Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Easter on Okinawa

 





   It had always seemed a little sacrilegious to commence an invasion on Easter morning, the marine sergeant mused as his boots kicked up the dust from the Japanese island road. Then again, war had little respect for anything other than its own timetable and religious holidays were some of the most easily expendable luxuries. 
   
   The sergeant shifted his M1 carbine onto his opposite shoulder as he quickened his pace along the path. The boom of artillery, the sharp crack of rifle fire and the ever present foul black smoke, as if rising from the very mouth of hell itself, all seemed to warn him to turn and run in the opposite direction. His orders, however, instructed him to do the exact opposite and, as any good soldier would, he continued to rush headlong toward where angels themselves feared to tread. 
   
   Easter morning of April 1, 1945 seemed an eternity ago when his boots first imprinted on the wet sands of Okinawa. At first, all remained quiet following the beach landings and the American forces had faced little initial resistance. Yet, their anxieties continued to mount as they pushed inland, expecting the surprise attack to happen at any moment. When the attack finally came, it was with a brutality that exceeded anything seen before in the Pacific war; and that statement alone was staggering. The casualties mounted as every inch of the island was purchased at an incredible price. The atrocities mounted, and the end remained elusive. 

   Shielding his eyes from the early afternoon sun, the sergeant was able to make out a flurry of activity on the left side of the road ahead. Drawing closer, he could see a few American medics and clergy apparently busily tending to the mounting casualties. That sight was not uncommon and the sergeant was almost to the point of ignoring the scene altogether for the sake of his own sanity when he noticed that the typical presence of wounded soldiers was absent. In their place were several children, all Japanese and apparently uninjured, at least in the physical sense. The uniqueness and unexpected nature of the scene caused the sergeant to stop momentarily for long enough to allow the dust to settle around his boots. His presence was immediately noted by a corporal who strode up to him but, being deployed in a combat zone, he skipped the customary salute. 

  “Orphans,” the corporal began while motioning toward the children. “Some of them lost their parents after they were forced into combat by the Japanese.”

   The corporal then turned and pointed off into the distance in the direction of the closest beach.

  “But a good number of the rest lost their parents, well at least their mothers, when they jumped off those cliffs.”

   The corporal shook his head in disbelief.

  “The Japanese soldiers pumped them full of stories about how terrible we Americans are. I suppose they believed them,  ‘cause it seems they figured they’d rather die than face torture or worse.”

   The corporal continued to stare off into the distance. 

  “Why would they tell them something like that?”

   As the corporal continued to give his explanation, the sergeant’s attention was caught by one small Japanese boy sitting separately but obediently in the afternoon sun.  He was very small and the sergeant estimated that he could not have been more than three or four years old. His most striking feature, other than his disheveled and muddy appearance, was the trembling of his entire body. There were no tears, and the shaking was certainly not from exposure as the temperature was sultry. The child’s head and eyes looked about in shock, darting from one face to another among strange people speaking a foreign tongue which brought him no comfort as his native language would. Continuing past the corporal, the sergeant stood over the child with his frame blocking the Pacific sun and casting a shadow which shielded the child and the surrounding sand. The helpless eyes peered up at the curious marine. 

   Temporarily postponing the urgency of his orders, the sergeant sat down next to the child and placed his carbine beside him. His steel helmet came next as he slipped it from his head and placed it on his other side, the metal making an abrasive noise as it contacted the earth. The young eyes facing him studied the newly revealed features as the sergeant’s face was suddenly bathed in sunlight. He sat quietly for a moment and studied the diminutive and trembling figure next to him. How similar were the child’s features to the men who now strove to slam their bomb-laden aircraft into the American ships just off shore. How many friends and brothers had the sergeant lost to fanatical defenders who charged with terrifying screams from mouths that were almost identical to the child’s?

   Reaching around for his pack, the sergeant placed it on the ground in front of him and rummaged through it until he found his C-Rations and continued searching until he located the packaged bar whose label read “Hershey’s Tropical Chocolate.” It was not nearly the quality of a traditional Hershey’s chocolate bar from back home, but it had been formulated not to melt in tropical climates and was slightly better than the older D-bar. He then quickly mixed the powdered drink mix from his rations with the water in his canteen, his young companion’s eyes examining his every move. 

   Tearing the wrapper on the bar, the sergeant broke off a piece of the chewy chocolate formulation and offered it with an extended hand to the motionless child. Withdrawing his hand, the sergeant placed the piece of chocolate in his own mouth and allowed a smile to brighten his face as he broke off another piece of chocolate and handed it once again to the child. This time, the child accepted the treat with some hesitation and placed it gingerly in his mouth. The sergeant then offered the canteen, his companion drinking the sweet mix while some dripped from his chin onto his already soiled clothes. 

   So, for a brief moment in time, the two strangers sat and ate the military chocolate and shared a canteen as the world fell apart about them. The shells screamed over their heads before erupting into plumes of earth and fire. The ebony smoke curled up and hissed at them as the sergeant continued to peel back the wrapper. Corsair fighters, in close air support roles, whistled in at low altitude to drop the inferno of napalm while the child enjoyed temporary sweetness in a world where he had known only tragedy. With each morsel of candy, the child’s trembling subsided as the marine hummed a lullaby sung to him by his mother long ago. 

   When the end of the chocolate bar came and the last drop from the canteen had been drained, the sergeant removed his last chocolate bar from his pack and gave it to the child, along with several cans and a spoon from his C-Rations. Reaching out his hand, he placed it gently on the child’s head and brushed the straight, dark hair to the side. Reaching to his side, he lifted his steel helmet and returned it to his head. Rising slowly to his feet, he shouldered his carbine and gazed compassionately into the brown eyes staring up at him, the faintest rim of chocolate surrounding the child’s mouth. With a heaviness of heart, the marine turned to face the inferno roaring in the distance, his boots once again stirring the dust of the Japanese road. 

    



   
   

Tuesday, February 8, 2022

There’s always a Carpenter- A Valentine’s Story

 



   Valentine’s Day had arrived as it did every year, but with each successive holiday the day seemed to carry less relevance to the young barista as she rechecked the coffee makers one final time in the moments before the doors of the coffee shop opened and customers began to roll in. All seemed to be in order as the aroma of the varied blends began to fill the shop with their welcoming scents. The fresh pastries were all arranged in an appetizing manner and the counter and surrounding tables were spotless. 

   Folding her cleaning cloth, she inhaled deeply and stared momentarily out the front windows of the shop into the predawn darkness. She tried to fill her mind with the temporary peace of the scene but no lasting calm was to be found. Organizing the shop seemed so simple, so why had organizing her life proven so complex? Her thoughts strayed to the start of that morning, her bedside alarm sounding at an insanely early hour. Rolling out of bed to the annoyed grunting of her partner she rose through the haze of old cigarette smoke and stumbled to the bathroom. No sentimental cards or bouquets awaited her in the early morning silence. The handle squeaked as the faucet turned and water began to trickle from the spout into the sink below. Letting the warm water run between her fingers she then allowed it to pool in her cupped palms before splashing her face and attempting to rub the sleep from her eyes. Suddenly aware of the rawness of her nerves as she faced yet another day, her eyes had settled on the half empty glass of whiskey on the counter. She briefly stared at her reflection in the mirror above the sink, the water dripping down her cheeks and onto her chin. Swiftly she reached out and downed what was left in the glass.  No one had to know. 

   Her mind drifted back to the present as the sudden opening of the shop’s front door and the associated ringing of the bells attached to the top of its frame grabbed her attention. Placing the folded cleaning cloth out of sight on the back counter, she turned to meet her first customer, forcing a smile while doing so.

   She knew almost all of her regular customers, yet the younger man who crossed the floor on his way to the front counter was unfamiliar to her. He was of average height, not too tall or too short with a broad, genuine smile that shone through his olive skin and neatly trimmed beard. He was dressed in a red flannel shirt and jeans, all faded but clean and neat. His work boots came to a halt on the engineered wood floor before greeting the barista warmly and studying the menu. 

   “Let me ask you a strange question,” he began, the smile never fading. “You wouldn’t happen to sell any Turkish coffee would you?”

   It was the first time the barista had heard such a request.

  “I’m afraid not.” 

   His expression revealed only minor disappointment. 

  “I figured so,” he responded. “Just thought I’d ask. It’s kind of nostalgic for me since so many people back home drink it. It’s strong, though, and definitely not for the faint of heart.”

   She was preparing to dig deeper into her new customer’s request but he continued his order before she had the opportunity. 

  “In that case, give me the strongest roast in the house.”

  “Alright, then. Coming right up. Any milk, sugar or creamer?”

  “What? And mess it up?” he replied with an even bigger grin. 

   The barista turned to the back counter and began to prepare the shop’s strongest blend. As the rich aroma rise from the grinder, her new customer continued to speak. 

  “You know, I was just thinking,” he began motioning to all of the coffee makers. “I’ll bet it would be nice to have one of those that was always full of coffee. You know, one that  never needed to be refilled or cleaned.”

  “I suppose it would,” she responded.

  “I mean, coffee is such a staple of life,” he continued as he leaned on the counter. “Imagine all the goodness and happiness that it brings to people and then imagine it coming from a source that never runs dry.”

   She turned momentarily. 

  “Are you sure you’re just talking about coffee?”

  “Ah, you’re very perceptive,” the man replied with a continued grin as he wagged his finger at the barista. “But when you think about it, happiness does have a tendency to run dry doesn’t it?”

