Jackson was the kind of guy that dogs hate for no reason. That being said, he was not a particularly evil or immoral person. He was just Jackson. Or maybe the dogs knew something we didn’t. Anyway, he and I were OK. Jackson was over a ranch outside San Antone when the engines on his B-17 went out. He said it wasn’t scary. Not in the least. He heard the words in his head even as he sensed the last sputtering breath from his left wing. The words always came to him. The words that made him decide to be a pilot all those years ago. When the shows would come through town, Jackson was the first one in line. The planes were fine, but he wanted to hear the words. Aileron. Flyboy. Groundgrabber. When he enlisted in the Air Force the words became his own. He wore the jargon like a suit of armor. Held it like an old stuffed toy. And they came to him when he needed them. Line it up. Firewall it. Trim it out.
We all heard the story back at camp. Not from Jackson. That wasn’t his style. Not that he was modest. He was just smart enough to know that someone else will tell your story if you’re patient. And he knew that people who don’t tell their own stories can become legends.
We’d been in San Antonio for so long no one kept track anymore. Overseas, our boys were kicking ass. Or getting their asses kicked. Depending on who you listened to or how you looked at it. Depending on what time of day it was. Depending on whether we were drinking or not. The waiting could get to you if you let it. We’d been close to shipping out so many times. Waking up to yelling, packing bags, standing in a row. Thinking of killing Germans and what that would mean. Good and bad. And then nothing. Again. Sawbox would be relieved. He was scared. The bad kind of scared. The rest of us guys would be disappointed. In July, sweating our asses off and getting soft, we wanted to go. We were dying to.
Growing up, airplanes were all I thought about. My father was a coal miner. And his father before him. We all were. They all were. Somehow I got it in me that I had to fly. It developed into an obsession. I needed to be up in the sky. Just had to be. I got a job at an airplane factory when the war started. I started out with a broom and pretty soon I was working on autopilots and doing test flights. I didn’t want to kill anyone. Never did. I was happy. I could fly as much as I wanted. I had more freedom than the Air Force boys. But people in town started talking. Talking to each other, and talking to my Mother. And all the time, more boys kept leaving. So people talked. “Why doesn’t Raymond go?” “Doesn’t he want to fight?” Then my Mom started asking. Then the old man sobered up long enough to join the cause. Soon enough I couldn’t take it anymore and I joined up, too.
Basic training was basic training. The hours in the classroom were like all the hours I spent in church as a boy. Only back then it was fifteen minutes of singing and then forty-five of boredom. In training we didn’t even get to sing. And we only saw airplanes in pictures. Still, time went fast. I couldn’t wait to start flying. And then one day I did. I started out in a Piper Cub. A nice little plane. I was a natural. Everyone said so. I moved up quicker than the other guys; while they were still in the Cubs I was getting checked out on every plane in camp. PT-19s. PT-13s. I flew a nice twin-engine Cessna. B-24s. No one wanted to fly the B-24. We called it ‘the killer’. I had one undershirt I wore every time I had to fly the B-24. I wore it on my first date with Selma. It never let me down.
Before I knew it, I was flying the B-17. It was bigger than I’d ever imagined. Like flying a condominium. A smooth and reliable plane. One of the best ever. It was as forgiving as a good woman. If you needed power she gave it to you. If you needed lift she was there. If you dropped a wing coming in for a landing, all you had to do was kick in with the opposite rudder and you’d be right on target.
There were moments of pure bliss when I was up in the B-17. It was like an older brother you looked up to. I can remember all those evenings. The sun would just begin sliding down behind the mesas and we’d be up so high that not even God had as good a seat as us. The colors would spread out across the sky like the innards of a fire. Red. Orange. Sienna. A different red. A different orange. I’m not even totally sure what color sienna is, but it was up there. It was so bright that you would have thought it ugly had it been painted. And we had front row seats, flying straight toward heaven. All the bastard Sergeants and that asshole First Lieutenant. All the shitty meals and lonely nights and hours spent listening to Sawbox grinding away all night long. All the bombs and all the Germans and all the bullshit posters about Uncle Sam would disappear, and we would be pilots. It was all I ever wanted.
Sometimes I’d think of Selma, out there in San Francisco. I’d wonder what she was doing. And who she was doing it with. I wouldn’t get jealous. Just sad. That was when I really hated the goddamn war.
All Jackson ever wanted was to talk. That kid had a word for everything. A lot of the guys thought he was pretty sharp. Called him professor. But big words don’t impress me, and he sure didn’t act sharp. He was an adequate pilot. I didn’t mind flying with him. But to hear him talk he was the Red Baron and Lindberg all rolled into one. Still, he got the job done. But he was lazy. And a coward. He lied as much about his women as he did about most things. He was quick with a compliment when the brass was around and quick with an excuse when it was time to pick up a wrench or a broom.
Still, I liked Jackson well enough. He played a decent game of bridge and we’d partner up sometimes. That, and he was a good drinker. Solid. A good man to have around if there was a bottle of bourbon giving you a hard time. And whenever we were lucky, there was a bottle around. They told the men not to drink, but telling men not to drink is worse than telling them they have to. Plus, it was something to kill the boredom. There’s only so much scrabble, poker, darts, softball, basketball, Chinese checkers, horseshoes, boxing, blackjack, dice, and football that one man can take.
I was having a drink with Jackson when I got the call from Selma. Pregnant. 8 months and she knew she should have told me sooner, but she was scared. I told her not to worry. We would get married, everything would be fine. And I asked for, and was granted, leave to do just that. We managed to have the wedding and the childbirth in the same week. And then I left, and Selma stayed on in San Francisco doing her part to beat the Germans.
Back at the base I was like a caged animal. The months dragged on and now I didn’t even want to go fight. All I wanted was to be with Selma and the baby. My son. The little boy I had held in my arms for about 6 total hours. Not long enough. But long enough to make it hurt when I thought about how the small warm body had felt. And the bigger warm body. Damn, it hurt to think sometimes, but it hurt even worse not to think about it.
Jackson liked to talk, like I said, so no one really paid him much attention when he said the war was almost over. For one thing, he’d been saying that since the second week. I hated him when he said it. We were all hoping for it in one way or another. They’d given us too much time to think. Too much time to watch people come home missing arms and legs. If they’d just sent us over there right away it would have been fine, but instead we waited, and the waiting ate at us. Took away our resolve. Turned us into apathetic prisoners.
Flying was the only escape we had that didn’t give you a hangover, so we did it whenever we got the chance. Up there, in the sky, everything was gone. It was just us and the clouds. It was when we touched back down that the ugliness of reality would descend like the curtain at a high school musical. Not smoothly, but in jerks and twitches. I was in my own world. Trying to be a Dad by mail and not doing a very good job of it. I was reading a letter from Selma when the big news came in. It was official. It was over, and we were never going to see any fighting. In the history of the world, there have been many great celebrations, but none like this one. We were cartoons. We stumbled around with wide eyes slapping each other on the back. I got Selma on the phone and, of course, she had known for days. We were always the last to hear anything.
I packed my stuff up and waited for the paperwork to clear. For the right man with the right stripes to put his initials on the dotted line. The waiting was torture. And then they told us it was all over. To show up at 0600 and we’d be on our way. They were sending us away in stages. The night before we were supposed to leave we got drunker than I had ever been. 0600 was a blip on the clock. We were half-drunk and half-asleep and all surly. The next night was the same. And the morning. Those kind of patterns are hard to break. Maybe we were scared to leave. We finally made it on the third day. As we signed papers and hefted our bags, I caught our reflection in the glass of the door. We looked terrible. It had been a tough war.