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Mission #6

ISSUE:  Summer 1987

Lieutenant Flowers sat on the edge of his cot. He wore only his long underwear and looked like some hunched ghost in the gloom of the Nissen hut. It was one A. M. and the C. Q. had just waked him for his and his B-17 crew’s sixth mission over the continent.

Flowers held one sock in his hand and stared at the dark wall. He was thinking of home, of the bright, warm kitchen in the house in Pennsylvania where his father and old Mr. Laudenslager used to sit arguing for hours. They called their gabbing “philosophical discussions,” but they never agreed about anything, unless it was the crazy idea that life was just a run of “unacceptable alternatives.” Flowers could even smell his father’s pipe and see, as the two men sat by the sprawling range, Mr. Laudenslager’s old bulbous-toed shoes turned out in a perfect ninety-degree angle.

Flowers spoke suddenly into the dark. “Just like Dave’s feet in that upper turret!” Behind the pilots’ seats in their B-17 he could see Dave’s long legs sticking down out of the turret, his flight boots turned out in a ridiculous Charlie Chaplin angle.

Flowers shook his head. Reluctantly his mind came back to the problem. What the hell was wrong? Red, the copilot, had said he thought Dave had gone yellow on them. But Flowers didn’t believe it. He’d never seen Dave scared. Dave was just another likable kid pulled off the farm by the War. Wasn’t a talker. “Just stupid,” was about as much as he’d offer on the fighting. But he was always humming some fool tune. In the States (at Wendover) he’d suddenly break out with “Pistol Packin Momma” over the interphone. “Lay that pistol down, Babe, lay that pistol down.” Sitting in the dark, Flowers could still hear that country New England voice.

But now Dave had even quit humming. He’d gone down inside himself. He even looked different, his face thinner, whiter, twisted in a frown. “Like he’s tryin to think, for God’s sake,” Toomey the radio operator had said. Charlie had come right out with it. (Charlie was the bombardier; he ignored the niceties) “Jesus, Dave, this goddam place never gave nobody a tan, but you’ve got a complexion like a toadstool. What’s eatin on you?”

But Dave wasn’t talking.

Flowers had told his friend Monahan about it. Monahan was the captain—veteran from Deanthorpe, 23 missions, and he’d said Red was probably right.

“Old problem. Afraid to say he’s afraid. It ain’t the Krauts, it’s us, you guys.” Monahan looked at Flowers out of his almost milk-white eyes set deep in his hawkish face. “But anybody claims he ain’t afraid’s either a liar or a candidate for the loony brigade.” And he added, “There’s a saying around the 8th that fear draws enemy fire.” Then he’d laughed and turned back to his drink (they were at the bar in the Officers Club), and Flowers never did find out whether Monahan believed what he’d said or not.

Flowers was still fumbling with his sock. “Red,” he said. On the third call a groan rose from the mound against the wall of the hut. “Shit-on-a-shingle’s scratched. C. Q. says eggs.” The mound rolled over, slowly became another bent ghost on the edge of its cot. “Charlie,” said Flowers. “Johnny. Eggs.” He pulled the sock on. From far across the field came the ugly cough of an engine some crew chief was trying to start.

An hour later Flowers and the nine members of his crew were lined along one bench in the packed briefing hut. On the statistics board to the right of the curtain that covered the mission map, Flowers read the words, “Top off tanks.” That meant a damn long one. His eyes drifted across the board to where someone had drawn a formation of eighteen crosses that stood for the Group’s 18 planes, each squadron represented by six crosses. With a shock he saw his name on the cross at the head of the high squadron. His mouth fell open. “Oh, no!” he breathed. “Oh, Christ!”

Suddenly his stomach felt queasy. A week ago on the raid to Ludwigshaven, Arnold, who was leading the high squadron, had suddenly aborted, the forward oxygen system in his ship suddenly gone. Flowers had been flying on his right wing, but when Arnold had banked away and down toward the undercast (they were just halfway across the Channel), the other four ships in the squadron had grouped about Flowers’ plane. For the rest of the mission he’d found himself high squadron leader. But that night lying on his cot he’d kept saying over and over to himself, I shoulda screwed up, shoulda screwed up. He didn’t want to lead anything. There was enough crap without that. But now it was too late to get out of it.