  “Or never comes at all,” the barista replied but regretting her words almost immediately. 

   The customer looked compassionately at the barista almost as if he could sense the longings that remained voiceless within her. 

  “You know,” he began again after a moment. “I know where you can get coffee unlike any other, but that will never run dry.”

   The barista laughed. 

  “Show me that and I’ll never have to work again.”

  “Now, wouldn’t that be nice, Rachel?”

   The barista turned at the unexpected sound of her name. 

  “How did you know my na…?”

   The customer was already pointing at her name badge.

  “Oh, yeah, I forgot…” Rachel replied with a shade of crimson creeping onto her cheeks. 

  “But seriously, Rachel, I know exactly where you can find joy that never ends. A joy way better than coffee.”

   She was vaguely intrigued.

  “Now where would that be?”

  “Well,” he began. “Why don’t you bring your husband with you to church at the chapel down on the corner this Sunday?”

   She paused before responding. 

  “You’d just get a visit from me alone, I’m afraid. You see, I don’t have a husband.”

   The customer’s countenance suddenly changed as he made eye contact with the slightly embarrassed barista. His face held an expression that Rachel found hard to describe and yet which she found to be completely benevolent. Buried within the kind features seemed to shine a knowledge which far exceeded what she would have expected from someone dressed in the manner of the customer. 

  “You’re right, Rachel,” he responded with a note of sadness. “You’re not married, and the man you live with now refuses to give you the dignity of his last name.”

   There was not a hint of ill will in his voice. Only compassion. 

   “Who are you?” she asked as her hands began to tremble. “And how do you know…”

  “But there is One,” he gently interrupted. “Who is closer than a brother, and He has always been there.”

   God? Could this stranger actually be talking about God? The God she knew, if He existed at all, had long since fled the disaster of her life. Rachel was sure that He wanted nothing to do with her and, if she was honest, a distinct sense of fear, or perhaps even dread accompanied the thought of Him. 

  “Rachel, Rachel,” the customer continued compassionately. “You are worried about a great many things.” 

   He shrugged his shoulders as if considering all points of view. 

  “And, if you listen to the noise of the world about you, many would say you have every right to be worried about all of those things. After all, isn’t the whole world chasing after those things that they spend their entire lives worrying about?”

   Rachel found herself speechless but astonished at the simplicity and yet depth of the customer’s wisdom. 

   “But, if we’re honest, all of those anxiety producing things are passing away, just like all of your excellent coffee.”

   Rachel slowly passed the steaming cup of black coffee to the customer as he reached into his pocket and placed several bills on the counter which were far in excess of the price of his purchase. 

  “There’s only one thing that needs attention, when you really think about it.”

  The customer took his first sip of coffee and his expression revealed his approval. 

   “And what is that?” came the curious response. 

   “You need to be free.”

   “But I am free,” Rachel protested. 

  “You’re not free,” the customer responded while once again expressing a hope that Rachel had not yet realized.

  “But you could be.” 

   The customer sipped his coffee once more.

  “Now that’s just the way I like it. Strong enough to float an iron wedge. Turkish coffee still has first place in my heart, though.” 

   The customer turned to leave and, although she could not explain the cause, Rachel felt sadness in his departure. 

  “So,” Rachel called out just as the customer reached the door. “Are you telling me that God actually wants to rebuild my life? I mean, put all these pieces back together and maybe even give me a place called home?”

   The broad grin returned.

  “There’s always a Carpenter.”

   The customer opened the door and set one foot outside the door before turning briskly back toward Rachel as if he had forgotten something. 

   “Oh, it almost slipped my mind. I have a good friend named John, and he wrote a book, well actually he co-wrote several, and you’ll find them near the back of that bigger book you keep in your night stand.”

   He backed slowly out the door.

  “You’ll find the Carpenter there…”

   Rachel’s attention was suddenly distracted by the sound of a car alarm blaring from the next door parking lot…


—————————————————————

   Rachel’s arm reached out instinctively to turn off the bedside alarm on her clock radio. So much for a car alarm, Rachel thought, as she suddenly remembered the noise from her dream. In spite of the jolted awakening, there was a lingering sense of peace that compelled Rachel to remain in bed to savor the ebbing sensation. 

   Remembering the last words of the mysterious customer, she sat up gently and opened the drawer of the night stand to find the book that had been her grandmother’s long ago. Scooping it out of the drawer, she tiptoed into the bathroom and flipped on the light. Her attention was broken momentarily by the half full glass sitting on the counter, but she ignored it and instead sat on the edge of the tub and flipped toward the last third of the book. The book with John’s name appeared underneath her fingers and she gazed down at the opening words. 

   In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. 

 

  In Him was life. She held the book in her embrace in the stillness of that early morning Valentine’s Day and allowed those words to settle over the rawness of her anxieties. Then, looking once more at the glass on the counter, she picked it up and poured the contents into the sink. 

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Let This Be Your Last Battle- A Christmas Story






 

   The rich, dark tones of the slice of pecan pie contrasted sharply against the background of the white porcelain dessert plate. Pecan had always been Emory Tucker’s favorite and it took him no time at all to slide the plate off the edge of the table while simultaneously grabbing a fork from the other end. Turning from the table, he surveyed the church’s fellowship hall for the distinctive sight of Hannah’s blonde hair and soon spotted her off to his left. 

  It was Christmas 1946, but in many ways the war still raged on for Emory. Not even the familiarity and joy of his church’s annual Christmas pie social could completely expunge the memories of the South Pacific. But, where other methods failed, Hannah had succeeded. The young German woman’s presence had, since he first met her under the tall evergreen pine in their school days, superseded all other worldly influences. 

   But as Emory turned toward Hannah, his path was suddenly interrupted by the appearance of Mrs. Francis Bellrose, a widow known by Emory since his childhood. She had always been the meekest of persons and interposing herself in Emory’s path seemed to take extreme effort in addition to causing significant emotional discomfort as well. A woman in her late 50’s, she stood before the taller young man dressed in clothing which had been more stylish prior to the war and which had faded with the passing of many seasons. Her shoulders were slumped forward as if expecting a reprimand and her nervous eyes peered out from beneath a crown of graying hair and a pair of dark-rimmed glasses to make intermittent contact with Emory’s. 

  “Well, hello, Emory,” Mrs. Bellrose began. “I mean, excuse me for stepping in your way.”

   She smiled and laughed nervously while pushing her glasses farther up the bridge of her nose.

  “Are you enjoying yourself tonight?”

  “Why, yes I am, Mrs. Bellrose. And, as you can see…”

   Emory held up his plate of pecan pie.

  “I have returned for a slice of your award-winning pecan pie.”

   Mrs. Bellrose laughed again nervously and her gaze dropped to the floor as if she felt the compliment was undeserved. As she did so, it was almost as if Emory could physically see the weight she bore upon her shoulders. She had lost her husband many years ago in a well-known but tragic farming accident and had raised their only son, Henry, alone.  Her hardship was not that she had lacked support from her church family, it was just that no matter what path Francis chose, it inevitably proved to be the most difficult. Nothing ever came easily and life in its typical merciless tendency had left its unmistakable mark. Loneliness and financial burdens had etched their lines into her journey, and Henry had fared no better.  

  “Emory,” Mrs. Bellrose began, her gaze still fixed on the floor. “Forgive me for asking, especially at this time of year, but I fear if I do not ask now then I will never have the courage to ask again.”

   Her gaze rose to meet Emory’s. 

   “I can’t imagine the memories and scars that you must bear. But I also know that you served with Henry. I also know that you never speak of him, and have not since you returned home and he did not.”

  Her gaze fell to the floor as if the request was too much to bear. 

  “I must know what happened to him.”

   Even before the question had been fully posed, the surroundings of the church’s fellowship hall began to fade and Emory once again felt the warmth of the South Pacific sun streaming through the glass canopy of his cockpit and heard the engine’s roar as his mind returned to a place and time far away…

————————————————————————-


   The hit on Henry’s Corsair had undoubtedly caught him completely off guard although Emory, from a higher altitude, had seen the Japanese fighter swoop skillfully onto Henry’s 6 o’clock position and rake the American fighter with heavy machine gun and cannon fire before breaking off. Smoke began instantaneously to trail from the engine as Henry struggled to maintain control and altitude. Emory rolled his Corsair into a shallow dive.

  “Hang on, Henry,” Emory called into his microphone. “I’m on my way.”

  “I didn’t see him Emory…” Henry replied. “He was on me before I knew it. He hit me hard.”

  “Are you hurt?”

  “No, I’m ok, but my plane didn’t fare so well. I’m losing pressure and my altitude is dropping.”

   Emory scanned the horizon and saw multiple American warships to the east of a nearby lush green Pacific island. He pulled alongside Henry’s mortally wounded Corsair. 

  “Can you keep her nose up?”

   Henry was obviously struggling.

  “Afraid not…”

   Emory peered through Henry’s clear canopy at his young friend at the controls and, even from that distance, he could sense the panic intensifying. He and Henry had known each other from grade school and this was certainly not the first time that Emory’s assistance had been required in a crisis. Henry always meant well, but the fortunes of nature and destiny seemed always opposed to him. He had lost his father as a child and had been subsequently raised by his mother.  Because of Henry’s frequent failures, he lacked confidence which in turn hampered his social skills as he seemed almost innately to believe that he was a poor substrate from which a proper friend could be formed. 

