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My father was a tall, country-looking man. When he walked, with his long farmer's stride, he swung his hands with the palms facing back, so that he seemed to be paddling his way through some fluid more resistant than air. Because his arms were long, and his overcoat was cheap, a good deal of wrist protruded from his sleeves, making his enormous hands looks even more like paddles. As he walked beside me that cold night in March, 1943, through the empty Rock Island station and onto the platform, he seemed to be propelling himself forward swiftly but against his will, toward the edge of his familiar world, where he would have to stop, but I would step over.
He had missed his own war -- had been drafted in 1918 but was left waiting in a New Jersey camp until it was all over. I remember the pictures in the family photograph album -- a yellowing snapshot of a smiling young man in a private's uniform, sitting in the doorway of a tent, and another, a posed portrait taken by the town photographer in LaPorte, Indiana, of the same young man standing stiffly at attention, looking very determined, but still a farmer dressed up as a soldier. Now he was too old to fight, though at fifty-six he was bigger, stronger, handsomer, and more eager than I would ever be. He loved his country in a simple, old-fashioned way, and he loved his sons; it must have been almost unendurable for him that they should go off to war, and he remain at home. Still, he would go down to the station with me, though he wouldn't say much, certainly wouldn't kiss me goodbye, or express any feelings right out.
The platform was dark, except at intervals where standing lamps shed pale disks of light attports were romantic, and drew boys to them. None of the kids I knew had ever been in a plane, or expected ever to be in one; planes were for watching, not for riding in. On sunny Saturday mornings my friends and I would make sandwiches and fill our sour-smelling Boy Scout canteens, and ride our bikes out through the thinning Minneapolis suburbs and between the first farms, to the airfield. Along the highway, just before you came to the commercial part of the airport, there was a sign pointing down a narrower road to the Naval Reserve Air Station, and we turned there and rode toward a tin-roofed hangar with U.S. NAVY painted on the roof in big yellow letters.
Across the road from the hangar a small hill had been partly dug away -- perhaps for gravel or fill -- leaving a grass-covered knob, like a head with hair on it, with its sandy face toward the field. We lay on the grass on the top of that slope and ate our sandwiches and watched the navy biplanes landing and taking off. If the wind was right they would take off over our heads, passing so close that we could see the grease and oil streaks on the cowlings and the spurts of flame from the exhaust stacks, and could watch the wheels draw up as the planes roared over us. It made us feel daring, to be lying there in the path of the booming planes.
When we had eaten we sometimes went down onto the field and hovered around the hangar. (There never seemed to be any guards to chase small boys away.) Inside it was cool and shadowy. I remember the light coming down, soft and unfocused from the high ceiling, and the soft cries of the swallows that nested in the roof beams, and the smell of hydraulic fluid and oil. Planes in for repair were scattered aroun d the hangar floor, half-dismantled, surrounded by cowlings and tools, and mechanics worked beside the open engines. Sometimes one man would speak a word or two to another, or tap a tool on an engine, but the sounds were muted and lost in the tall emptiness under the roof, and the effect was of a careful quietness, as though the hangar were a church, and the mechanics priests engaged in some ritual that we were too young, and too earthbound, to understand.
But for all the romance of the Navy field, I didn't want to be a pilot. All I wanted, when I rode out to the airport on those distant Saturdays, was the presence of that romance. I wanted to hear the engines and see the planes climb out of sight, and to watch the mechanics at their priestly tasks. I was not, even in imagination, a pilot; but I was a true believer in the religion of flight.
The young men on the train that night were from Minnesota and the states around. Most of them came from farms, or from little towns, places I had never heard of like Blue Earth, Minnesota, and Bonesteel, South Dakota. The most citified were, like myself, from Minneapolis, which was not much more cosmopolitan than Bonesteel. We were all yokels. For many of us it was the first time away from home, the first time out of the home state, the first time in a Pullman car. Everything was new and strange -- the berths with their green curtains, already made up for the night, the smoking room at the end of the car, the yeoman with his clipboard giving orders. We were subdued by it all, and there was none of the shouting and singing and drinking that a troop train would have had. We were shy of each other, and nervous about behaving properly (none of us knew how an aviation cadet was supposed to act), and frightened by the mystery into which we were moving.
Among all those strangers were two boys I had known in high school and during my few months at the university. They became my friends, but that night on the train they were only familiar faces, comforting simply because I had seen them before. I knew Joe Baird because he was an athlete. He had played end on the university's freshman football team. He was tall, and so broad-shouldered and narrow-hipped that he looked top-heavy. When he moved, he moved very delicately, walking on his tiptoes, carefully, as though holding back his great energy and strength out of a protective concern for the world. His friend Wally Milch was a straw-haired, pink-faced Minneapolis Swede -- the kind of boy who at eighteen still hadn't shaved, and didn't look as though he'd ever have to. He had the face of a sweet-tempered child, and that's what he was. Like Joe, he was kind and generous by instinct -- it seemed easy for him to be a nice guy -- and funny out of simple good feeling.
