2 - Tailman Fitzmartin (part 1)Since Burma was clearly the backside of the world, Uncle Wiggly liked to say, Toungoo must be its asshole.
"Anus mundi," Blackie agreed, thumbing a cross on his forehead, chest, and shoulders.
But Fitz loved Burma--he even liked Toungoo. The 'drome was bordered with trees with flowers as purple as the lilacs of home, and the women were small-boned and lovely. As for the Karen Hills, which Blackie was studying through field glasses, they were a mystery revealed each morning at half-past six, rising from the mist, separating the British colony of Burma from the independent Kingdom of Thailand.
Blackie dropped the glasses to the limit of their leather strap. They were U.S. Army issue, bought in the native town for fifteen rupees. "And the dawn comes up like thunder," he recited, "out of China 'cross the bay,"
"So it does," Fitz said. "Except for one little thing."
Blackie laughed. "No bay?" he said.
Fitz hawked up a gob of last night's revelry, and fired it at the ground, twelve feet below the toes of his flying boots. "No China, either," he pointed out.
"Is that right?" Blackie blocked them out with his hands: India on the west, Thailand on the east, and China far to the north of them. "Well, Kipling was a poet," he said. "Didn't they tell you about poetic license, back there in Robinson School for Wayward Boys? And don't forget he lived in India. That's 500 miles from here, as the Mitsubishi bomber flies."
"So is China 500 miles from here," Fitz said.
Oh, Christ! How was it possible to have so much fun, hung over as his was, without so much as a cup of coffee in his belly?
As members of the Bloom Gang--late arrivals--Fitz and Blackie had not been checked out in a Tomahawk, which was why they'd pulled the duty this morning in what Colonel Chennault grandly called the control tower. A bamboo box on stilts, it overlooked the asphalt of Toungoo Aerodrome, 175 miles north of Rangoon on the road to Mandalay--not the road Kipling had rhapsodized, for instead of paddle-wheel steamers it carried fleets of six-wheeled General Motors trucks. Fitz could see a dust-plume even now, marking a convoy bound from Rangoon to Mandalay, thence to Lashio, and finally to Kunming in the western mountains of China, where Fitz and Blackie would soon be stationed, fighter pilots in the Chinese Air Force.
The control tower had an especially good view to the east. The Old Man suspected that the Japanese had an air force based in Thailand, beyond the sawtooth mountains that seemed so soft in the dawn. Any morning now, he worried, the bombers and fighters would scream across the Karen Hills with tracer, ball, and high explosive, with the one great goal of destroying the men and planes of the American Volunteer Group before they went to the defense of China. Thus the vigil from five to eight a.m., from black night to searing day.
They had a ship's bell to ring if the raiders came. Oh, what a temptation it was: grab that leather thong, swing that clapper against the blackened bowl, and awaken all the hangovers in all the airy barracks at Toungoo Aerodrome!
Every week or two, a lone silver aircraft flew over Toungoo, high and fast. The alert pilots ran to their planes, fired up the engines, and rolled down the asphalt in a race that was lost before their tires broke free of the runway. The Curtiss P-40 was a formidable beast: long-nosed and throbbing with the power of 1,040 horses--two 50-caliber machine guns in the nose, four 30-calibers in the wings--self-sealing fuel tanks, bulletproof windshield, armor plate for your back--but oh, the weight of it! Up the corkscrew of sky the Tomahawks climbed, grinding and grinding, and by the time they reached Angels Fifteen the stranger had long since vanished to the westward.
Karigane scout plane, said Chennault with his air of perfect authority. Two-man crew, fixed landing gear, fifteen-hundred-mile range, meaning it could be based at Bangkok or even Hanoi. Then he gave them the lecture on Japanese tactics: Karigane scout this afternoon, and tomorrow morning the heavy bombers in diamond formation, escorted by Model Zero fighters with cannon in their wings. . . . So far, thank God, the Old Man had been wrong.
After breakfast and a chalk-talk by Rusty Hunter on navigating to Kunming, they piled into Studebaker sedans and drove out to the flight line. Lyle Crommett drove the Charlie Squadron newcomers. "I hear those Kunming whores have diseases like you wouldn't believe," he said. "Wha'd'you think, Mr. Blackstone?"