The crowd of men in the briefing hut was quiet. The chubby captain from S-2 stood stiffly by the curtained map. (Red called him old BUA, Broomstick-Up-Ass) BUA had a knack for the dramatic. He stood now, curtain cord in one hand, the fingers of the other twirling away at his ridiculously long mustaches. His eyes swept over his audience, a look half-sad, half-happy on his pink, cherubic face. He waited. Then from the back of the hut came an angry voice. “C’mon, goddam it! Let’s see it!”

Like a wound-up tin toy the captain turned, pulled on the cord. In a series of jerks, the curtain parted. The map came clear. For a moment there was not a sound in the room. Then from the benches rose a sullen murmur. It grew into a babble.

On the map a line of red tape stretched from the assembly point over Deanthorpe, across the North Sea, across the Netherlands, across northern Germany, deep into Poland to Gydnia on the Bay of Danzig, curved north from the target, then west over the Baltic, by the southern tip of Sweden, across Denmark, and down the North Sea to England.

Flowers forgot the high squadron. We’ll never make it. Never make it. His mind stuck on the phrase.

The Colonel, his hand up for quiet, stood at the front of the room. In his coveralls and A-2 jacket he looked like a round, brown bear. His hand came down. He fidgeted a moment, took off his overseas cap and scrubbed at the thin stubble of his hair.

“It’s a long one.” There was a touch of regret in the raspy, tenor voice.

A derisive “Yeah!” came from the back of the room.

The Colonel cleared his throat. “We’ll go over the target at sixteen thousand.” There was a pause, “Low,” he said, “but it’ll save gas.”

The same voice from the back. “I’d rather save my ass.”

“Wrap it in your flak suit,” the Colonel said.

Nobody laughed, only a single, hysterical bray rose over the room, dropping away into the silence.

Flowers glanced at Dave sitting at the far end of the crew’s bench. He was staring down at his feet, elbows on knees, one hand in his dark, uncombed hair. His face was pale, almost luminous against the shadowed wall of the room. Not even listening, Flowers thought. Dreaming of some hay-loft biddy back home. Then abruptly it came to him. That Pamela dame! I’ll bet she’s got something to do with it! I should’ve known!

He remembered when he’d first seen them together at the Bull and the Wharf in Peterborough a few days back. He’d blundered on their table, and Dave had gotten up, blushing an usual, and introduced him. The woman had asked him to join them, and when he’d sat down she’d said immediately what a terrible, inhuman thing the war was, how unspeakably glad everyone would be when it ended.

Flowers could only nod at that, a sardonic smile on his face. But sitting there with them his mind had slowly gone slack, his body had relaxed. In the smoky swirl and murmur of the pub it seemed to him that he had come upon a little nook of calm. The woman, Pamela Battersby, was nice looking, nicer looking than any other British woman he’d seen. He liked her, with her jet black hair caught in a loose bun at the back of her head, her tired, deep-set eyes as dark almost as the British nurse’s cloak she wore. Older than Dave, Flowers thought. Older than I am. Twenty-five? Clearly sensitive.

He ordered drinks. Soon she was telling them—she seemed utterly frank—that she had lost a brother to the war, that she didn’t want it to take anybody else from her. But there were moments, she said, when she felt the war would destroy everybody, everything she ever loved. “And then”— she spoke ruefully, a half-smile on her face—”poof! no more love.” She had kept looking at Flowers as she spoke, but her hand lay on Dave’s sleeve.

“If it weren’t all so completely insane,” she went on, “perhaps it wouldn’t be so terrible. And we all accept the insanity so easily, so readily. We all just go marching along, when we should rise up and . . . .” She hesitated and looked up at Flowers, smiling. “You do think it’s insane, don’t you, Lieutenant?”

Flowers face was serious. “It’s all crazy enough,” he said. “But I guess it’s something that just has to be done, something we have to do.” It came to him suddenly that he really hadn’t thought much about it. He was just there, in it.