The three of us crowded together onto a lower berth for a while, talking and giving each other such encouragements as we had, and I went to bed feeling a little better, and a little sad for the others, the country boys in their plaid mackinaws, with their high-sided haircuts and their shy manners, who were absolute strangers that night. But though I was better off than they were, my own apprehensiveness would not go away entirely, and I lay awake for a long time, watching the snow-patched Minnesota fields and the dark, lonely little towns pass, and trying to imagine what was coming. The life of flying was so mysterious that I could not construct a n image of it; I couldn't even visualize it enough to imagine failing at it. It was as though the darkness through which the train rolled would go on forever.
We were headed south, to Texas and Oklahoma. There we would be scattered among little towns, each of which had a college of sorts and an airport. At the college we would be instructed in subjects thought suitable for pilots -- physics and aerology and military history -- and at the airport we would be taught to fly Piper Cubs. We weren't exactly in the Navy yet -- the program we were entering was called Civilian Pilot Training -- but we weren't exactly civilians either. If we passed this first testing period, the yeoman on the train explained, then we would be sent on into the real Navy flight training; "But if you wash out," he went on, "it's Great Lakes!" To "wash out" meant to fail; it sounded as though you turned colorless and just faded away, like a guilty spirit. Great Lakes was the Navy training station where such failures were reassigned, and would-be flying officers turned into enlisted men. I didn't yet know how to fail, but I had learned the vocabulary of failure.
Early in the morning of the second day we stopped somewhere in Oklahoma, and Wally and Joe and some other boys got off. I heard Joe ask the name of the college they were going to.
Joe laughed his whinnying laugh. "You're kidding." And it certainly did sound like a joke, a made-up name for the worst school in the world. But it was a real place.
The rest of us went on, across the flatness of north Texas, to Dallas, and changed to another, dustier, older, and pokier train, and crept back north a bit, and stopped at last beside a station with a sign that said "Denton." "Fall out!" the yeoman shouted, and we stumbled out of the tram onto the platform, and stood blinking in the bright sunlight. From around the corner of the station a man appeared dressed in the uniform of a Navy lieutenant junior grade. He was, apparently, our Commanding Officer; but even in the uniform he looked like a schoolteacher. He stood still for a moment, staring abstractedly through his glasses, as though he were running over in his mind a speech that he hadn't memorized. "Ten-shun," he said apologetically. "This way -- uh -- cadets, for the bus to North Texas State Teachers College." It sounded a little better than Panhandle A&M. But not much.
Everything about Denton, Texas, and the life we lived there was strange to us; we lived in strangeness as though it were an environment, or a climate. Perhaps that is why memory offers only fragments and images of that time -- often very vivid, but only bright, broken pieces. The town itself was strange, like no town that any of us had known back home. It spread out around us in a random-looking sprawl of one- and two-storied buildings, dust-colored and flattened-looking, as though the weight of the Texas sky had pressed it down into the earth. The trees were different from the ones back home, and the flowers bloomed too early, and the soil was the wrong color -- reddish and sandy and dry. The people we met spoke a soft-slurring speech that at first we couldn't understand. Shopkeepers welcomed us as though we were old friends, and when we left they said, "Y'all hurry back, heah?" The black shoeshine boy who kept his stand on the main street grinned and greeted us cheerfully, and played a jazz tune with his rag on our shoe s. Pretty girls smiled as they passed. It was all very friendly -- friendlier than it would have been in Minneapolis or Bonesteel -- but it was unfamiliar, a foreign country in which we were only tourists. I felt more at home back in my dormitory room, where Midwestern was spoken.
But even there life was strange. I had never slept in a room with anyone but my brother, and now I shared one with three strangers -- Ike, Bergie, and Johnson. There were common showers and common toilets, and a common mess hall where we ate together at long tables. It was all pleasant enough, and I suppose it wasn't much different from life in a college dormitory, but I hadn't lived in a college dormitory, and for me the abrupt loss of privacy and family, both at once, was a shock.
Our airport was a sheep pasture on the edge of town, which we shared with the sheep. It had no runway, only grass, which the sheep kept trimmed. It was not even flat -- it sank in the middle and rose steeply at the far side, where it ended in a grove of trees. At the corner of the field by the road was a small hangar and a shed that was called the Flight Office; beside the hangar four or five Piper Cubs were parked. That was all the equipment there was, except for a windsock, once red and yellow but faded now to an almost invisible gray, which drooped on a staff near the fence. It wasn't much of an airport, or much of a school, but I took my first flight there, and soloed there, and I have the sort of affection for the place that I have for other beginnings -- for the first girl, the first car, the first drink.
First flight: what images remain? I am in the rear seat of a Cub, and my instructor is taxiing to the takeoff position. The wheel s of the plane are small, and it rides very low, so that I seem to be sitting almost on the ground, and I feel every bump and hollow of the field as we taxi. The wings seem to flap with the bumps, and the whole machine seems too small, too fragile, too casually put together to be trusted.
