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September 1967

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The Secret Mission of the Blue-Assed Buzzard



THE BRONZED, weather-beaten face smiled at me from the ad, teeth white and even; ice-blue eyes magnetic - those of a particularly alert, responsible eagle - surrounded by thin care lines from long hours of staring into the yawning sky. He wore a jaunty dark-blue cap slashed by broad golden wings, and looked directly at me, or rather through me, from the cockpit window of a sleek silver jet. The caption read: Captain Bill Winslow. His hobby is mosaics. He also gardens a little in his spare time. He has logged over 10,000,000 hours in the air and has flown the equivalent of 217,392 times around the equator. He welcomes you aboard his sturdy, multiengine airliner. He will get you there. On time. The ad, as they say on Madison Avenue, sang. Captain Tinslow was obviously a father, someone you could trust all the way. You could put your whole life, your portfolio, even your resume-everything-with perfect confidence into his strong brown hands. Yet I was conscious of a vague, uneasy stirring of something long dormant, something that did not jibe with the idyllic, confident image of flying that the full-page spread conveyed. It was not until several nights later, however, as I sprawled before my flickering TV set, that I began to know why. Pipe long since extinguished, a warm can of beer clutched in my claw, my Late Late Show headache throbbing dully around the bridge of my nose, I was about to rouse myself from six hours of television torpor -having survived a Donald O'Connor dance-athon after braving a howling typhoon with Jon Hall and Dorothy Larnour-and reach for the OFF switch when the roar of aircraft engines filled the room, followed by the clipped tones of Chester Morris, his gruff voice barely discernible in the scream of the slip stream through the struts of his biplane: "This is X-2. I'm putting her into a flat spin now. Over and out." Silk scarf cracking in the wind, Chester's helmeted figure hunched over the controls. The scene shifted. We were on the ground. A trio of anxious viewers-an elderly man, a burly yet friendly mechanic and a lovely girl-peered into the murky sky. The mechanic, my old friend Alan Hale, said: "I wouldn't send my worst enemy up in that crate." I would guess offhand that to find someone who has not heard that line a minimum of ten times, you would have to do some extremely diligent hunting in the more remote areas of Greenland. But when I heard it this time, tremors of hair-prickling memory coursed up my bent spine. I was sent up in that crate! Somewhere, off in the farthest reaches of the firmament, ghostly voices sang: "Off we go, into the wild blue yonder Flying high, into the sun . .." The awful scene slowly came back clear and bright. A cold sweat beaded my brow. I clung to my chair with the fervor of a two-week drunk hanging to the earth for fear that he'll fall off. As with most disasters, it came on the wings of hope and beauty. It was a bright, clear, balmy Florida day, just like the day they always show in travel films about the sunny Everglades. I was a corporal in the Signal Corps. My heart was pure, my eyes were bright, my tail was bushy, my suntans starched and pressed razor sharps. I had not yet reached my 18th birthday and already I was a corporal. I little realized, of course, that I was at the pinnacle of my Army career, that I was destined to lose my two stripes several times over and that I would see a day when making Pfc. seemed an impossible goal. But on this bright, clear morning, with the sun beaming overhead, a few gulls wheeling in the middle distance, life was full. My specialty was airborne radar. Now, airborne radar does not exactly mean what it sounds like. An airborne-radar specialist does not jump out of aircraft hollering "Geronimo!" Not deliberately, that is. For months I had been schooled in the intricacies of installing, testing and maintaining radar in various types of operational warplanes. Such was my zeal in the classroom and in the lab that my superiors immediately recognized a child of destiny. Naturally, they saw to it that I was hurried forward to meet it. But the Army, like fate, often moves in a mysterious way its wonders to perform. After long months of airborne training, I was inexplicably assigned to Company K, a company whose sole reason for being lay ill the operation, maintenance, coddling, cursing at and patching together of a radar set that already, in the dawn of the radar age, was so old and arthritic as to be a collector's item. We were part of the Signal Air Warning System, stashed away in a remote corner of Florida's vast swamplands. Day and night, our drooping dipole antennas scanned the skies for marauders - and gathered bird dung by the pound. What the hell we would have done had an attack actually come, I have no idea. Our phone to the outside world worked on the average of one day out of ten, and our two-way command radio had long since rotted away with jungle crud. The one time we did spot an enemy sub surfaced offshore the results were mainly a lot of yelling in the company area. Three hours after we managed to relay the alert to the outside world, a tiny Piper Cub appeared over the horizon, took one look at the sub, lurched violently, climbed frantically into the clouds and disappeared forever. The U-boat lay peacefully offshore with its crew doing their laundry and taking a swim, while our commanding officer smiled thinly and sucked at a warm Coke. And that night, after the sub had submerged, heading down the coast and torpedoing oilers as she went, Company K went back to its eternal pinochle game and waited for the next alert. The throb of our radar's diesel generator, meanwhile, permeated every corner of our lives-the meals we ate, our conversations, our sleep. The only companions we could count on were the immense, blackish, moiling cloud of mosquitoes that stretched from horizon to horizon and came to visit every night as the sun went down. Through it all, somehow, my dreams of patriotic glory remained undimmed; someday, I knew that I would be summoned from this Godforsaken backwater to the field of honor. I could hear the citation now: "And for acts of signal valor above and beyond the call of duty ..." Little did I know how soon that call would come - or how far above and beyond it I was destined to soar. On the fateful morning in question, I was in the midst of my regular morning detail - a search-and-destroy mission for body lice - when Captain Crawford, our C.O., a gaunt haggard West Pointer who drank a lot, called me into his steamy, pungent pyramidal tent. The man we always privately referred to with clenched jaw and narrowed eyes as "Old Horse's Ass" opened with his usual laconic: "At ease, soldier." I slumped deeper into my fetid fatigues, which had not seen the laundry for six weeks and which were now beginning to grow peat moss in the armpits, and waited for the usual listless chewing-out