as many planes as we have. The weather is good for tonight, as far as we can safely predict.”
Down south, there was a chance of thundershowers.
‘If possible these should be avoided.’
Agents were again waiting at our jump point in Switzerland. The men checked their notes from the previous day and made new ones. I prayed that something would go wrong. I was hoping to get caught, but so far no one had even inquired as to our business here at St. Omer.
“When you take off, circle for height, but no more than half an hour. Then steer an initial course of one-hundred-eighty degrees for one hour, then turn to one-hundred-twenty degrees and look for the markers. Keep your route description handy. Land at field ‘B’ and refuel. This is a long trip. At Nancy, turn to approximately eighty-seven degrees, fly to the town of Strasbourg. From there, a course of approximately forty-three degrees takes you more or less to Baden-Baden.”
“The sketches you have are fairly good. In the final analysis, use your own judgment. If necessary, jettison the bomb over enemy territory, and return to field, ‘B.’”
Details, details, so many details, but it allowed time to think and study the map.
The beauty lies in the details.
We heard engines fire up outside, and a ragged cheer.
Rumble, rumble, rumble…they kept going. One of the AEG’s. Two foreign engines were running.
We looked at each other, many with eyebrows raised.
Someone knocked eagerly at the door. It opened with a thud as Taffy lurched in, wearing an expectant and happy grin.
He was just about to speak, when the engine notes went flat, first one, then the other.
He stood there shaking his head.
Finally, he came out with it.
“Whale…oil…beef…hooked.” He said, or something like that, then turned and in a dejected fashion began to shuffle off to the door.
“Aw, Pete.” He muttered as the door slammed behind him.
A few grimaces, a few grins.
“Sounds like he’s getting closer.” Said Major Dawley, a little tongue in cheek jab at yours truly.
Jaeckl wouldn’t let it get out of hand. He was just screwing with us.
The teletype machine clattered. Dawley and Hastings, who was also there to help out, consulted. They muttered between themselves while we waited.
“Doesn’t look good.” Hastings said, beckoning me over.
And there you have it. We had to stand them down again. The effing weather had socked in the southern end of our course for a day at least. More like three or four, judging by the maps and the data provided. Privately, I was relieved. Those AEG’s flew in here. Those motors just had to run, sooner or later. Good old Howard-Smythe had sent my coded telegram right on schedule. And he had been bribed to forget well.
“Why not do a big beer run?” I suggested. “It might be good navigation practice.”
“The weather down south looks bad for three for four days.” Put in Dawley.
The boys sat around scratching their heads.
“All right, take the damned bombs off the Handley-Pages.” I ordered to a few muffled groans and gripes.
It would be a dry run to Farnborough, perhaps even with two AEG’s…as we heard them up and roar again…maybe Pete was learning his trade, finally, and the two bombers of Trenchard’s.
“Why don’t we just lock up here and take the whole damned crew?” Queried Hastings.
“You could send half of them on a pass, for a day or two.”
I told you Hastings was smart. We made our way across the pavement to the line-up of aircraft, all four with little clumps of men working on them.
“Good idea. But first we have to get there.” I acknowledged. “Let’s have a look at these ruddy Hun bombers.”
Tipping the wink to Jaeckl, he went to the rear of the cockpit and sat there looking innocent.
“Try her out.” I suggested to poor old Pete, and gave it a big whack on the cowling beside the firewall with the flat of my hand.
Pete stood there, looking apprehensive, but the plane’s twin engines fired right up this time. Pete looked fit to be tied. He was one stressed-out individual.
He just about died when I made the other plane start up, too. Poor Pete. I’ll never forget it. He was groaning, and cursing, and pulling clumps of his thinning blonde hair right out of his head.
“Well, that makes two AEGS and two H-P’s.” Jaeckl joked. “For now, anyways.”
“Put a bomb on mine.” I noted for Jaeckl’s benefit, as he moved away. “I want to try something.”
His eyebrows rose, but he just saluted.
“I want to find out if we can land safely with a bomb on, at night. Those things are expensive, and the Ministry wants to know.”
It was our excuse for being experimental, after all.
“Who will I be riding with?” He asked over his shoulder. “Someone else, hopefully?”
So Bert Hall flew one AEG, Owens flew another. Dexter flew the other Handley-Page, and mine was the second, number, ‘oh-twenty-one.’ Soon we were over the channel.
Because of the relative lack of experience we all had, except Bert, the officers were scattered amongst four planes, and the ground crew was divided into two groups. Some were going on leave in Paris, no hardship for them, and the rest were flying with us.
My plane had a somewhat smaller crew because of the big bomb in the belly. I must say, it was an impressive sight, with the two Fritzie planes up front and down below, with Dexter in, ‘oh-nineteen,’ and myself in, ‘oh-twenty-one,’ up top.
