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2 - Tailman Fitzmartin (part 2)

continued from part 1

When they returned to the basha, Mac was passed out and Mater gone to bed, leaving Fitz and Elsbeth to manage as they pleased. Which they did, in her small room off the kitchen. "Not needing that," she said of his Durex, which was okay with him. Screwing with a rubber was like showering in a raincoat--an opinion acquired in bull sessions at East Hall, the barrack-like dormitory at the University of New Hampshire where Fitz had picked up most of his knowledge of women. He was smart, was Tailman Fitzmartin, but he was young.

Making love to Elsbeth was a deliciously naughty thing to do. Her breasts were aureoles, with nipples as round and tan as that on a baby's bottle; she didn't have much in the way of hips, either, and for pubic hair a neat triangle of fox-fur. "What is your name?" she whispered urgently.

"Fitz," he said. What game was this? "No. Your real and true name. What is this A--what is this R?"

Some time she'd picked for it. "Aquila," Fitz admitted. "Aquila Roberts Fitzmartin. For Christ's sake."

Agweel," she agreed, and dug her fingernails into his buttocks, thus driving him deeper into her cunt. She held him there, legs locked around his waist, giving off a bird-cry of triumph. Jesus! He felt like a tiger cub who'd wandered far into the rain forest: if he didn't get out soon, he might never see sunlight again. . . . "Agweel Fitzmartin," Elsbeth said, settling back, relaxing her damp hold on him.

It made him nervous when women played tricks like that.

- iii -

In the fall of 1941, the United States was governed by a gentleman paralytic who smoked cigarettes in a holder, cocked at an impudent angle, as if to compensate for the fact that he could not rise without help, nor stand until his braces were locked at the knees. President Roosevelt was sentimental about China. When an aide suggested that the White House send a fighter group to defend the Chinese capital from Japanese bombers--volunteers, you understand, private citizens who'd joined the Royal Air Force--the president gave the scheme his blessing. Chongqing was the most-bombed city in the world? Well, sir, the United States would do something about that!

This was the work Fitz and Blackie had contracted to do. For $600 a month--three times their army pay--they'd fly for the Chinese Air Force, earning an additional $500 for every Japanese bomber they shot down. They sailed on Bloemfontein of the Java Pacific Line. Stuffed with Indonesian curries, they reached Rangoon in mid-September, steaming slowly up a river thick with greenery and oil-storage tanks. British immigration officers, with swagger sticks and clipboards, sniffed at their passports. How Fitz's mother would have adored them, those pinch-nosed officials of the British Raj!

His mother was Serena Roberts of old Newburyport in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. In a fit of girlish indiscretion, she'd married--had to marry--a charming Irishman who'd bought her cotton candy at Hampton Beach, New Hampshire. Mrs. Fitzmartin did what she could to bleach the stain, naming their son for her family's first come-overer, to the enduring disgust of the Irishman, a groundsman at Phillips Exeter Academy.

The boy learned to hide his name behind the initials--but what could he do about the initials? To be A. R. Fitzmartin at sixteen was to lead the pack in mischief: leaping bareass into sunless quarries, screwing fat Audrey Michaud from Railroad Avenue, climbing the Exeter water tower and painting FITZ '36 on its flank, slewing a Model A Ford along the back roads, while he pounded the door and shouted at the rear tires: "Grab hold, you knobbies!" Which they did, for Fitz was a natural driver.

To be A. R. Fitzmartin at twenty-two, a reserve second lieutenant from the University of New Hampshire, was to join the U.S. Army Air Corps and ask to become a fighter pilot. Off we go! into the wild blue yonder! climbing high! into the sun!

The Air Corps was planning a monumental expansion, preparing for the war to come, and it assigned Fitz to Randolph Field, to sweat beneath a greenhouse canopy while a ham-fisted cadet tried to kill him. After a year of this, it seemed the most logical thing in the world to join the American Volunteer Group, especially if his best buddy came along. So when the man from China Defense Supplies visited San Antonio, A. R. Fitzmartin and Jonathan Burke Blackstone presented themselves at the Gunter Hotel with a bottle of Johnnie Walker Red Label, to blind the recruiter to the fact that they'd never flown anything hotter than a North American trainer.

By the end of November, 109 pilots had made their way to Toungoo, plus a couple hundred ground crewmen and a few old China hands like Claire Chennault and his executive officer--the same Rusty Hunter who'd recruited Fitz and Blackie at the Gunter Hotel. In Toungoo, Rusty wore a bush jacket, smoked a pipe, and told them to call him major, though he wore no insignia. (Neither did Colonel Chennault, come to think of it.)