that always occurred in this hovel. Casually, deliberately, he shuffled through a pile of old Argosy magazines that he kept on his desk at all times. I waited silently, feeling the sweat trickling down my dog-tag chain, dribbling over my blood type and my ostensible religion, to hang for a moment and then continue down my stomach to further soak my web belt and the tops of my GI shorts. In the corner of the tent, our hated duty sergeant, Sharkey, sucked noisily at his notorious hollow tooth, enjoying to the fullest his favorite scene - a GI about to receive 39 lashes at the masthead. It never occurred to me to ask myself what I had done wrong this time, since, in old Company K, that was an academic question. It could have been any of a number of things-the look on my face, for instance, an indiscreet remark in the latrine about the quality of the powdered eggs, or just general principles. The captain hummed tunelessly to himself as he prepared to deliver his bombshell. His humming blended nicely with the oppressively familiar sound of our humble little Army outpost buried deep in the Everglades - the incessant 440-cps note of a sweep radar in the distance, the low thunder of our earthshaking Leroi diesel generators, the countless cruising mosquitoes and the muffled, drowsy cursing of men at war. Our beleaguered, boredom-drenched, heat-rashed, navel-contemplating radar station on the edge of the great swamp made Mr. Roberts' U. S. S. Reluctant, which sailed between the islands of Ennui and Monotony, with occasional side trips to Apathy, seem like Coney Island on July fourth. Old Horse's Ass rarely spoke to ordinary mortals, and when he did, he never raised 'his voice-he just smiled a thin, distant smile. That was what made him really fearsome to the simple peasants of Company K-his noninvolvement. It was rumored that he didn't even sweat. Captain Crawford seemed to know something that none of us could even guess at. And he wasn't telling. "Corporal," he asked me quietly, "who do you know at headquarters?" "Uh... excuse me, sir?" Immediately, I was alert. This was no ordinary ass-chewing session. Something had hit the fan big. "Pay attention to me when I talk." "Yessir." "I said, who do you know at headquarters?' " "Headquarters, sir?" Frantically my mind groped through its adolescent fog, trying to perceive the outlines of the disaster that was about to befall me. The sarcastic overtone of his question bode no good. "That's right, Corporal - headquarters." My idea of headquarters was where I was standing right now. I knew in a vague way that there were bigger men than Captain Crawford, that there were people somewhere, someplace, called "generals"; but that was a world far beyond the vine-strangled, sandy universe of Company K, a world bounded on the north by the supply shed, on the south by the PT field, on the west by the jugle and on the east by the swamp. "Well, sir, I ... you see, sIr -" He cut in, his voice even more sinister: "Corps headquarters, Corporal." Sergeant Sharkey's stomach rumbled ominously as it digested the only steak seen in our company for three months or more. Sergeants in remote Army posts live high off the hog. Quite often, they are the hog. Corps headquarters, I thought - where the hell is that? I remembered a chart that we had to memorize in an Army organization class eons ago in basic training. At the top was a big block with stars in it, labeled CORPS HEADQUARTERS. Company K was so far down the hierarchy that they would have had to make the chart 200 feet long to fit us on it. "Captain, sir," I answered finally, "I don't know exactly what you mean, sir." He snorted, "I'll bet. I suppose the good fairies cut these orders because you put a tooth under your pillow and made a wish." He handed me a sheaf of mimeographed orders, stapled together, bearing the heading HEADQUARTERS, CORPS COMMANDER - directing that the below-named Cpl, Sig. G. U. S. A., shall be assigned to detached special duty with the Air Corps. Immediately. The captain lolled back in his swivel chair, peering through his gin and tonic (which had been cleverly disguised to look like regulation Army Kool-Aid) at the shaft of sunlight that lanced through the ventilating hole at the top of the tent. "Congratulations, Corporal. I don't know who the hell it is you know at Corps, but when you find the time, I would appreciate it if you'd put in a good word for me." Sergeant Sharkey cut in: "Your transportation is in front of the dayroom, soldier. Get your ass in gear and turn your Form 32 in to the supply sergeant before you leave, you hear?" I reeled out into the sun, rocked to the core. Good God! I was unworthy of such a stroke. To this day, I have no idea how or why my name came up. It goes without saying that I knew no one at Corps. I swam through the brilliant sunlight and the blazing heat in a kind of delirious fog. My tent was empty save for the long, skinny form of Pfc. Gasser, who lay drugged in half sleep under his mosquito bar. He had been on du ty at the generator all night and now lay in suspended animation, bathed in the eternal sweat we lived with. I emptied my footlocker into my B-bag, working swiftly, fearful lest they change their mind. My canteen cup got jammed sideways on the top of the canteen. Muttering "Son of a bitch," I tried to free it by banging it on the edge of the bunk. Gasser sat bolt upright in bed, saluting smartly: "Yessir!" "Sorry I woke you up, Gasser." He peered at me through the hazy yellow netting. "Where the hell you going?" "I've been transferred to the Air Corps." He sat in the center of his soggy sack, wearing rumpled OD-colored GI shorts and a pound of sulfa salve smeared over his giant heat rash, which cascaded richly down over his shoulders, back and chest. He leaned forward, staring at me, his sleep-fogged eyes trying to focus. "Transferred to what?" "To the Air Corps. I'm getting out of here. I got orders." I slung the barracks bag carefully up over my shoulder, so as not to wrinkle the crisp, razor-sharp suntans I had pulled on. It was the first time I had been out of fatigues-the same fatigues - in over a month. Gasser sank back on his bed of pain and lay for a moment, and finally muttered: "For Chrissake, the Air Corps. There's hope for us all." And I was gone. The transportation Sergeant Sharkey had referred to was the tired old command car - a weapons carrier - that constituted one third of our motor pool. Company K also had a jeep with a busted axle that had been half-buried in a sand dune for over six months - plus a giant half-track that no one knew how to drive and for which we had no conceivable use. All three vehicles, when they ran, burned more oil than gasoline and looked so battle-worn that Captain Crawford was ashamed to let any of us take them into the nearest town, even en business. Obviously, someone did not consider Company K a unit in the real Army and had assigned to us equipment and weapons that had been discarded by actual soldiers. Elkins, one of our two drivers, crouched like a toad behind his worn black steering