The instructor turns into the wind, runs up the engine, and I feel the quick life of the plane. It begins to roll, bumpily at first, as though we are still taxiing. The nose is high, I can't see around it, and I have a panicky feeling that we are rushing toward something -- a tree or a sheep or another plane; and then the flow of air begins to lift the wings, the tail comes up, and the plane moves with a new grace, dancing, touching the rough field lightly, and then not touching it, skimming the grass, which is still so close that I can see each blade, and I am flying, lifted and carried by the unsubstantial air.
At the end of the field the grove of trees is first a wall, a dark limit, and then sinks and slides, foreshortening to a green island passing below us. The plane banks and I can see the town and the college -- but below me, all roofs and tree-tops -- and beyond it there is distance, more and more distance, blue-hazy and flat and empty, stretching away to the indistinct, remote horizon. The world is enormous. The size of the earth increases around me, and so does the size of the air; space expands, is a tall dome filled with a pale, clean light, into which we are climbing.
Below me the houses, each in its own place, look small and vulnerable on the largeness of the earth. I stare down at first like a voyeur, looking into other people's lives. A truck drives along a road and turns into a yard; a woman is hanging out clothes; she stops and runs to the truck. Should I be watching? Does she feel me there above her life? The world below exposes itself to me -- I am flying, I can see everything!
I don't remember doing any flying myself on that first flight. I must have tried, and I could invent what the instructor said and what I did, but I don't remember it. What I remember is the way the world changed from the familiar, comfortable space I had always lived in to the huge, empty world of the flier.
As the days of marching and flying and just hanging around passed, the strangers in my room became my friends. Ike, a big, gentle, countryish boy from South Dakota, was like my father, and that made friendship easy. He walked with long, galumphing strides (it came from walking between the corn rows, Johnson said), and he talked like a yokel in a movie. He was the only person I ever knew who really said "Golly. " (But it was more like "Gawlly" -- he always spoke as though his mouth was full of water, and he didn't want to spill it.) He didn't talk much, though; he was ill at ease with words. He communicated in other ways -- by smiling, or by touching. He would put his arm around a friend's shoulder without embarrassment, in a way that the rest of us couldn't. I envied him his natural affection.
Bergie came from South Dakota too -- from a town larger than Ike's, he explained, though in South Dakota that didn't seem to make much difference; they all seemed like country boys to me. He was as tall as Ike, but slender and dark where Ike was blond and broad; and he had a small, deeply seamed face, as though he had been born smiling and had never stopped smiling long enough for the furrows to smooth out. He spoke in a rapid tumble of words that were sometimes hard to separate; but when he sang, which he did whenever he wasn't required to be silent, his voice was pure and clear, and very high, almost like a boy soprano's. Even on first meeting, he looked and acted like a friend -- so open, so decent. I liked him at once.
Johnson was a smoother character than Ike. Like almost everyone else in the group he was blonde, but he had not allowed his hair to be cut in the standard crew cut; it was parted high up on the side, and slicked back. He knew the current slang, and the campus fashions; and he had a worldly, knowing smile (Ike's smile was all trusting innocence). He would have been a city slicker -- the kind who swindles rubes like Ike -- if he had come from anywhere but South Dakota. How, I wondered, could you be a city slicker in a state that had no cities? But Johnson had been to the state university there, and he had been in a fraternity (he even wore his pin on his khaki shirt until the CO noticed it). He regarded the country boys with pitying disdain -- hayseeds, he said, with the cow shit still on their shoes.
After a week or so we trusted each other enough to bring out the pictures of our girls that we'd been hiding in our dresser drawers. Ike's was a cheerful-looking, long-faced girl with an elaborate movie-star hairdo. "She runs the beauty parlor," he explained, "back in Bonesteel." Johnson had two -- a Pi Phi, he said, and a Tri Delt. I brought out my picture of Alice. She was a girl I had met during my first week at the university. She was pretty and in a sorority (both good), but she was a Catholic (bad). We had been going steady for a couple of months, and the night before I left we had sat in my father's car parked on a bluff by the river, necking a lot -- but not going-all-the-way (whatever that was) -- and talking romantically about our future. She was my girl, and I assumed that I'd marry her some day. Right now I didn't want to -- what I wanted to do was to take all her clothes off, look at her, touch her, and find out what going-all-the-way meant -- but I expected to want to later on. I wasn't sure that her picture would impress my roommates, but Johnson examined it with an experienced eye, and said she reminded him of an Alpha Phi he knew, and Bergie raised his eyebrows, making the furrows in his brow even deeper, and whistled appreciatively. Ike said "Golly!"
On the other side of town, at Texas State College for Women, hundreds of girls lived lives made celibate by the draft and gas-rationing. TSCW had been the traditional territory of boys from Texas A&M, and those boys were now out of reach. We rode past the campus every day in the bus that took us to the airport, and looked at the girls, moving in twos and threes along the campus paths under the trees that were just coming into leaf. Sometimes we waved, or shouted something, and they waved back, some cheerfully, some wildly, as though they were drowning and we were the lifeboat crew. It was a little scary, seeing them so eager; I wasn't sure that the things I had learned about girls back in Minneapolis would be adequate for this situation.