In the end, they had 60 pilots on the squadron rosters, flying the 60 Tomahawks that remained to them. "That crew of Liverpool hard cases," quoted Blackie, "had in them the right stuff. . . . Joseph Conrad," he said with a wink to Fitz. "Do you think we have the right stuff, old buddy?"

"I certainly hope so," Fitz said.

Twelve pilots went home, ten became flight instructors for the Chinese, four took staff jobs, and two got permanent billets at the Church of England graveyard in Toungoo. Another bunch, including Gus Amato, stayed as supernumeraries, waiting for one of the hard cases to buy the farm.

- iv -

Blackie was obsessed by the Model Zero that Claire Chennault had seen in China--had fought in China, if you believed the stories spun by the exec. "What are the weak points of the Model Zero Sea Fighter?" Blackie asked in the voice he reserved for Catechism jokes.

"Lightweight construction, no pilot armor, no self-sealing fuel tanks," Fitz recited. If Blackie could quote Kipling and Conrad, well, Fitz could draw a three-view of the Model Zero--front, top, and side--annotated with speed, range, altitude, and ordnance.

"Lightweight construction, right, and don't you love those fuel tanks? We'll just load our ammo boxes with incendiaries, and we'll flick that little bastard like a cigarette lighter. Whoosh! Model Zippo Sea Fighter!" Blackie licked his upper lip. He had a perfect lip--a perfect face, indeed, with a cleft in his chin and dimples in his cheeks, like Errol Flynn in one of those Saturday-night movies in the pilots' mess. He had a perfect mop of curly black hair, too, and skin tanned golden by the sun. "And what, old buddy," he rolled on, "are the strong points of the Model Zippo?"

"Range 2,400 miles," Fitz said. "Speed 314 miles per hour. Rate of climb 3,000 feet per minute. Tight radius of turn."

"Yeah. Turns on a dime and gives you eight cents' change."

"Two 20-millimeter cannon, 120 shells," Fitz went on. "Two 7.7 millimeter machine guns, 1,200 rounds."

"Yeah. Those cannon! Remind me, old buddy--what's a millimeter come to in real money?"

"Two-point-five-four centimeters to the inch." Exeter was one of those New Hampshire towns with a half-private, half-public secondary school, providing a classical education for anyone not qualified by money, brains, or sex to attend the real Academy, the one whose Georgian campus graced both sides of Front Street. In addition to the Gallic Wars, Shakespeare, and the calculus, the Robinson School had exposed Fitz to formulae for every possible contingency, from spelling receive to comparing Japanese cannon with American machine guns. Blackie, on the other hand, had gone to the real thing: Phillips Exeter Academy. The Academy boys didn't learn formulae, for they could hire Robinson graduates to handle the chores. ("It's all right, it's okay," they chanted when the locals beat them at football, "you'll be working for us some day!") "Twenty millimeters," Fitz said, "is a bit less than eight-tenths of an inch."

"Eighty caliber," Blackie said. He sucked in his perfect lips and gave them a tongue-wash. "You know what I think, Fitz? I think I'll hand in my resignation, go home, get a job with a civilian airline, marry a good woman, and have two kids."

"Diapers, Blackie. Curlers. Have you forgotten what an American woman looks like in the morning, with her hair in curlers?"

"I've damn near forgotten what an American woman looks like, period." He was kind enough not to point out that Fitz knew more about metrics than he did about American women. In San Antonio, whenever they'd met one of these jewels, perfumed and permed, she'd gone to Blackie like a bee to nectar, leaving 2nd Lt. Fitzmartin to find his way back to Randolph Field by himself, four inches too short and twenty pounds too light for the American Beauty Rose.

On the other hand, five-foot-nine and 150 pounds wasn't a bad fit in the cockpit of a Tomahawks. Blackie had to bottom out the seat and set the rudder pedals at their farthest extension, and even then his chin was resting on his knees.

The assignment for today was to fly a two-ship formation: me and my leader against you and yours.

Fitz climbed the port wing of Lucky Sevens. Jack Glover gave him thumbs-up and went out the other side. The engine was throbbing on twelve cylinders, giving off a sweet perfume of oil, carbon monoxide, and hot metal. As soon as he buckled in, Fitz's heart picked up the rhythm--varoom, varoom!--as if he and Lucky Sevens were Siamese twins, with the safety harness as their bond of flesh. He pulled down his goggles, checked that the oxygen mask and microphone were swinging under his right ear, nudged the throttle, and followed Arjay Jones onto the runway, weaving from side to side to keep his leader in view.

Then with a blast of power they were rolling down the runway. The Tomahawk's tail came up, the tires kissed the asphalt goodbye, the hydraulics groaned, and the pigeon became a hawk. Yessir. They climbed to 15,000 feet--Angels Fifteen, according to the Royal Air Force radio code--and the sweat congealed inside Fitz's oxygen mask. "Red Two," said Arjay in the earphones, "can you see the sons of bitches?"

