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Mission #13

ISSUE:  Winter 1989

The old waiter shuffled away. Lieutenant Flowers cupped his hands about the glass and stared down into the brown liquid. Only half his mind had ordered the drink. For some time now the other half had been telling him he’d had enough.

He was alone in the Bull and the Wharf in Peterborough where he’d come to try to sort out just what had happened yesterday. But he wasn’t having much luck in getting the job done. He just couldn’t go back to it, couldn’t face it. It was like he was sitting before some murky window and he’d see the thing swim up just at the edge of the glass, then the thing would sink down again, the curtain would drop and there wouldn’t be anything there but a dark blank.

Yesterday morning everything had been O. K. , except it was their 13th mission they’d been called to fly. Flowers hadn’t thought he was superstitious, but that 13 stuck in his craw. He’d spent the last three nights lying awake trying to figure out how to number missions the way they numbered hotel floors back home. There just wasn’t any 13. You went right from 12 to 14. The only thing wrong with that was only a moron could fall for it. It was nutty.

Flowers had gone to breakfast with Red Bean, his copilot on their B-17. He’d sat at the big wooden table in the mess hall a long time silently jabbing at his powdered eggs with his fork. At last he’d turned to Red and said, his voice casual, “Thirteenth. Bother you?”

Red kept working sleepily at his eggs (it was one thirty A. M.). After a while he said, “Thirteenth what?” Flowers’ mouth had dropped open. He just sat back and stared at Red. Then he’d shouted, “Thirteenth mission! Our 13th mission! Over Germany!” and everybody in the mess hall had turned around and looked at him. He’d felt like a nut. Besides, Red was a damn fine guy and his best friend. But as usual Red hadn’t cared. He’d just given Flowers a lecture on getting upset over “nothing.” “Gramps,” he’d said, “you gotta work it like they do some of them hotel floors back in the States. You go from 12 to 14. We’re just between floors today.” Flowers knew Red was only trying to comfort him, but. . . .

“Between floors.” Flowers spoke the words out loud, and the old couple sitting at the next table in the Bull and the Wharf looked up at him. Then they looked at each other. The old man shook his head.

Then the murky glass was there again, only this time he could see the red scarf out flat in the wind. Flowers finished his drink and ordered another one.

Like Monahan had said about Red that night at the club. “Rare bird you’ve got there, Flowers. Laid back and wide awake all at the same time. Makes for a great flyer.”

Flowers had long ago admitted Red was a hell of a lot better flyer than he was. What Flowers had trouble understanding was, Red actually seemed to enjoy the idiot world they all found themselves in. Of course, it was the flying that did it for Red. He’d gladly put up with the annoyance of being shot at just to get at the controls of the 17. To Flowers the B-17 was just a Mack truck with wings stuck on it.

Flowers could remember the briefing that morning. Red was all in a happy dither because this time he knew they were going to Big B and their Group, the 457th, would be the first to do it. But when the captain from S-2 pulled back the curtain from the mission map, the route tape stretched from Glatton, their base, down across the Dover Straits to the French coast and right back to Glatton. It was a Grade A milk run. Red was practically devastated. Of course everybody else in the briefing hut cheered.

It was what they called a No-Ball target. No-Balls were “secret” installations the Germans had been building for months along the coast of France and the Low Countries, rocket deals of some sort. Of course S-2 had told them they might meet a lot of flak over them, and Johnny, the crew’s navigator, said he’d heard there were more flak batteries around them than the Krauts had the whole length of Happy Valley. “They aren’t called No-Ball for nothing.” And Johnny’d crossed his legs and shivered.

Flowers moved his glass along the shadow-line that cut across his table. He could remember the take-off and the climb above the overcast, but after that nothing would come into focus. He knew Red had gotten over his disappointment about their not going to Berlin, because when the start-engines flare shot up from the tower, he’d raised his usual cry of “Let’s get em started!” his happy face stuck out of the cockpit window.

Flowers remembered taxiing out. He could even hear the squeal of the plane’s brakes as he stopped and watched the plane ahead roll out on the runway. Then he could see the blue flames of its exhausts as it began its take-off charge into the night. Flowers pulled out on the runway, lined up, and waited. And as he waited it was then that he knew something was wrong. The cockpit, the world, went all topsy-turvy. He could see the instruments, but suddenly they were all canted, out of focus. He felt the sweat start under his arms, gather in beads across his face. What in hell was the matter? Vertigo? The old fear returning? He didn’t know.