After a couple of weeks of training we were given a Saturday-night liberty, and Ike and Johnson and I caught a crosstown bus for TSCW. None of us was quite sure what we should do when we got there, and for a while we just walked around, sticking together like a rifle platoo n.
But finally we spoke to a girl, and she had friends, and in a few minutes we were paired off.
At first my new date seemed very different from what I was used to. She had more names, for one thing -- her name, she said, was Jo Belle (or maybe it was Mary Beth, or even Lalla Rookh), and when she spoke her voice was like homemade fudge. But beyond those variations she was just another middle-class American college girl.
Where should we go? We could go into town to a movie, she said, or we could dance at the Union. But I said I only had until eleven, so we had a coke and went out onto the dark campus. There was an outdoor theater nearby, Jo Belle said, that was right pretty.
It was still March, but the evening was warm, and we sat on the grass at the back of the theater, under some bushes. Jo Belle was soft and warm, and soon we were lying back, kissing and whispering. But we were still strangers, and we were shy of each other. I wasn't sure how much groping she would tolerate, and she wasn't sure how far I expected to proceed. So it was mostly fumbling there under the bushes, and "No" and "Please" and more "Nos." I suppose all that she wanted, really, was just to touch a young male, to be assured that at eighteen she was pretty and desirable. I wanted to be led into a darkness that I didn't understand. You could call it sexual need, all right, but it was more than that. It was a desire to know, not to be ignorant of what was there, under a girl's clothes. Sex was a journey of exploration. Girls were Africa and I was Stanley. Which way to the Congo? And what did you do when you got there? Adults knew. I wanted to know too.
Then it was ten-thirty, and I was back on the bus with Ike and Johns on, remembering how her body felt under the starched cotton, and lying about how I had made out, and all the time my genitals feeling like cannonballs. I was no more ready for women than I was ready for war. Sex was another military skill that I hadn't yet acquired.
I didn't advance my knowledge of sex much at Denton, but I learned a little about flying. My teacher, a man named Moreland, was one of three flight instructors -- leathery-faced, laconic Texans, cropdusters, I suppose, in peacetime, or dollar-a-ride fairground fliers. You'd find them, when they weren't flying, lined up in chairs propped back against a sunny wall of the hangar, watching the planes take off and land, and occasionally making a terse comment: "Should'a used some power there," or "He done landed ten feet in the air." If you were scheduled for a flight, you'd find your instructor in his chair, and he'd tilt forward and rise, and stand for a minute looking at the sky, as though the thought of flying hadn't struck him until right then, and he'd walk out to the Cub, and you'd trail along behind him.
The Piper Cub, with its large square wing and slender fuselage, is like a kite with a small engine in it; it will float on an air-current, settle lightly to the ground with no power at all, and bounce forgivingly away from a bad landing to give you a chance to try again. In heavier planes the engine dominates, pulling the plane along, but in a Cub it is the wings; the engine seems to do no more than hold you hovering in space. It was a wonderful plane to begin with, friendly and safe.
At first we did simple things -- turns and climbs and gentle glides. I was all right while the plane was flying straight and level, but I felt ins ecure and vulnerable when it banked, and I could feel myself leaning away from the turn, trying to keep my body vertical to the ground, as though I might get some support from the earth if I were loyal to it. "Relax, son," Moreland would say, "fly with the plane. The ground ain't no use to you up here." And gradually I learned to move instinctively with the plane, and to let the world tilt as it would. For, once you are really flying, it is the world that tilts, not the plane; it's the horizon that tips up when you turn, and settles back when you roll out, sinks when you climb, and rises when you dive. The plane remains a steady thing, a part of yourself, or so it seems -- and you are not really flying the plane, you are flying the world.
"Now you take it," Moreland would say, and he'd let go of the stick, and I'd clutch it with my right hand, grab the throttle with my left, and shove both feet onto the rudder pedals, and the plane would jerk and yaw about the sky. "E-e-e-easy movements," Moreland would plead, "easy movements, that's all she needs," and I would try to relax, and move the stick gently forward, and the nose would sink, back and it would rise, left and the left wing would drop. It wasn't exactly the feeling of flying that I was getting then; it was the feeling of mutual responsiveness, my life touching and merging with the life of the plane.
Once I could perform these simple flying movements we went on to the next step, which is a kind of nonflying, or antiflying -- stalling the plane, so that it virtually stops in the air. You pull the nose high; the earth and the horizon disappear, the airspeed drops, and you hold the stick back and wait for the shudder; and the nose falls heavil y earthward like a stone, or something dead, and you recover speed and are flying again. Or at the top, at the moment of stalling, you kick the rudder in, and the plane falls in a twisting stall that is a spin, and you are looking down at the earth, rotating like a dream of falling, and you are falling, and then the recovery, the plane begins to live again, the horizon settles into a reasonable place, and it is like waking after a sickness. I learned to do these things because I had to, but I hated them; they seemed a violation of the plane and of the life of flying.