   Emory had always been sympathetic to Henry and his mother but also felt great apprehension for his well-being when Henry expressed the desire to join Emory in the Marine’s air corps once they had both reached combat age. Henry had no flying experience while Emory had helped to support his family by crop dusting the fields of Southern Georgia in a surplus Curtiss Jenny biplane left over from the Great War. Emory had gently expressed his concerns to Henry, but his friend’s mind was set as he explained that he felt as if his life had never really served a purpose and that, additionally,  he had as much right as anyone to defend his nation. 

   Emory wondered if Henry regretted that decision as his Corsair continued to lose altitude. 

  “Listen, Henry,” Emory continued. “You know what to do. You can’t maintain altitude. Bail out while you still have enough altitude for your chute to open.”

   Henry responded with a thumbs up sign and immediately ejected his fighter’s canopy. He then unbuckled his safety harness and rolled the Corsair over on its back. With the assistance of gravity and the plane’s airspeed, Henry slipped out of the cockpit and sailed unscathed past the tail fin. It was a textbook bailout and within a few seconds Emory saw Henry’s chute blossom against the blue of the Pacific below. He breathed a sign of relief as he banked his fighter to get a better view of Henry’s descent.  

   But the relief was short-lived as a flash from the sun reflecting off of a metallic surface at three o’clock low caught Emory’s attention. To his horror, he noted a Japanese fighter, presumably the one that had downed Henry’s Corsair earlier, closing in rapidly on Henry’s chute. 

  “No…” Emory whispered recalling the well known tactics of some of the Japanese pilots. He rolled his Corsair over into a steep dive to intercept the enemy fighter but his instincts already were screaming that he would never make it in time. Almost as if time slowed to a crawl in spite of his plane’s swift descent, Emory saw the enemy fighter level out directly in front of Henry’s chute, open up its guns, and surround Henry with tracer rounds. Even at that distance Emory could see Henry’s body lurch under the impact and swing downward at an awkward angle as one of the rounds severed one of the parachute straps. The enemy fighter then veered off into a steep dive toward the ocean.  

   Time seemed to crawl forward for Emory, his propeller appearing to slow almost to the point of stopping altogether as the sound of his engine grew fainter. The white chute remained suspended in midair carrying the lifeless body of his friend whose single desire had been to find purpose. For people to stop laughing at his misfortunes. To give his mother, who had known nothing but sorrow, something to be proud of. Emory envisioned Henry’s mother, awaiting the return of her only boy, the single blue cloth star displayed prominently in her Georgia home’s front window. With complete clarity, Emory knew what he had to do. 

   The propeller suddenly spun at full speed and the engine roared anew as Emory opened the throttle and banked into a steep dive to follow the tiny speck now diving toward the tropical island off to his left. His Corsair could out maneuver, out-dive, and out-fly almost any opponent, but the Japanese plane already had a head start and, after witnessing his attack on Henry,  Emory sensed that his enemy was a skilled and deadly pilot. 

   The Corsair easily pushed 500 mph in its steep dive; it’s distinctive whistle piercing the air as it did so.  The Japanese fighter grew slightly larger through Emory’s canopy as the enemy plane leveled out and flew straight toward the island. As he closed the distance even more, Emory could see that his opponent was gliding just above the surface of the water and was flying straight toward a gap in the jungle vegetation which extended back from the beach and cut into the tropical forest beyond. The gap was the mouth of a river, and it was to this landmark that the enemy was headed. 

  “You think I won’t follow you in there,” Emory growled, fully understanding the danger ahead. “You couldn’t be more mistaken.”

   His attention momentarily passed to the photo of Hannah mounted on his control panel. Even in the black and white photo, her features remained stunning and his hand stretched out to touch the treasured image. 

   “Es tut mir leid, meine Liebe, aber ich muss das tun. Für Henry.” (I’m sorry, my love, but I have to do this. For Henry.)

   The jungle soon swallowed the Japanese fighter with Emory closing the distance rapidly in pursuit. Emory threaded the eye of the needle with the beach and river bed streaking by only feet below the underbelly of his fighter. The rugged Corsair was immediately swallowed as well by the lush greenery with the line of trees along the river bank providing very little maneuvering room. Here, he could afford no mistakes. 

   Emory hugged the river bed matching every curve and turn of its flow, all the while closing on his prey. He could see the enemy fighter ahead but a clear shot did not present itself as the aircraft would curve around a bend in the river before Emory could pull the trigger. Edging closer with each turn, the Corsair hugged the water so closely that spray from the river flew up in a fine mist in its wake.

   Emory’s focus was unwavering as the South Georgian crop duster employed every skill he had ever learned to maintain pursuit and avoid the treacherous terrain threatening him from all sides. A gentle spirit by nature, Emory nonetheless tenaciously clung to his adversary. Henry may have been his latest victim, but Emory would assure that he would be his last.  

   Banking to the right to navigate the next turn, Emory caught sight of the tail of the fleeing Japanese fighter. Rolling up to his right, Emory lined up and opened a brief burst from his six .50 caliber guns. The tracers surrounded the rear third of the fighter and Emory saw debris fly off as the deadly projectiles struck home. 

   No sooner had Emory’s guns fallen silent that Emory heard an ominous and rhythmic boom to his rear, followed by the flash of tracers flying by outside his canopy. There was no need to investigate their source, for Emory already instinctively knew that he now had an enemy fighter on his tail. The hunter had become the hunted.

   Undeterred, Emory pressed the attack as the damage his guns had inflicted, while not a killing blow, had seriously hampered the lead fighter and its maneuverability had been comprised. Curving around the next bend, Emory eased inside into firing position and released another blast full broadside into the lead fighter which immediately trailed smoke as the engine caught fire. 

   Immediately, Emory saw the canopy of the doomed plane fly open and the pilot began to emerge. Bailing out was not an option at that altitude as it was far too low for his parachute to open and Emory understood that it would be far more honorable in his adversary’s mind to take his own life rather than to have it claimed by this tenacious American. 

  “For Henry…” Emory whispered as his guns roared and poured deadly fire directly into the cockpit even as a shell from his attacker took a glancing blow off of the Dural armor protecting his canopy. The forward fighter disintegrated and erupted into an enormous orange fireball as it slammed into the tree line on the far bank. Pulling back on the stick, Emory eased his Corsair into a climb out of the riverbed, over the tree line and through the fireball itself. Realizing that his pursuer would lose sight of him temporarily as he passed through the flames, Emory immediately cut his throttle and, with the skillful use of flaps and ailerons, placed his Corsair into a slide which rapidly bled off the plane’s speed. As his pursuer flew past him, Emory held the trigger down and raked the fighter with point blank fire. The fighter shuddered under the pounding and burst into flame before plunging into the jungle, the Corsair rolling and climbing swiftly out of reach of the inferno below. 

   Emory’s sturdy Corsair had been hit but shrugged off the damage as it soared above the lush green of the island dotted by two blemishes of rising black smoke. Turning his head in all directions, Emory saw no sight of friend or foe. His actions had been witnessed by no one save Him who sees all, and Emory, out of respect and humility, resolved not to report his two victories. Instead, he allowed his mind to accept the calm of the Pacific below and settle on the silhouettes of the American warships cruising in the distance. 

————————————————————————


   Such was Emory’s accurate remembrance of the account, but it was not the way that he chose to retell it. As the memory of the South Pacific faded and returned to the church’s fellowship hall, he found himself unable to tell the grieving widow before him of the humiliating death of her child. Instead, but not without some hesitation, Emory gave his story to Henry as he told his mother the story of a young man who lost his life among the Pacific clouds, but not before sending a threatening enemy ace crashing to the earth in flames. As the story unfolded, tears began to fill Francis’ eyes and her trembling hand covered her mouth, but this time without shame. Her countenance brightened and she directly returned Emory’s gaze. Her shoulders straightened as the weight lifted. With her brow furrowed in gratitude, she touched Emory’s arm and returned to the social with more pride than he could every remember, leaving the young man standing alone holding his porcelain pie plate.

   A familiar touch on his arm brought Emory back to reality as he turned to gaze into Hannah’s sapphire eyes. However, his eyes soon returned to the pie plate as he stood reliving the story over and over. As his eyes closed, Emory’s emotions began to overwhelm him. 

  “You gave her your story,” Hannah whispered as she leaned in and placed her chin on his shoulder. “There is no greater gift.”

   Emory, nodded, his gaze still downcast. 

  “It’s Christmas. Why should we both suffer?” 

   It was the only response Emory could manage, an audible tremble building in his voice. Hannah immediately recognized that he was in danger of being swept away. 

  “It’s alright,” she whispered gently turning his head until she  met his tearful gaze. “Look at me…look at me…only at me…it’s alright…”

   Pulling him close, she placed her arms around his neck. 

  “Lass das dein letzter Kampf sein,” she repeated gently.  “Let this be your last battle.”

   Refusing to release her hold, she felt the tension ease in Emory as she saw at a distance and over his shoulder the smiling figure of Mrs. Bellrose, finally at peace. 

  “And for you as well,” Hannah whispered.