“It’s just a, just a job,” he said mechanically. He added without thinking. “Dave feels the same way.” But now he remembered that Dave hadn’t said anything. He’d just sat there, looking down at the paper napkin he was slowly picking apart. It had struck Flowers then how seldom he had really looked at Dave, at his face, his eyes. How old he suddenly seemed! The nervous trembling of his hands, the tired lines about his eyes. And Flowers thought, it’s not a kid’s game we play. For a moment he wondered about himself.

Pamela Battersby was still talking, still turning the gin drink she held cupped in her hands. “Yes, just a job.” Again that rueful smile. “And I have a job to do too. But it’s different from yours. My job’s at the other end of things. Not the giving, the taking. I worked in London during the Blitz. Being down there in it all, seeing the people, so helpless. It makes a difference, I guess.”

Looking at her Flowers suddenly remembered the picture he’s seen of St. Paul’s taken during the Blitz at night, its tower rising, indomitable, above the smoke and flame of the burning city. It seemed incredible that this woman had actually been there.

Pamela’s voice grew tense. “It’s the civilians, the old people, the children, their bodies maimed, their lives just blotted out.” She kept her eyes on her glass. “The randomness. It’s the randomness,” she said. Flowers saw the small, steady pulse at her throat. “And we know it’s the same, for the Germans, the German people.”

Dave had glanced up at Flowers. “Bremerhaven,” he said. It was at Bremerhaven that the Group had let its bombs go when all eighteen ships were in a ten degree bank. The bombs were five-hundred pounders.

“God knows where they went,” Charlie had said. “Maybe Hamburg. Wonder how many Krauts we got?”

“Mistakes,” said Flowers. “There’re bound to be mistakes.” He blurted out the words. “What do they expect, bouquets? Who started it? We didn’t!” He began to wish he hadn’t come into the pub.

Pamela interrupted him as though she hadn’t heard. “My grandfather—my mother’s father—came from Dusseldorf.”

Flowers’ face went blank.

Her hand was still on Dave’s arm. “Up there in your planes, you’re so far away from us, from the world. Everything must seem so tiny, out of sight.” Her voice dropped. “Flying must be terribly dehumanizing.”

It came unbidden before Flowers’ eyes: the image of his crew in leather gear, boots, helmets, goggles, masks, all like huge insects, and around them the violet waste of the sky.

“But,” Flowers said. “But. . . .”

Dave touched Pamela’s hand that still rested on his arm. He shook his head. But she looked away from him and directly at Flowers.

“Lieutenant,” she said, “have you ever followed your bombs down?”

Flowers stared at her, a look of incomprehension on his face. “Followed them down?” Idiotically he repeated the phrase. Then a wave of anger broke suddenly over his mind. Blood surged to his face.

“No!” he cried harshly. “That’s not my job!”

She had changed the subject then, and soon Flowers, saying he must go, had risen and left the pub. As he passed the street window he saw them sitting close together. She was looking intently at Dave, still talking.

“Flowers!” Sitting on the hard bench, Flowers jumped. His mind came back. The Colonel’s eyes swept the briefing room. Slowly Flowers lifted his hand.

“Flowers, I’m depending on you to do a good job with that high squadron.” The Colonel’s voice lifted. “And no goddam aborts! Stay close and keep em tucked in there! And you upper turrets: They come in high and head-on now. You know that! Wipe em out before they get to us!”

After briefing the crews rode out through the pitch dark to the ships parked on their hardstands. Lathem the crew chief had the putt-putt going on their own plane. From the ground the cockpit lights looked eerie, detached, floating away from the earth like some apparition riding the darkness. Then, just as the weapons carrier that had brought them was pulling away, Flowers discovered he’d forgotten his one-finger mittens. Idiot! he thought. He hollered at the driver to get them for him. At altitude, with the cockpit temperature ranging from thirty to forty below centigrade he wouldn’t do much flying without them.

Now how the hell could I have done that? he thought. Maybe the business was getting to him. But immediately he scoffed. If anything was getting to him, it was that Pamela dame. Yesterday, when the crew had come back from London—they’d gone, all but Dave and Johnny, the navigator, to celebrate their fifth mission—he found she’d left a number in the Orderly Room for him to call. After supper, an expectant excitement stirring in him, he’d gone to the Club and telephoned.

She apologized immediately for bothering him, but said she just wanted to ask a small favor. Would he please not let Dave fly for a few days, not until “he’d got some things straight in his mind.”

