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. 


  

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Of Love and Lunchboxes- A Christmas Story

   




 A pair of weathered hands skillfully guided the wheel of the old 1979 Ford F-100 as the older gentleman pulled into the parking lot of the elementary school. As the steering wheel rebounded to its more central position, the rhythmic clicking of the turn signal ended abruptly and left in its wake the smooth purring of the engine as the vehicle pulled easily into a vacant parking space. Afternoon visits to pick up his grandson at school had become the older gentleman’s recent routine, but he had been asked by the boy’s teacher to come a little earlier than usual on that particular day so that she could make him aware of a situation that had arisen recently. She had assured him that his grandson had done nothing wrong and there existed no cause for alarm, but she nonetheless wished to discuss the issue with him and felt that it would be best to discuss it in person.

   Having pulled completely into the parking space the gentleman, with a twist of the key, silenced the engine and took his foot off of the clutch and brake. He then gazed around the interior of the old truck as if it were a trusted friend. He had often told himself that if he had been endowed with the gift of writing, he could probably have made his fortune telling the stories that the old vehicle had witnessed. The truck’s history delved deep enough to have known his own daughter when she was the same age as his grandson. If he was brave enough to allow the past to resurface, he could still see the image of her sitting on the passenger portion of the long bench seat, her hair up in a ponytail and dressed in a simple cotton dress. In her hand was a fountain drink from the local convenience store as it was always his tradition to buy her a treat when they would ride together. The older gentleman had always tried to take care of the truck and he felt that somehow it had taken care of him and his daughter in return.  

    Reaching out and pulling the door handle, the truck door swung open on its well-greased hinges as his boots simultaneously swung out to contact the dusty gravel of the parking lot. He gently eased the door closed as he enjoyed the pristine sensation of the cool December wind as it brushed across his face. He could hear the sound of many children’s voices emanating from the nearby playground. The side  entrance to the school was on the far side of the parking lot and he began to make his way in that direction. His grandson’s teacher had informed him that her classroom number was 102 and that it was located only a short distance down the hallway on the left after passing through the side entrance door. As he approached the door, he could see that the glass windows of the door and most of those of the classrooms along the side of the school had been decorated with handmade Christmas decorations and he found himself stopping at the door to admire the children’s handiwork. Christmas had always been his favorite time of year, even though this year’s celebration would be much different. He then turned the door handle and went inside. As he did so, his senses were met with the distant but familiar scent of pencil shavings, chalk, and paper products. The children were at recess and so the hallways and classrooms were temporarily vacant. Just as had been described to him, classroom 102 was just down the hallway on the left. The classroom door was standing open and so he leaned forward to gaze inside.

   Seated at her desk was a distinguished appearing young woman who was busily grading papers. Her head was crowned by wavy auburn colored hair which would likely have flowed across her shoulders but which was prevented from doing so by a well-placed hair clasp. The chalkboard  was outlined by a green Christmas garland accented by a strand of colored lights. A small Christmas tree adorned the far side of her desk and her bulletin board was decorated in similar fashion as the rest of the school with multiple Christmas projects displayed proudly within its borders. The reds, greens, blues, and silvers of the decorations all seemed to enhance the welcoming sensation that already existed in the room. He knocked gently on the door frame and she immediately greeted him with a smile and motioned for him to come and have a seat directly in front of her. 

   “I really appreciate you coming in at this time,” she began after apologizing for the small size of the classroom seats. “My school day ends everyday with recess so it gives me a few minutes to myself.” 

   He responded that his visit was no inconvenience at all. 

   “First of all,” she continued on a solemn note. “I want to extend my condolences on the loss of your daughter. I can only imagine how painful that must be.”

   The pain of the recent, tragic phone call burst from hiding, threatening to overwhelm him. 

   “It was not easy,” he responded. “Learning suddenly that you’ve lost both your daughter and son-in-law.”

   “If it is any consolation,” she responded. “I am very pleased that you chose to take in your grandson.”

   “Of course. I’m all he’s got.”

   “And he’s very fortunate that he has you.”

   The older gentleman‘s facial expression indicated appreciation for the sentiment, but simultaneously some doubt about its validity.

   “I guess it would be accurate to say that he’s all I’ve got too.”

   “I remember that your wife passed away several years ago,” came the compassionate response. The older gentleman smiled as the memory of the many years that he and his wife had shared suddenly replaced the somber memory of the recent car accident. The young woman gracefully moved her stack of test papers to the side of the desk and leaned forward in her chair before continuing.

   “I have always believed in being honest with my parents, guardians, and students and so I have always brought situations to their attention even if there’s really no action that needs to be taken.”