"It's true, Lyle," Blackie told him. "The Chinese invented the clap. Then they've got syphilis, crabs, and lymphogonorrhea bubos. And those are the virgins!"
"Jesus," Lyle said. "Guess I'll just have to pull the old pud, then."
The checked-out pilots took off for a bit of squadron flying, while the newcomers took turns broiling in the cockpit of a sidelined Tomahawk, its wheel struts broken and its propeller bent. They studied the instruments, worked the controls, and recited the starting procedure for that Allison V-1710 until they could have done it blindfolded.
The first man to get the nod was chubby Gus Amato, who'd captained a Catalina flying boat for the Navy. His takeoff wasn't bad--Fitz helping him, the whole Bloom Gang helping, easing back on imaginary control sticks--but after taking a turn around the airfield he flared out for his landing while twenty feet in the air. The Tomahawk dropped onto the runway, burst a tire, caught a wingtip with a screech like a sawmill cutting through nails, and careered into the trees with their flowers like purple lilacs.
"Another tire," Uncle Wiggly groaned. "Another prop. Jesus Christ. You assholes wreck 'em faster than the erks can fix 'em."
Blackie had lost his tan. "Fitz," he said, giving his lips a good tongue-wash. "This isn't fun any more. I'm gonna take the next boat back to San Francisco."
"No," Fitz said. "Gus thought he was still in the cabin of that Catalina; he was trying to float her onto San Diego Bay. What you want to do, Blackie, is put yourself back at Randolph Field. Just think of that Tomahawk as a BT-9 with a pointy nose."
"Yeah. Pointy nose and a thousand horsepower."
"One thousand and forty," Fitz said.
Then Tommy Kirkbride looked in their direction. "Okay, Fitzmartin," the squadron leader said. "Take up Number Seventy Seven."
Fitz nodded, swallowed, wiped his palms on the seat of his khakis, and climbed the Tomahawk's starboard wing. The crew chief was Jack Glover. "She's a real fine airplane, Mr. Fitzmartin," he said, leaving the cockpit by the port side. "Try not to hurt her too bad, okay?"
He couldn't see over the Tomahawk's nose. Taxiing out to the runway, he had to use the rudder pedals, left, right, weaving from side to side like a pigeon swiveling its head. Then he shoved the throttle forward. Jesus! The manifold pressure gauge showed 48 forty-eight inches of mercury, the tachometer 3,000 revolutions per minute, and there was so much left torque that he had to keep pressure on his rudder pedal. Ease the stick forward--now the tail came up--and he could see!
Number Seventy Seven flew herself off the runway at 100 miles per hour. Fitz made a careful turn around the 'drome with the wheels down. Not bad! He made another, wider turn--then another --before gentling the Tomahawk onto the asphalt. Yes! A perfect three-point landing, like the thousands he'd made in his BT-9 at Randolph Field.
Except that the rudder washed out. Number Seventy Seven swerved to the right, teetered on her starboard tire, and did her damnedest to swap ends, while Fitz swore and kicked left rudder and nearly pissed his pants. Thank God, she bounced only once, then rolled to a stop with nothing broken. Fitz slid back the canopy and sat there, too weak to get out. Tommy Kirkbride trotted up to the Tomahawk, with a grinning Tex Murdock at his heels. "Do it again!" the squadron leader yelled.
"And this time, young Fitzmartin," Tex suggested, "don't be in such a hurry to get your tail-wheel on the ground."
So that was how it was done! With that hint from Tex--better than an hour of studying the manual--Fitz decided to fly the Tomahawk onto the asphalt as he had flown her off, tail in the air and a bone in her teeth. The runway was 4,000 feet long--twice what the manual required. Even at 100 mph, even without touching the brakes, he'd have 2,000 feet in which to settle her down.
"Not bad," said Kirkbride this time. "She's yours. A. R. Fitzmartin: double sevens." He made the assignment on his clipboard, while Fitz patted the cowling, smelling the hot oil and the Prestone coolant and the high-test gasoline, hearing the engine block tick-ticking as it cooled down. Double sevens, yes. Lucky Sevens!
Blackie checked out too, on Number Sixty One. That afternoon, they painted the cowlings as the other checked-out pilots had done, with a shark's white teeth, red tongue, and baleful eye.