Friday, November 19, 2021

What Remains Unseen- A Thanksgiving Story

 




   The young woman eased back in her high-back chair as she surveyed with satisfaction the scene in front of her. The Thanksgiving table had been thoroughly plundered by the members surrounding her grandfather’s table and the quantity of turkey, cornbread dressing and sweet potato casserole was significantly less than it had been at the beginning of the meal. The faces and voices were all familiar as were the frequent bouts of laughter that accompanied each retelling of those old familiar tales, many dating back to the years of World War II and the Great Depression. She had never tired of hearing them and had even found herself sharing many of them with her college acquaintances, but she had to admit that the richness of the tales seemed less appreciated within the circles of young people whose attention seemed to be dominated by the urgency of the insignificant.

   It was good to be home. 

   Dessert, including pumpkin, apple, and pecan pies had just been completed and many of the family members were sitting comfortably sipping their coffees when the young woman’s father stood up and gently tapped his half empty sweet tea glass with his spoon. 

   “Alright, you crazy people,” he began. His greeting was met with the usual good natured family discussion about which one of them was actually the craziest. 

   “I hope that you all have enjoyed yourself as much as I have today,” his gaze suddenly shifted toward his brother-in-law.

   “Stop making faces, George, or you’ll have to sit in the corner like you did last year.”

   “Do I get to wear the cone hat, too?” George responded. 

   “Believe me, George, we wouldn’t have it any other way. You’re basically unrecognizable without your dunce cap.”

   The table erupted in laughter. 

   “But, seriously I am thankful for you all and thankful for my father-in-law, otherwise lovingly known as ‘Papa,’for hosting this unruly bunch once again this year for Thanksgiving.”

   The shifting of everyone’s focus to the older gentleman seated in his preferred seat in the middle of the table was accompanied by a round of applause. He nodded politely in response. As was his custom, he was clad in one of his newer pairs of bib overalls with a clean and pressed khaki-colored shirt underneath. For as long as she could remember, the young woman could never remember seeing her grandfather clothed in any other manner. 

   “So,” the young woman’s father continued. “We’ve come to the part of our meal where we traditionally take turns around the table and thank God for a specific blessing.”

   His gaze suddenly shifted to his sister.

   “Now, Susan, I know that I am by far the biggest blessing you have ever received but you really are going to have to control yourself. You took up way too much time last year and everyone needs to have a turn.”

   The laughter returned.

   “You do know I asked mom and dad to return you to the store after you were born, right?” Susan responded. 

  “Yes, well, moving right along…”

   The young college student continued to snicker at the thought of her aunt asking her parents if they had kept the bill of sale so that her new little brother could be returned to the store from whence he came. 

   “I am very thankful that my daughter is home from college,” her father stated with pride as he returned to the more serious subject at hand. 

   The young woman smiled sheepishly. 

   Taking turns, each family member recalled a specific blessing for which they were especially thankful. Many were for the usual blessings such as family, health, and healing but each was nonetheless quite sincere and served as a reminder of just how truly blessed they had been. 

   The first person to give thanks after the young woman’s father was sitting to Papa’s right and so each person proceeded in order until Papa was the final person remaining. As his turn arrived, Papa’s head leaned forward slightly as if he was looking at something he was holding, although his hands were empty. 

   “Well, I’m thankful for a good pair of work boots and for trees.”

   As he finished his simple statement, he lifted his eyes and connected with those of his daughter whose eyes had already begun to fill with tears. The rest of the table remained silent save for a few whispered ‘amens.’ Papa had always been a man of few words but this still struck the young woman as an odd response.  The college student half expected a round of laughter to follow her grandfather’s statement but there was none, as if the others understood his sentiment exactly. 

   “And I can’t think of a better way to end,” the young woman’s father continued. “Now let’s help with cleanup before we plop down to watch the game.”

   There soon followed the spirited sounds of clanging dishes, cups, and silverware as the entire family pitched in to clear the table. All items were then neatly arranged in stacks near the kitchen sink and dishwasher before the ladies and gentlemen retired to their traditional places; the living room for the former group and the den, where the television was located, for the latter. As the groups settled in, the young woman noticed Papa gaze about with an air of contentment, and then quietly slip out of the room to head down to his workshop. Not yet ready to retire to the living room, the college student decided to follow.

   Papa had always been a quiet soul, but full of simple and yet profound wisdom. He had always enjoyed woodworking and the young woman had spent many hours with him in his workshop as a child. She had always been amazed at how his calloused hands could turn scraps of wood into elegant furniture and works of art. In many ways, the young woman felt as if she and Papa were kindred spirits. She, too, was not prone to speaking much or often and that characteristic many times left her feeling isolated in a world which praised the loud and the flamboyant. When the loneliness would inevitably strike, she would often think of Papa, hard at work in his shop, and the image would bring her a sense of tranquility that she felt few other times. 

   Her hand reached out and turned the handle to the workshop door and she stepped inside after easing the door open. She was immediately greeted with the familiar and  sweet scent of sawdust and cedar shavings. Papa was inspecting some of his current projects on the far bench when he saw her come in. 

  “Well, hey there, Pumpkin,” he greeted her using the nickname he had given her years ago. “I’m not being antisocial, but I did need to break away for a few minutes.”

   He looked at her over the top rim of his glasses. 

  “You understand all about that, don’t you?” he said with a grin. 

   She returned his question with a nod.

   “Come over here and take a look at what I’m making,” Papa invited. “Now, mind you, don’t go telling everybody as some of these are going to be Christmas gifts.”

   She promised that Papa’s secret was safe with her. As she stepped over to his work bench, she was greeted by the sight of multiple projects nearing completion. As Papa pointed them out one by one she saw a Lazy Susan for her mother, a wooden snowman family complete with hats and scarves for her aunt, and a finished heart carved from cedar. Gently, Papa picked up the cedar heart and handed it to his granddaughter.

  “Now, this one is for you,” he began. “Don’t worry, I’m not spoiling anything because it’s not your Christmas present from me. I just thought you might sometimes need a little reminder when you’re away.”

  “A reminder of what, Papa?”

  “A reminder of what remains unseen.”

   Her brow furrowed slightly with confusion. 

  “Does this have anything to do with the blessings you mentioned after our meal? You know, work boots and trees?”

   Papa chuckled. 

   “Maybe.”

   “I have to admit that I really didn’t understand, although I think everyone else did.”

 “Oh, that was just your Papa being silly.”

 “You’re many things, Papa, but silly isn’t one of them.”

   For a moment, Papa smiled in response and then, as his weight shifted from one foot to the other, his gaze fell to the floor as his memory travelled to a distant time and place. 

  “People used to ask me all the time when I was young as to why I was always wearing my work boots wherever I went. In fact, I’m not even sure that I noticed that I was doing it until it was brought to my attention. Everywhere I went, they went with me and it didn’t really matter what the occasion was. I would have even worn them to church had not my mother absolutely forbidden it.”

   Papa smiled as he recalled the image of his mother wagging her finger at him.

  “When I was a little older, maybe much older, I put some thought into it and finally understood what was happening. My early life definitely had some long and lonely stretches and in those days I would spend time in the outdoors to clear my head. You know, trying to figure out why I was different from everyone else. I spent some of the most beautiful times of my young life in the forests and fields of home doing some of my most favorite things. And, whenever I would look down to make sure of my footing, there were my boots. Of course I had more than one pair over time but that made no difference. I wore them everywhere because they brought a little bit of tranquility with them. Almost as if they scooped a little bit of heaven from the very fields themselves and brought it along to some very desolate places in my life.  They always served as a reminder that things would get better. There would, Lord willing, be another Saturday morning in the forest, or another time to cut firewood with my father. And, if that peace never returned in this life, then surely it would in the one to come.”

   Papa then smiled again. 

  “I remember a trip to New York City once when our family decided to go sightseeing. This was before you were born. Talk about a fish out of water. I suppose you can imagine what footwear I chose to take with me?”

   The young woman smiled in response. 

  “I remember standing in the middle of Times Square, surrounded by lights and people and noises like I had never experienced before. I looked down at my feet standing on that surface of concrete, dirt, and old bubble gum and saw my old friends, complete with a patch of red clay clinging to the side of my right sole. I was a long way from home, but I had brought a little bit of home with me. After that, I didn’t feel nearly as nervous or out of place.”

   He then placed his hand on her shoulder. 

  “Well, that’s my silly little story. But you’ll find your reminder too. Something in your life will remind you of the good times and blessings and whisper to you that they will come again. Even if it takes a lifetime. You may not know what that reminder is now, but you’ll know it when you find it.” 

   His calloused hands then opened her palm where she held the carved and finished cedar heart.

   “As for trees,” he whispered. “They all have hearts, hidden deep within where most folks will never seen them.”

   Papa motioned for her to observe the smooth carving closely. 

  “Just look at that wood grain. Do you know where I got this piece? It’s from the center of a cedar tree that I cut for a friend. Now, why in the world would God put something that pretty in the heart of a tree where no one can see it?”

   The young woman looked up at Papa as she awaited his answer. 

  “The same reason that He buried such beauty deep inside your own heart. Somebody has to be intentionally looking  for it to see it.”

   She nodded her head in agreement.

  “So,” Papa continued. “One day that certain man is going to cross your path. You make sure he sees the heart of the tree. If he can’t, he’s not worth your time.”

   He then folded her hands around the elegant carving.

  “So, boots and trees?” she asked with a smile.

   “They can teach you more than you might imagine. And for that, I’m thankful.”

   Papa then turned back to his work table. 

   “We’ll, I guess we’ve been antisocial long enough. Let’s head back up and see how the game is going.”