At this time of night, it was safer to fly southwest down the Channel, then approach from the south. Bert’s navigation was impeccable. He might have done this sort of thing before. A smuggler’s route.
We landed at Farnborough in the middle of the night, but a quick radio call ahead by Dawley made certain of our welcome. They even used the beer trucks to help light up the fricking runway. That Dawley, he was always coming up with a new twist.
I guess it goes without saying that I didn’t pooch the landing.
And then, a batch of mechanics were sent on leave, to take effect the minute our wheels cleared ground. We left the AEG’s in England, so I sent Owens and Dexter on leave as well.
We kept exactly two mechanics, (not Pete,) and landed back at St. Omer about nine o’clock in the morning. All we had to do was unload, and have a nap, and think up our next stunt.
It’s too bad, really. I wouldn’t have minded a crack at old Kaiser Willy, and no doubt Bert would have bombed the War Office, Winnie’s place, or even Windsor Castle.
‘If the price was right.’
We had the motive, we had the intent, we had the means. We simply didn’t get the opportunity. Timing is everything, eh?
It might have done some good, to let the gentry know they can be held accountable.
While home in London, Jennifer had agreed to marry me. But I don’t want to get into the mushy stuff too deeply, for this is my future wife after all. For that reason, I have deliberately not fantasized, nor mentally soliloquized about her.
Hopefully the reader will just accept this. It was déjà vu and surreal at the same time.
Sitting there, back inside our old command tent, flushed with the vacation, I spent some time reading all the reports of the last week’s activities. The boys were doing very well, with only two minor casualties.
The Rittmeester Gunter von Fluebl, and Oberstleutnant Heinz Smiltz, ‘bit the dust.’
Thirteen enemy planes shot down. And two minor aces. Simply awesome.
About then the witch doctor, the head-shrinker, Doctor Scolz came in. It was his last day with us. He appeared to be very drunk. Not a happy drunk, either. The surly kind.
“So, I’ll say goodbye then.” I murmured, still reading.
He stood in front of the desk. He saluted, and clicked his heels. Very formal. He rocked back and forth ever so slightly. A veritable stew of breath came out of him, and wafted its way across. The doctor had been drinking heavily for some days now.
Over the last two or three weeks, the poor fellow had taken to talking to himself. Beginning to lose the personal grooming. Perhaps we’d been a too little hard on him.
“Incidentally, I have just turned in all your psychological assessments.” He said with a certain relish.
He seemed to expect some kind of response.
“That’s okay Doc. We all have our little role to play. By any chance do I fit the profile of an asshole?” And I just kept on reading.
Poor guy didn’t laugh. He just turned and headed for the door. Don’t go away mad, Doc…just go away. I didn’t laugh either. But that was about as close to an apology as he was ever going to get.
As the flap of the tent swished closed behind his sorry ass, Howard-Smythe turned aside from the tele-printer machine.
“You would have to be some kind of anal retentive to want his job.” He allowed.
In some way this put the final polish on what had been, from the onset, a pretty bad scene.
One fine day it was all over. We stood there, unable to comprehend, or to believe. We muttered, and loitered. The eleventh hour of the eleventh day. An armistice.
It was unbelievable.
I mean, why stop now?
Yet it is in writing. We have it in writing. It’s an order. Hard to believe. Accepting it is difficult. The sense of relief…overwhelming…a curiously subdued bunch of guys.
It was surreal.
The land is oddly silent. The air is strangely clear. The sound of the guns peter away, down to nothing.
“Well, I’ll be damned.” Said Andrew, who only yesterday was totally flushed with the pride of a double victory.
“I honestly didn’t think I would live to see it.” I admonished the boys nearest. “I just stopped thinking about it.”
Now my knees, my whole body went slack. All I wanted to do was to sit down. Those guys broke out a bottle, and music began to play.
My thoughts were haunted with a vision of Jennifer, pale and ghostly, hanging in the sky. All I had to do was to go home…it was over. It was all over with—and I lived.
I lived. I lived.
Holy, Jesus Fucking Christ…I lived.
For some reason, I wanted one last flight. Just one. It didn’t seem fair, to have such a beautiful plane. I had spent weeks tuning it. Many hours of hard work went into all the little tweaks, and for what? It was all so useless.
I experienced a moment of real anger, a kind of narcissistic rage, thinking about that.
Our orders were to stand down and preserve our machines for later analysis.
It was time to get ready for the next war.
So I took off alone, and headed for the Western Front. It was about ten-thirty or twenty to eleven or so. I took it up sunwards, climbing through 10,500 feet, and then opened up the throttle. Just to see what she could do. My SE was holding at about a hundred and sixty-five at 10,500 feet…beautiful. Just beautiful. Just think of what we could have done, given a little more time.