Flowers had suffered a let-down at that. The vague image of the three of them again in the Bull and the Wharf faded from his mind. He just grunted over the phone.

“Dave’s been doing a lot of thinking lately,” she said. “If we could help him I think we should. It isn’t that he doesn’t want to, to contribute to the effort, but just in some other way.” For a moment they were both silent. Then she added. “There must be so many like him.”

“Oh,” he said—he hadn’t recovered from his disappointment—”Dave’s always had trouble flying. Makes him uncomfortable, scares him.” (He knew he was fudging.) “Few more trips and he’ll be O. K. Besides, and this is important, we don’t want some strange guy in that upper turret.”

Then she said she didn’t think he understood Dave Fahrenbach at all and never had understood him. She said it bluntly. “Dave’s not afraid of flying, not the least bit. He’s afraid of what he’s doing to other human beings, to people on the ground.”

Standing at the telephone, Flowers again felt anger rising in him. She’ll never, never get the point, he thought. Then he said—the words had seemed to just pop out of their own accord—”Oh, God, here we go again!”

And she had said, very quietly, “Frankly, Lieutenant, I don’t think you have the brains to be afraid.” And she hung up.

That had made him really mad, and remembering, he was still mad as he sat in the cockpit waiting for his mittens. But the gas tanks were topped off, a flare had left its green trajectory over the invisible control tower, and Flowers and Red had started engines before the weapons carrier’s hooded lights turned into the hardstand. The driver, leaning against the prop wash of number two engine, handed Flowers’ mittens up through the nose hatch to Charlie.

Things were not starting well, Flowers thought. Too much champagne, too much booze in London. Two-day passes were fine, recovering from them was another matter. Across the cockpit Red was holding his oxygen mask to his face, inhaling in exaggerated gulps. He looked at Flowers and spoke through the mike in his mask. “Booze giveth. Oxygen taketh away.”

Flowers grimaced and put on his own mask. (At night, oxygen from the ground up was SOP for pilots.) He leaned from his side window and jerked his thumb at Lathem. In the landing light that Red had flicked on, Flowers saw Lathem duck and disappear under the wing. He reappeared pulling the wheel chocks by their ropes, then raised both hands, thumbs up. Feeling suddenly depressed, Flowers lifted his hand. He released the brakes, inched the outboard throttles forward. The big plane began its slow trundle out of the hardstand, turned right as Flowers advanced the throttle on number one and lumbered sluggishly down the faintly marked perimeter track. Ahead was the last ship in the lead squadron, behind, the five planes of his own squadron, and last, the low six.

When his turn came Flowers taxied onto the runway where, ahead, the spaced, hooded lights marked a narrowing lane that stretched away into the formless dark. It was the long runway, six thousand feet, plenty of room. But still there was something wrong. Sitting amid the weird lights from the instrument panel, his stomach knotted like a fist. He wondered if this time he could go through with it. “Go back.” The words hung in his mind as clear as a sign in a car’s headlights along some rainy country road. But even as he breathed the words, he heard the Colonel’s voice, “Flowers, depending on you. . . the Group. . . firepower.” Flowers swore into his mask. He repeated aloud the motto his friend Monahan had tacked above his cot in his quarters. “Think Not. Feel Not.”

“Only way to survive the business,” Monahan had told him. “If you get to thinking, start countin. Marbles, sheep, tits, count anything. You think, you’re in trouble.”

Red’s matter-of-fact voice broke over the interphone. “Tail-wheel locked. Quarter flaps.” His hand, checking, pushed at the prop controls. “RPM twenty-five hundred.” Flowers eased the throttles full forward. There was nothing then but the roaring of the engines and the violent shaking of the ship. He released the brakes.

Half an hour later at nine thousand feet they broke out of the cloud cover. They were a thousand feet below assembly altitude. Under them darkness lay over the earth. To the east a pale fan of light spread upward toward the fading stars.

“Light,” Flowers thought. “Thank God for light.”

Red struck his shoulder. He was pointing south where a flare, like a traveling star, rose out of the sable pool of night, floated a moment, sank earthward in a fading curve. It was Colonel Looper firing assembly flares as he circled the Deanthorpe marker. Then on VHF the raspy voice came clear. “Raintree children. Raintree children. Come to the green light, the green light.”