   Her compassionate expression did not waver. 

   “With that being said, over the past few days your grandson has endured some teasing, some would call it bullying, from some of the other students. I wanted you to be aware as I know most children do not talk about such things.”

   The older gentleman’s mind immediately raced for any possible cause for such teasing. His grandson in every way was a completely normal second grader especially for everything he had recently endured. His second emotion, following quickly behind the first, was anger. What kind of person would mistreat a young boy who had just lost both of his parents? His Southern upbringing told him that such actions were in no way acceptable and he quickly conjured up several methods of appropriate punishment for the bullies.

   “For what cause?” he inquired, still unable to come up with any possible reason for the mistreatment.

   “It seems to revolve around his lunchbox.”

   A sudden wave of embarrassment swept over the older gentleman as an image of the old, faded metal lunchbox came to mind. The lunchbox had been his daughter’s when she was his grandson‘s age. In fact, her name, written with a black marker and covered with clear nail polish to prevent its removal, still remained on the inside of the top lid. It was an old Walt Disney design shaped like a yellow school bus with several well-know cartoon characters painted on its sides. The paint had become faded and was chipped in several places but there was absolutely nothing else wrong with it. After his daughter’s passing, he had brought it out of retirement for his grandson to use. Fashion and style had not even crossed his mind.

   “I see,” he responded sheepishly. “I suppose the kids don’t carry such old things like that nowadays.”

   “Not so much,” came the kind response. “Too much technology these days, or they just eat in the cafeteria.” 

   He should have known better, he thought to himself. He should have planned ahead and realized that times had changed. He should’ve realized that his old-fashioned ways were not going to fly in the modern world. It was fine if people wanted to poke fun at him for doing things the way he always had. But now, out of his own ignorance, he had worsened the suffering of his own grandson.

   “But,” she continued leaning in a little closer. “I didn’t ask you to come in today to tell you to give your grandson a new lunchbox, or to make you feel badly about giving it to him.” 

   The older gentleman looked up to meet the teacher’s compassionate gaze. She then took a deep breath and leaned back a little.  

   “I have not been teaching for as long as some,” she began. “But I have been teaching for long enough. I have seen students and parents come and go. I have seen children from wealthy families neglected but children from families with far less resources treated with love and compassion. I have witnessed the opposite situation as well. I have seen styles, fashion, TV shows, movies and lunchboxes wax and wane.” 

   She paused for a moment, as if taking a moment to steady herself before continuing. 

   “But I have never seen a boy’s lunch packaged with more love than your grandson’s.”

   The older gentleman did not know how to respond. 

   “As a teacher, I am trained to be observant and always be aware of my surroundings. I could not help but notice your grandson the other day as he ate his lunch. Without shame at all, he placed his lunchbox on the table and completely ignored the teasing of some of the others. Everything inside that box was neatly packaged. I also noticed that when he ate his peanut butter and jelly sandwich, you had cut it into the shape of a Christmas tree.”

   The older man smiled.

   “I learned that from his mother. She used a cookie cutter to cut out the shape.”

   The teacher smiled in return. 

   “I wish you could have been there to see his face when he reads the notes you pack in his lunch.  His face always breaks into a smile.”

   The older man looked down at the floor. 

   “I just want him to know he’s not alone.” 

   “And I assure you he does. That’s why he ignores the teasing.”

   The teacher then leaned back in her chair.

   “Let me also assure you of one thing. That type of teasing is not tolerated in my classroom and I assure you that in my presence it will never be. I have made sure of that by discussing this both with the other involved students and with their parents as well.”

   “I appreciate that. And thank you for your kind words.”

   He then rose to leave as he knew his grandson would be waiting nearby. Just as he was about to reach the door, he heard her call his name. He turned once more. 

   “One of the downsides of being a teacher,” she began. “Is that you see mankind at his worst. There’s no doubt from what I’ve seen that man’s heart is twisted from birth. Never once has it been necessary for me to teach students how to do what is wrong. On the contrary, it takes all the effort than I can muster to keep them on the straight and narrow. That fact has always told me which nature comes naturally. I say that to tell you that you and your grandson are shining a light in a very dark world. The contents of a boy’s lunchbox can change the world. Five loaves and two fish did. Merry Christmas. Keep that light shining.”