  “Papa, it’s the Lions. There’s not much doubt which way that game is going.”

  “True,” Papa replied as he put his arm around her shoulder and walked toward the door. “I’ve never even been to Detroit.”

   “Well, if you go, wear your boots.” 

Friday, October 22, 2021

Under The Infernal Sky- A Halloween Tale



   The unexpected sound of the doorbell snapped the middle aged man back from his intense focus on packing. Large cardboard boxes, many of them partially packed, already filled many of the rooms of the house with their towering stacks. The moving trucks planned to arrive tomorrow and, as always, there seemed to remain more tasks yet to do than remained time to accomplish them. 

   Dropping the packing tape roll onto the floor, he rose from his kneeling position and weaved his way through the narrow passages between the boxes, passing the empty rooms of his children as he made his way to the front door. Without fail, passing those empty bedrooms always brought back pleasant memories of countless mornings of love, laughter and smiles. And yet, those mornings were not countless at all, for they came to an end and time subsequently swept his children away to school and left the empty shells of their rooms in its wake. He had done all that he could for his family, and yet he could not deny the nagging suspicion that he had missed passing on something of great importance, although he was at a loss to know what it was. 

   The doorknob turned in his hand and as the door swung open he saw Susan, his 14 year old neighbor standing on his front porch holding a stack of books. 

    “Here’s the books your wife loaned us,” Susan stated with a broad grin. “My little cousin loved them when he came for a visit. I read a bunch of them over and over to him.”

   “Well, thank you for returning them, Susan. Our kids loved them when they were little, too. Did your cousin have a favorite?”

   “Definitely Miss Suzy.”

   “Yep, definitely a favorite of ours too. Who could resist a story about toy soldiers rescuing a kind-hearted squirrel’s home from a bunch of unruly delinquents?”

   Susan giggled at the man’s attempt at an English accent when pronouncing the phrase “unruly delinquents.”

   “It was one of my brother’s favorites as well,” he replied in a more somber tone. 

   Susan shifted her weight uneasily.

   “I’m really sorry.”

   “Oh, it’s ok, Susan. It’s been almost a year now and I really didn’t mean to mention it. It just kind of slipped out. Listen, thanks again for returning the books and tell your folks that I said ‘Hello.’”

   Susan assured him that she would as she smiled and headed across the lawn to her house next door. Then, easily carrying the light stack of books back into the house, he closed the front door behind him before stacking the books temporarily on the kitchen table. As he did, the stack became unbalanced and tipped over spreading the books across the table. As he began to reform the pile, one book seemed out of place among the familiar children’s titles. It was bound in soft, black leather and was much thicker than the others. Picking it up and staring at its front cover, his mouth turned downward slightly in a indication of disdain. 

   “Holy Bible,” he read the large silver print aloud. “Well, giving that to me was certainly a mistake. I’ve never needed one and certainly don’t now. I’ll return that in just a bit.” 

   He then tossed the book across the table where it landed with a thud. No sooner had he done so when a strange smell entered his nostrils. The scent was akin to that of smoke, but not a pleasant scent as that from a campfire or fireplace. It was distinctly unpleasant, almost like that of burning hair. It lasted only momentarily but caused him to look back for any possible source. Only a slight fluttering of the curtains met his gaze. He thoroughly investigated the downstairs and upstairs for a source but there was no indication of fire. However, upon entering the master bedroom, he was confronted by the same unpleasant smell once again, only this time stronger and fouler, mixed with the rottenness of sulfur. Turning once again, he saw a wisp of black smoke coming from the master bath in the direction of the walk-in closet. The smoke clung tenaciously to the air until it was whisked away by the overhead air vent. Rustling and stumbling sounds emanated from the same direction but quickly fell silent. The man could perceive a distinct increase in his pulse rate as he was the only person home, and yet these strange findings could not be ignored. He cautiously moved forward and peered around the door of the master bath to see that the opening to the walk-in closet was ajar but was still swinging slightly on its hinges. His pulse increased another notch as he remembered clearly that he had closed the door earlier. 

   “Who’s there?” he called out his challenge. There was nothing but silence. The smell, however, intensified and another puff of black smoke wafted through the open door.

   “If this is some king of joke, then let me warn you I’m calling the police!”

   He inched forward until he could see fully inside the walk-in closet. Nothing appeared amiss. Placing his head cautiously inside the closet, he turned on the light and gazed around the space. Moving in further inch by inch, he still saw nothing out of place until suddenly he was almost blinded by a thick puff of black, foul smoke whose appearance was accompanied by the sudden slamming of the closet door behind him and extinguishing of the overhead light. Immediately, there followed a scream of agony from directly behind him. In sheer terror, he lunged forward and came to rest under the lower rack of clothes, pushing them desperately aside as he turned to see the source of the hideous scream. He peered ahead in complete astonishment, the clothes about him still swinging on their hangers. 

   Standing before him and completely blocking his way to the closet door was what appeared to have been, at one time, a human male. The dark, hopeless eyes were deeply sunken into their sockets and the barest threads of clothing hung from his emaciated form. He trembled from head to toe as if in constant fear and the dark, foul smoke rose from his shoulders and head, filling the closet with its nauseating stench. 

   “Who are you?” the question boomed in panic from underneath the lower rack of clothes. “Get out of my house!”

   The pitiful form slowly opened its trembling mouth before responding with a gravelly voice that resembled one exposed to chronic heat and smoke inhalation.

   “I am not leaving until I have said what I came to say…”

   The voice only served to increase the man’s terror.

  “Shouldn’t you be saying ‘Fear Not’ or something like that?”

   The attempt at humor was ignored.

  “That is the last thing I would say to you…”

  “Then where are you from?”

   The pitiful form slowly turned its face to the ceiling and made an awful gurgling sound mixed with a noise that resembled sobbing.

  “From under the infernal sky.”

    The visitor’s entire form shook violently as it cried with a screech-like voice.

  “And, oh, He’s not there!! He’s not there!!”

  “Who, who’s not there?”

   “The only One that matters!!”

   A hideous scream followed.

   “He’s not there!!”

   The man hiding under the clothes rack covered his ears to block the screams but they filtered through his fingers nonetheless. 

   “I don’t understand!” the man screamed back in hopes of finding some clarity. The screaming ceased momentarily as the focus of the visitor shifted from the ceiling to the man  partially concealed by clothing. Resembling the opening of a casket, the right arm slowly rose to point a gaunt finger at the hiding man. As the visitor slowly sank to his knees he began to speak.

  “Step by step and day by day you strive to join me under the infernal sky where the fires never cease.”

   “What do you mean? What have I done to deserve your torment?”

  “Everything…”

  “Impossible.”

  “So I also thought. Until I stood under judgement before Perfection.”

   The awful gurgling sound returned as the visitor’s face twitched in agony and his joints cracked as if under pressure. 

  “Your life mirrors mine. The same fate awaits.”

  The concealed man fought the terror rising within. This was not real. This was a lie. His life could not be deserving of this. Yet, there was no denying that, as the visitor spoke, he could feel the very tongues of the flames themselves. The same foul smoke that rose from the visitor seemed to cling to his shoulders as well.

 “The same fate awaits…”

   It couldn’t. 

  “You have rejected the only Cure…”

   Other options had to exist. 

  “The same fate awaits…”

   There remained no will to resist. No avenue for reasoning or bribing. His fate was sealed. 

  “If what you say is true…how long?” he asked somberly. 

  “Only He knows. But it is already so much later than you think.”

   A response began to form on the man’s lips when the visitor interrupted. 

   “Seek Him while He may be found, for He does not abide  under the infernal sky!!”

   The hopeless voice screamed in agony.

  “He is not there!!”

   The pitiful voice of the visitor suddenly bore a shred of familiarity as he gazed again into the hopeless eyes in front of him. 

   “David?” 

   It was the name of his deceased brother. 

   Without another word, the floor underneath David opened into a chasm as the pitiful figure clawed hopelessly at its edges as it swallowed him whole. 

  “No…No!!!”

   The shrieking then faded as David was dragged into the chasm as the floor closed intact above him. A single puff of black smoke escaped but soon dissipated as the sounds of neighborhood children playing returned to fill the room. The closet light illuminated once more and the closet door gently swung open. Left underneath the lower rack of clothes was the trembling form of the still living brother. 

   He remained there only momentarily as the lingering terror would not allow him to delay. Bolting through the now open closet door, he stumbled down the stairs and headed straight toward the stack of books. At first unsure as to why he was drawn there, he nonetheless soon became aware that the Bible jumped into his hands.

  “There has to be an answer,” he whispered as he frantically thumbed through the pages. Completely unfamiliar with the book, his fingers flipped faster and faster. 

  “I don’t even know where to start…” he groaned when the Book suddenly slipped from his fingers and slapped against the hardwood floor.  As he leaned to pick up the book with a trembling hand, he noticed that it had fallen open to the Gospel of Luke. As he looked more closely, the words seemed to leap off of the page. 

   “Then Abraham said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.”

   The ringing of the front doorbell startled him back to reality although he initially did not move but remained motionless staring at the open book. The second ring jolted him to his feet and he shuffled toward the front door. As his hand reached out for the knob, he hesitated as his mind pondered what might be waiting on the other side. The strange events of the last hour caused him to fear the worst. Inhaling deeply, he turned the knob and found his young neighbor Susan, standing on the porch with a broad grin and a stack of books. Upon observing the man’s face, Susan’s expression changed to one of concern.