By the time the Group had assembled, the east had changed from dull silver to pink and under them now, pillowed and tumbled, lay an endless snow field. Accompanied by their two spares, the eighteen ships made their last unwieldy turn, climbing, and headed east into the rising sun.

A knife-edge of light moved slowly across the cockpit, struck full at Flowers’ face. Behind his mask his mouth twisted: and there was light. He touched Red’s shoulder and Red took the wheel. Slowly Flowers put on his snow goggles. The glare softened. The world turned to magenta. Again he took the controls.

Over the North Sea the two spares turned back. He watched them bank away, begin their descent. Committed, Flowers thought. Immediately he swore aloud at himself. “Fly the damned plane!” If he could only stop that internal prattle! that endless picture show! He began to count the ships in the lead squadron: One, two . . . Ten men in each plane. Sixty men in each squadron.

But after the crews had test-fired their guns his counting faded away, and Pamela Battersby’s tired, sensitive face floated across his mind. The face was framed in darkness, like the face he’d seen once, suddenly, in a match flare in a Piccadilly blackout—his heart leaping then—the face, as suddenly, flickering away into the night.

Pamela Battersby was nice looking, all right, even if she didn’t know beans about the air war. But her attractiveness fitted nothing Flowers had ever known. It wasn’t her looks, anything physical. It was something else, something patient, knowing, something he could not name. He wondered where she lived. That damn Dave, he thought.

Flowers glanced behind his seat. He could see the lower half of Dave’s body in the upper turret, the legs of his heavy, leather coveralls stuffed in his flight boots, the toes of the boots turned out like some vaudeville stooge. Again he thought of old Mr. Laudenslager in the kitchen back home. It was the summer after Pearl Harbor and Mr. Laudenslager was having an argument with his father. Flowers could see the trembling of the old man’s flabby jowls, hear the heavy accent.

“Ja, America vill vin da vore. She vill build planes, tanks, tousands und tousands. But such veapons are enemies’ veapons. Like dem ve vill become.” He shook his head. “Veapons ve haf to have, ja, but it iss veapons of der heart ve need.”

Flowers remembered his father’s comic collapse in his chair, his mocking “Weapons of the heart?!” and the raucous, the sardonic guffaw.

The next day he had stood with both old men in the yard. His father was holding one of his mother’s chrysanthemums. Almost covering the flower was a butterfly, its smoky, russet wings outspread. “See?” his father said. “Ambush bug.” Then Flowers saw the bug, yellow as the flower, armored like a medieval knight, its forelegs spined as lobster claws, their hooked ends buried deep in the butterfly’s thorax. There was no struggle, no sound, the tableau as lurid and fixed as some ancient cave painting.

“There,” his father had said, “there you see the gentle design of things, the way it all came off the drawing board.” He looked up at Mr. Laudenslager. “Hans, why don’t you ask the butterfly about your weapons of the heart?”

And Mr. Laudenslager had said, softly, “Ja, ja, but you do not understand. Ve are different from bugks.”

Then, in an abrupt double-take, Flowers swung about in his seat, again looked backward. Just forward of the bomb bay bulkhead, to the right of Dave’s boot, an empty fifty caliber shell lay on the floor of the plane, dropped there when Dave had test-fired his guns. In lonely isolation it rocked and trembled to the vibrations of the engines.

Flowers turned back, switched to interphone. He tried to keep his voice matter-of-fact. “Dave, where’s your chute pack?”

There was a long silence. Red had heard Flowers and was turned about in his seat, watching.

“I thought it was right here,” Dave said.

“Does anybody have an extra chute pack?” It was Red. “Look around. Dave can’t find his.”

Minutes later it was clear that Dave’s chute pack was not in the plane. For a ghastly second Flowers saw the two of them, himself and Dave, locked in a despairing embrace under one chute hurtling toward the ground.

A chill gripped Flowers’ body. Oh damn him! he thought. How could he possibly!

They had just passed over the coast and were now north and barely east of Amsterdam, the undercast still heavy beneath them. Ahead, Flowers knew was Goering country: if we take a hit now, have to bail out.