   His brow furrowed with gratitude and he nodded his head respectfully, even though he felt unworthy of the compliment. He then turned and passed through the classroom entrance and left the door open just as he had found it. Sitting on a hallway bench just a short distance down from the classroom was his grandson, holding the old faded metal lunchbox on his lap. The older gentleman‘s heart was full to the breaking point as he watched the young man, the feeling of embarrassment once again raising its head. Those feelings were short-lived, however, as the young man looked up and saw his grandfather. He immediately sprang to his feet and ran to the older gentleman, the metal lunchbox clanging the whole way. 

   “Hey there, sport!” His grandfather began with his usual greeting as he reached down to give the boy a hug. “And just how are you?” 

   “Good!” came the honest response. “I see you met my teacher.”

   “I sure did.”

   “She’s really pretty, papa” the boy said matter-of-factly. 

   His grandfather cleared his throat nervously as he recalled the auburn-haired young woman. 

   “I hadn’t noticed.”

   “Guess what?”

   “What?”

   “ I don’t have any homework tonight. The teacher said there’s no point anyway since we start Christmas break after tomorrow.”

   “Well, that sounds fine to me,” his grandfather responded. “That actually works out for the better because I’ve been thinking about taking you to the store to see if maybe you wanted to get a different lunchbox. Now would be a good time. I know that one’s a little old.”

   The young boy looked down at the faded lunchbox.

   “No, that’s OK. I like this one. It was mommy’s.”

   “Are you sure you don’t want a new one?”

   “Yep.”

   “Alright, but the offer still stands if you change your mind.”

   “Ok.” 

   The pair passed through the doors of the school’s side entrance and surveyed the Christmas decorations once again before turning to cross the parking lot. 

   “You know what I think?” the older man asked. 

   “What?”

   “I think we should get some ice cream. I know it’s basically  winter, but I don’t discriminate. I’ll eat ice cream anytime.”

   “We learned in science that you shouldn’t eat too many treats. If you eat less ice cream, you’ll live longer.”

   “I’m not so sure about that,” the older man responded. “It’s just that life without ice cream feels longer.”

   “Maybe you’re right. Let’s go get ice cream.”

   The pair then continued, hand in hand toward the truck waiting in the distance. 

Monday, November 23, 2020

The Years The Locusts Ate

 







Joel 2:25

“I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten...”



  


   I was in the most sullen of moods when the alarm went off at five in the morning. My feet begrudgingly hit the floor to face yet another day at work. Another day of taking care of ungrateful sick folks; smelling their smells and being blamed for things far out of my control. Understaffed. Sleep deprived. Unappreciated. 


   And that day of all days. Why could I not celebrate that one day with my family? Was that really asking too much? It was Thanksgiving, after all, and my extended family had travelled from out of state to visit and spend the holiday with us. Now, with the hospital patient census soaring through the roof and our lack of adequate staff, the day would be practically over before I ever got home. I knew how it would feel arriving home, dragging myself through the door to meet their smiling faces all the while grieving over the time I had lost. Time that I could not regain.


   So, with those thoughts hanging gloomily over my head, I grabbed my coat and, as quietly as I could, stepped out into the cool and dark November morning. I tossed my stethoscope over into the passenger seat of my truck as I turned the ignition and the engine roared faithfully to life. With the press of a button, the garage door squeaked open and I was soon dodging deer on the familiar drive to the hospital. 


   The sun had still not yet risen as I eased my truck into the deserted parking lot. I crossed the shadowy parking lot and scanned my badge to open the side entrance and stepped out of the brisk air into the warmth of the hospital hallway. Taking a right turn, I retraced my usual steps to the administrative conference room where I always received my newly assigned patients. Opening the door to the room, I was greeted by the fatigued face of my partner who had been the overnight admitting physician. 


   “Your expression says it all,” I said in greeting as I managed a smile. “Looks like it was a rough night.”


   She managed a weary grin in response.


   “You know,” she began. “You’d think a hospital would be the absolute last place that people would want to come on the night before Thanksgiving. But, as last night proved, I never cease to be amazed.” 


   She then fumbled through the neat stack of papers near her right hand until she found the specific sheet she was looking for. Her arm then stretched forward as she handed it to me. 


   “I wish the number of patients was better, especially on a holiday,” she began. “But, unfortunately it’s not. Everyone is going to have a lot of patients to see today.”


   I responded by telling her that it was no less than I expected and that it was not her fault, but truthfully the lengthy list did nothing to elevate my mood. 


   “If it’s any consolation,” she added as I turned to go. “The last patient that I gave you on your list is a comfort care only patient. End stage cancer. I’m not trying to be morbid, but if you get delayed in getting to see him, you may not get to see him at all.”


  I nodded in response and turned once again to leave and begin the day. 


