Friday, 2 October 2009

Hell from Heaven

She takes a photograph of the flak – even as fragments rattle against the side of the B17. The aeroplane judders as it passes though the ruptured air, the left wing momentarily losing lift, and the American bomber lurches to port. As the pilot, Patrick Steiner, recovers stability, Judy Timberforce – releasing her grip of one of the fuselage’s curving, ribbed struts – turns to Edison Wallpen, the burly Wisconsin starboard waist gunner, and tugs at her flak jacket with both hands. It is a heavy item of protection that she has been griping about ever since they took off.
“I still don’t think it’s my style,” she shouts above the noise of the wind rushing past the aeroplane and the rectangular gun apertures. “But I’m getting to like it.”
“Shame it doesn’t cover your mouth,” Wallpen bellows, as he regains his footing and peers out through his allotted opening of the fuselage. He turns momentarily to glare at her.
“Ma’am,” he adds, nodding and saluting her with a tap of his index finger to his temple, before continuing his vigilant scanning of the skies. The aeroplane is on the bombing approach run – apparently low enough today for there to be no need for oxygen.
“If you don’t like me being here, then just go right on ahead and tell me,” Judy replies, bringing her camera up – just to be ready.
When he doesn’t respond as she expects, Judy sticks out her tongue, gives him the finger, and contemplates kicking him in the shin to get his attention and photographing his expression.
“Ed’s never had much time for you Hollywood types,” says the other waist gunner, Philip Beggars, a nineteen year old from Florida who feels the cold so much that he has two extra scarves obscuring most of his face. After saying his piece, he hides his mouth away again.
“Nor women who think they can do a man’s job,” says Wallpen to Beggars.
Judy decides to ‘accidentally’ fall against the big gunner and stomp down, hard, on his foot the next time the B17 hits some turbulence.
Before she can do so, two successive, and violent, flak explosions rock her more than she thought could be possible in an aeroplane without it falling from the sky, and she has to curtail her intentions. Judy lurches one way, then the other, as the aeroplane yaws and judders, and she bangs her head against the side of the aircraft – missing her opportunity. Wallpen smirks. She wonders if he is pleased at her pain or somehow guessed what she had planned. Or both.
“Bet there’s not a lot of riveters saying that about Rosie,” she says to him.
“Ed’s older brother works in the shipyards,” says Beggars helpfully. He has been trying to impress Judy ever since she joined them on their mission into Yugoslavia towards a synthetic oil refinery.
“Shut up,” says Wallpen.
“Didn’t he say the girls are doing a mighty fine job?” continues Beggars, frowning.
“I said to shut your mouth. Watch out for the Kraut planes, kid.”
Beggars pulls down his scarves so that Judy can see his grin and he winks at her. Judy smiles back at him, then takes his photograph as he turns to continue staring far out into the void and at the dozen other bombers accompanying them in the near vicinity. She manages to compose the shot so that the B17s can be seen as a backdrop – together with the black cotton-wool clusters of flak surrounding them.
Judy decides she likes him – Philip Beggars has a mischievous twinkle in his eye, similar to how she remembers her brother’s. And Willard.
Ed Wallpen can go fuck himself.
One day, she tells herself, men are going to have to accept that women are their equal. We’re two sides of the same coin.
She shrugs.
Either they do that, or we’ll have to become shits like this jerk.
Judy goes to tell Wallpen this – in the most sarcastic way she can think of – when the crew start shouting at each other via their intercom, just she feels a blast of wind blowing onto her from a different direction.
“Fighters!” yells the tail-gunner. “Seven o’clock high!”
“Bomb doors open,” announces the pilot.
“I see ‘em!” shouts Wallpen, who immediately fires his gun in short bursts, his face contorted in hate. “Suck on that, fucker!”
Beggars also becomes animated – swinging his gun up, down, and side to side.
“Come on, come on!” he yells. “Come to daddy. Play with me!”
He suddenly begins firing, as well, and the noise is tremendous. Shell cases fall to the floor of the fuselage and, even though there is a strong breeze circulating, grey cordite smoke quickly adds to the persistent smell of fuel, sweat and electrical ozone from the ball turret’s motor as it rotates.
“Bombs gone!”
With the clatter of guns, the drone of the engines, and the shouts and yells continuing in her ears, Judy feels herself pushed into her boots as the aircraft suddenly rises higher into the air due to the ordnance dropping from the belly of the B17.
She looks over Wallpen’s shoulder. The other aeroplanes in the now fragmented formation are also simultaneously trying to rid themselves of their loads, while avoiding their attackers. Some are flying above the rest.
Judy follows a line of bombs pitching and whistling to earth.
A B17 flies into the column. The fifth one cleaves a large hole between the engines on the port wing. The fuel ignites and a major portion of the wing folds back on itself and tears away as if it were paper instead of aluminium. An instant later, and the aeroplane disappears in yellow flame and black smoke. No-one exits.
While Wallpen continues to fire, she pushes alongside him and takes a photograph.
“Yes!” he screams. “Show the world this shit! Show ‘em!”
As the Germans repeatedly attack, Wallpen fires his gun and Judy takes pictures.
They are equal – in determination and resolve.