  “Are you OK?”

   The man straightened his shoulders and ran his fingers through his hair. 

  “Sure,” he responded hesitantly with a shaky grin. “I just wasn’t expecting you back so soon.”

   Susan’s expression changed to one of confusion. 

  “Back so soon?”

  “Yes, I mean after you brought the books by earlier.”

   Susan looked down at the stack of books. 

  “I’m not sure I understand. This is the first time I’ve come by today. I have your books right here.” 

   He could tell by studying Susan’s face that she was sincere. Besides, Susan’s personality was not the practical joking type. The man studied the stack of books for a moment before inhaling deeply.

  “Then let me guess,” he began. “Your cousin's favorite was Miss Suzy.

   Susan nodded her head. 

  “How’d you know?”

  “Lucky guess.”

   Susan then smiled once more before handing over the stack of books. The man turned to enter the house when he realized that he was still clutching the Bible. Gently placing the books on the front porch, he called after Susan who was already crossing the front lawn. At the sound of her name, she turned to face him. He held the Bible out toward her. 

   “Susan, you and your family know this book pretty well, right?”

   Susan nodded. 

   He chose his next words carefully. 

  “Is there hope inside?”

   Susan smiled. 

  “From cover to cover.”

   “Well then, will you sit here with me on the porch and show me?”

   He was fighting back the tears. 

   Susan stepped forward to respectfully take the book. 

  “The Gospel of John is a great place to start…”



   The man’s wife returned from her errands carrying a grocery bag up the brick sidewalk when she noticed her husband and Susan sitting on the front porch. As he looked up to greet her, she had to admit that she had never found her husband’s expression to be more serene; almost as if a great weight had been lifted. 

  “So,” his wife began with a smirk . “I assume that not much packing has taken place in my absence?”

  “Maybe not,” he began. “But, boy do we have something to tell you…”



Friday, July 16, 2021

The Corsair




  



  The lone B-17 struggled to remain airborne. The pilot, Jim Franklin, checked the number two engine just outside the window to his left to make sure the engine fire remained extinguished. The engine was dead, having caught fire after taking a hit from anti aircraft defenses on the bombing run over the German city of Bremen, the flames leaving behind a telltale black scar streaking rearward across the wing.  The three remaining engines kept the heavy American bomber airborne but incapable of keeping pace with the rest of the bomber group. The mood was somber among the remaining men as they all understood their slim chances of survival away from the protection of the group and each man on board, with that fact in mind, decided to invest himself quietly in his duties. Besides, the tail gunner Eddy Humphries would not be coming home after attempting to fight off an approaching Messerschmitt fighter, and it just didn’t seem right to be chatting it up as if nothing had happened when Eddy’s cot would be empty that night. That is, if they ever actually made it back to their own cots. 

   Jim mechanically pushed through his usual checklist as he reviewed all the gauges and dials on the panel in front of him. For the moment, all seemed stable as the big bomber lumbered westward on the return flight to England. He then quickly glanced over to the seat next to him only a few feet away in which sat his copilot, Daniel “Danny Boy” Lawrence who was similarly busy inspecting the gauges in front of him. 

   The flight team of Jim and Danny could not have been comprised of a more unusual and yet more efficient pair. Jim was from southeastern Alabama, not too far from the cotton capital city of Enterprise. His childhood had consisted of farming, hunting, fishing and various forms of manual labor all of which entrusted him with a great respect for the outdoors. He was a natural mechanic with steely nerves and it did not take the Army Air Corps long to recognize his talents as a pilot. 

   Danny, in contrast, hailed from Long Island New York, from Brooklyn to be exact. Italian food, traffic, concrete and steel were his specialty. Before meeting Jim, he had never known anyone from the Deep South, much less Alabama, and it took him some time to understand the slow cadence of the southerner’s speech. In spite of their friendship, Danny nonetheless never missed an opportunity to mimic the pilot’s accent. He was, however, always surprised by Jim’s quick wits and, although he would have never admitted it openly, he rarely emerged as the winner from their verbal jousts. The Southerner was simply too fast on his feet, even for the fast talking New Yorker. 

   But there was now no time for humor. The oppressive strain that both men felt weighing down on their shoulders was undeniable. Counting themselves, there remained nine souls aboard the plane, all of whom desperately wanted to see the fields of England once more. Nine souls for whom they felt completely responsible. 

   The silence began to be oppressive and so, in an attempt to keep his crew focused, Jim cleared his thoughts and spoke into the intercom. 

   “Alright ladies,” he began. “I know Jerry has left us alone for now, but you can bet he’ll be back. Keep your eyes open.”

   “Hey cap,” responded the smooth voice of Ridgeway “Ridge” Taylor the ball turret gunner.  “I just wanted to remind you that my gun position was, shall we say, slightly compromised during this mission and I’m afraid remains somewhat unserviceable at the moment.“

   Jim shook his head in mild amusement as Ridge was always known for being long-winded. 

   “Therefore,” Ridge continued. “I have moved back to the tail gun position. I can still be your eyes back here but Eddy’s .50 cal gun took a hit so I’m afraid I am not going to be able to do much more than hurl some harsh language at any fighters that show up.” 

   “Fair enough,” Jim responded. “Call out what you see. Keep the chatter down.”

   “That’s Ridge you’re talking to there,” replied Bobby Quinn, the right waist gunner. “If you tape his mouth closed, he’ll blow up.”

  “Enough about explosions,“ Ridge responded. “I’ve had enough of things blowing up for one day.”

   The solitude, interrupted only by the background noise of the remaining engines, returned as the intercom fell silent. Jim inhaled deeply as he gazed once again out the left window across the dead number two engine. The day, aside from the horrors of war, had been beautiful from a weather standpoint with cotton-like clouds intermittently obscuring the October sky. Jim watched as the bomber lumbered on, its wings slicing through the intermittent clouds. 

   “Jim,” Danny’s voice suddenly recalled the pilot from his musings. 

   “Uh huh,” Jim responded as he turned to face his copilot, noticing that Danny did not have his usual carefree demeanor. 

  “What’s on your mind?”

   “This mission is different.”

   Jim wrinkled his forehead. 

   “How so?”

   “Listen,” Danny began. “I’m only telling you this because I know you’re not the superstitious type. You know how the rest of us are. It’s just that last night before we left, I had this dream.”

   “Ok.”

  “You put much stock in dreams?”

   “I reckon I haven’t thought about it much.”

   “See, now there’s your problem,” Danny responded. “You don’t think enough. Well, I don’t dream that much. At least not about home. I mean, I’m a New Yorker. I’m not the nostalgic type. So, when I dreamed about being back home, it got my attention.”

   “So what’s wrong with dreaming about home?”

   “Now see, if you were the superstitious type, you would understand what that means. It’s not a good thing, but you’re too busy farming and picking cotton to have time for such as that.

   “Maybe so,” Jim responded with a laugh. “But then again I’m not the one using his pilot as a shrink.”

  “But see,” Danny continued as if he didn’t hear. “Last night I had a dream that I was back home. In my own bed. It was as if I woke up and could hear all the usual sounds. I could hear my mother humming in the kitchen, and most of all, I could smell the sweet scent of my mother’s cornbread muffins coming from the oven.”

   “I hate to rain on your parade,” Jim interrupted. “But if it’s sweet, it’s not cornbread. It’s cake.” 

   “Whatever,” Danny replied. “That’s not the point, hillbilly.”

   Jim smirked. 

   “Not a hillbilly. It’s flat where I come from.”

   “Are you going to listen to my story or not?”

   “Alright, I’m done pulling on your chain. For now.”

   “So you see,” Danny resumed. “It’s never a good sign to dream about home before a mission. Especially as vivid as this one was. It could mean that you’re close to the end of your rope. You know, that your time could be running out and your luck is about shot. That kind of thing.”

   “Why couldn’t it mean that this whole thing is going to be over soon and we’ll all be going home?” Jim offered. 

   “You’re way too optimistic,” Danny replied as he motioned out his window. “Have you actually looked at this plane? We’re shot to pieces and we’re all alone.  It’s not looking good for us.”

   “Just don’t let the others hear you say that.”

   “Believe me, they already know it. Bombers like us in the shape we’re in don’t come back.”

   “It’s just that they look up to you, Danny. Hearing it from you would snatch away whatever little bit of hope they have left.”

   Danny nodded his head. 

   “I’m being serious though when I tell you that I appreciate you telling me,” Jim responded sincerely. “You’re just preachin’ what we all feel.”

   “And what about you? You just sit there and grin and bear it?”

   “You know I’m not superstitious.”

   “Yeah, I know. But we’ve all got ways of dealing with it.”

   Jim took a deep breath. 

   “I just believe that the story of my life was penned long before I was ever born by Someone who created me and loves me more than I can understand. I’m not leaving this world one second before I was meant to. If you believe that, it changes the way you look at things.” 

   “Like I said,” Danny continued unconvinced. “We’ve all got our ways.”

   “I reckon so,” Jim replied. “It’s just that some ways are more true than others.”

   Before Danny could respond, Bobby Quinn’s voice crackled over the intercom.

   “Hey, Cap, we’ve got company.”

   “Where?”

   “Five o’clock. Same altitude as us. Looks like a single fighter.”

   “German?”

   “Not sure, but it didn’t look like any German fighter I’ve ever seen.”

