Authors: William Wister Haines
William Wister Haines
Copyright © 1946, 1947, 1973, 1974, 2014 by William Wister Haines
Cover art, special contents, and Electronic Edition © 2014 by RosettaBooks LLC
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.
Cover jacket design by David Ter-Avanesyan
ISBN Mobipocket edition: 9780795336645
John Wister Haines
Grant Barney Schley
who died in the service of
Elmer Brockhurst drove up to the gate of the Fifth Division Headquarters with deeper emotion than he would have disclosed to any of his fellow war correspondents in London. Pride had been stirring in him all the way up the Great North Road that led from the metropolis like the trunk of a tree to the branching, budding American air bases in the flat middle counties. To enter an American station was to come home. The glow inside him was intensified rather than diminished by the knowledge that he personally would be unwelcome here.
Brockhurst had quarreled with officialdom through five campaigns. A powerful syndicate kept him because he won a satisfactory proportion of the quarrels. Today he knew he would be fighting his own people in a good old-fashioned family row.
The expression of the young corporal on guard confirmed this pleasant presentiment even before the boy spoke.
“You’re forbidden the station, Mr. Brockhurst. Orders.”
Then, to modify the severity of this pronouncement, the boy smiled confidentially.
“The Old Man’s got his tail over the dashboard.”
Brockhurst produced his new pass and watched the young face pucker with perplexity.
“Just a minute, sir. The sergeant he gets paid more than I do for handling hot ones.”
He went into the guard box. Brockhurst waited, studying the station with a practiced eye. This particular Division H.Q. had its little nucleus of buildings across the perimeter track from an operational group—the standard, ugly brick rectangles carved with the crazy angles of camouflage, and beyond them the loaf-shaped roofs of the Nissens nestling along the hedgerows. A dispirited volleyball game was in progress on the sandy flat.
His mind was on business as his eyes followed the long oval of the perimeter track, a two-mile enclosure of emerald grass slashed and crisscrossed with runways. At the first sight of it Brockhurst nodded to himself. The black, oil-stained parking stands that studded its outer rim like teeth on a gear wheel were barren. The great greenish beetles that waddled and snorted here through darkness and half-light had vanished for the day.
The somnolent drone of a few motors from the gaping hangars told of the unhurried testing. A mile above him a ragged barb of six planes orbited slowly through what was evidently a much needed formation practice. And miles above them, he suspected, was another single plane circling with monotonous steadiness through the subzero altitudes to freeze the Group’s ice cream for supper.
Brockhurst saw the ambulance and crash trucks were drawn up in meticulous formation by the Operations tower. But their motors were idle, the asbestos suits were still laid out on fenders, the crews not yet assembled. There was a mission out all right, a big one. But under the soft rare sunlight of a brilliant summer day the station drowsed.
Studying it more slowly now, Brockhurst wondered what it was that made this pastoral patch of Lincolnshire America. It was more than the drooping flag over Division Headquarters, more than the velocity of the occasional jeeps, more than the accent or attitude of the guard. With the English it was teatime; for no more trouble than driving to the cook shack he could shortly be drinking all the good coffee he wanted.
What he was feeling was not as simple as the smell of coffee, however. He was remembering an old saying: you could take the boy out of the country but you couldn’t take the country out of the boy. That was what made this place, all these places, America. Brockhurst had seen this happen in both hemispheres, on both sides of the equator. The army simply took the country along with it.
His reverie was interrupted by the sergeant.
“I guess it’s okay, Mr. Brockhurst. That’s General Kane’s signature all right.”
He returned the pass with a final, awed glance. Then, duty done, he, like the corporal, lowered his voice for a pleased confidence.
“When Dennis sees you he’ll spit a snake.”
At four that afternoon Technical Sergeant Harold Evans had relieved his assistant, Corporal Herbert McGinnis, in the office of General Dennis with a sense of buoyant well-being. He had just had almost five hours of uninterrupted sack. He had had four fresh eggs and an orange in the combat mess. He had a date with Joan at the White Hart at seven and he thought the chances of keeping it were good. After missions like yesterday’s and today’s the General wouldn’t send them tomorrow. With the board scrubbed Evans was a cinch for at least six hours off.
He wanted six hours for his deal. Eddie Cahill, who was line chief at the 641st Group, had offered Evans three pounds ten to give Joan the gate. Like most of the men who worked on the line Eddie was always behind the eight ball with girls. In the first place he never had much time. When he got a break from the weather he still couldn’t get his hands clean, even by scrubbing the skin off with high octane.
Joan was not fastidious but the night Evans and Eddie had met her she had whispered to Evans that she didn’t like a man who smelt like a bloody petrol tin. But now Evans was tired of her and Eddie knew it.
She was a good girl as they went but six weeks were six weeks. When Evans showed signs of being fed up Eddie made the timely suggestion that a transfer of her affections to himself would be worth three pounds ten.
Evans didn’t care much about the money but then neither did Eddie, especially since half the guys on the 641st line worked for their chief’s dice. What Evans did want was some whiskey. He’d have to be looking around again and whiskey always made an impression on these girls. Evans knew a flight engineer in the Air Transport Command who was going to Belfast next week. Three pounds ten was a reaming for John Jameson but this way it would be a free bottle.