When we had learned one set of skills, or at least had flown the prescribed number of hours, there were checkrides, to determine whether we were ready for the next set. These were tests, but not like any test that I had taken at school or university. You couldn't cram for it, and you couldn't fake it. You weren't even being tested on something that you had studied, really, but on what you were. If you were a flier, you passed; if you weren't, you washed out -- fell out of the air, and became a lower order of being.
It became clear that some people were natural fliers, and some weren't. The athletes usually were; they used their bodies easily and naturally, and they seemed to make the plane a part of themselves. Ike was one of those. He didn't enter a plane so much as put it on, like an odd suit of clothes, and you could see already that the only trouble with the Cub was that it was too small for him, that he belonged in a full-sized, serious plane, like a Corsair or an F6F.
I wasn't a natural pilot -- or an athlete. I had to think about flying all the time -- left aileron, don't forget left rudder, back on the stick, keep the hori zon there, watch the airspeed -- all this to make a simple 360° turn. But Ike did it all intuitively: "I just roll her over," he'd say, "and around she goes." I wondered if it was significant that the plane was a female for him, and only an it for me.
I wasn't a natural, but I learned to control the plane, and myself with it. But there were some young men for whom even this was impossible. In some, fear of the air was as deep and as irrational as fear of water or of the dark is in others; it kept them tense and helpless in flight, jerking the plane about with sudden, desperate gestures, skidding into turns, overcorrecting mistakes, bouncing on landings, never making those easy movements that are all she needs. One cadet, a big, stolid farmer who was older than the rest of us, was airsick on every flight. He returned each day, grimly, to try again; but he never got over whatever it was that gripped his belly, never reached the point at which movement in the air, you and the plane moving together, becomes a liberating, joyous action. I remember Ike walking back from the flight line with him, his arm around the sufferer's shoulders, saying, "Golly, it's not so bad," and the farmer's face sweaty and strained and despairing. Then one day he was gone, washed out and shipped off to Great Lakes.
But the rest of us, those who had not failed, began to enter the pilot's world, a world in which weather is an environment, clouds are three-dimensional landscapes, and the earth is -- not exactly two-dimensional, but panoramic, patterned, and expansive. We began to get a pilot's sense of the earth, how it goes out to horizons beyond horizons, how it is marked by man and nature -- the straight lines of roads and fields and railroad tracks, the irregular lines of rivers, the dark patches of woods -- and how, in spite of those marks, earth can deny location and leave a flier lost above unknown landmarks.
I asked Moreland one day if we could climb to ten thousand feet. To be two miles above the earth seemed to me something remarkable, something more than merely flying. It was a fine, clear day -- it must have been in April -- and as we climbed, slowly because the Cub engine didn't have much power, the earth opened out farther than I had ever seen before, extending in a vast circle, hazy at the edges and, it seemed, faintly curving away toward the horizon. I thought, if Columbus could have climbed two miles high he'd have known that his theory was true, and he could have saved himself the trip to America.
Since we were over Texas, the most striking thing about that expanding circle below us was its sameness. To the southeast lay Lake Dallas, and still farther off I could see the smoke of Fort Worth, but in every other direction the land spread its redundant flatness unbroken to the horizon. And since it was all the same, there was no knowing how far away that horizon was; we might have been looking north all the way to Canada, it would have looked the same. It was just earth, and space, and weather.
Weather is the pilot's nature, air is his ocean, winds are his waves and streams. Wind makes the plane fly -- the flow of air over the wing literally holds it in the air -- but it also blows you off course, tosses a light plane about in a landing run; it can get you lost, or kill you. When the northers blew down across those flat Texas fields, planes like ours could take off and land almost vertic ally, but they could also get hopelessly lost downwind, blown like a bird or a scrap of paper out of sight. On the windiest days we kept the Cubs tied down, rocking and bouncing against the ropes. But off to the east of us, at the Army field where artillery spotters were being trained, the little observation planes would go on flying, barely moving into the wind and, when they put their enormous flaps down, seeming to land moving backwards. And then they too would be grounded, and the sky would be empty, swept clean by the streaming wind.
By early May we had all finished the CPT course. We could get a Cub into the air and back down again; we could march together if the commands weren't too complicated; we had a smattering of knowledge of aeronautics and weather. We were ready to graduate, and like any graduating class we gathered to have our picture taken on the steps of our dormitory. The boys in that picture look tanned and fit, and much too young for a war. Some of them are grinning into the camera, some are clowning around. It's the sort of picture that you might find in a high-school yearbook -- the baseball team, or a fraternity. Nobody seems to regard the occasion as a very solemn one. After all, we weren't really in the Navy yet.