He sat staring at the instrument panel. Should he turn back? Then he thought, I’d just have to go through it all again. He put his fingers on his throat mike and spoke to Red over the interphone. “Why don’t you take her off?”

Red turned, his eyes wide above his oxygen mask. “You all right?”

Flowers gave a wobbly nod. “You need the practice,” he said, knowing what a joke that was.

Red did not speak. Slowly his left hand closed over the throttles. Smoothly he walked them forward. The roar of the engines increased; the plane quivered and shook.

Sitting beside him, his body drenched in sweat, Flowers felt the plane surge forward, gather momentum. He watched, just off the left wing-tip, the runway’s hooded lights flick by, slowly merge into an almost solid line. The plane lifted smoothly from the runway, held a minute, banked left into the starless dark. Dark. Flowers spoke into his mask. Why always into the dark?

But by the time they had broken out of the overcast at eight thousand feet, Flowers felt better. Yet he still didn’t trust himself, and he wondered if he shouldn’t have taxied back to the hardstand and never taken off at all. Against his will, he thought the word, Thirteen.

Dawn now lay over the eastern edge of the world, and faint red streaks were sliding across the heavens. Beneath them the billowy snow field would soon be touched with crimson. Crazy to turn back now, Flowers thought. He settled back in his seat.

Flowers was the day’s high squadron leader, positioned above, to the right, and a little behind the Colonel who was leading the 18-ship Group. But if Red flew from the right seat, unless he swung wide, too wide for good formation, he wouldn’t be able to see the Colonel. I ought to take over the flying, Flowers thought. I feel fine. Then he said to himself, To hell with it. He touched Red’s shoulder. “We’ll change seats,” he said.

“Change,” he said aloud. But the face that swam out of the dark blank was the old waiter’s face. He saw the sad eyes, the sagging lower lids. The couple at the next table had gone and the waiter was saying, “You’ve a bit of a peaked look, Leftenant. Bitters this time?”

Flowers shook his head and held up his glass. The old waiter shuffled off, the empty glass balanced on his tray.

Peaked. That damn major! At the hospital at Bassingbourn Flowers had been thinking that he’d somehow gotten in on the wrong side of the war business. In the hospital even the major was putting people back together again, not blowing them apart. Then Flowers was wondering if he could take it, could do their job, work over the shattered bodies, the blood, sawing away on somebody’s bone, and the smell! the damned smell!

Suddenly Flowers had felt light-headed. He looked at the major and saw a surprised look come over the man’s chubby face, saw the face drift slowly upward and disappear in a rush of darkness.

Then Flowers was sitting in the chair by the desk looking directly into the major’s brown eyes, still feeling the imprint of the open hand on his cheek. A huge orderly stood by the chair. He was grinning.

“It happens,” the major was saying. “Put your head down. You’re the color of a mushroom.” Flowers lowered his head between his knees. I don’t believe it, he thought. I don’t believe it.

“You’ve probably been drinking too much.” The major straightened up. “Maybe you ought to lay off for a while.” He patted Flowers on the head. And Flowers, thinking, Like I was a damn ten year old!

Then he was leaving the hospital, going down the ward between the beds and suddenly a surge of insane envy for all the wounded men rose in him, and he’d gone by them down the long room, walking slower and slower. When he came to the last bed he stopped and looked back and he could see all the bandages, the casts, a nurse leaning over a bed. Then he was out the door, running.

The line of sunlight had disappeared from his table and sitting there, slowly winking first one eye then the other, trying to see his watch, Flowers knew he’d had all the booze he could carry, at least for a while. He got up and made his way carefully to the John. He stood before the zinc urinal and, word by slow word, read the scrawl on the wall before him. “God invented time to keep everything from happening at once.” He fumbled at his fly and spoke to the urinal. “At least it’d be over quick.”

Outside the pub in the diffuse English sunlight, he walked past the ancient cathedral, turned down a street of row houses. He held himself firmly erect, crabbing slightly toward the street like a light plane in a cross-wind. He swung far out around a corner and took up his course down another street. As he neared the end of the row of small English houses, he heard the sound of someone playing a piano. He came to a wavering halt before the house the sound seemed to be coming from. His hands on the low iron gate, he stood, head down, listening. Then slowly he opened the gate, moved up the walk and sat down on the porch step.

It came to him then that the piano was being played with one finger. Sometimes a measure was repeated. Vaguely Flowers imagined a small boy at the keys. He could see the Eton collar, the short pants, the knobby knees. He leaned against the porch post. He knew the piece but the title would not come.