wheel as we roared together over barely discernible backcountry roads through the steaming Everglades. It was impossible to talk in our command car, which not only had the usual loudness of Army vehicles but was so old and rattly that any kind of communication between passengers had to be carried on in sign language. Elkins drove like most GI drivers: flat-out, eyes slitted, dribbling a constant stream of profanity into the general uproar. Occasionally he used his own inimitable sign language on drivers he forced into ditches or through bridge railings - usually a gesture known at the time as "Mussolini's salute," although it undoubtedly predated his regime. Behind us was a wake of outraged civilians and dead chickens. We were on our way to Drew Field. Elkins was in a particularly sullen mood - even for him. He always was when he was forced to drive the occasional escapee from Company K to the outside world. He had told me one night in our squalid little dayroom, with its grimy ping-pong table and unrefrigerated Coke machine, that he had joined the Army in an ill-considered fit of patriotism after seeing a Preston Foster movie about the Air Cadets. He envisioned himself a second lieutenant, shoulders agleam with shiny Air Corps wings and climbing into his P-51 to take on the Luftwaffe singlehanded, machine guns spitting death. Instead, like the rest of us, Elkins had found himself squeezed through the intricate maze of Army classification and into the very bottom of the Barrel - Company K. He blamed Preston Foster personally and vowed that if he ever ran into him, he would bust the son of a bitch in the mouth. I sometimes wonder if he ever got his chance. In any case, he drove his command car as though it were a P-51 and any hapless living body that crossed his path were a member of the Luftwaffe. He had also, of late, taken to wearing his garrison cap in the famous Air Corps crush; and if he had been able to get away with it, would no doubt have scrounged a leather flying jacket and boots from somewhere. Together, he and I rammed through the eddying heat toward my new post, each wrapped in his own fantasies. My orders read to report to the operations officer for a special assignment to begin no later than 1300 that very afternoon. Drew Field was a long way from our little jungle outpost where Company K, theoretically at least, kept its 24-hour vigil against attacking enemy planes and invading Panzers. As I bounced and jiggled next to Elkins, a great sense of peace and happiness grew, hour by hour, within me. At last I was flu. This was it - the real thing. Now my months of intensive training in airborne radar would pay off. I felt my arm heavy with golden stripes, since the Air Corps was notorious for its generosity in the rank department. The entire Signal Corps, on the other hand, had by actual count made 17 buck sergeants, 42 corporals and 38 Pfcs. in the preceding year. Our company had not seen a new stripe for over eight months, and that came only when Elkins had publicly threatened suicide if he didn't get one. The night after Elkins made Pfc., an all-night party was thrown by the enlisted men - which meant all of us except Captain Crawford and his henchman, Lieutenant Cherry, who, if anything, was even more melancholy than Crawford. After all, Crawford was a captain, while Cherry had been in the Regular Army 24 years-the cavalry, no less-and would never even in his wildest nightmares have conceived of such an outfit as Company K of the Signal Air Warning System, let alone dreamed that he'd wind up in it. Cherry dreamed of cavalry charges and captain's bars; Crawford mooned over visions of officers' clubs in London and conferences with General Eisenhower; while all we had to hope for was the day we could get cold beer again and the Coke machine would be repaired. The journey was suddenly over. Elkins helped me unload my bags at the main gate of Drew Field. Overhead, a high formation of B-24s climbed into the sun. Elkins squinted upward for a long moment, hawked juicily and spat on the hubcap of his command car. "You lucky son of a bitch," he muttered, climbed behind the wheel and clattered off. Five minutes later, I struggled into the operations office and handed my papers to a bright-eyed, pearly- toothed Air Corps first lieutenant wearing rimless glasses. I noted the beautifully sculpted propeller and wings that he wore on his superbly fitting officer-pink shirt. His desk was one of dozens, all manned by as natty a crowd of military personnel as I had ever seen in all my long, toiling journey through the Army. Out of the corner of my eye, as the lieutenant read the mimeographed sheets, I noted that there wasn't a rank to be seen lower than staff sergeant. Everywhere, technical sergeants, master sergeants, not to mention captains, majors and even a sprinkling of colonels, joked and chatted, their uniform shirts skintight, their pants tailored with fastidious care and style. I stood before the desk in my baggy Signal Corps sack suit, suddenly conscious of the great semicircles of perspiration spreading down from my armpits, my sunburned nose softly raining flakes of dried skin, my lumpy, friendly old GI shoes spreading out over half the floor, my green corporal stripes frayed and curling at the edges. I stood at attention, waiting to be assigned to my new squadron, my heat rash playing a slow flame over my shoulder blades. The lieutenant hummed cheerfully, consulted a couple of sheets of paper, spoke briefly into a phone and finally said to me: "So you're the guy from the Signal Corps." "Yessir." "You're down for that damn A-26, that experimental rock, right?" "Uh..." A tiny alarm bell went off deep inside my innermost being, where we keep our basic animal instincts. I did not answer, since he was not asking a question but stating a fact. "OK, Corporal, take this to supply. If you need anything else, tell 'em to call me. You might as well leave your bag with the sergeant at the desk." "Yessir." "Step on it. Operations says the ship will be on the line in a couple of minutes." "Uh . . . yessir." "You're checked out on the 695, right?" "Excuse me, sir?" He had caught me off guard. "The 695. You're checked ' out on it, right?" "Yessirl" The 695 was, at the time, a highly classified altimeter whose complete proper name was the SCR 695. I had, along with a few others in the company, been given a course in theory, installation and maintenance of the 695, had been sworn to secrecy and then, as is so often the case in the Army, had never seen nor heard of it again. A jeep drove me along a wide concrete apron before a long row of gleaming hangars. We cruised in and out, threading through B-17s, B-24s, B-26s and an occasional stray fighter. At last! At IOllg' last! Tile real thing! We pulled up in front of a long, low shed marked SUPPLY-GENERAL FLIGHT. My driver, a technical sergeant, chewed steadily on a toothpick while we waited for the supply corporal to pass over the counter the gear Oil my requisition sheet. I hefted a real Air Corps flight suit of the coverall