   Danny immediately swung around in his seat to check out the sighting. 

   “I don’t see it, Jim.  Just clouds.”

   “Contact,” called Ridge from his new position in the rear. “Five o’clock coming out of the clouds.” 

   Danny strained his neck even further for a better view. 

   “They’re right. I see him now.”

   “Call out what you see, Danny,” reminded Jim. 

   As Danny continued to observe and report, he noted immediately that the new visitor was not on an attack course, but was instead pulling alongside into an escort position. As it left the clouds behind, Danny observed that the fighter’s design was not German, but neither was it a typical friendly design from the skies over Europe. 

   “Bobby, is he showing any hostile signs?” Danny called back. 

   “Negative. He’s just pulling up alongside. Wait, he’s got American markings.”

   “Hold your fire, then”

   Danny watched in amazement as the solitary fighter drew in closer. It seemed to glide in with the grace of a soaring eagle all the while wagging its wings in greeting as it did so. The sun’s white light shimmered off of its pristine blue paint and, in fact, the entire plane had the appearance of having just rolled off the assembly line and never having faced combat at all. The large, powerful engine spun an oversized propeller which, even on casual observation, seemed capable of accelerating the plane to impressive speeds. The plane nonetheless had graceful lines and its design seemed familiar to Danny, but not from the European front. It definitely did not conform to the well known silhouettes of the P-47 and P-51. 

   “Can anyone tell me what plane that is?” Danny asked. 

   “It’s an F4U,” Ridge responded. “It’s a Corsair.”

   “A Corsair?” Danny responded as he turned to look at Jim. “Those only serve in the Pacific, not here. I’ve never even seen one.” 

    Jim was as perplexed as Danny. 

   “See if you can raise him on the command radio.”

   Danny’s attention returned to the unique visitor now clearly visible out his window. He could now easily see the pilot through the clear walls of his cockpit canopy. Danny seemed to catch his attention immediately at which point the fighter pilot greeted him with a salute. The new visitor then pointed to Danny, motioning to the entire bomber in the process, back to himself,  and then straight ahead. 

   “What’s he doing?” Jim inquired. 

   “I think he’s saying that he’s going to escort us from here.”

   “What’s a Corsair doing here?”

   “What do you want me to do, send him a letter?” Danny responded. “You know there’s no way in the world I can ask him that without radio contact.”

   At that exact moment, the radio operator’s voice crackled into their headsets. 

   “Sorry, Jim. I can’t seem to contact him. I tried every channel.”

   Danny then turned again to see their new escort remaining steadfast out his window. Almost as if he anticipated what the next question would be, the fighter pilot pointed at his throat microphone and then drew his finger across his throat in a slashing motion. 

   “He seems to be motioning that his radio is out.”

   “That’s convenient.”

   There was a brief period of silence. 

   “This is all really odd,” Jim began. “Something’s not right. Can you see any other ID markings?”

   Danny’s gaze returned to the fighter.  

   “He has the number ‘777’ in gold on the tail and engine.”

   Danny continued his inspection. There was another emblem painted underneath the pilot’s canopy, and it took Danny a moment to decipher what it was. 

   “He’s got a pair of wings painted under his canopy.” 

   Danny turned back to Jim.

   “What do you make of that?”

   “Probably means he can fly.”

   “Smart aleck.”

   “Well,” Jim began as he looked across Danny and out the right window. “Maybe we shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth. This is definitely irregular but it’s not something that we can’t all figure out once we're on the ground. At least we have an escort. That’s certainly better than none.”

   “Maybe so,” replied Danny. “But I’m not sure I trust him. And what good is a single fighter against the whole Luftwaffe anyway?” 

   “Time will tell,” Jim stated bluntly as he shrugged his shoulders. “Just keep your eyes on him and let me know if he does anything unusual.”

   “He just flew in all the way from the Pacific. You can’t get much more unusual than that.”

   Jim nodded in agreement as Danny’s gaze returned to their steadfast blue companion. The Corsair continued to maintain a consistent distance off the right wing. Danny could tell very little about the pilot except that his gaze seemed fixed forward save for the occasional glance to check on the struggling bomber. It was almost as if he was perfectly at ease. As if everything was unfolding exactly as it should. 

   “That is one nice-looking fighter,” mumbled Danny. 

   “Position?” Jim’s voice broke the silence. 

   The navigator’s voice crackled through the headset indicating that the beleaguered plane was now lumbering over The Netherlands.

   “See,” Jim responded as he shot a glance over at his copilot. “We’re making progress.”

    “Like I said before, you’re too optimistic. Jerry is still out there licking his chops.”

   Bobby’s voice suddenly interrupted the conversation as he broke in over the intercom. 

   “Cap, you might want to take a look at our escort.”

   Jim leaned forward to better see out Danny’s window. The sleek blue Corsair had begun to inch closer to the right side of the bomber while slowly gaining altitude. The pair watched in amazement as the fighter gradually began to slip into a position directly above the bomber. 

   “What’s he doing?” inquired Danny.

   Jim’s only response was a slow shaking of his head. 

   “Ridge,” Danny called over the intercom. “We’ve lost eyes on our escort up front. Call out what you see.”

   “Well,” Ridge responded. “He’s settled directly  over us but he’s steadily climbing. He’s getting smaller and smaller as time goes by.”

   “Kind of like Ridge’s brain,” Bobby whispered. 

   “I heard that.” 

   “I’ve got him,” Danny replied looking through the plexiglass pane directly overhead. As Ridge had indicated, Danny could see the lighter undercarriage of the fighter becoming smaller as it continued to climb. 

   “Nice of you to hang around,” Danny exhaled sarcastically. “I can’t blame you for heading home a little early, especially after all the Jerry’s you just shot down.”

   Jim continued to watch the fighter through his own plexiglass pane but did not respond to Danny’s comments. There was not particular explanation for the emotion, but Jim could not deny a sense of sadness as the Corsair disappeared into the cloud cover. With a sigh, his gaze returned to the airspace ahead. 

   “Well,” continued Danny. “You know what they say.”

   “They say lots of things these days.”

   “I’m talking about when they say about you getting what you pay for.”

   Jim nodded in agreement. 

   Danny’s attention then returned to the front of the bomber. Initially, nothing appeared to have changed. Most of the cloud cover remained above the bomber’s altitude and the sunlight still illuminated the Holland landscape far below. A sudden flash of light low and off to the left suddenly caught Danny’s attention. His arm immediately shot up to point at the area of the disturbance. 

   “There, 9 o’clock low.”

   “I saw it,”  Jim responded, having seen the flash at the same moment.  

   “Hold her steady,” Jim ordered as he reached behind him for his binocular case, an undeniable sense of dread descending as he did so. Jim unclasped the latch on the front of the case and slipped the binoculars free before raising the lenses to his eyes. After getting his bearings in the airspace in front of him, Jim soon located the single craft speeding towards them. Initially, Jim did not recognize the design but was awed by the rate of climb and the speed with which the small craft turned into their path. Even at that distance, Jim could see that it was a sleek vehicle with a green mottled color enhancing its almost shark-like appearance. It was not an Allied design, and Jim prayed against all odds that their presence might go unnoticed. This slim hope was short-lived, however, as the plane turned directly into the stricken B-17’s path. As it did so, a wave of terror knifed through Jim’s stomach as he realized that the plane had no propeller. Jim lowered his binoculars and handed them to Danny, his pale appearance unable to mask his anxiety. 

   “Our forward turret is out, right?” Jim asked as he motioned for Danny to investigate the incoming plane for himself. 

   “Yep,” Danny responded as he peered through the lenses. It only took a moment for the copilot’s emotions to match Jim’s. He lowered the glasses and immediately looked over at the pilot.  

   “You don’t think…it looks like a…”

   “A Messerschmitt 262,” Jim completed the sentence. 

   “The German jet fighter,” Danny added. 

   “Ridge,” Jim called over the intercom. “I need you to stay sharp. Call out anything you see approaching from behind. We’ve got company up here.”

   Jim glanced briefly at Danny, his attention never wavering from the developments to their front. 

  “These fighters are hardly ever alone,” Jim observed. “If we’ve got one in front, I’ll bet there’s another approaching from behind.”

   “Jim, we’ve got nothing to defend ourselves with, front or back.” Danny observed. “We’re a sitting duck.”

   “Eyes forward,” Jim responded with a nod. 

   “I mean, was it really too much to ask for our fearless escort to hang around at least long enough for Jerry to show up?” Danny added as he peered longingly through the overhead window. 

   “Maybe not,” Jim responded somberly. “But I’m not sure what chance he would have had against this fellow anyway.”

   Jim’s focus returned to the stretch of sky ahead, the fighter now dead ahead and closing incredibly fast as the black exhaust from its twin jet engines tainted the sky behind it. The fighter grew in size as the jet accelerated and the distance between the two shrank incredibly fast. 

   “Whatever you’re gonna do, you’d better do it quickly,” Danny encouraged as his knuckles turned white. 

   “At that speed, he’ll only have a second or so at best to fire,” Jim responded. “Wait for me, and when I give the signal, we turn hard right. With his high approach speed, he may not have time to adjust. Maybe.”

  “Hang on, fellas,” Jim’s voice crackled over the intercom. “It’s gonna get rough.”