The image of the child faded. He saw instead the white hair, the scarred hand of his old music teacher, Neta Shannon, moving over the keys. Yes, he thought, Bach. Loved Bach. Then he said aloud, “Sheep.” His voice was thick. “Sheep. Sheep may safely graze, among us.” He sighed, leaned more heavily against the post. His eyes closed.

He could hear the whine of the starter on number one, but it would not engage. They tried again. The whine rose, became a shriek, passed beyond hearing. Red’s hand struck his shoulder. He was shouting, “I want my seat! My seat!” But when Flowers looked it was not Red. He looked up into the face of a man whose hand lay on his shoulder, into the strangely lighted eyes that looked intently at him from under heavy, pure white brows. The man’s white hair was close cropped. Under his coat he wore a clerical collar.

Flowers rose abruptly, tiny points of light welling up before his eyes. He clutched at the porch post. “I’m, I’m sorry,” he stammered. “I heard the piano.”

The man looked steadily at him. The straight line of his mouth opened. “Leftenant, you’d best come inside.” His voice was slow, harsh. He straightened, and Flowers saw that the left sleeve of his coat was empty, the cuff pinned back at the shoulder.

His head pounding—Flowers had no idea how long he had slept—and, feeling like some incorrigible urchin, he followed the vicar into the house. He was told to sit in the tiny front room, then the vicar disappeared down the short hallway. In the room a lamp by a battered upright piano cut a mote-filled cone through the gloom. Books were piled on top of the piano, lay stacked about the floor. On the wall directly across from Flowers was a large picture of George the Sixth. Above it hung a rifle with a fixed bayonet.

The vicar returned and placed a huge mug of tea on the table by Flowers’ chair. “Drink that,” he said. Carefully he sat down in the chair under the cone of light and looked about the disorderly room. A somewhat brighter shadow passed over his face. He sighed. “Someday, perhaps, God will dawn on this chaos.”

Flowers did not smile. He thought, Chaos. Yes, chaos. My life. All life.

Then the vicar was saying in his slow, harsh voice how he had recently come from London, how horrible the chaos was there, and seeing the bombed out buildings, how he’d thought that war made graphic the terrible randomness that is always there in life no matter how much we fight against it.

Randomness. To Flowers it seemed an odd word for a vicar to be using. Then he glanced up into the old gentleman’s face and for a moment he seemed to be looking into the blue eyes of his father’s old friend Mr Laudenslager back home. Church window eyes, his mother always said, and abruptly Flowers blurted out, “I can’t! I can’t! I’m not going on! I’m quitting!”

A surprised look spread over the vicar’s face. “Quitting? Quitting flying?” He seemed not to understand what Flowers was saying. Then, “What happened, Leftenant?”

For a long moment the room was quiet. Then something gave way in Flowers, burst outward, as though a fragile membrane had ripped away, and he was telling the vicar the story of the No-Ball raid.

Only Flowers was no longer in the strange room with the strange man. Both man and room faded away and he was back in the cockpit of their B-17 with Red beside him, beneath them the Straits of Dover, the white cliffs standing vast and brilliant in the morning air. As they neared the French coast, he remembered that no black smudges appeared around them, announcing the old, perfunctory greeting from the enemy. Enemy. It had occurred to him then that the word seemed meaningless. He’d seen one, once, but just the helmet and goggles. An Me 109 pilot that had nearly rammed their 17. He’d come in head-on and missed by inches.

Idly Flowers looked down at the hoary silver of the sea and wondered how many times men on one side had set out to battle men on the other side. And with swords! He saw the ghostly line of the French coast and spoke into his mask. “Thank God for distance.”

Then they were over the French countryside, and Johnny was telling them, “Pas de Calais down there.” Slowly they made their unwieldy turn back east toward the target. It all seemed so short, so fast. Over the interphone Charley announced the I. P. and Flowers felt the wind in the cockpit and knew Charley had opened the bomb bay doors.

He leaned back in his seat and stretched. From now on he was certainly going to let Red take over most of the flying. Casually he glanced down at the featureless earth and saw appear, just off the number three engine nacelle, a bouquet of odd red flashes like summer poppies in a vase.

Instantly the flak was upon them. Precisely at their altitude and directly ahead the black explosions spread across the sky.

Like a man startled from sleep, Flowers jerked upright. It was the heaviest barrage he had ever seen. Abruptly he wished he were flying, that he had something to do. He touched his throat mike, pressed the interphone button. “Flak!” he shouted and knew instantly how idiotic it sounded. They were in it. He could hear the flat Crump! of the bursting shells, see the orange centers of the explosions.