type, studded with zippered pockets, serial numbers, little rings, slots, alligator clips, leather tabs, dangling electrodes-and topped with a great, round, black furry collar. "What size head you got?" the corporal asked. "Seven and a quarter." He fished in a bin. "Here. Try this. Just once I wish some bastard would say six and an eighth. I got five hundred of them that ain't never been wore." I held in my hands a genuine Air Corps-issue flight helmet, complete with intercom earphones, phone jacks, fleece lining, buckles, snaps - the works. He shoved a magnificent pair of green goggles across the counter to me and started to pile test equipment on the floor: a bright, shiny Voltohmist, a magnificent signal generator that the boys in Company K would have given three years of their life to own; and a set of spanking new blue-steel work tools-pliers, wire strippers, test prods--all fitted into a lovely cowhide case. I thought briefly of the sad collection of raggle-taggle blunt screwdrivers and lumpy, taped pliers that Company K used to keep our doddering radar equipment going. Already all that poverty, that sweaty grubbing, was fading from my memory. Gasser should see me now! Here was technological wealth beyond imagining. Now dressed in my flight suit, helmet, goggles and M-2, my feet sloshing around in a pair of zippered flying boots, I was driven far out along the row of parked aircraft. The air was filled with the sound of roaring motors, planes taxiing, taking off, landing, droning overhead. I was part of it all, the whole gaudy circus. Finally we drew up before one of the hangars. The technical sergeant said: "This is communications service hangar. You better check with them." He wheeled his jeep around and left. Inside, a captain sat at. a desk amid an immense squadron of silent aircraft. GIs crawled over them, lugging still more magnificent test equipment. "Oh, yeah, you 're the guy they sent down to test the 695 in that damn low-level attack ship, right?" "I guess so, sir." "What?" "Yessir!" "You checked out on the 717?" Now he was really in my element. The 717, also highly confidential at the time, was a sweep-and-search radar designed for special uses in aircraft - I had at one time in my checkered career even taught a course on its various idiosyncrasies. "Yes, sir! The 717 A or B, sir?" "How the hell should I know?" I could see he was impressed. My confidence was growing like some speckled monster. I hoped he would ask me to fly the plane. "OK, Jack, she'll be out on the line in a couple of minutes. Would you mind checking the sweep on the 717?" "No, sir, wouldn't mind at all, sir." "The boys will give you the radar checkpoints. Any questions?" "No, sir." I swaggered out into the sunlight and toward the ready line. Three P-38s skimmed overhead in a tight wingtip-to-wingtip formation, banking as a single ship and climbing off into the blue. Down the line, I saw taxiing toward me an A-26, which I vaguely recognized from the endless hours of aircraft-identification drill that Company K had drowsed through. Closer and closer she rolled, her twin props chopping the air, her tires, broad and flat, rumbling on the concrete, her high, sweeping rudder exuding arrogance and power. The A-26 was a beautiful ship, as well as somewhat notorious, being well known for its eccentric characteristics. It was a low-level attack bomber, of functional design, and this particular A-26 was a noble example of the breed. A blood-red letter B, at least four ' feet high, gleamed on her rudder. The white Air Corps bar and star was freshly painted. Across her nose, in incandescent yellow, hand-painted in flowery letters, was her name - THE BLUE-ASSED BUZZARD. The light from the brilliant sun reflected off the tinted plexiglass of her greenhouse. The A-26 flew, under normal conclitions, with a crew of three: pilot, navigator-bombardier and tail gunner. The tail gunner sat directly behind the pilot in an incredibly cramped little niche, facing the rear. Ahead of the pilot the navigator-bombardier maintained his tiny office. He was supposed to crawl down a narrow passage into the plexiglass nose to sight and drop bombs. She slowly wheeled around, her tail wheel creaking, her props kicking up bits of paper and a thin cloud of dust. Her engines blipped twice, making the ground around me tremble, and then - silence. A head popped out of the pilot's compartment, paused a moment, and then a master sergeant wearing green coveralls swung down to the ground. "You the 695 guy?" he asked, his baseball cap slanting up to the sun. "Yeah." "OK. See you when you get down." He ambled off toward the service hangar. I was alone; that is, except for the A-26, which loomed over me, radiating heat and malevolence. It was the first time I had ever been this close to a real live warplane. Up to this point, as a qualified airborne-radar technician, all my work had been in the classroom. Trying to appear as casual as I could, I glanced around. There was no one else on the horizon. Gingerly, I crawled up the sleek, camouflaged side of the oval fuselage and peered down into the rear seat. Ordinarily, this was where the tail gunner plied his thankless trade, forever looking backward, forever watching for shadowy pursuers. On this ship, however, the guns had been removed and the gunner's position had been jammed chock full of radar equipment. The narrow black-leather bucket seat surrounded by the familiar scopes and range controls, the intercom equipment and other associated electronic gear looked exactly like the photographs and skeleton diagrams I had pored over in my pre-Company K days, when my hopes were still high and my Service record clean. It was beautiful, in an ugly sort of way, that little hellhole tightly packed with a quarter of a million dollars or more of highly classified equipment, worth today on the surplus market about $17. The canopy, one side of which was now open, had been blacked out, which meant that in flight, the radar compartment was in total darkness, the better to see the flickering green images on the glowing cathode-ray tubes. It was obviously a one-of-a-kind plane. Some distant expert in the War Department had decided to try radar in an A-26. By now, of course, I was practically out of my head with excitement. There was only one thing wrong: I didn't have the slightest idea what the hell I was supposed to do. One of the great comforts of Army life is that, in general, you are not the only one who doesn't know what you're supposed to do. I had been in the Army long enough to know that cardinal rule. On one occasion, during a short stay at a dusty, down-at-the-heels little Army camp somewhere in a forgotten corner of the Ozarks, I had seen a highly educational little drama unfold. A short, squat GI wearing a pair of faded, greasy fatigues had started yelling loudly one day in the company street. Within ten seconds, he had assembled a work detail of other GIs, all wearing identical cruddy, moldy coveralls. He put them into a column of twos, right-faced them and marched them smartly off