It seemed a million miles from Texas to Georgia, and every mile just the same. I remember sitting in a hot, stationary train, looking out the window at a cotton gin and a mule and a pine tree, while we waited for a more urgent train to pass; but I don't know whether we were in Louisiana or Mississippi or Alabama or Georgia. It was May, and already it was like high summer back home. A black man sat on a wagon, waiting like us for the train to pass; he looked back at me, but without interest. I had seen the cotton gin and the mule and the man on the wagon a hundred times in the two days that it took us to ride that slow southern train from Dallas to Athens, Georgia. It was like a punishment in some myth: we were condemned to ride forever through the same southern landscape.
Athens, in its way, was like another myth -- the fall of Icarus, if he had landed on red Georgia dirt. For a few weeks we had been pilots -- well, sort of pilots -- and now we were back on the ground, at a place called a preflight school, as though in the Navy's eyes we not only weren't pilots, we never had been pilots. As we rode into the school's grounds we passed a symbol of our situation; a worn-out fighter plane had been set in concrete in front of the administration building. It was the only plane in the place, and it looked sad and humiliated, grounded and stuck there as a decoration, far from any airfield.
The school occupied part of the buildings and grounds of the University of Georgia. Our quarters were in two converted girls' dormitories that faced each other across what had been a lawn, but was now a grassless, pounded parade ground. The architect of these buildings had obviously been much influenced by Gone With the Wind, and had designed two Taras, with tall white columns and a commanding sweep of steps (and after all, what else would you build for southern coeds?). But there was nothing romantic, or collegiate, and God knows nothing coeducational, about the life we lived there.
I felt at once, almost before I had unloaded my gear, that this was a place dominated by two qualities: it was very military, in an oddly phony way, and it was very tense. On the baked clay between the two Taras cadets were marching as we arrived, practicing for a parade. We had marched and paraded at Denton, but never like this, not rigid with concentration, eyes staring forward, arms swinging, sweating in the Georgia sun. A lot seemed to be at stake. As we carried our bags into the barracks, a voice came down from a window across the way: "You'll be sorry!" It was what old hands always shouted to new ones, but this time it seemed to be more than that, as though he really knew that we would be, that what would happen to us there would make regret a certainty.
Later, at our first muster, we got the official version of that warning. We stood on the parade ground in platoon formation, and above us, at the top of the steps between the white columns, an officer stood and told us how the next three months would be, and why.
"We're here," he shouted, "to prepare you to be naval officers. You'll be taught things in ground school that we think an officer should know, and you'll learn the discipline of close-order drill. But most of all we'll be seeing if you can take it. If you can't take it, now's the time to find out, not when you're Out There, with lives depending on you." He spoke with feeling, and you could almost forget for a moment that he was a schoolteacher or a football coach dressed up as an officer, and think that he must have been at Midway or the Coral Sea, that he knew what he was talking about. He stood silent for a time, running his eyes back and forth along our ranks, as though watching for someone to speak or move, or perhaps looking for weaklings, the ones who couldn't take it. Then he barked "Dis-missed," and the echo bounced back from the other Tara, " -missed," and we turned slowly back into human beings.
Back in the barracks I found some of the boys who had left Minneapolis with me. Joe Baird and Wally were there, full of unlikely stories about Panhandle A&M, the flying and the Oklahoma girls, and I told them a few lies about Jo Belle and Denton. But then we were scattered again, shoved once more into rooms with strangers. I had a roommate from New Orleans, one from Virginia, and one from New Hampshire. I knew nothing about any of these places, and I had no way of understanding what these strangers were like. I couldn't read the Virginia or the New Hampshire signs of background or class or manners, and they couldn't read my Minneapolis signs. We circled each other cautiously, like sniffing dogs. But though we shared nothing of the past, we shared everything in the present -- a room, toilets, mess hall, classrooms, parade ground. And more than that we shared a hatred of the whole program, and a determination to survive it.
At preflight we stopped being half-civilians and became a military unit, the Twenty-fifth Battalion. We were given regulation short-back-and-sides haircuts, and regulation uniforms: khaki for working days, whites and blues for dress, like officers; and our civilian clothes were packed and sent home. We posed for official pictures in our new whites, and the Navy sent them to hometown papers, and they came back as newspaper clippings stuck in our parents' letters: "Local Boy Begins Pre-flight Training."
Ground school began ("Ground school," Joe grumbled, "it's always ground school, as though we ever got off the ground in this place"), and we learned how to behave in a military classroom. You sat and wai ted for the instructor, and when he entered, the first cadet who saw him coming yelled "ten-SHUN!" and you jumped to your feet and stood stiffly until the instructor said "At ease," and you could sink back into your seat. If the instructor called on you, you jumped to attention again and began your recitation with "Sir!" -- an exclamation more than a form of address. "Cadet, what is the armament of the Scharnhorst-class cruiser?" (Leap to attention) "Sir! The armament of the Scharnhorst-class cruiser is...."
I suppose it all must have been modeled on the customs of the Naval Academy at Annapolis, and perhaps it worked there; but it seemed extravagant and a little comical to be always leaping up for these schoolteachers, and to stand backed stiffly up against the wall whenever one of them walked down the hall. This was called "bracing the bulk head." The terminology was part of the nautical atmosphere, and part of the joke -- the wall of a converted women's dormitory at the University of Georgia being called a "bulkhead," for God's sake!