The plane bucked and rolled, but Red held steady. Turning, Flowers saw him at the wheel, stolid, even stubborn, his head turned left, his eyes fixed on the Colonel’s plane. Then Flowers felt the familiar upward lurch of the ship and knew the bombs were gone. But abruptly, magically, a line of jagged holes appeared across the plane’s nose. Flowers flicked his safety belt, rose in his seat. “Johnny! Charley!” he shouted. As he turned he saw, over Red’s head, the plane on the Colonel’s left wing disintegrate. For a split second, framed in the window, it hung, a lurid configuration against the sky. Out of the debris he saw the gas tanks, spinning balls of flame, curve away into the air.

He did not hear anything. He only remembered some giant wind had driven him back and down against the cockpit’s right window. Dazed without knowing he was dazed he lay sprawled across the seat. The ragged hole on the left side of the fuselage, the shattered left windshield came slowly into focus. He saw Red’s white scarf out flat in the wind behind his lolling head, saw the scarf turning crimson.

The screaming of the wind brought him back. He lunged upright in his seat, grabbed at the wheel. The ship was in a shallow dive, skidding sharply right, and he saw Red’s boot jammed against the right rudder pedal; through the hole in the fuselage he could see smoke pouring from number two engine. Without thinking he struck the feather button, jammed both feet down on the left rudder pedal, wrenched the wheel left. Slowly the plane righted, the wings came level.

They were below the Group now and behind them. But the flak had almost cleared away.

Over the tearing of the wind he heard in his earphones Charley’s “Goddam oxygen out down here! Johnny’s interphone gone!” Flowers glanced back and saw Russ coming down out of the top-turret, fighting the wind from the left side of the cockpit, trying to connect his walk-around bottle.

Flowers pressed his mike button. “Ears! Everybody! Starting down!” He pushed the wheel forward. The rate of climb needle dropped to the bottom of the gauge, the altimeter turning counter-clockwise. Twenty thousand, nineteen thousand, the wind’s shriek rising, the airspeed 200, 250, 275. Flowers thinking, It’ll kill the fire. Ahead and to his right he could see the line of the Straits, the cliffs of Dover. Toward them they fell.

Then he could see Russ, like a man working under rushing water, trying to unbuckle Red’s seat belt, getting it at last. Sixteen thousand. Russ unsnapping Red’s earphones, pulling him upright, Red’s head lolling, his foot coming free from the rudder pedal. Fourteen thousand. Flowers, his ears popping, thinking, All on the left side. But not killed! Anger bursting in him. Not dead! Damn them! God damn them! Twelve thousand. Charley’s head, helmetless, hair awry, pushing up in the passageway from the nose, his eyes suddenly wide, questioning.

Then Russ and Charley were getting Red out of the seat. Helmet in shreds on the left side of his head, the left leg flopping as he came out of the seat, coveralls sodden with blood. Ten thousand, and nobody needed bottles anymore. Flowers, glancing back, could see Russ taking off his jacket, catching the blankets Pat was throwing across the bomb bay catwalk from the radio room, and he knew they’d put Red down on the floor behind the seats.

Johnny’s head appeared in the passageway, the severed interphone wire hanging from his helmet. He was holding up a ragged map, unfolding it like a child’s paper doll chain. Then he saw the empty, bloodied seat, then Red’s feet. Abruptly he turned, disappeared down the passageway.

They had lost the Group now, but it didn’t matter. They could get there faster alone.

The altimeter showed six thousand feet; the air was bumpy. Flowers could see the wavering lines of spume in the Straits and knew the wind was northwest. Then Johnny’s voice over the interphone, from Charley’s station. “Jimmy, Glatton 333 degrees.” “Yes,” Flowers said. “Thanks.” He touched the wheel, watched the compass swing, hold steady.

Finally they were over England. Just under them were patches of fair-weather cumulus. The sheep pack, Red called them. “Lookit all them sheep,” he’d say, “grazin in them blue fields.” Flowers tried not to think of his friend, but he kept crowding, elbowing in. The freckles under the fuzz on his cheeks; the fool scout knife he’d bought before they’d left the States; the story he told on himself: in primary training he’d always enter the traffic pattern too high (they were flying Stearmans, little bi-plane jobs, open cockpits); once the instructor got mad, popped the stick on Red to get him down to altitude, only Red had forgotten to fasten his safety belt; he said he just rose out of his seat and hung there awhile looking around at things; “Then I remembered the rip-cord”; a couple of hours later he walked into Operations carrying the parachute, all that silk trailing behind him, looking like a June bride. “It’s a wonder they didn’t wash you out,” Flowers said. “Naw,” Red said. “Just lucky. Dumb lucky.”