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Slapton Depths

The surf washes yet another three bodies onto the beach. Even after less than twelve hours in the water, their burnt skin is swollen and their faces distorted into ugly expressions. There is no smell of decay – only the fresh nip from long strands of seaweed adjoining the rock-pools which makes Judy flare her nostrils.
She takes a photograph as a black-headed gull screeches loudly, wheels above her head, and then lands on one of the bodies. There are hundreds of other birds swooping down on countless objects floating in the sea. The big gulls and the gannets and the terns make the same squabbling noises they do when following the fishermen – gutting their catch and throwing the bloody entrails overboard.
“You know you won’t be allowed to have your pictures published, Miss?” says Lance-Corporeal Charlie Baxton.
She looks up at him.
“We’re supposed to forget this?” she says. “Umm?”
Charlie runs his tongue behind his lips, as though searching – not for some morsel left over from breakfast – but for the right words.
“Frankly, Miss. Yes, you must.”
She thinks he looks a little like James Stewart – has that same in-built niceness, that same goodness, the same empathy in his eyes.
Judy then stares down at the face of a young man, newly dead, who stares right on back at her from somewhere where oblivion starts. He reminds Judy of her brother Jason. As does the one beside him, and the one being washed ashore on the next wave. And the next. Just as her brother’s body must have done on Tarawa.
And then she is back, once again the thirteen-year-old, racing her older brother as he urges the chestnut stallion – the fastest horse on their father’s stud farm – while she begins to unleash the power of the young black stallion she had surreptitiously broken in the previous week. No-on else can yet ride the unruly animal, and the only person not impressed is Papa – a man more concerned with the well-being of his latest expensive acquisition than the danger she had put herself in.
Judy has always loved the initial changes from one season to the next, and spring in New England – the large fields lush with the new, sweet-smelling grass, the bright greens of the ancient trees coming out of winter slumber, and the blue sky breaking through clouds – seems to infuse her blood with a desire to express how vital everything feels.
She demands her horse gallop harder. It, too, has energy to spare.
Then she is alongside her brother, so close that their boots occasionally brush against each other.
“Out of my way!” she shouts. “Pocket dynamite coming through!”
“Go explode!” yells Jason back at her.
She laughs at him and he, in turn, flashes his teeth in that big grin she knows he will never grow out of – even at seventeen, he already has deep lines creasing his cheeks. Their father is doing his best to instil a sense of arrogance into his only son, but her brother is having none of it. Yes, he has youthful confidence, has inherited their father’s devastatingly astute sense of business, but he is twisting it into something different – with the country still reeling from the Depression, Jason is amongst the vanguard doing their bit to promote Roosevelt’s New Deal work program. Only last week he was helping demolish derelict buildings in the nearby town, prior to new housing construction – garnering respect from men twice his age with his management skills and willingness to work up a sweat beside them.
She finds it amazing that Jason wants to spend any time with her – he is beginning to be involved in an adult world that is doing its best to shut her out and yet he still makes the effort to encourage her to be resolute in the face of such bigotry and to ensure the men she meets know she has potential. And, more importantly: is an equal. His enthusiasm is partially the reason she took it on herself to break in the black stallion without consulting anyone.
As she edges ahead of him, Jason reaches across and slaps the rump of her horse.
“I’m catching you up, Sissy!” he bellows.
Judy glances over her shoulder and knows she loves him. Jason is giving her no quarter and wants to win as much as her. They both have everything to live for and are eager to grab life with a zest that can seem frightening to most. They urge their horses to gallop even harder.
And then just a few short months ago, his time amongst the living was over. On some tropical island hidden in the Pacific, he died on the bloodied sandy beach, alongside men that had become the brothers he never had.
But they had taken the island.
They weren’t wasted like this.
The assault on Slapton Sands was a training exercise for the forthcoming invasion into Northern Europe – the third front intended to spread Hitler’s armies from Russia, through Italy, to France.
Somewhere, out on the horizon, in the dark of the previous night, E-boats had attacked the convoy of assault craft.
Charlie wades into the surf to haul a body onto the beach. The dead soldier has his hands entangled in his equipment.
“Look,” says Charlie. “He put his life-jacket on the wrong way, too.”
Judy glances at yet another Jason look-a-like for the barest instant, then stares out at sea again. The majority of the bodies have their heads forced under the water by a combination of the way their ill-fitting life-jackets push down on them and their weighty equipment. That, and the coldness of the water with no rescue organised due to radio problems, contributed to their demise as they struggled to survive.
“What a waste,” she says.
“That’s about it,” says Charlie.
The gulls continue to screech and to land and to peck. And all Judy can think of is riding that black stallion as fast as she could.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Taking a dive