“Jimmy.” It was Johnny from the nose. “Jimmy, don’t you think we ought to turn back?” Johnny was another youngster, just three months older than Red. And he was the only member of the crew who had taken a hit. Not much, a nick. A tiny piece of flak had grazed his left temple, just enough to leave a shallow, two-inch gash. That was only a week ago, but already the scab was dry, flaking away at the edges. “That bastard,” Red had moaned. “He’ll get the Purple Heart and his pitchur in all the home papers. And for that scratch!” But today’s mission—Flowers had thought about this—was Johnny’s first since he’d been hit.

“Johnny,” Flowers began. But Russ in the right waist, his voice tense, broke through. “Fighters! Two o’clock! Two o’clock!”

Flowers glanced southwest. He saw what looked like a swarm of wasps. The swarm turned north, still in no preceptible formation. When the mass was directly ahead of them it turned, wheeled suddenly and swung down on the Group head-on.

Flowers switched to VHF in time to hear the Colonel, a touch of panic in his voice. “Tighter! Tighter! Raintree children! One o’clock! One o’clock!”

Then they were upon them, flashing through the 17s at rocket speed, wings tilting, cannon lights flickering at the leading edges of their wings. Flowers had cringed down, clenched teeth bared, every muscle in his body knotted. He half-heard the staccato roaring of his ship’s guns. For a split second it all seemed like a painted stage set, the tracer streaks, the fighters, one banked over his left wing a curve of vapor at its wing-tip, all caught, pasted, against the sky.

The guns ceased in jolting suddenness. There was only the serene, the tremendous sky, the rumpled, craggy undercast.

Flowers glanced at Red, saw him draw his gloved hand across his forehead, pretend to flip the sweat away. He was grinning behind his mask.

Flowers breathed again. He switched to interphone and heard Johnny’s sudden, shrill cry. “Monahan! Look! Look there!”

Flowers looked left, saw the smoke screaming whitely from the wing of Monahan’s ship on the Colonel’s right. “Tokyo tanks.” Flowers spoke the words. As he watched, the bomb bay doors on Monahan’s ship fell open. The ship slid down and left, under the Colonel and his remaining wingman, the smoke blackening now, pouring from the number four engine.

The bombs! Flowers thought. Get rid of the bombs! Salvo! Salvo!

On VHF the carrier wave broke. Flowers heard Monahan’s familiar voice, faint, slightly garbled. “Will send greetings . . . .” The whine of the carrier wave came back. A chute appeared just behind the plane, another. Flowers counted them. Six, Seven. Then the plane disintegrated. For a moment it hung like some jagged ink-blot against the undercast. The falling fragments fled rearward, disappeared behind Flowers’ window.

Then he was aware that Red was standing, craning over his head. But Red was too late to have seen Monahan’s plane. Mechanically Flowers shifted to interphone. He heard Johnny’s voice, agitated, piercing. “See that?! Did you see that?! Jimmy! we’ve got to turn back! Dave’s a goner if we have to bail out!” His voice lifted, pleading, “Turn back!”

“Turn back!” The words hung in Flowers’ mind like the ultimate pronouncement from some mountain top. Anger flamed in him. He knew Dave was listening. Why the hell didn’t he say something?! He forgot the damn chute. I didn’t!

Flowers pressed his mike button. “Johnny, the Group, the Group.” He tried to speak calmly. “We have to stay with the Group.” In spite of himself his voice grew strident. “Our guns! They need our guns! Dave’s guns. You heard the Colonel!

And Johnny, his voice agonized, the words rushing out. “The Group can take care of itself! Dave can’t now! He’s alone! Alone!

Hatred like some vicious force welled up in Flowers. If he could just reach him! Hit him! Abruptly Monahan’s face floated before him, the determined jaw, the pale, troubled eyes. He saw the cot, the motto.

Red struck his shoulder. He switched to VHF, heard the Colonel’s high-pitched voice. He was repeating. “Tighter, high squadron. Tighter. They’ll be back.”

Flowers saw that he had drifted out too far, lagged too far behind the lead squadron. He brought the prop pitch up, walked the throttles forward. He stayed grimly on VHF, kept his eyes glued on the Colonel’s plane.