   The day progressed no better than I had expected. The patients remaining in the hospital over the holiday were understandably melancholy and with so many of the ancillary staff out for the day it was difficult to make much progress with treatment. The nursing staff, as always, tried to make the best of the situation and many of the staff had brought their holiday specialty dishes to work as part of the annual Thanksgiving potluck lunch. On each floor that I visited, I was invited to try many of the dishes as there was always plenty of food, but each time I politely declined. I was empathetic with the suffering of those around me but I could also never quite rid my mind of the thoughts of my family at home without me and I did not want any distractions that would delay me from getting home. It was already going to be late enough. 


  I had just finished turning down yet another offer to try someone’s grandmother’s famous pecan pie when I realized that I was on the same hospital floor as my comfort care patient. My original intent had been to see him toward the end of the day as there was really very little that I could offer and the nursing staff was always excellent at contacting me if a patient’s symptoms were not controlled. However, I realized that it would be much more efficient just to go ahead and see him while I was on the floor and make sure that there was nothing that he needed. It would also allow me to avoid having to make a special trip back to that floor at the end of my rounds. I quickly grabbed a free computer and logged on before grabbing my stethoscope and placing it around my neck and heading down the hallway.


   As I headed down the hallway, I began to think about the man that I would meet in just a few moments.  In those situations involving comfort care, all possible medical therapies had been exhausted and the only options left were completely palliative and intended only to provide comfort. Comfort care patients have a way of reminding those who are healthy about the reality of the brevity of life. Any illusion of health is only temporary, as death inevitably comes for us all. Some much sooner than others. 


   My mind was occupied by these thoughts as my hand reached out for the door handle leading to the patient’s room. The door slowly swung open as I gently knocked on the frame to announce my arrival. As my head peaked around the edge of the door, my eyes begin to adjust to the dimly lit room where my attention focused on the patient lying in bed with the head of the bed elevated. At first, I thought the patient was sleeping but he soon turned to face the door and greeted my entrance with a weak smile.


   He was a middle-aged man who was very thin and pale, his skin color evident even in the low light. His cheek bones were very prominent and gave his eyes a sunken appearance. His extremities were mainly skin and bone. A morphine infusion was connected to his IV line to help control his pain. His smile, while genuine, seemed to take great effort to produce. I introduced myself and stepped over to his bed. 


   “It’s nice to meet you, doc,” he began in a raspy voice. “I appreciate you coming by, but I’m sorry it had to be on Thanksgiving.“


   I assured him that I didn’t mind, knowing all the while that I was being hypocritical.


   “So, how are you feeling?” I continued. 


   “You know, today is actually not too bad,” he responded. “Now, I mean no disrespect whatsoever but it sure does improve a fellow’s demeanor to have such pleasant ladies take care of him. I just feel badly that they have to do everything for me these days.”


  “Don’t feel badly,” I responded. “It comes with the territory.”


   The multiple IV lines hanging from the nearby steel pole suddenly reminded me of the purpose of my visit.


   “How is your pain?”


   “Well, “ he said motioning to his morphine pump. “As long as my friend here keeps working, I’m fine for the time being.”


   My attention was then diverted to his bedside table where I saw a food tray sitting, apparently completely untouched, with the silverware still unopened. I lifted the plastic lid to reveal a classic Thanksgiving meal, complete with turkey, dressing, and sweet potatoes. Not a bite had been eaten. He looked wistfully at the tray as if remembering a time when such things mattered. 


   “Appetite not too good?” I inquired. 


   He shook his head.


   “No, I knew that I wasn’t going to eat it even when I ordered it. I’m not hungry, but it just made me feel better having it here, with it being Thanksgiving and all. I guess kind of like Christmas decorations always lift your spirits. But, now that I think about it, I suppose that’s kind of wasteful.”


   I told him I understood. 


   “Is your breathing OK?” I inquired.


   “It’s fine for now.”


   “Ok. If any thing changes or if there is anything I can do, just let me know. Let me take a quick listen to your heart and lungs here.”


   With those words, I removed my stethoscope from around my neck and assisted him with sitting up in bed as he lacked the strength to do so on his own. I pressed my stethoscope over the usual areas of his back and listened to his shallow breaths, all the while noticing the protruding ribs that ran in prominent ridges on either side of his spine. As I did so, I could tell that his attention had been captured by some other distraction. 


   “Isn’t it amazing just how many of those we get to see?”


   With the tips of the stethoscope in my ears, his voice was muffled, but I was nonetheless still able to understand him. However, I wasn’t exactly sure what he was referring to.


   “I’m sorry,” I said as I removed the stethoscope from my ears and helped him to ease gently back down on his pillow. “I didn’t catch what you were saying just now.”


