Cassadaby James Salter
The lives of officers in an Air Force squadron in occupied Europe encompass the contradictions of military experience and the men's response to a young newcomer, bright and ambitious, whose fate is to be an emblem of their own. In Cassada, Salter captures the strange comradeship of loneliness, trust, and alienation among military men ready to sacrifice all/i>
The lives of officers in an Air Force squadron in occupied Europe encompass the contradictions of military experience and the men's response to a young newcomer, bright and ambitious, whose fate is to be an emblem of their own. In Cassada, Salter captures the strange comradeship of loneliness, trust, and alienation among military men ready to sacrifice all in the name of duty and pride.
After futile attempts at ordinary revision, Salter elected to begin with a blank page, to compose an entirely new novel based upon the characters and events of his second long unavailable novel, The Arm of Flesh. The result, Cassada, is a masterpiece.
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By James Salter Counterpoint Press
Copyright © 2002 James Salter
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Towards the end of the afternoon Dunning sat in the office, going through papers, from time to time licking a thumb as he turned a page. His broad brow was furrowed as he read, but he was an image of calm, like a judge examining briefs. Outside, the sky was dark, the clouds threatening rain. It had been that way since morning. From time to time in the stillness came the call of crows on the fenceposts or in bare branches at the edge of the field. Saturday late. Almost everyone gone.
A low sound, barely audible at first, made him turn his head. For a moment he seemed almost puzzled. The sound was faint but growing and unmistakable, like distant thunder. It was engines, wide open. They were as if headed towards him. He could hear them, full and unwavering, suddenly very close, almost overhead, roaring down the runway, low, but in the clouds. He never saw them. Then they had passed, but the sound stayed there, heavy and prophetic, before slowly fading, leaving silence behind. Dunning reached for the telephone, German like much of it, and dialed a number. Waiting for someone to answer he turned to the window again. It was absolutely quiet, the crows settled back in the trees. Impatiently he opened the thin directory to check the number when a voice said at last, "Base weather."
"Give me the forecaster," Dunning ordered.
"He's not here, suh."
"Where is he?"
"I doan know. He may be downstairs having coffee."
"Go and get him for me right away."
"Well, I don't know where he's at right now. Can I have him to call you?"
"No, goddamn it! Go get him! Go find him!"
"I'm not allowed to leave the weather station," the voice complained, almost sulkily.
"I don't give a damn what you're allowed to do. This is Major Dunning. Start finding him in a hurry!"
There was no reply, only faint breathing over the phone.
"Did you understand me?" Dunning said.
"Then get me the forecaster!"
After a moment or two there was the sound of the phone laid down. Dunning tried to estimate the ceiling himself. He could just make out the control tower a mile away, the beacon on top of it turning steadily, vacant and pale, like the gaze of a blind man. There were dark, smokey patches of cloud near it floating nearly that low. He pushed the window open to hear better. Silence, even greater than it seemed before. Someone picked up the phone. The clearing of a throat.
"Who is this?" Dunning demanded.
"Sergeant McEnerny, sir."
"Where the hell have you been? Aren't you supposed to be on duty?"
"Yes, sir," the sergeant said, "I am. I've been right here in the building all along."
"I'll find out where you've been, don't worry about that. What are you reporting the weather as? Someone just made a missed approach here."
"This is Major Dunning, sir?"
"I see, sir," the sergeant said. "Our latest observation is five hundred overcast," he was reading from a sheet of yellow paper, "and a mile and a half in light fog."
"When did you make that? Take a look out the window."
"The observation was made on the hour. That's exactly ..." A pause. "Eighteen minutes ago."
"What does Spangdahlem have?" Dunning said. He could hear the movement on the other end, a clipboard being reached for.
"Let's see. They're calling it a little lower, Major. They're calling it three hundred broken."
"I thought so."
"Three hundred broken, five hundred overcast, one mile in fog."
"That sounds more like it."
"Well, sir, here we have five hundred and a mile and a half. That's current."
"Make another observation, sergeant," Dunning said," and call me back. That's an order."
He was interrupted by the sound of footsteps. Someone was running down the hall. A head appeared in the doorway. Godchaux, one of the champions.
"Major?" There was something in his voice.
"What is it?" Dunning said, now quite alert.
"That was two of ours."
Dunning was the squadron commander, an exalted position. He was at the last command level of complete intimacy with all those beneath him, thirty-odd pilots and a hundred and forty men, some veterans, others serving in their unforgettable first unit, many he would have been able to call by their first name but he liked to use rank, roll it off his tongue, Sergeant somebody, Lieutenant. His mouth would purse oddly. He was a southerner; a strain of formality was in his blood.
He was well-known in the wing and even beyond. He was six years in grade, his wife, Mayann, a past president of the Officers' Wives Club. A command-wide list, confidential, requested by the Pentagon, had gone in from Twelfth Air Force. On it were the first twenty officers of the rank of major recommended regardless of seniority for promotion to lieutenant colonel. Davis R. Dunning, commander 44th Fighter Squadron, had been the first name. What had become of the list, what action would be taken, no one yet knew.