The Group ground on. Thin, gauzy cirrus had gathered above them. Flowers felt as though he, the plane, the Group, were shrunk to insect size, fixed, trapped forever in sallow amber. The mission was not to Gydnia, to any geographical place, but toward eternity. They flew on and on without moving, under a milky sky, above an everlasting snow field.

It was centuries later. Charlie reported they were east of Stettin, over Poland. No more fighters had come up. There had been little flak. Two miracles. But the undercast was gone now. Under them, three miles down, lay the earth, ancient, wrinkled, marked off in crazy patchwork. Two rivers stretched across the land, reached like skeletal fingers toward the Bay of Danzig.

The 17 ships banked slowly north. Ahead and east was Gdansk, then Gydnia. Then we’ll be rid of them, Flowers thought.

“Ya gotta forget about ‘em until they’re gone,” Monahan had always said. But now Flowers turned in his seat. He could see the gray outlines of two of the ten five-hundred pounders hanging in the bomb bay. When Dave had first seen them he’d said they looked like pigs. (He pronounced it “piks”) Standing on the catwalk in the bomb bay, he’d turned his lazy eyes on Flowers, the lashes long and upswept like a girl’s. “They look like piks at home, asleep.”

Asleep, Flowers thought. Yes. Asleep.

The Colonel’s voice brought him back.

“I. P. I. P.”

Initial Point to what? Monahan’s face came up at the edge of his mind. He pushed it away.

That morning at briefing old BUA had finished his reminders by saying, “Expect flak over the target, moderate to heavy. No fighters. They’ve all been pulled out.” He paused then, as he always did, raised one hand in a wooden jerk, twisted at his mustaches that stuck out from his face sharp as knitting needles. The Group had always applauded when he did that, but this morning they sat in gloomy silence and he’d just lifted his hand like some toy priest giving the benediction. “The best”—he cleared his throat—”the best of luck to all of you.” He seemed terribly let down.

“Raintree children, close it up.” It was the Colonel. “Tuck in. Make it beautiful.” The planes moved in closer and closer until the 17 ships seemed knitted together like some quaint design in an ancient tapestry.

They were at 16,000 feet, except for a single towering cumulus almost directly ahead, the sky cloudless, brilliant. Below, here and there, the sunlight glinted on some reflecting surface. Ahead and far below Flowers saw two tiny smokestacks rising over a toy factory.

The bomb bay doors on the Colonel’s ship came down. Seconds later Flowers felt the wind at his back and knew Charlie had opened theirs. All Charlie had to do now was to trip his toggle switch at the split second he saw the bombs leave the Colonel’s ship. If the formation was tucked in tight and all the bombardiers toggled together, the bombs would fall in a snug clump. They’d be “beautiful.”

The Group held its formation. Flowers, his whole body taut, worked the throttles in infinitesimal movements to keep his distance from the lead ship as exact, as undeviating as possible. His wingmen crowded close upon him.

Far to the left of the Group a line of flak bursts appeared, hung fixed in the crystal air.

Red spoke. “Flak. Ten o’clock.”

“Amateurs.” It was Jerry in the left waist.

But it was like a drum-beat in Flowers’ head: Drop them. Drop them. Drop them.

Abruptly the Colonel’s plane tilted, banked left, spaces widening between the planes of his squadron. His bomb bay doors were still down. On VHF Flowers heard the raspy voice. “Raintree children, we’re going around. All clear. Let’s get it right.”

Red was shaking his head, violently. Flowers knew he was swearing. Once before, at Tours, the Colonel had made a three hundred and sixty degree turn over the target so his bombardier could get his sighting exact. There, he’d gotten away with it.

But it was Monahan’s law: “No three sixties over the target. Fighters. They smell you.”

Flowers brought up his prop pitch, walked his throttles forward. Damn him! he thought. Damn him! They were on the outside of the turn, but somehow the squadron held together, gained on the Colonel. Around they swung.

It took months, years. Then at last Flowers saw the two smokestacks, the two tiny pillars of ash-gray smoke standing in the breathless air. The formation tightened, drew inward. It came over VHF. “Make it beautiful.”

He never knew why he looked back. He remembered only the image, the shock: Dave sitting on the base of his turret, elbows on his spread knees, his chin cupped in his gloved hands. He seemed to be watching, almost like a fascinated child, the empty shell that vibrated lifelike between his boots on the floor of the plane. Flowers whirled back.