down the road toward the motor pool. I could hear them drilling in the churned-up mud left by a thousand half-tracks for the better part of an hour. He barked and bellowed and chewed plenty of asses. I just missed this merry little band, because at the time, I was latrine orderly and was stacking rolls of toilet paper for the next invasion. A couple of days later, I ran into this same guy at the PX, wearing his suntans. He had no stripes whatsoever. I remember our conversation well. As we both ate our Milky-Way bars, the first palatable food either of us had seen in well over a week, I asked: "Hey, mac, when'd they bust you?" "What do you mean, bust me?" he answered. "Well, weren't you a corporal or something?" "Hell, no. "Where'd you get that idea?" "Well , how come I saw you chewin' out those guys from the second platoon the other day?" "I was just practicin'." "Practicing? Practicing what?" "Ass chewing. I figure I may make corporal someday. I want to be ready." It was then I realized a great truth. Come on strong and you can go anywhere in the Army - or out of it. I was beginning to sweat a little in my hot flying suit. They are not made for standing still, especially under a baking Florida sun. I clung to the side of that magnificent A-26 and drank in its elusive, once-inhaled, never-forgotten aroma. I have never read anywhere, in all the aviation stories I've come across, a description of how a first-line, ready-for-business combat plane smells - a highly complex, extremely subtle mingling of a thousand viscosities of lubricants, rarefied high-octane gasoline, dull camouflage paint, the thin suggestion of violence from highly potent traces of burned high explosives (she carried a 20-mm cannon, as well as enough machine guns to equip half the Mafia), the distinctive perfume of complex high-voltage wiring insulation, and a hundred other scents too esoteric to name. Her cockpit, deep and narrow, smelled of leather, cotton webbing, aluminum buckles and hard rubber. I clung to the side of the plane, her engine pod radiating shimmering heat waves as she cooled. A P-47 Thunderbolt taxied by, making the ground shake, her slip stream vibrating the A-26's wings slightly. I could see the mechanic perched high in the Thunderbolt's cockpit, chomping on a cigar, his Air Corps baseball cap tilted to the sky. He rolled by with that insolent, on-top-of-it air that mechanics everywhere always have. My God, I thought, any minute now, Wayne Morris has got to show up. I could not believe my incredible good luck. Just a few short hours ago, I lay slowly rocking at anchor, my brain gathering barnacles, rotting away with good old sad Company K-and now this! I swung down to the ground in that casual, devil-may-care way that I had seen Dana Andrews execute so many times. I am a birdman. The Air Corps song, which for so many months we of the Signal Corps had sung sardonically - "Off we go, into the wild blue yonder ..."now was my song. I gathered up my test equipment and began to do what I had learned to do so exceedingly well in the Army: wait. A quarter of an hour passed as I stood in the shade of that sinister A-26. Furtively, from time to time, I patted her hot, rounded side, right in the middle of her big white star, not realizing that in a few moments I was about to embark on a harrowing adventure that I would never forget. It is good that man, that poor, simple, plodding creature, is not capable of foreseeing the future. Out of the far haze, from the direction of base headquarters, I could see a jeep roaring down the line; and I swear, for an instant or two, I thought I saw fluttering foxtails flying from its antenna. The sound of raucous laughter rose above the bellow of the jeep's engine and rode high over the undercurrent of aircraft thunder. I was about to meet The Boys. The jeep must have been edging up toward 90 when it slewed around the tail section and, with a squeal of brakes, lurched to a halt. Many times I had seen that same turn performed by my peers - callow, pimply-faced youths wheeling their leaded and chopped-off Ford rods in the gravel parking lot next to Hank's Big Boy Diner, the object being to throw as much gravel up against the side of the takeout counter as you could without Hank breaking your neck. The driver and his passenger wrestled briefly in the front seat of the jeep. "C'mon, Charlie. Gee whiz. Gimme the key. It's my turn to drive when we get back." "Cut it out, Ralphie! For Chrissake, you know I'm ticklish! " Whooping and giggling, they rolled out onto the runway, the one named Ralphie, a first lieutenant, kicking Charlie, a captain , in the ass as they hit the ground. Charlie feinted to his right and threw a football block at Ralphie. I could not believe the tableau that was unfolding before my eyes. Charlie was the first 13-year-old captain I had ever seen, while Ralphie had obviously just shaded 12. Their peach-fuzzed faces had never seen a razor. I, who had just turned 17, for the first time in my life felt old and grizzled. Officers had always been grownups to me - remote, official, like fathers or bosses; like 'William Holden or Henry Fonda. Charlie, his crushed cap perched on the back of his head, noticed me for the first time. "You're the guy from the Signal Corps that's gonna test the 695." He giggled. " Yessir." "OK, Ralphie, get your ass in gear." Ralphie, who was busy unwrapping a new wad of shocking-pink Fleers bubble gum, said: "Hold yer water, (or Chrissake." Charlie, the pilot, looking all of 115 pounds in his flying suit, lurched upward into his cockpit, flinging behind him. Let's go, mac. I crawled up the side of the A-26 and toppled down into my dark, fragrant cave. Ralphie's head appeared above me. "Your intercom plug is down there below the relay bank." I nodded numbly, with an uneasy feeling that from here on ill it was in the lap of the gods. Never in my life had I flown in a real airplane; and vague, gnawing aches of fear began to work their way up my backbone as I buckled the chin strap on my helmet and plugged in my intercom phones. Ralphie's head reappeared. "You OK?" His adolescent, hot-rodder face leered down at me, his huge wad of bubble gum puffing out his cheek, like some demented chipmunk. He was the navigator-bombardier. I nodded. "Fasten your shoulder straps and pull 'em tight." Again his head disappeared. Not once in 4000 accredited hours of airplane-movie watching had I ever seen a pair of war birds like Charlie and Ralphie. I sank deeper into the bucket seat. Suddenly my earphones crack led and I could hear Charlie: "Hey, smart-ass, are you ready to roll?" Without thinking, I muttered: "Yessir." There was a moment of silence and again Charlie came onto the intercom: "Who the hell was that?" Then Ralphie's voice crackled through: "It's that guy from the Signal Corps. Let's go, dad." A high whine of motors and a deep rumble filled my cockpit. THUNK. The canopy closed and I was in absolute, total, complete, utter, Stygian darkness. I could hear Charlie muttering something to himself on the intercom. Ralphie, up