That’s when I saw him, off to the south and about 2,000 feet higher.
The black nose, the familiar wings. A Fokker D-VII. They don’t give those out to just anybody. He saw me. I could tell because he re-aligned the plane.
My guns were already cocked.
The clock said, ‘five to eleven,’ and I grinned in ferocious, blood-thirsty mirth.
“I’ll be fucking damned.” I oathed in fury. “I know thee, sir…”
For the rest of the quote the reader will have to consult Shakespeare’s, ‘King Lear.’
It’s pretty offensive.
I must say I was impressed.
Something about a, ‘son of a mongrel bitch,’ as I recall, but he was diving onto me and all there was to do was line up the sights, a little in front of old Herman, and let him have a burst right in the kisser.
Hah. Gotcha, you motherfucker.
He flew right into that one.
“Who the hell do you fucking think you’re dealing with here?” I bellowed as he went by.
He pulled right, and I pulled right, and we entered the good old, ‘kurvenkampf,’ as taught by von Richtofen, and Boelcke, and a hundred dead men before and since.
Herman Goering shot down Duzek, Elmer Duzek, only three weeks before. Did Elmer want to be the last man to die? One of the last? Only another three weeks, and he would have made it. He had a mother and a sister.
The red and black D-VII suddenly reversed his turn, but of course I anticipated this move, having seen it before. Pulled the throttle back to about half. Patience is a virtue, and I knew he would dive below me…sure enough, and I flipped over, following him down to the clouds…the clouds were about 8,000 feet and I figured he’d go east. No, he’ll go south, sunwards, and sure enough there he was.
Pulling out now, he pulls up and over, and now I turned and fishtailed to keep him in front of my guns…and still he was out of range. His loop did him no good. But he’s out of range.
He must recognize me as well. The eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.
Eleven o’clock, and yet neither one of us can break off safely. Who knows what his intentions are now? I wasn’t too sure what mine were. But I was open to suggestion.
We made a head-on pass. A little burst of smoke from his guns was enough to confirm his intentions, as my own finger gently squeezed the trigger. Through the smoke and vibration, I’m sure I got hits…and got hit…something thwacked through some part of my airframe.
He made a couple of strange moves, and I just watched him.
I had all day.
The sun behind me, lots of fuel.
We’re all alone up here, buddy…and it suddenly clicked in.
He was no longer trying to shoot me down, but only trying to avoid my guns.
Now I get it. This calls for…a snap roll.
Fuck. Sure enough, he does a snap roll too.
And then he looks over, as if to say, ‘Big deal.’
Suddenly he was edging up beside my plane. Waving, both hands in the air, he points and shrugs.
Face impassive, it is the bland-looking, fat-faced man. Not wearing a face mask, he gave me a big, happy smile. All I could do was to show him the big thumbs-up.
He saluted, and bowed his head.
His guns were jammed. I fired a short burst, because mine weren’t.
And again, he shrugged. Then, slowly, ever so slowly, he began to turn off to the east.
I watched the tail end of that plane, for a long, long time, let me tell you.
I don’t know why. There is no rhyme or reason for it.
Decided to let the cocksucker live.
It was eleven minutes and eleven seconds past eleven, and I don’t get paid for this.
So I turned it for home.
I let him live.
My thought was, “Enough, already, Herman.”
What do I care if the man’s a transvestite? Lord knows, we shot down enough of his goofy little buddies.
A Splendid Wedding
Standing there blinking in the sun, on the steps of the church. People took pictures and threw rice. A gaggle of Jennifer’s girlfriends waved and cried, and carried on something awful.
Her mom cried.
Her dad beamed and called me, ‘son.’
He slipped me an envelope absolutely jammed with cash, when no one was looking.
Jolly nice of him.
We got in the back of a big car and someone drove us away, a young male relative of my wife’s.
Jennifer’s folks, Mr. and Mrs. Bolteman, threw us an absolutely splendid wedding.
After demobilization things flashed by in a blur.
I was in a profound state of shock for a long time, but I remember little snatches of it.
We found ourselves on the fantail of a ship.
Standing there, with my wife, my love and my life, we watched the green hills of England receding over the horizon.
I was afraid my legs would begin shaking.
Entwined with each other, we kissed long and deep. I squeezed her. I didn’t want to let go.
“Well, old girl.” I murmured, face buried in her hair. “What do you think?”
“It will be fine.” She told me dreamily. “As long as we have each other.”
I just kept my face in her hair and bawled my eyes out.
It was all so beautiful.
Images. Louis finds stuff on the internet.
See the #superdough blog.
Thank you for reading.