There was no time for a warning cry. Out of the soaring cumulus the yellow-nosed 109s came sweeping upon them. He saw tracers streaking over his windshield, heard the running slap of bullets going into his plane, saw the twenty millimeter shells twinkling across the lead squadron. Then they were gone. There was nothing. Only the eternal grinding of the engines.

Flowers saw no smoke, no damage. The plane on the lead ship’s left wing swept smoothly, majestically upward, held a moment, fell away right, directly toward the lead ship.

In frantic evasive action the Colonel’s ship banked steeply away, the bombs suddenly spewing from its open bay. The stricken plane again swung upward, but below the Colonel now, until it seemed to be standing on its tail. Its bomb bay doors still agape it looked like some gutted wingedfish.

Pilots. Both pilots. The thought raced across Flowers’ mind. Only then did he feel his own plane lurch upward freed of its bombs. Again the runaway plane fell away from its stall, rose once more in a slow chandelle, the four propellers glinting in the sunlight. It drifted rapidly rearward, turning now in the opposite direction from the Group, a toy plane against a gray earth, under a vast cowl of sky. Two white dots appeared behind it, then another. Then, as Flowers watched, a single 109 passed over it, lights flickering along the leading edges of its wing. Both disappeared beyond Flowers’ vision.

It was Charlie’s voice from the nose, sardonic, filled with disgust. “Beautiful. Oh, beautiful.”

Through the haze of his exhaustion Flowers knew it would be senseless to ask where their bombs had gone. For some reason he thought of Pamela Battersby, heard her quiet English voice.

The Group, 16 planes now, swung north and out over the Baltic, turned slowly, raggedly west toward home. The undercast gathered again beneath them, over the wrinkled metal of the sea.

Dully, Flowers kept his eyes on the Colonel’s plane. The tip of its vertical stabilizer was gone as though some giant had flipped it away with his finger. There was a gaping hole in the right waist. Vaguely he wondered if anybody had been hit.

Red touched his shoulder, pointed to the gas gauges, their needles a fraction of an inch above empty.

Then abruptly he remembered. Dave! He turned, looked back toward the turret. Dave still sat on the turret’s base, but upright now, his arms lying relaxed between his still spread knees. He leaned drowsily against the bulkhead, a picture of country indolence. Then Flowers saw the small hole in the goggle over the left eye. Liquid oozed from it, fell redly down his mask hose, dripped into his lap.

Slowly Flowers turned back. Mechanically he touched Red’s shoulder, gestured with his hand. Before Red returned to tell him, Flowers knew that Dave Fahrenbach was dead. Then, again, this time as vividly as if he were there, he saw across the table in the pub, the dark cloak, the dark tired eyes, heard the cultivated voice.

At Glatton the rain fell lightly, steadily over the field. On the approach Toomey fired the flares and as Flowers taxied the plane into its hardstand—number three was out of gas— the ambulance was ahead of them, waiting.

The crew gathered in a tight clump a short distance back from the plane’s stabilizer and watched the two young corporals enter the rear escape door of the plane with a stretcher. Neither of them spoke. They did not look at any of the crew. There was no sound except from across the field came a hoarse murmur of the taxiing planes. The corporals, their faces drained of color, had trouble getting the heavy stretcher out of the plane and into the ambulance. Nobody moved to help them.

The crew rode back to the Interrogation shack in the weapons carrier. On one side Flowers leaned against the jumble of gear piled by the tail gate. Johnny sat across from him, his helmet pushed back from his forehead. In the gray light Flowers could see the small, almost magenta scar against the pasty white of his temple. He leaned toward Flowers, his face suddenly twisted like a child’s. Flowers saw that he was crying.

“You shoulda turned back,” Johnny said. “You shoulda turned back. You know that now.”

Flowers, his teeth clenched, did not answer. The weapons carrier turned out onto the perimeter track and picked up speed. They rolled past other hardstands with their ships, the tires of the carrier hissing on the wet macadam. Flowers looked out into the rain. He was counting the parked planes as they swept by. Some of the crews were still gathered about them, waiting, hunched under the dark wings.


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