ahead, was singing the second chorus of Mairzy Doats. Finally Charlie said, to no one in particular: "Well, here goes nothin'." Like all human beings, I have that ancient fear of the darkness that we inherited from our cave-dwelling ancestors. I cowered in the blackness as the starboard engine turned over, first slowly, and then boomed out strong and clear. Then the other engine joined in. The thunder in my tiny, stifling closet was deafening. Charlie, I could hear, was conversing laconically with the control tower. My panic had risen to such a height that I couldn't quite make out what tlley were saying. Then, over the din, I heard Ralphie's squeaky voice: "Hey, Corporal, ya got yer gear on?" Without thinking, I blurted, "It's dark in here!" "What the hell do you expect?" said Ralphie. "Turn on your glow light." Glow light, I thought. If I ask him where the glow light is, I'll really be in the soup. Drawing on my vast Army experience in fakery, I said: "I've been working on 61s lately. Lieutenant. Haven't been in 26s. Where is it?" I hoped the 61 had some kind of radar. Out of the thunder, Charlie's voice came at me: "Widows, wow! Holy smokes! I'd like to throw one of them around once!" I sensed that my stock had gone up a notch or two. Ralphie said: "It's on the lower right corner of the panel." I fumbled in the darkness and finally felt the switch. A tiny light glowed on. There were the panels of the equipment that I knew, theoretically, at least. I threw the switches; ruby and green bull's eyes glowed into life; my scopes slowly warmed to a pale green. The ship rocked from side to side, thrumming loudly as we trundled out along the runway. A jumble of talk from the control tower, static and a steady, rhythmic clacking came through my earphones, filling my head as I groped at the sweep and intensity controls. My mind was almost a total blank. The clacking continued and then Charlie, from out of the darkness, said: "What the hell are you doing up there, Ralphie?" Ralphie answered: "What do you mean?" "I can't hear anything over that lousy gum chewing." Ralphie had apparently been chewing his bubble gum into his microphone. He muttered a muffled obscenity as we rolled on. Suddenly the ship stopped, and for a long moment, Charlie revved up each engine in turn. At length, he chirped: "This son of a bitch is leakin' oil somewhere." Ralphie barked back: "Come on, you bastard. No alibis. Let's get this over with." Oh, my God, I thought. Am I in the grip of impostors? Are these two snot-nosed kids who dressed themselves up as officers and are now stealing a plane? No, they can't be. Maybe I'm asleep. In a couple of minutes, Gasser will wake me up and I'll go down to the mess hall for my powdered eggs and Spam. Tonight I'll beat Edwards at ping-pong. But no. On either side of me, the two engines boomed to an insane pitch. All around me, things creaked, screamed, whistled, fluttered. Instinctively, my hands clutched the metal tubing of my seat in an iron grip. It was really happening. We began to move - faster and faster, until, with a last giant roar and an unbelievable sinking sensation that plunged all the way down to the very bottom of my gut, the A-26 soared into the air. Old bits of half-forgotten Sunday-school prayers, calendar mottoes, God knows what, welled up inside of me. Then came Charlie's voice: "How do you like that, baby?" Ralphie. the funny one, shot back: "Pretty lucky." I kept my mouth shut, trying to remember whether or not I had filled out my Gl insurance form correctly, wondering briefly what my mother would do with the ten grand and how they would word the telegram. Maybe: WE REGRET TO INFORM YOU THAT YOUR SON WAS KIDNAPED BY TWO ADOLESCENTS POSING AS AIR-CORPS OFFICERS STOP THESE THINGS HAPPEN STOP= WAR DEPARTMENT Clinging to the instrument panel, my backbone pressed deep into the leather bucket seat, the very fillings of my teeth jiggling frantically amid the insane, cyclonic noise in the cockpit, I fought back a violent attack of nausea. "Over she goes!" Charlie yapped into my ear. My cockpit tilted. Things snapped and groaned all around me. We were doing some kind of Immelmann or something. "Whoops, my dear!" Ralphie shrieked into the intercom in a falsetto voice. It was as if I were trapped in a giant Waring blender. I felt the tail clip. "Watch this, Ralphie, babyl" I grabbed the control panel and braced myself to see what "this" was going to be. RRRRRRRAAAAAHHHHHWWWWWWWRRRRRRRRR! My safety belt cut deep into my ribs and shoulders. My head hung forward like a large overripe melon. I felt my eyeballs bulging. From the floor of the cockpit, a cloud of cigarette butts, gum wrappers and Christ knows what else drifted upward and swirled around my goggles. We seemed to be plummeting straight down. For a long instant, the world screamed all about me and then: "Hang onto yer lunch! Here we go!" old Chuckie sang into the intercom, through the bellowing roar. BBBBBAAAAHHHHHRRRRROOOOOOMMMMM' Old Jesus God! I'll never make it! For a moment, the northern tip of my liver seemed to be between my teeth. I was being disemboweled! Feverishly, I clung to everything I could grab. My arms weighed 1000 pounds apiece. One eyeball had totally disengaged itself and was now hanging by a long thread and bumping against my knee. "Urk ... urk ... urk ..." Involuntarily, my vocal cords quacked. "Hey, Corporal, how 'bout getting on the ball there?" I couldn't tell which one said it; but in any event, it was an officer. "Yessir!" I managed to croak. "Yer first checkpoint's coming up, mac. In about forty seconds." Checkpoint? What the hell check-point? Frantically, I turned up the intensity and set the range on the sweep control. A blip appeared. Ralphie cut in: "Checkpoint One-D, Corporal-mark!" "Yessir." I struggled to remember the routine that I had so glibly parroted so many eons ago during training. Dumbly, I filled in the squares on the chart attached to the clipboard on the control board, noting what adjustments I could see through the sweat that poured down my nose and into my mouth. "Look at them chicks, Ralphie, baby! In that canoe down there!" Ralphie whistled into the intercom. They both cackled lasciviously as I gamely continued to fake it. After fiddling with my controls for a minute or two longer, I said , with as much confidence as I could muster, "That's it, sir. She checks out. OK, sir, that's it. Yessir." "You all through, mac?" "Uh, yessir. That's all. All through. We can go back to the field now, sir." There was a brief pause, and then: "OK, Ralphie, let's go back after them girls!" WWWWWRRRRRRRAAAAAHHHHHHRRRRRRREEEEEEEEEEEEEE! The pencil leaped out of my hand and went winging off somewhere back of me. Again my tiny cockpit tilted insanely. This time, my pancreas appeared between my teeth. The old eyeballs snapped out, both eardrums thrumming madly, like a phalanx of kettledrums. We're in free fall now! The bottom has dropped out of the airplane. We were crash-diving at about 400 miles an hour. All around me, above the banshee scream of the engines, I could