Willard is disconcerted to find he is more frightened of accidentally parachuting into the moonlit Mediterranean Sea, rather than jumping out of the aeroplane itself. The thought of trying to untangle himself from his harness and cords, as he drowns in a cold blackness of an intensity he can barely imagine, seems an ugly way to die. But then, what is a pleasant way to cease living in a war? Even the fabled bullet to the head – the one that you’re not supposed to hear coming – deprives you of realising it is all about to end.
Perhaps he should savour the moment?
As always.
Willard looks around at the heavily equipped young men of the 82nd Airborne about to jump into Sicily, and tries to use his poker-playing skills to ascertain their inner emotions. Most can’t fake it – their silence overwhelms the actuality of the tremendous noise of the Dakota engines and the sound of the wind howling in through the recently opened door. Soon, they will jump. There is an apprehension that leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. They sit quietly. Some smoke. Some twitch. One repeatedly cleans his teeth with a fingertip. Immediately opposite to Willard, a dark-haired boy has his eyes closed, as though in quiet dreams, but Willard can discern tension in the young hands, clasped together in his lap. The fingers are white in the full moon’s strong light. He has squeezed the blood from them.
Willard takes a photograph.
The aeroplane trembles as though it is suddenly running over cobbles and Willard is reminded of the trams in Prague, of the bumpy roads in Madrid in That Other War, of water in a fast-moving river in France before This War, playing at his thighs while he fished. He decides he needs to urinate and calls for the can to be passed down him. A couple of the paratroopers laugh.
“You should have taken a practice jump,” says one. “Then you’d have learnt to go before flying. Those straps will strangle your bladder.”
Before Willard can respond, the Lieutenant at the rear of the aeroplane orders everyone to stand.
“Hook up!
The soldiers haul themselves to their feet, and clip themselves with strops onto the cable running above their heads the length of the fuselage. Willard puts his camera away and finally does the same. His hands shake. The paratrooper behind him reaches over his shoulder and gives Willard’s clip a wiggle.
“You’re okay, bud,” he says.
It is the boy Willard has just photographed.
“Thanks,” says Willard.
“It would be a shame to lose you so soon after getting to know you, Mister Levhart. I still can’t believe you choose to be here. Did you get your photograph?”
“I thought you had your eyes shut.”
The aeroplane shudders as it hits turbulence again.
“I didn’t dare shut them completely. Jeez, I couldn’t guarantee I’d be able to open them again.”
“Check!” bellows the Lieutenant.
One by one, the soldiers inspect the equipment of the man immediately in front of them, making sure that the strop is not tangled in their harness.
They shout as they do so.
“One okay!”
“Two okay!”
“Three okay!”
And so on. Willard tries to reassure himself that since he has been checked twice, everything will be mighty fine, thank you, but he is suddenly aware that in a few moments he is going to throw himself out into a void, an act he has never really contemplated. Landing in the sea suddenly seems a minor worry.
A red light goes on.
“Red light on!” shouts the Lieutenant.
The paratrooper due to go out first, approaches the open doorway, clasps either side with his hands, jams his left boot against the frame and stands there, half-in and half-out of the aeroplane. The other soldiers, with Willard in the middle, shuffle up so that they are as close as possible to the man in front.
Willard tries to think of Prague, of stalking a large trout, of the women he has loved. He forces himself to breathe. The paratrooper in front of him is snapping his fingers to some impossibly fast beat.
“Green light on!”
The first paratrooper swings his right leg out of the aeroplane, and he is instantly sucked into the void. The next man follows. And the next. Within moments, Willard is also there at the door. He puts his hands up, is startled by how cold the metal feels, and then doesn’t get time to think anymore, because Willard Levhart, the world’s greatest war photographer, is shoved outside.
He forgets to scream.
The wind blasts into him, slaps his face, punches him in the stomach, and wrests every drop of air from his lungs. For a split second, Willard thinks he is going to be sliced in two by the large tail-fin, but it rushes over him and the void calls out as it claims him.
There is a powerful jerk, and the next thing he knows his parachute has opened.
“Fuck me!” he shouts. “It works!”
As the adrenaline rushes into him, the way he believes turning over a Royal Flush would feel like, something large plummets past him.
It the boy.
His parachute has failed to open.
Willard spreads his legs, stares down between them, aghast.
There is frantic movement and something begins to blossom above the every-decreasing shape. The young paratrooper’s reserve parachute streams up above him in a white streak. It hasn’t opened correctly. He struggles like a broken doll.
Willard stares at him until he cannot watch anymore, because there is only land waiting to claim the soldier, and it is a clear night.
As Willard finds himself checking that his parachute is still working correctly, he wonders what photographs he can take that will help show the cost, the price being paid here.
He tries not to think of the last picture he has taken.
Willard feels like he is carrying the boy’s soul in his camera.