The whole of the life was like that. We never walked anywhere, we marched -- to meals, to classes, to church on Sunday (where we sang the hymn about God protecting those in peril on the sea), even to the movies. And we drilled, close-order drill, hour after hour on the fierce parade ground in the sun. If you were a great success at drilling you might get to lead a platoon or even a company; or you might even be made Cadet Commander and run a whole parade. But that glory went mostly to cadets who had been in ROTC or had gone to military school; the rest of us stayed in the ranks, and tried not to fall down, or turn right when everybody else turned left. Because yo u could wash out just as easily for bad drilling as for bad flying; the football coaches believed that if you couldn't drill you were uncoordinated, and if you were uncoordinated you obviously couldn't fly.
Sport was another, even better test of coordination, and in that steaming Georgia summer we competed with each other in every kind of sport. We played football and ran races, both dashes and distance; we boxed and we wrestled, slipping from each other's sweaty grips like wet soap. They were all games when other, ordinary people played them, but for us they were Tests. Every competition was Judgment Day, and if you lost it seemed a moral failure, a revelation of a weak character that would make you useless, dangerous even, "Out There." It wasn't, of course, The Test -- that would come at the heroic moment, the true and final occasion for action. I felt -- surely we all felt -- a boy's desire to do that one thing that really mattered, that was adult, that required courage and skill. I was being trained for it, the Navy would see that I was ready for it (or would cast me aside because I wasn't), and when it came I would move through it easily and without anxiety, and would come out the other side into an eternal state of heroism, which would also be adulthood. Flying would provide and demonstrate the skill, flying in combat would show the necessary courage; but only the successful attack -- the bomb well placed, the enemy plane destroyed by accurate gunfire -- would be the true consummation. Sometimes I had secret doubts: Would I ever be ready? Would I know when I was? The Navy's endless Tests were there to reassure me. I was passing, I was winning -- surely it was all preparation, i t was all right and necessary.
Not everyone could win, of course, not everyone would get his wings and his commission and fly into combat; there had to be losers, and so, though we liked each other, we began to look on even our best friends as competitors, as opponents. I boxed with my roommate, and though I didn't want to hurt him, because I liked him, I found myself pressing in, pounding at his guard, hitting harder and harder because an officer was scoring us, and one of us would win; and afterward I felt ashamed that friendship had been weaker than the need to win, to pass the Test.
Not everybody minded it. Joe Baird, who could do anything effortlessly, and who never lost his temper, ran and boxed and climbed ropes all day, and would come into my room afterward, still on his tiptoes, to joke and chatter, as though the whole ordeal was just a summer camp. And Ike was the same: he just went on smiling and saying "Golly," and doing what was required of him with placid ease. The actions that for the rest of us were torments of physical strain and psychic tension were for -- them simply exercise. Their bodies had been lean and fit at the beginning, and they simply stayed that way, while their friends grew thinner and more irritable by the day, and more daunted by the effort that tomorrow would demand. But it was more than just physical conditioning. Joe and Ike were serenely happy people, above the Test; whatever the competition was, they simply weren't in it. I admired and envied their state of mind, but I never attained it.
What I dreaded most was the obstacle course, a race run over, under, and through various painful difficulties. The obstacles included most of the things I couldn't do -- a long rope to climb, a log over a ditch, which had to be inched across straddling (it was known as the Nutcracker), a high wall to be scaled. I would lie awake at night thinking, Tomorrow is Thursday, I'll have to run the obstacle course, and this time I won't make it. And when I slept I would run it in my sleep, and fail at The Wall.
There was only one way to get over the wall (which was probably about eight feet high, though it seemed higher). You had to run at it full tilt, leap and catch a momentary foothold on its smooth side, grasp the top before your foot slipped, and hurl yourself headfirst over, turning in midair to land on your feet. If you failed to do this perfectly there was nothing to do but go back and start your run over again, while all your friends and opponents dashed past and over it and out of sight. It was humiliating, and I think that's why it was there -- to make defeat seem worse than anything, worse than dying. The obstacle course was a moral exercise. It tested your willingness to undergo any strain, any effort, for the sake of a chance at a commission, and to avoid the shame of losing.
I made a new friend at the wall when, as I was hanging headfirst over the top, gasping for breath, I heard an angry southern voice say, "Aw, fuck it!" and saw a cadet named Taylor walk around the wall and jog off toward the next obstacle. I knew he could have got over -- he was a good athlete -- but he'd had enough; he just didn't see the sense of it. This approach to life made Taylor good and consoling company during those trying months. He would collapse on my bunk after a day of unreasonable trials and groan, "Every muscle in muh fuckin' body is screamin'," and then he would g o over the day's activities in vivid, angry detail -- the recognition class on Italian fighter planes ("Italian fighter planes, for Christ sake! There ain't any Italian air force except on those goddamn slides"), the signal-flag practice, the lecture on saluting, the film on venereal disease titled She May Look Safe, But... It was all chicken shit to Taylor. "Old Taylor," some other southerner said, "he thinks like a nigger. Even walks like a nigger. Maybe he is a nigger. " But he said it with a kind of admiration. He saw that Taylor was a born outsider, a natural anarchist caught in a system that had nothing for him, and that his anger and his sly evasions were the only self-defense he had.