Then Johnny had a new heading to take care of the wind-drift and soon Flowers was calling the tower at Glatton, the operator answering, “Roger 131. Runway 34. Straight in. Group just over Alconbury.”

Flowers could see the church at the edge of the field. He flipped the gear switch, felt the plane lift and slow as he dropped the flaps. The tower came into view, Flowers worrying, thinking, I never could land these things from the right seat. Damage from the flak? I’ve got to put her down easy.

Then he was coming back on the throttles, prop pitch up, just in case. The trees were going by under them, the end of the runway slipped past and they were down. “Smooth as a baby’s ass,” Red would say, only he’d say it even if Flowers took them down the runway like a drunk kangaroo, which he did, he thought, too many times.

The ambulance waited at the first hardstand off the perimeter track, and the crew, out of the plane now, stood watching as the corpsmen lowered Red, still unconscious, down through the nose hatch.

Flowers and Pat stood side-by-side back from the plane’s nose. Pat, the crew’s youngest, two months younger than Red, was crying.

Glancing at him Flowers thought, Damn him. Damn him. He turned abruptly away toward the weapons carrier that was pulling into the hardstand.

Overhead the Group was just coming across the field, the planes in the lead squadron peeling off, one by one, circling in to land.

The vicar had looked steadily at Flowers during the whole of Flowers’ story, his expression cool, distant. And now he was silent. At last Flowers said, “I can’t go on.” His voice trembled. “Can’t go on.” He picked up his mug of tea, kept his eyes fixed on it. “I, I don’t think I’m afraid. Not any more than most.”

The vicar’s head lifted. “Leftenant,” he said, “an officer in the service of his country does not use that word. When you are sober you will see that you have no choice. You must fight on.”

Fight? It seemed an odd word to Flowers. He never thought of himself as fighting. “But you don’t understand!” His voice rose. “You don’t. . . .” He rubbed his hand over his forehead. “I . . . the seat.” The words seemed made of lead. “I . . . I made him change seats with me.”

There was a long silence. Flowers, his jaws clamped, continued to look into the vicar’s eyes. Then the vicar sighed. A look of weariness passed over his face. “Leftenant,” he said, “in war accidents occur, strange things happen. One cannot predict where a shell will explode.”

Flowers hitched himself toward the edge of his chair. He thought, He still doesn’t understand. Then he said, “He was my best friend!”

“I would suggest, sir,” said the vicar in his slow voice, “that you are indulging in a sentimentality.”

“But he’s terribly hurt!” Flowers shouted. Anger rose in him. “He’s only 19!”

The vicar’s expression became more distant. “We British,” he said, “have had five years experience in hell. We still get on with the job.”

Abruptly Flowers stood up. “But it’s all so insane!” he cried.

The white head nodded. “Granted,” the vicar said. “And all the more reason for getting on with it, to put an end to it. I fear, Leftenant, that you are deficient in knowledge of your enemy.” He looked up at Flowers, his eyes gone hard. “Are you quite sure that the object of your concern is your friend and not yourself?”

It took a moment for Flowers to hear, to understand the words. Then without speaking he picked up his hat from the table between them and before the vicar could rise from his chair, he turned into the short hall and out the front door of the house. He walked swiftly up the street. “Old fool.” He was muttering to himself. “The old fool.” As he passed the Bull and the Wharf he glanced at his watch. He was still going to the hospital to check on Red, even if he would have to see that damn major again.

By the time he reached the bus stop the vicar’s tea and his own anger had begun to sober him. Slowly his anger cooled. He thought again of the major at the hospital, and now he had to admit that the major had treated him kindly, had told him Red would be all right. “But a hard haul. A damn hard haul.”

The bus did not come for some time. Flowers stood back from the curb and watched the people gather, watched them patiently waiting together, talking among themselves. Nearly all of them were old, their clothes drab. The women carried heavy shopping bags. The men’s pants were baggy; they wore wool peakcaps. Yet a kind of cheerful stubborness seemed to emanate from them, shone from their faces.

A feeling of uneasiness crept over Flowers. He thought again of the old vicar, his own crazy exit from his house. Now how, he asked, did I get myself into all that? He felt the blood rise to his face. For a long time he stood looking down at the pavement at his feet.

Slowly he raised his eyes. One block over, the face of the old Cathedral brightened in the slanting rays of the sun. Above the lone spire a flight of 17’s banked lazily away south. Flowers shook his head. “And I didn’t even thank him for the tea.” He groaned aloud.


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