Isbell was his operations officer and right arm. A captain, he was a different sort, cool on the outside, cooler within with but one flaw: he was an idealist. Apart from that he had almost every thing necessary. He was experienced, confident, untiring. He had seven hundred hours in the airplane and two thousand besides, a hundred and sixty of them flying against the Russians and Chinese in Korea, fierce fights along the Yalu. In addition to other knowledge, he knew Dunning. They had been together for more than two years. They were, with the first sergeant, Banda, an ex-marine, triumvirs. All that was to be done or not to be done flowed from them.
Giebelstadt. It was entirely characteristic of Isbell to rise before daylight to check the alert flight. Early fall. The summer had been short, about one week instead of the usual two, as Dunning remarked. There was early frost turning the grass silver and flecking the airplane canopies with white. The cool smell of snow was already in the air together with the crowing of a distant rooster. Isbell walked down to the latrine in the darkness. The water was loud when he turned it on. He warmed his hands beneath it for a while. Cold was coming through the casement windows.
In their tent Dunning was still sleeping, heaped up like an old bear. It would be at least an hour before he woke, groaning and stretching his arms. He slept in his khaki underwear and sometimes received the first sergeant in itit did not diminish his authority. He would go to the mess for coffee, talk a little to whoever was there, then wander over to the flight line.
Isbell had long since driven down the black road, heading into the open, past the trees beyond which like some mysterious stretch of water the silent runway lay. A wind was blowing, a German October wind, chilly, with points of moisture in it. They had been sent here on maneuvers, one lone runway, a building or two. There were stars in the sky and tug lights among the airplanes parked in a long line.
In the alert shack Ferguson was sitting by the stove, the poker dangling from his hands. A furious sound filled the room. It was coming from the stove which glowed brilliant red along the bottom, the middle of the lid, too, and the pipe. Outside, a stream of wild sparks was dancing above the dark roof.
"Step up and warm yourself, Chief," Ferguson invited. "Compliments of 'B' Flight."
"You'll be hot enough when that thing explodes."
"Have to chance that, Cap'n," Ferguson said. "The Natchez is trying to pass us."
"Right behind us, Cap'n. She's only half a mile back and gaining all the time."
"You'd better cut down the draft," Isbell said.
Ferguson raised a boot and kicked the hinged door closed a little.
On the floor lay a page of the Stars and Stripes he had been piercing with the radiant tip of the poker. There was a full-length picture of a girl in a bathing suit. Only her head and shoulders were untouched.
"What time do you go on status?" Isbell asked.
"In about five minutes."
Just as he said it, the scramble phone rang. A line check. As Ferguson was hanging up, the others began to come in, rubbing their hands and going to the stove. Godchaux was last. He was twenty and had been in the squadron for more than a year, Dunning's favorite, "the best natural pilot I ever saw." Isbell didn't disagree. White teeth and the smile of an angel. Show me a man who knows how to lie, he thought, and I'll show you a smile of genuine beauty, I'll show you someone who knows how the world runs.
Godchaux stood with his back to the stove and his elbows out to the side, espaliered against the glow, almost satanic. Isbell beckoned him with a slight lifting of the chin.
"Yes, sir," Godchaux responded without moving.
Isbell motioned to him. Godchaux took a step or two forward.
"Did you have a flashlight out there?"
Godchaux's innocence held for a moment and then he shook his head, not much, like a mischievous, already forgiven boy.
"How'd you inspect the airplane, then?" Isbell said.
"I borrowed the crew chief's."
"You did, eh? Where's yours? What's wrong, don't you have one of your own?"
"Where is it?"
"The batteries are no good, Captain. They're dead."
"Well, buy some," Isbell said. "You're getting paid enough."
Grace, the commander of "B" Flight, was shaking his head a little in fatherly disappointment, as if agreeing. In all likelihood he had no flashlight himself.
Soon after, there was the uneven ring of the field phone and the first scramble went off, two ships flowing down the runway, fleeing from a roar that washed over the field like a furnace thrown open, making the corrugated walls tremble. Isbell stood watching as they crossed the trees together, the wheels coming up. An hour of absolution in the clean, holy morning. An hour and a half. How often he had relied upon it himself, a taste of the immaculate with unknown cities far below and in cold silence the first mist vanishing from the hills.
Excerpted from Cassada by James Salter Copyright © 2002 by James Salter. Excerpted by permission.
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I had never heard of Salter till I read this extraordinary praise of 'CASSADA' in the San Francisco Chronicle. I gambled twenty-five dollars on it and from the first page I knew I had an investment of great value. Yes it's about flying, but more than that, its about the people in and around airplanes. Writing about a piece of aluminum with an engine in front of it will keep my attention for a page, and that's it. But with Salter we get a master story teller who gets behind the machinery and into the hearts and souls of everyone involved. It is almost scary to read, but also a masterpiece. I read it in one sitting, couldn't put it down, and was emotionally drained by the lst page. There wasn't one scene, one sentence, that didn't feel right on. Now I have to find what else Salter has writen, he's that good!