I thought I had no memories of that time, because it had nothing to do with flying, and because I hated it so; but names and faces come back: the roommate from Virginia, with his soft Tidewater accent, who said "hah-oos" for "house"; the methodically tidy New Englander whose housekeeping got us past a white-glove inspection; Hawk Henry, an ex-enlisted man who was the only cadet in our platoon who could give orders with style. ("Eyes in the boat!" he would shout as we marched past the CO, "Eyes in the boat!" It seemed a very salty way of telling us not to gawk around.)
One evening remains, still evocative of how it felt to be young then, and going, however slowly, toward war. We had been marched across the campus, down a cinder trail through a pine wood, to the university's auditorium to see a movie. We sat by battalion, and while we waited for the film to begin we chanted, battalion by battalion, how long we had to go: "Twenty-third, one more week!" "Twenty-fourth, three more weeks!" We were th e Twenty-fifth -- five more weeks! Then the movie started. It was Casablanca.
When we returned late to our barracks, marching along the dark path through the pines, no one talked, but every once in a while someone would whistle or sing a phrase from "As Time Goes By." We were not so much thinking about the film as floating on its emotions, feeling the sadness of Humphrey Bogart, who had given up Ingrid Bergman for the Cause. We didn't really understand what the Cause was, exactly, what high principles linked the French at Casablanca to us at Athens, Georgia. But we felt the emotional link; it had to do with separation and loss, and at eighteen, in a strange place among strangers we knew something about that. In the barracks we went quietly to bed. There still wasn't much talking, but as I fell asleep I heard one last cadet, alone in the shower, singing, "You must remember this, a kiss is just a kiss...."
The days of those painful months will not separate themselves into this day or that one. But I remember the weather. There were two kinds. Rain: it fell heavily from purple-black, low, pregnant-looking clouds, straight down, windlessly, for days at a time. The red dirt of the parade ground was marched and kneaded into mud like dough, and puddles stood in the paths between the buildings. We were wet from morning until night, and the next morning our clothes had not dried, and it would still be raining, and the voice of the Officer of the Day would come over the barracks loudspeaker: "Now hear this. The uniform of the day will be raincoats, with condom-type cap covers." And we would hunch out into the waiting rain for muster. And sun: it burned down, indifferently, out of a coppery, cloudle ss sky that seemed to be stretched very low, just over the parade ground and the football field. It burned through clothes, it burned through short Navy haircuts, into the scalp, into the skull, and made your brain feel hot and dry. I played a sixty-minute football game under that sun, and it was like a year on Devil's Island.
But then, the whole thing was a kind of penal servitude, three months at hard, meaningless labor. Far from increasing our endurance, preflight drained it. Our faces grew tanned, and our bodies lean, but we were strained and tense, keyed up beyond any useful level. It was an ordeal that did nothing for us, certainly didn't make officers, or even men of us, a pointless ritual to a god called "Attitude." I sensed this, and resented it, though I didn't understand what was wrong with it then. But my resentment must have surfaced, because the football coach who commanded my company called me into his office to say, with loathing in his voice, "Cadet, you'll never make an officer. Your Attitude's all wrong." Perhaps it was. Certainly it was different from his.
The most surprising thing about preflight school is that we managed to survive it, and as friends. I don't think we learned much there, but we did learn one lesson that was valuable to us all. We learned to hate our enemies -- not the Germans and the Japanese (nobody ever mentioned them), but the nonflying, Attitude-talking martinets who commanded us, and the military system that they represented. After preflight we would never quite join the Navy; we had joined instead a smaller, more independent and anarchic group, the community of fliers. The Navy was our antagonist, muscle-bound and dumb like those football-coach office rs; but because it was dumb we could beat it. With a little imagination we could circumvent, muddle, and exploit the regulations, and we could fly. "Fuck the Navy," Taylor said as we packed to leave Athens. "That's all, just fuck the Navy." We were moving on, out of the chicken shit, back to our proper element, the air.Copyright © 1988 by Samuel Hynes
Posted January 13, 2000
This is a very well written book by an obviously gifted writer who seems to describe him self as a careless and irresponsible Naval Aviator. He writes of his little concern for his own crew members. He goes on ad nauseam regarding his fascination with raunchy limericks. He describes his poor flying judgement and careless unprofessional approach to flying safety which results several times in danger to others, unnecessary damage to aircraft and wasteful costs to taxpayers. He talks of his inattention to duty on anti-submarine patrol which would endanger those in the fleet he should have been protecting. The author deserves very high marks as an honest and talented writer but it seems a shame to represent Naval Aviators in such a poor light. My experience as a Naval Aviator leads me to believe the authors actions and attitudes were not typical.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.