   Without speaking, he pointed out his room window which was facing westward toward the Blue Ridge Mountains. The evening sun was beginning to set and was already painting the evening sky and the scattered clouds on the horizon with beautiful shades of orange and crimson. The gray shapes of the distant peaks cut sharp silhouettes into the straight line of the horizon as they stretched heavenward. I would have been too distracted to notice had he not redirected my attention. 


   “I mean, think about it,” he began. “On many if not most evenings we get the privilege of seeing that kind of a masterpiece. Most mornings, too. No two are just alike. And yet, because they happen so frequently, we don’t even notice them. They aren’t even something that we deserve.”


   His focus remained outside his room, caught up in that far off place of swirling colors. Without changing his expression, he breathed a profound sentence.


   “I made a mess of things, doc.”


   I did not know how to respond, but his redirection of my attention to the beauty painted in the evening sky made me forget my previous melancholy. Without speaking, I pulled up a chair and took a seat beside his bed. 


   “When I was disrespectful to my parents,” he continued. “The sun still faithfully rose. When I stormed out of my parent’s home and left behind the two people on this earth that loved me the most, the evening sky was still painted with the colors that you see outside now. When I found that precious young girl and mistreated her when all she wanted was someone to provide and care for her, the mountain laurel still bloomed. When I loved alcohol more than anything or anyone and would wake up from my drunken stupor, I would still hear the rain falling outside.”


  I remained silent and mesmerized.


   “And I reaped what I sowed. I deserve what I got. There is no one left to blame.”


   His voice began to tremble. 


   “But for the life of me, I promise you that when I look back, He repaid me with good in return for whatever evil I did. Beauty in exchange for ashes. He blessed me in exchange for the years the locusts ate, even though it was of my own doing.” 


   My eyes fell to the floor as his words brought to life the wasted years of my own life. 


   “So you see, doc, I deserve to die alone. There is no one left in my life to push away. But, I can see now that He has been pursuing me my whole life.”


   He paused as he drew a deep breath.


   “I won’t be lonely much longer.” 


  There was nothing for me to say. What could I say? He had summed up human existence in his short discourse. No matter the size of a person’s debt, it remained a sum that could never be paid by one’s own merit. But, to be paid back with good in exchange for evil? No greater love existed. Out of respect, I remained silent. 


   “So, what is your favorite food?” I asked when the time was right. 


   “I’ve always been a sweets person if you want to know the truth,” he said with a grin.


   “Fair enough,” I responded. “What’s your favorite dessert?”


   “Pumpkin pie.”


   “Well, you are in luck. My mother-in-law is in town and, I have to admit, her pumpkin pie recipe is one of the best. I’ll bring you a piece tomorrow. Even if you can’t eat it.” 


   He smiled in return.


   “Just like decorations at Christmas.”


   I nodded. 


   “Just like decorations at Christmas.“


   I finished rounding and drove home in the darkness with a completely different mood than I possessed during my morning drive, and one that could be best described as guilt. I had done nothing but complain. Yet, there he remained in the loneliness of his hospital room, dying, and thankful for one more sunset. 


   I walked through the door of my home into the warmth of love and family. Gone was the regret of what time I felt had been lost, replaced by thankfulness for the time that I had. I immediately found the pumpkin pie and cut a slice before sealing it in a small plastic container for the next day. 

   



   The next morning found me back at the hospital before dawn with renewed purpose. I had been very careful to make sure that the single piece of pumpkin pie remained unscathed in its container. It was the least I could do for someone who had reminded me of what in life was truly eternal. 


   But, when I arrived at his room, I found it unoccupied with fresh, crisp sheets covering the bed and a recently mopped, spotless floor. Fearing the worst, I found his night nurse, before her presence was required at morning report.


   “He passed away around one this morning,” she said respectfully. “He seemed at peace. I think he passed in his sleep.” 


   I gazed down at the container with the piece of pie. I could think of nothing to say. 


   “It’s always a comfort to me,” she stated as she searched for something to break the silence. “That maybe patients could learn something from us to comfort them in the end.”


   I turned and walked away slowly, mumbling that he had taught me more in fifteen minutes than I could have taught him in a lifetime.

Monday, October 26, 2020

The Visitation- A Halloween Tale



“Don’t be afraid,
 Daniel,” he said to me, “for from the first day that you purposed to understand and to humble yourself before your God, your prayers were heard. I have come because of your prayers. But the prince of the kingdom of Persia opposed me for 21 days. Then Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me...