hear ominous creaks aud groans, the sound of metal being tortured beyond belief. The cigar butts and cigarette ends, dust and bits of decayed insulation floated up again from the cockpit floor-along with my notes, which drifted up past my face and clung to the ceiling. "Hold onto your eyeteeth, kiddies" Charlie screamed happily. EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEBBBHBRRRRRRAAAAWWWWWRHRRRR! Gravity clawed at every square inch of my wracked body. My ears hung like great iron weights at each side of the boulder I was using for a head. Each tooth in my skull suddenly weighed 12 pounds. And I was totally unable to breathe. The airplane groaned, screamed, wept, flailed its wings as it struggled to keep from plunging to the center of the earth. And then, miraculously, we seemed to be once again in level flight. My head lightened somewhat and my lungs resumed functioning after a fashion. Noticing a sliding panel beside my head in the darkened canopy, I pulled it back. Oh, my God! Through this thin slit, I saw bushes going past in a dizzying blur. Bushes! We were skimming inches above the surface of a lake. "Whoopee! Yahoo!" We whistled between what looked like the masts of a small sailboat. I could see two guys yelling up at us, throwing beer bottles and shaking their fists. BRRRRl?AAAAHHHHHRRHnRR! We were over a sandy island. I could see shells on the shore. AAAHHHHHHRRRRRROOOOOOOMMMMMMMM! Two fishermen with bait-casting rods looked up wildly as our prop wash parted their hair. "Whoopee!" Oh, my God, when will it ever end? My stomach churned. Sweat poured down my back. Ralphie and Charlie were yipping and yelling back and forth at each other in their squeaky little-kid voices. Ahead, I could see a row of palm trees coming faster and faster in our direction as we boomed toward a beach; the figures of four or five girls in bathing suits grew larger and larger. At the last instant, with a huge BANG from the engines that sent sand swirling over the beach, we zoomed up over the trees, taking a few palm fronds with us and shaking down a couple of coconuts. The girls waved and applauded and were gone in an instant. "Did you see the bazooms on that redhead?" Ralphie, the eagle-eyed navigator, barked into the intercom. The plane climbed higher and higher. Below stretched the low, flat greenness of the Florida swampland. Within me, a tight, round ball of nausea was about to reach critical mass. I huddled amid the thrumming, groaning uproar, barely breathing. Thus we winged for what seemed an eternity, Ralphie and Charlie occasionally chortling obscenely about the redhead. Then, finally, there it was below - the airfield, planes parked in rows, silver hangars glistening in the twilight. I heard Charlie talking to the control tower. Then we were down, in as straight and smooth a three-point landing as was ever executed. We taxied along the runway, wheeled slowly to a halt in front of the hangar where it had all started. Then - blessed silence. I crawled out of the cockpit, noticing for the first time that my legs were made of rubber; funny - all these years I had never noticed that. Lethal and silent, the great A-26 exuded the sweetish smell of hot oil and bruised rubber. Racing to the jeep, Charlie beat Ralphie by a stride. Swearing, Ralphie vaulted into the seat beside him. "Let us reconnoiter that redhead with them big bazooms, baby!" said the pilot to the navigator, as they roared off toward the operations office. I was alone. High overhead, a lone Mustang droned inland. My entrails were still rearranging themselves as I staggered toward the service hangar. Waves of fear coursed through me in a steady rhythm. Here I was, back on the ground, mission completed, and I still didn't have the foggiest notion what I was supposed to have done or what they expected of me. In the distance, a platoon of enlisted men were drilling. Faintly, through the soft air, I could hear them singing as they marched: "Off we go, into the wild blue yonder ..." Until now, I had no idea how wild the blue yonder was! As I rolled along unsteadily, my knees still watery, I hummed along with the platoon. They were singing my song. At last I was where the action was. Maybe someday, I thought, when I get a leave, I'll wear my goggles home. That would really impress them at Fifield's drugstore. I could even wear my zippered flight suit. I exulted, even as my stomach heaved. "... Flying high into the sun..." No more mosquitoes, no more heat rash, no more taped pliers! I even allowed myself to think, (or the first time in over a year, that I might possibly even get another stripe. A nonchalant, smiling group of noncoms cut across my course, heading for the PX. Not one had the toadlike truculence, the granitic stolidity of Sharkey. A new life was beginning; a new world that I had glimpsed in a thousand movies lay before me. The captain, still at his desk, looked up as I reeled into the echoing hangar. He glanced dully at my phony figures on the clipboard and said: "Turn in your equipment to supply." I stripped off my flying coveralls, my boots, all of it - and handed it over to the supply corporal. 1 noticed that my suit was wringing wet. A flutter of nausea coursed up my spine and receded. My stomach still quivered like a bowl of grape Jell-o. The captain strode past me. "Corporal, your vehicle's over at the side parking lot." He waved his hand listlessly to indicate the direction. My vehicle. Ah, that's the life. The Air Corps really did it in style. A vehicle to whisk me to my new barracks, where I will meet my fellow airmen. Tonight we will gather in the ready room and toast the gallant enemy, as I had so often seen David Niven do. Maybe I'll grow a mustache, possibly even invest in a set of tailored suntans. After all, a fly-boy cannot be seen at such chic restaurants as EI Morocco or "21" wearing lumpy, baggy Government-issue khakis. And I'll have to get myseIf one of those jazzy baseball caps that I noticed the N. C. O. s wearing. No more will I stuff that humiliating wavy-brimmed, stained green fatigue hat down over my ears - a fatigue hat obviously patterned after the style affected by the lowlier members of a Georgia chain gang, a hat commonly called by the enlisted personnel of the less glamorous branches of the Service "The Green Pisspot." Already my stomach felt flatter, my shoulders broader, my profile craggier as I cut through the hangar, heading toward "my vehicle." I strolled out the side door, my soggy suntans hanging limply in the heat. I turned the corner and saw a weapons carrier waiting for me, driver behind the wheel, in the gathering gloom. A Liberator whistled directly overhead, flaps down, wing lights blinking off and on, the setting sun glittering on its spinning prop blades. A thin, heroic smile played for a brief instant over my chiseled features. For a moment, I toyed with an impulse to flick my hand up in a brotherly salute to the boxcar as she whistled toward the runway. I inhaled a deep draught of soft twilight air, savoring the sexy aroma of high-octane fuels and