   “Get ready, Danny”

   “He’s closing fast…”

   “Hold steady…”

   The shark mouth and its bristling canon were almost within range when the sudden arrival of a new outside disturbance shattered the tense atmosphere. It was a sound difficult to describe; not quite a whistle or a scream but closer in character to a howl. Rising rapidly in intensity and pitch it quickly overshadowed the hum of the B-17’s remaining three engines and pierced its metal hull from above. Glancing quickly up through the overhead plexiglass, the two men’s gaze was met by the incredible sight of the Corsair streaking forward in a steep dive on an intercept course with the approaching jet. 

   “Look!” Danny exclaimed. 

   “Hold steady! Don’t turn! Let him do the work!”

   Within only seconds, the graceful Corsair appeared as a blue blur as it streaked in front of the two men, seemingly close enough for them to reach out and touch the rear stabilizer. Leveling out directly in front of the them, the Corsair briefly eclipsed the view of the Messerschmitt before opening fire with its six .50 caliber guns. Caught completely off guard, the Messerschmitt was soon engulfed by tracers and the right engine erupted into flame. In mere seconds it spun violently out of control, dipped its nose and tumbled downward and to the left. 

   The two pilots remained paralyzed  and speechless as they had no time to process what had just happened before Ridge’s distinctive voice burst over the intercom. 

   “Cap, Cap! Contact at 7 o’clock low and closing crazy fast!” 

    Danny caught Jim’s gaze.

   “There’s your other bad guy.”

   Jim nodded. 

   “And our guy’s now way out of position.”

   “Cap, this Jerry is a different bird,” Ridge continued. “He’s…wait…is that a Schwalbe?” 

   The men recognized the German nickname for the Messerschmitt 262.

   “Afraid so,” Jim responded. 

   “And just what was that commotion earlier?” Ridge continued. “All I heard was a lot of high-pitched howling.”

   “No time to explain,” Jim responded. “But we’ve got some help now.”

   Jim’s focus returned to his front, the silhouette of the Corsair growing smaller as the much swifter fighter continued to pull away rapidly from the bomber. 

   “Come back,” Jim whispered inaudibly as hope seemed to flee away with the Corsair. Almost as if on cue, the graceful fighter pulled up into a steep climb, silhouetting itself against the lighter blue background of the sky. It appeared to hang there suspended momentarily before rolling over smoothly and racing back toward the bomber from which it had come. 

   “What’s he doing?” Danny questioned.

   “Follow me,” Jim responded. “ I think I know what he’s up to.”

   Jim then reached down and opened the throttle on the three remaining engines. 

   “Now, what are you doing?” 

   “Ridge,” Jim spoke into the intercom without directly answering Danny. “What’s our situation?”

   “Not good, Cap,” Ridge responded, the growing panic audible in his voice. “Still closing really fast. He’ll have us in his sights in no time.” 

   “We don’t have much time,” Jim’s instructions were aimed at Danny. “We have to close the distance between us and our friend as fast as we can. Open the throttles all the way. We have to push her.”

   “She’ll fly apart!”

   “She’ll hold together. She has to.” 

   The bomber’s three remaining engines roared under the strain, the large bomber surging forward with that final effort. The Corsair remained steadfast, streaking  directly toward them as it gained velocity.  

   “Now is not a preferred time for a game of chicken,” Danny suggested. 

   “Hold steady.”

   The Corsair continued to bear down on them. 

   “Stay steady,”  Jim ordered. “As the 262 pulls in behind us we’re blocking his view of the Corsair. Hold your course.” 

   The Corsair rapidly grew in size, coming straight at them. 

   “Jim…”

   “I know. Hold your course.”

   “Cap!” Ridge exclaimed. “He’s on us!” 

   “Steady…”

   The Corsair was upon them at that exact moment as well and Jim saw the sudden flash of its .50 caliber guns, seemingly close enough to feel the heat from the muzzles. The tracers streaked by Jim’s window just clearing the upper surface of the left wing and the dead number two engine. The shells arced gracefully past the rear of the bomber and slammed into the approaching jet at the exact moment it arrived at its optimum firing distance. As the men watched in amazement, the canopy of the jet shattered before the left engine exploded and severed the fighter’s entire left wing causing the plane to spin out of control. The Corsair then altered its course just enough to sail over the left wing of the B-17, it’s left wingtip only inches from Jim’s side window. 

   Suddenly, the sky was clear. The roar of the bomber’s engines remained prominent and Jim reached out to ease back on the throttles.

   “Both of them…” Danny began after several moments had passed.  “He got both of them.”

   Jim nodded without responding verbally.

   “And I don’t think he even broke a sweat. I have never seen anyone fly like that.’

   “Nor have I, “ Jim responded. “And I wouldn’t expect to anytime soon.’ 

   Fatigue descended over the crew as the adrenaline began to subside and the skies remained quiet.  The fact that they were still alive in the face of such incredible odds only then began to sink in fully. A sudden, but graceful movement outside of Jim’s window caught the pilot’s attention as the Corsair resumed its escort position. The fighter pilot, as calm as ever, gazed over at Jim and made sure that he had the pilot’s attention before motioning straight ahead. As Jim’s vision adjusted to the distance, he began to make out the coast of Northern Europe and the waters of the North Sea beyond. They had made it. England would be just beyond those waters. Jim gazed back at the fighter pilot, but could think of no appropriate way to express gratitude of such magnitude. Almost as if in understanding, the fighter pilot simply nodded and with a crisp motion of his hand, saluted the bomber. 

   “Are you all seeing this?” Danny inquired gently over the intercom.

   “You’d better believe it,” Ridge replied. “Looks like someone came to say goodbye.”

   “That is one elegant plane,” Bobby Quinn added. 

   For an instant, the Corsair remained seemingly motionless, its powerful engine humming in unison with the bomber’s. With ease and grace, the fighter then slowly began to gain altitude. The crew watched it slowly ascend, its lighter underbelly visible overhead as it settled over them. With one final flash of light from its pristine exterior, it disappeared into the overhead cloud cover and was gone from their sight, 

   After a moment of lingering tranquility, Danny’s rhetorical question broke the silence.

   “So, Cap. What now?”

   “Now,” Jim replied with a smile. “We go home.”


———————————————————————-


   “So,” the Colonel growled angrily as he tossed the men’s report onto the desk in front of him. “Let me make sure I’ve got this straight. You fellows want me to believe that your damaged bomber was magically saved from not one but two Me 262’s by a single F4U Corsair?”

  Jim and Danny stood at an uneasy attention in front of the colonel’s desk. 

   “That goes without saying that the closest American Corsair is thousands of miles from here shooting down Japanese Zero’s in the Pacific. But, I’m sure you fellows know that.” 

   The men remained at attention.  

   “Oh, sure,” the colonel continued sarcastically. “The Brits have a few but most ain’t colored blue and they’re nowhere near here. They’re mostly on carriers. And they’re certainly not escorting bombers.”

   The colonel snapped forward and flipped the report folder back open. 

   “And what’s this nonsense about a fighter group ‘777’ painted on its tail?”

   The colonel glowered at the two men.

   “You know that no such fighter group exists, right?”

   “Sir,” Jim began. “Permission to speak freely, sir.”

   “Oh, pardon me, captain, but after telling me some outlandish story like that, I assumed you already were.” 

   “Sir, there is no other story to tell.” 

   “Listen to me, captain. You return with a shot up bomber and one of your crew dead. Unfortunately, by itself that story is pretty ordinary these days. But, what gets my dander up is that you come in here with some hair-brained story about being saved by a single American fighter whose type doesn’t even serve in Europe!”

   The two men remained silent.

   “Do you know what that sounds like, captain?”

   The silence remained. 

   “It sounds like a cover-up. Like you’re hiding something.”

   Jim remained steadfast.

   “There is no other story to tell, sir. We are here, and that is because we were saved by a single Corsair.” 

   The papers on the desk rustled in the disturbance caused by the swift closing of the file. The colonel then sat back in his chair and stared briefly at the men in front of him, first at one and then the other. 

   “That will be all,” the colonel stated flatly. “Now get out of here.”

   With a swift salute, both men turned quickly and left the room, the door latching behind them. 

   “You give out very little sugar with your judgments,” declared a voice from the corner of the room. “If I have permission to speak freely.”

   “You and I have been friends for long enough, major,” the colonel responded. “You know you can always speak freely.”

   “I think those boys were telling you the truth.”

   “Maybe so. You can never be too sure.”

   “No need to have been so uncivil. They were just doing their jobs.”

   The colonel didn’t respond. The major then stepped out of the shadow, pulled up a chair and sat down directly in front of the colonel, the old wooden legs creaking as they accepted his weight. 

   “Besides,” the major continued. “I suppose I’m a little surprised at your reaction.”

   The major crossed his legs as he eased back in the chair.

   “Because, feel free to correct me, but wasn’t it you that told me that story from the Great War? You know the one. The one about an English Sopwith Camel biplane saving you from that German triplane? I don’t know, but didn’t you tell me that the numbers ‘777’ were painted on its tail? Or am I mistaken?”

   The colonel stared intently at the paperwork on his desk before adding his final signature to the report from The B-17’s crew. Without answering, he closed the file for a final time and passed it to the major. 

   “Take this file to Ms. Johnson outside, if you wouldn’t mind,” the colonel responded with the vaguest hint of a smile. 


  

Easter on Okinawa

     It had always seemed a little sacrilegious to commence an invasion on Easter morning, the marine sergeant mused as his boots kicked up ...