Daniel 10:12-13


   The cool, fall breeze rustled through the surrounding maple trees while dislodging some of the amber colored leaves before twisting and spinning them to their final resting place upon the ground. That time of year had always been her favorite. Although it marked the end of summer’s reign of bountiful life, warmth, and flowers, there was always something energizing about that particular change of seasons. 

   That particular late October evening was no exception and she waited with anticipation for all of her costumed visitors to arrive. She had never been one to celebrate the dark side of Halloween,  but she also couldn’t resist the fun of passing out large quantities of candy to eager neighborhood children who had waited patiently all year for this opportunity. Seeing their smiling faces at her door, always lifted the young woman’s spirits, as she had no children of her own.

   But, there was more to her story than that. Having no children was far too simple an explanation. Even as she greeted the smiling faces at her door each year, there was always an accompanying element of sadness which she was very careful to suppress as much as she could. She strove to find some solace among the laughter, but it remained elusive. Countless had been her prayers. Countless had been her tears. The heavy weight remained. 

   Perhaps that year would be different. She poured the assorted bag of candy into her large, orange Halloween bowl and placed it by the front door in anticipation of her first visitors.  She was sure that the evening would follow the same pattern as it had most other years. Usually, in the late evening before sundown, the youngest children would arrive first having been driven by their parents so that their short legs would not fatigue too quickly before they had gotten their limit of candy. The older children would then arrive next with the final group being the young teenagers whose love of candy still outweighed any embarrassment produced by wearing a costume.  She took one last quick look outside her small home to make sure that she had remembered to turn on both the outside house lights as well as the orange colored decorative lights that she had strung around her front porch banister. She then stepped back inside to grab a quick bite to eat.

   Like clockwork, the children began to arrive exactly as she expected. The youngest children were always the cutest and she adored watching them waddle up her steps in their costumes to reach with wide-eyed excitement into the bowl of treats. She didn’t mind them taking more than one handful of candy as their hands were small and she had made sure to buy plenty of candy that year. Even before the youngest groups had completely finished, the slightly older children begin to roll in with larger numbers than the previous year. She didn’t recognize many of the families, most likely because they had come from surrounding neighborhoods. After all, the better candy you offered, the more trick-or-treaters you could expect. She found herself so caught up in the excitement that she almost failed to notice one small child who was dressed as a ghost in a simple white sheet. Her initial thought was that the child resembled one of the ghosts on the Charlie Brown Halloween special. However, as far as she could tell, he had not been brought by any adults or family members but seemed to appear in the group on his own. The small phantom would never approach her with the other children to get his treats but would simply stand at a distance, motionless. She was unable to see his face and yet she had the uneasy sensation that the pair of eyes underneath that white sheet were fixed directly on her. She attempted to approach the child after greeting the other children, but as soon as she refocused her attention on him, he had vanished.

   For a short period of time, she did not see him again until, to her surprise, he reappeared later in the evening when the older kids begin to make their rounds. She was handing out candy to a larger group of teenagers when she suddenly noted him again circulating outside of the main group at the bottom of her front steps. He again made no sound and did not approach but continued to place his full attention on her. He seemed larger than before, almost as if he had grown to match the age of the trick-or-treaters. The other children who were present seemed to pay him no attention, as if he was not there at all. She also noted that the ghostly covering was no longer purely white as it had been previously, but had a crimson hue which seemed to darken with the shadows. Disturbed by this mysterious visitor, she had made the decision to approach and confront him but she was delayed as the last of the teenagers stepped into her path to get her share of the candy,  However, the ghost had disappeared as soon as the young woman turned again to face him. With all of the trick-or-treaters temporarily gone and the evening getting later, the young woman looked around her porch and in the surrounding landscaping for anything suspicious but saw no sign of her strange visitor. Satisfied for the moment that she was alone, she walked back up her front steps and opened the creaking storm door before entering her house. Perhaps because of that evening’s visitation, she turned and bolted the door, something that she usually did not do. Then, cradling her bowl of candy in her lap, she sat down in the front foyer and watched her front door in the event that some late trick-or-treaters decided to arrive. She was swirling through the remainder of the candy in her bowl when the weariness of her day finally caught up with her. Leaning her head back against the wall, she drifted off to sleep.

   A scuffling sound on the front porch awakened her from her slumber. Her first thought was that the noise was likely from a raccoon or possum as both animals tended to roam through the neighborhood at that time of evening. A flash of crimson/white flashed briefly across the window causing her pulse rate to quicken. What appeared next was even more terrifying as the head of the earlier phantom, still clothed in his crimson-tinged covering, slowly tilted into the frame of the front door’s window to stare in directly at her. The apparition was even taller than it had been when she last saw it. Startled, the young woman quickly stood to her feet, dropping her bowl of candy onto the floor. As the treats scattered across the wooden floor, she watched in horror as the front door knob turned and the door opened slowly, its lock still remained firmly bolted but yet offered no resistance. As she continued to back away, the door suddenly flung open fully and revealed her unwanted guest. 