hot, oily machinery. I felt as though I had died and waked up in heaven. I walked up to the weapons carrier and around to the passenger seat. "Hop in. I ain't got all day." Elkins, his rakish 50-mission crush cap drooping down over his ears, sat hunched over the controls. Elkins! A great wave of apprehension, disgust and impending doom roared through my being. Elkins! I crawled in. I noticed my barracks bags in the rear. Oh, no! "We roared off. Soon we were once again hurtling fiendishly through the back roads of rural Florida, the state that invented boondocks. Elkins was in no mood for conversation. Nor was I. Flocks of terrified chickens fluttered over our hood as we roared through the darkening night. My whole body felt numb; I was in shock from the horror of this incredible outrage. Farther and farther we droned away from Life, from Beauty, from the world of Gregory Peck and Alan Ladd. Closer and closer we drew to the dark void of the swamps and the drugged existence of Company K. I pondered the inscrutable ways of the military. Why had they called on me? What was it all about? I knew there could be no answer. There never was; there never would be. I watched the palmettos and the pine trees spin by and wondered listlessly whether we'd get back in time for chow. Chow, what a joke - powdered eggs, S.O.S., kerosene-soaked French toast. leather bacon and the Purple Death, a lethal "drink" concocted by the sadistic cooks of Compauy K, composed of a peculiar bittersweet purple powder bearing the laughable label of Grape Ade, dissolved in heavily chlorinated swamp water. Chow! Elkins broke into my bitter reverie: "I thought you was in the Air Corps." "Yeah, so did I." We roared along for several minutes after this exchange, Elkins contemplating the mysteries. "You screw up again?" "How the hell do I know?" "Bastards." He sneered into his cloudy windshield. We both knew who he meant. Them. With practiced dexterity, Elkins fished a cigarette out of the pack in his fatigues pocket, lit it from the stub that dangled from his lower lip, left hand flicking the worn steering wheel back and forth as we careened along through .he gloom. "Boy, I wisht I could get in the Air Corps. I'd show them babies how to fly them babies,' he said finally, to the unhearing night. A baleful, gibbous moon rode high in the night sky when we finally creaked the weapons carrier up our narrow path between the tents. I swung myself to the ground, dragging my barracks bags after me. Elkins threw the car into gear, spun its wheels insolently and was gone. I stood in front of the orderly room, the same smelly little tent that I had left what seemed centuries ago. A faint sliver of yellow light cut through the mosquito netting of the door. Kicking my bags to one side of the path, I went in. Captain Crawford, in a soggy T-shirt and chino pants, sat reading a dog-eared copy of Forever Amber, his feet up on the filing cabinet behind his desk. As I entered, Sharkey, chewing on a huge, succulent corned-beef sandwich, barked: "BUTTON UP THAT COLLAR, SOLDIER!" Old Horse's Ass casually lowered his heavily charged Kool-Aid to his Iittered desk. I was home. "Wll. Welcome back, Corporal." "Thank you, sir, Captain, sir." He sipped at his drink for a moment while scanning some mimeographed sheets that lay before him amid the back issues of Doc Savage. From a distant lent, the faint sound of squeaky radio music - Bing Crosby singing something about praising the Lord and passing the ammunition - filtered through to us. "We almost lost you, didn't we?" Silence fell, broken only by the steady munching' of Sharkey's lantent jaw. "Didn't we?" "Yessir." "We couldn't let you go. You're a valuable man around here." "Thank you, sir." "Could we, Sergeant Sharkey?" Sharkey gruuted - half affirmation, half belch. "It took a little doing to get you back." "Thank you , sir." "I knew you'd appreciate it. One thing, though ..." he continued. "Yessir." "We have a tight T/O here," he said ominously, referring to the company table of organization. He smiled an expansive, friendly smile that fairly lit up the dim tent. "Sergeaut Sharkey pointed out to me after you left this morning that we were short one corporal. Right, Sergeant Sharkey?" "Right," muttered Sharkey. The enormity of what was about to occur struck me in the gut with the force of a bowling ball. He drove home the final spike: "Now that you're back, I'm afraid we're one corporal over our quota, since we made Zinsmeister a corporal this morning. You see our problem?" "Yessir." "So I'm afraid you 're a Pfc. again. But you're at the top of the list for the next stripe." He shuffled his papers to indicate that the interview had ended. I saluted limply and plodded out into the darkness. I dragged my barracks bags behind me in the ruts as I headed toward my own tent. The rich, velvet Florida sky, filled with billions of brilliant stars, lit lip the camouflaged canvas peaks faintly. Thousands of feet overhead, against the milky way, a tiny V formation of bombers zoomed gracefully toward the east. carrying along with them a happy band of lieutenants and majors, master sergeants and warrant officers. I stood in front of the same tent in which I had drowsed away the last eon of my life. Opening the tent flap, I took a deep breath of the familiar fetor of sweat, citronella and sulfa salve within, and stepped inside. I sat on the edge of my bunk and listened briefly to the whine of the ever-present, voracious mosquito squadrons. Gasser lay stretched under his mosquito bar, his thick coating of salve glowing in the moonlight. " Hey, Gasser." He stirred, rose to one elbow and peered sleepily over at me. "Is that you?" "Yeah." "I thought you were in the Air Corps." "So did I." "You screw up again?" "It's a long story." 'They give you the shaft again?" "What do you think?" He flopped back heavily on his sack. We sat silently for a long minute or two. Finally, he spoke: "I knew it was too good to be true. Nobody never gets out of here." I peeled off my sodden suntans, smeared some salve over my shoulders, crawled in under my mosquito bar and lay back. Our generator pounded in the darkness behind the dune and the low perpetual moan of our radar seeped into my brain. I was back. Gasser snored softly. My shoulder blades dug into the muggy, familiar hills and valleys of the bunk that had cradled me for so long. Somewhere in the darkness, a lizard scurried over taut canvas. The heat rash on my stomach tingled dully, familiarly - an old friend. I heard Edwards from the next tent stumbling along the duckboards on his way to the latrine, his weak kidneys still hard at work. Company K, at the very bottom of the barrel, slowly marched on.


Additional Comments:
This story was the basis for the unpublished book by the same name that Shep was working on about the Army.


Copyright: 1967 Playboy Magazine

Where Shep Made Reference To This Subject
Links to Further Information:
• The unpublished book
Photos:


September 1967
Playboy - Cover


September 1967
Playboy - Pic


September 1967
Playboy - Playbill