After dinner at the pilots' mess, of water buffalo and rice, Fitz signed out a Studebaker and drove into Toungoo. On the street dividing the European quarter from the native town, he presented himself at the door of the Mackenzie basha. "Elsbeth home?" he said to the man of the house, meanwhile offering a bottle of whiskey from the pilots' mess. Mac Mackenzie was one of Kipling's Legion of the Lost, gone native with the help of a pension from the British merchant navy. He was a fat man with skin the color and texture of bread dough, from his habit of sleeping through the hot hours and boozing through the cool ones. He wore a sleeveless undershirt over tropical shorts, showing white dough, a few hairs, and a blue anchor tattooed on his left shoulder.
Fitz put his palms together and made a shiko to Mrs. Mackenzie, whom Elsbeth called Mater. A stick-like Burmese with dark skin and a squashed nose, she dressed from the same mail-order catalog as the British wives, and her house was as neat as theirs and as crowded with bric-a-brac, though she had no servant. No doubt Mater played the pani wallah while her husband slept.
How had Elsbeth sprung from the loins of drunken Mac and skinny Mater? She was a small woman with an oval face, glossy black hair, high cheekbones, a slow smile, and a genius for making love. Who'd taught her? The entire officer's mess of Burma Division, for all he knew. She wouldn't say--wouldn't admit to knowing any man before Fitz. Her nose was as squashed as her mother's, but on Elsbeth the result was charming, or so Fitz believed. Unlike Blackie, he had few to compare her with.
They went to the Gymkhana Club, perched on a hill outside Toungoo. Last week they'd gone to the pilots' mess to see Gary Cooper in Beau Geste. The date hadn't been a great success, for Hapless Hal Evarts tried to move in on Elsbeth, and afterward Uncle Wiggly ragged Fitz about her color. "Elsbeth," he snorted. "Where'd a nigger get a name like that?"
"Her father's from Aberdeen. Better blood than yours, Uncle."
"Okay. Half nigger. How come she wears a fancy name like Elsbeth, for Christ's sake?"
The British, Fitz figured, would be more worldly.
Like the buildings at Toungoo Aerodrome, the Gymkhana Club was made of teak and bamboo, open from hip-height to the eaves, with a veranda to keep out the rain and the sun, and no screens. (In the barracks, you slept under a mosquito net; otherwise you just kept moving a hand in front of your face.) The club had a gramophone, a punkah fan, a dozen tables arranged to leave the center of the room for dancing, and in one corner a pool table so mulched with dead moths that nobody troubled to use it.
A villainous, turbaned waiter showed them to chairs in the corner by the pool table. He addressed Fitz as Master but would not look at Elsbeth. Nor, after the first round, would he answer to winks, finger snaps, or scowls, obliging Fitz to serve himself at the wickerwork bar, presided over by another thug in a turban, perhaps the waiter's brother.
On his second trip, a British officer in khaki shirt and bloomer-sized shorts tapped Fitz on the shoulder. "Fuck her if you must, dear boy," he said, "but why do you bring her to the club for our wives and daughters to see?"
Fitz had met him: Captain Smith-Blimpson, Blimp-Smithson, something like that. He was plump, with bushy eyebrows. Six days a week he worked as district manager for the MacGregor Company, hauling teak out of the forest with the help of a dozen elephants, a hundred Indian woodcutters, and four English and Irish jungle wallahs who doubled as platoon leaders on Sundays, when Smith-Blimpson played company commander in Burma Division. The sergeants were Indian, the troopers Burmese.
Fitz took a deep breath. "Listen, my friend, I've come all the way from New Hampshire to see the sights in Burma," he said. "If I can't enjoy a drink with my friend over there--why, I'll just ask your wife." Tailman A. R. Fitzmartin was a mercenary. He answered to no man's code of military justice, never mind this militia captain in the asshole of the world.
"And welcome to her, dear boy, welcome to her," Smith-Blimpson said. He raised a bushy eyebrow, and the turbaned waiter appeared like Houdini. "Whiskey-soda for the American gentleman," Smith-Blimpson said, "and a glass of whatever his, erm, young woman is drinking."
"What is he saying to you?" Elsbeth asked when Fitz returned to the table with two amber glasses: Scotch, a spritz of soda water, and no ice.
"Just a British army toast," Fitz assured her.
Elsbeth eyed Smith-Blimpson uneasily. Was he one of those who'd taught her the arts of love?