   “Who are you?” she cried in terror, continuing her slow retreat. 

   “You don’t remember me?” asked the inhuman voice. It’s tone held no redeeming qualities, full of only hate and malice.

   “How could I?” came the trembling response. “I’ve never met you before tonight. And even if I had, you’re completely covered.” 

   “You spoke the truth when you said you’ve never met me before. You made sure that would never happen. But, oh, you remember how close our connection was.”

   She continued to back away.

   “We shared life. You felt me move.” 

   It couldn’t be.

   “Don’t you remember what you did to me?” the voice hissed as the visitor’s covering changed completely to blood red. 

   “Oh, my heavens...no...” came the weak response as all of the old pain and guilt burst into new flame. She bumped into the hallway table and the lamp fell to the floor with a crash and the sound of shattering glass. 

   The crimson apparition suddenly lunged for her and with a scream she turned and ran to her bedroom at the end of the hallway, all the while feeling its foul breath on the back of her neck. She immediately slammed her door and locked it knowing full well from her earlier experience just how ineffective that would be. She collapsed sobbing onto the floor, fully expecting the door in front of her to open just as the previous one had. However, the door remain closed and the only sound was the sound of scratching on the other side of the door as if claws were scoring the wood.

   “Try to hide,” the hissing continued. “It’s what you do best. But you can’t hide from me. From what you did. From the innocence you so selfishly took.”

   She covered her ears but nothing could drown out the words. As horrible and terrifying as the voice was, perhaps the most terrifying part of all was that she could not deny the truth. 

   “If you have anything against me, you need to take it up with my Father...” she spoke as she tried to resist with what faith she had, but her answer was interrupted by unearthly hissing and spitting from the other side. The door trembled and the claws dug deeper into the wood. 

   “Your Father!” it bellowed from the other side. “Your Father! I’ve seen your so called Father and He wants nothing to do with you! You killed one of His own! Is that something that you think He merely overlooks?”

   “Father, you promised...” she whimpered. 

   “An eye for an eye, little girl. That’s what He wants. That’s why I’m here. It’s what you deserve.”

   A pale, clawed hand shattered the middle of the door and broke through to the other side. 

  “Please...”

   “Beg all you want. He’s not listening.”

   “Help me...”

    Just as her words fell, all became silent as the young woman became aware of a new sound. It was not associated with the creature outside her door, but was nonetheless close by. It had the distinct sound of feet hitting the ground, reminding her of a landing paratrooper. Organized. Not chaotic. The pale hand withdrew from the ragged hole in the door. 

   “That is enough!” a new voice boomed.

   “I thought I taught you a lesson.” the hissing responded.

   “I’m a terribly slow learner.”

   The entire house was then suddenly filled with the sound of an intense struggle. There were the constant sounds of booming and shattering accompanied by hissing and screeching. Initially paralyzed and unable to move, the young woman finally gathered enough strength to crawl to the door and peek through the jagged hole. What she saw before her defied all logic, yet she could not deny what was directly in front of her eyes. 

   Her tormentor remained in the hallway but was no longer wearing his crimson covering either by choice or because his adversary had ripped it off.  She could now see that he was tall, thin and very pale, almost like death itself. His long, spindly arms terminated in fingers armed with the same dagger-like claws that had destroyed her bedroom door. The mouth snarled and hissed constantly. His most striking feature, however, was the pair of eyes which glowed with a pale chlorine green color and protruded from the gaunt features of his face. 

   But he was not alone. Opposing him was what appeared to be a smaller man dressed in what most closely resembled a military uniform, although its design was completely foreign. On his shoulders were emblems that appeared to be two winged creatures facing each other with their heads bowed and their wings swept forward with the tips touching. His most striking feature, in direct contrast to his opponent, was also the pair of eyes but in contrast his shone with an unearthly but beautiful shade of blue from which only compassion and sacrifice poured. No matter where his pale opponent attacked, he continued to interpose himself between the creature and the shattered bedroom door.