Evans was still annoyed with the General’s drinking habits. At the moment it happened to be his only grievance and he cherished it accordingly.
When he had finished his missions Evans had thought himself lucky at the chance to become the General’s sergeant. He had been compelled to choose, fast, between that and Personnel. Headquarters certainly meant indoor work and better food and transportation than he was likely to get elsewhere. And traditionally it should have meant plenty of liquor. Evans had accepted only to discover that General Dennis rarely drank. The single bottle of whiskey in his desk was reserved for the visits of Colonel Martin, and they both knew how much Colonel Martin drank and when.
Otherwise the job was all right. General Dennis was real army, even to that ring; curt, crisp, predictable. He was distant and took his job hard. But on the whole Evans had nothing against the General except the deplorable drought in the office, a drought that was partly compensated by Mrs. Dennis’s regular shipments of the best cigars Evans had ever tasted.
As soon as he had taken over the office Evans put on the General’s coffee and then studied his watch. The General had not gone to the sack until eleven. The boys would scarcely be back for another hour. It seemed a fairly safe bet that he’d be alone for thirty minutes. He went over to the desk and selected one of Dennis’s cigars with loving care. As a precaution before lighting it he hung the CONFERENCE DO NOT DISTURB sign on the anteroom door.
Evans seated himself within reach of the coffeepot on the stove and lit the cigar with expanding content. He knew the boys were having it rough today but he couldn’t help it and no one had cried for him while he was doing his twenty-five. By now they should be almost back to the fighters anyway and from there in was a good bet, even on three motors.
There hadn’t been any fighter cover through most of Evans’s twenty-five missions and for a time after the end of his tour he had enjoyed pointing out to the replacement crews that the war was getting soft. Lately, he did not mention this so often. The new crews had an uncomfortable way of reminding him that he’d done most of his over France. Dennis seemed to have forgotten there was a France.
Evans filled his big lungs with the delectable fragrance of the cigar and lifted his feet comfortably up onto the General’s map table. Then he dropped them softly and tensed as he saw the anteroom door swinging silently open. Anyone who barged through that sign should be big. His apprehension changed to outraged indignation as he perceived that it was only Elmer Brockhurst.
Brockhurst had barged in so boldly because he had learned over his coffee in the cook shack that the General was still asleep. Audacity had done a lot for Brockhurst in life; he had hoped it would be good for a look at the map board in the General’s office this afternoon.
Finding Evans on duty only sharpened his hungry scrutiny of the room. The maps and operational status boards were properly masked behind their heavy draw curtains. Brockhurst had been afraid of this; he well knew the working, as distinguished from the official, rule that the lower the echelon the higher the security. Lieutenant generals regularly told and showed him things lieutenants would have been busted for mentioning.
Divisions were relatively small units in the expanding Air Forces. The brigadier generals who commanded them were usually obscure, mostly conscientious, and often capable. The office of this particular one was the usual barren rectangle of damp brick.
Through the Ops room door across the office Brockhurst could hear the muffled clattering of the teleprinter. The rack of Tommy guns, the General’s tin hat, gas mask, and service automatic hanging neatly behind the big bare desk, reflected not only the apprehension inherent in all Army Regulations but the wistful hope of all headquarters staffs that something might conceivably happen. The phones on the desk—black for Admin, green for Secrecy, red for Ops—were proof that to and from this dreary room there would be a great deal of talk.
The big windows with blackout curtains now neatly cuffed back commanded the perimeter track, runways, and, across the oval, the squat buildings of the operational group that used this station. The wall ornaments were as standard as GI soap. That Fortress propeller had unquestionably been removed from the first plane in the Division to survive twenty-five missions. The unmounted Browning .50 was as certainly the first in the Division to have shot down a German plane. The converted peanut tins on desk and map table were well into a second tour of duty as ash trays.
In a corner a carefully arranged cluster of British, American, and Division flags drooped over a squat, sturdy chest clearly stencilled “Division Flag Locker.” Brockhurst wondered whether the juxtaposition of flags, guns, and fire extinguishers represented some sergeant’s conscious sense of irony or perhaps was so ordered in regulations.
Then he saw something new. From a previously blank patch of brick wall now blazed the black and white Swastika-shaped marking cross of a German fighter plane. It was authentic. Brockhurst had seen captured ones before. But he knew that Heavy Bombardment Divisions did not capture German planes. He had known it when, two days before, his startled eyes had seen this same marking cross on its own plane in Hangar Four just before the guard arrested him for snooping. For the moment he covered his excitement and forced his attention onto Evans, whose steady scrutiny had begun to make itself felt through the silence.
“Is the Old Man in, Sergeant?”
“Does it look like it?”
Brockhurst knew he’d asked for that one. The Sergeant’s cigar dispelled any pretense that the General was around. But his manifest annoyance seemed to have thawed a little with the success of his crack, and that was something.
“Seriously, Joe, where’s the Old Man?”
“My name isn’t Joe. What old man?”
Brockhurst hesitated. Sometimes a note of contempt for the brass went a long way with these kids. Sometimes under their studied toughness were unfathomable depths of loyalty, even hero worship. This Evans was a mature, self-reliant young man if Brockhurst had ever seen one. He smiled sardonically.