They didn't get much flight time. Gasoline was scarce, the Tomahawks kept being sidelined for repairs, and Charlie Squadron generally sucked hind tit when it came to spare parts. Still, Arjay and Fitz had flown together often enough to know who was quicker to spot aircraft in the distance. Arjay was the flight leader because he'd arrived in Jaegersfontein with Tommy Kirkbride and Uncle Wiggly. It had been the same in old Newburyport: Aquila Roberts was the first man ashore, so he got the parcel of land. Those who came later never quite caught up. Spotting an enemy plane wasn't a matter of eyesight, exactly. You had to have good eyes, of course, but they all had good eyes. It was more a matter of knowing where to look--then looking away. If you stared at a distant star, it would disappear, and the same was true of an airplane. That, and holding up your thumb to block the sun, so you could see the enemy hiding there. There they were! "Red Leader," Fitz whispered into the microphone, now glued to his mouth by the oxygen mask. "Eight o'clock high." Knowing that Arjay would want more altitude, he was already pressing right rudder pedal and easing the joystick back and to the right, while his gloved left hand jammed the throttle to the firewall. Centrifugal force pressed his back against the seat and his eyeballs into his skull. Off we go! into the wild--blue--yonder!

Oh, God, it was grand to be Tailman Fitzmartin, twenty-four years old, earning enough every month to buy a Ford V-8 from the factory, and climbing the great blue vault of the Burma sky!

The other flight had vanished. Blackie and Bob Scott were tuned to the same radio frequency, of course, and probably the prey was now stalking the hunter. Fitz craned his neck: left and right, high and low, meanwhile checking the rear-view mirror. Ah! "Red Leader," he whispered, as two Tomahawks appeared on his windscreen, like fly-specks deposited there. "Dead ahead."

"I see the sons-a-bitches."

Too late to take the high perch, or to hide in the sun's trillion-watt glare. They went at each other head to head, the flight leaders on collision course while the tailmen rode a bit higher and to the outside. It would be fun to wax old Blackie's ass, but if Fitz broke formation he'd get chewed out for leaving his leader unprotected. The Old Man wanted them to fly in formation, even if that left the tailman out of the fight.

"Jesus!"--Arjay's voice, a shout on the edge of a scream. He was diving, trying to get under the other Tomahawk, but Bob Scott dove too, the stupid bastard. Arjay rolled to starboard, hoping to pass him belly to belly. You do the same, Scottie! But the other Tomahawk did not roll.

Their left wings chopped halfway along the leading edge, and each plane lost that wing and spun off to the right and began to fall, down and down like whirligigs. "Jump!" Fitz yelled into the mike. "For Christ's sake, bail out!"

Yes! A black dot separated from one whirligig and fell at the same speed, until the parachute blossomed and slowed the man's descent. The crippled planes kept spinning down toward the green-gold patchwork of the Burmese countryside. At last they vanished in two wallops of dust, one of them with its pilot inside.

Which pilot?

Fitz gagged. He rolled Lucky Sevens onto her back and pulled the control stick into his groin--the quickest way down. In the rear-view mirror he saw Blackie following him. When the altimeter showed 12,000 feet, Fitz peeled the slimy rubber away from his face. A man could drown, if he puked into his oxygen mask. "Red Two to VX-1," he said, inhaling the thin, cold air. "Red Leader and Blue Leader are both down. I repeat: two sharks on the ground, twenty miles north of the 'drome. One parachute seen."

An unbelieving voice cracked in the earphones. "C'mon, Mr. Fitzmartin!" That was Andy Lossing, so earnest and helpful that it sometimes seemed--to him and the pilots both--that it was he who kept the Tomahawks in the air, and who brought them safely down. "Stop kidding around," the radioman said.

Fitz repeated the message and added: "Andy, tell the crash party that if they wait five minutes, I'll show 'em the way."

He wound up in a Studebaker with the chaplain, Jack Glover, and an armorer from Baker Squadron. They found Arjay's Tomahawk after half an hour of crisscrossing the fields and questioning the rice farmers, most of whom spoke a bit of English.

The cockpit was empty, thank God. Padre left the crewmen to salvage the guns and instruments, while he drove Fitz to the nearest railroad station. Here they found Arjay Jones sitting on a wood-slat bench with his parachute bundled under his left arm. Tears rolled down his cheeks. Fitz walked him to the Studebaker and put him on the front seat, then slid in beside him. Padre drove, Fitz talked to Arjay, and Arjay wept, though sometimes he got angry. "Why didn't the son of a bitch roll the other way?" he said. "We could of have passed belly to belly."

"I guess he froze," Fitz said, but Arjay was off again on his crying jag. Jesus, it was awful to hear a grown man cry like that.