   But he was hopelessly outmatched. The blows with which the creature struck him rattled the entire house. The soldier fought back valiantly for every inch that he was able to push the creature back from the door. Yet, the gains were only temporary as a quick counter attack by his opponent threw the soldier back against the bedroom door, drawing a scream from the terrified woman. The creature then grabbed the front of his uniform and swung him violently against one side of the hallway and then the other, completely smashing him through the drywall. The white, chalky dust swirled throughout the hallway and engulfed the two combatants as the soldier was forced to his knees.

   “You should have never come back,” the hissing chided

   But just before the final blow was to be delivered, there followed a second sound of feet hitting the ground. Almost instinctively, the creature released the defeated soldier and turned to face a new arrival whose sudden appearance behind him was almost hidden by the cloud of dust. 

   What the young woman saw through the haze was what appeared to be another man dressed similarly to the first soldier, but whose uniform bore insignia which appeared to indicate higher rank. He was much larger than the first soldier and was even larger than the creature itself as his head barely cleared the ceiling. The same piercing blue eyes shone from his face, filled with duty and determination.

   “You...” the creature hissed. 

   Without another word, the creature savagely attacked the new arrival using the same blows that he employed to defeat the other soldier. This time, however, the blows were completely ineffective and the second soldier stood like a stone wall absorbing everything that was thrown at him. When he had finally endured enough of the bothersome attack, the second soldier’s hand flew forward to grasp the creature’s face before violently smashing him to the ground. With incredible speed, he flipped the creature over on its face and pulled his arms behind his back before securing them there with a large chain. With the creature hissing and screaming the entire time, the second soldier then lifted the creature as easily as the proverbial sack of potatoes and disappeared around the corner.

   The complete silence that followed was broken only by the young women’s anxious breathing and the pounding of her own pulse in her ears. The second soldier and the creature were gone but the first soldier still remained slowly rising from the dust and brushing off his uniform. He then turned his attention to the bedroom door and peered kindly through the hole.

   “It is alright,” he said gently. “He is gone now.”

   At first, the young woman did not respond. 

   “No one is going to hurt you.”

   Her trembling hand reached out and opened the door. The man on the other side greeted her with a compassionate smile.

   “I thought he was going to kill you,” she muttered, not knowing what else to say.

    He smiled again, his sapphire eyes gleaming.

   “It does not exactly work like that for us,” he responded. 

   His hand then reached up to stroke his jaw where many of his adversary’s blows had fallen.

   “That, however, does not mean that it does not hurt.”

   He then pushed the bedroom door gently until it was fully open and after taking one step inside he sat down on the floor a few feet away from the young woman.

   “Who are you?” she asked.

   “A friend.”

   “Of whom?”

   “You. And many others for that matter.”

   “Why me?” 

   “I was sent because you asked for help. I am here because your Father does not approve of His children being treated like that.”

   “And,” she began, almost not being able to speak of him yet.  “What was that thing?”

   “A liar.”

   She did not know how to respond. 

   “But a very strong one,” he continued again rubbing his jaw. “I could not stop him alone. But, Michael came to help me.”

   “But what it said about me was true,” she continued, the tears welling up and overflowing into her cheeks. “Years ago, they told me it wasn’t really human yet. I was so afraid then...I did kill one of His own...”

   The man reached out gently and brushed one of the tears from her cheeks. 

   “I do not fully understand these,” he stated softly while studying the teardrop on his finger. “But I have seen bottles of these that your Father has collected. Many of them yours while asking Him for a second chance. None was unnoticed. The charges against you have been erased.” 

   The young woman wept as the events of the evening began to weigh fully on her. 

   “I don’t deserve that.”

   “Nor does anyone else. Do not try to earn, only accept.”

   With those words, the man rose to his full height and looked down upon the young woman with great compassion. 

   “It is time for me to take my leave for now. But do not be afraid. I will always be near. From the place where Michael is taking that liar, he will not be returning.”

   “But he told me that he was my child. He spoke about all the terrible things I had done.”

   “That was not your child.” 

   “How do you know?”

   “Because I spoke to your daughter right before I came to you.”

   Before she could ask any further questions, he reached down and placed his hand gently on her head and she immediately fell into the most peaceful sleep she had ever known.  


   The next morning she awoke back in her bed with sunlight streaming through the window. She sat up with a start as she suddenly recalled the events of the previous evening. However, as she looked around her room, she noticed that all was in order. There was no gaping hole in the bedroom door. She leaped out of bed and flung open the door to find that the hallway and walls were in perfect condition without the least trace of dust. In the foyer, the empty candy bowl was not on the floor but still on the front table. She lifted her head and breathed deeply, feeling as if a great weight had been lifted. 

   “Thank you,” she breathed into the morning air. “And please, tell my daughter that I look forward to meeting her.”

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 ...