All throughout the miserable day, Jack had been feeling so bad that, when it finally came, the concussive thud of the ack-ack shell as it shredded the left side of his bomber caused him to exhale and relax his grip on the yoke. The explosion he’d expected had come and he was still flying. He hadn’t long been at this deadly business before he knew that what his serious, hard-working father had taught him about the foolishness of intuition and superstition was just plain wrong. Some mornings, riding a jeep out to the bulky green planes squatting on the runway, he felt a grim palpable gloom in the air and he knew the rest of his crew did as well. Those were always days of heavy loses. It was bad luck to speak of it. Sometimes he’d look at another crew climbing into their plane and he just knew that they knew that they weren’t coming back. That hurt. This morning had been particularly dismal and the hollow flutter of dread in his chest didn’t go away until one engine was burning, another was dead, and they were losing altitude.
In the seven weeks Jack had flown out of Yorkshire and across the Channel to bomb German cities, he’d come to think of the B-17’s and their ten man crews as a strong crates laden with easily damaged goods. Jack’s sorties had been shot up and blasted, but he’d returned each time with the planes still flying and able to land on their wheels. He’d lost five wounded, three killed and one blown right out of a plane.
Now they were halfway between heaven, where the remnants of the formation, loosed of their bombs and heading home, continued on without them, and earth, which expanded out below as it came into greater detail and finer focus with every sinking mile. The intercom was out. He worked the controls hard. The air down here felt warm, thick, and humid. Jack and his co-pilot pulled off their oxygen masks. The co-pilot swore as he went back to check damage and blasphemed as he returned to report two wounded and two dead. The navigator and one waist gunner.
Once the rest of them had bailed out, the co-pilot came back to the cockpit and screamed at Jack to go, but he just wanted to ride it out. It felt good to keep the mortally damaged bird flying level. He was reluctant to give it up. Much more profanity and the co-pilot was gone. The right side engines sounded like they were grinding. He thought it must be Holland down there. Several more pieces of the left wing tore off and vanished as the plane banked to that side and slid into a long, gradual and irreversible turn. His time was up.
As he worked his way aft he crawled more on the bulkheads than on the canted deck. Everything smelled of kerosene. His mom kept a boxy tin cheese grater in her kitchen and, as a kid, he used to hold the bottom of it to his eyes and peer through it into the backyard. He thought of that as he noted the damage to the fuselage. He could see the sky right through the side of the plane. The still seated navigator looked as if he’d just put his head down on the wind riffled charts spread across his little desk. He still wore his headset and oxygen mask. Blood pooled at his feet, but no wounds were visible. The waist gunner’s remains were gruesome. He looked as if he’d been butchered by an angry amateur. Jack vomited. He couldn’t remember the man’s name.
He tightened the straps of his parachute and pulled himself to the rear hatch. His hands bled. He’d only done two real jumps in flight school and they scared him worse than anything he’d ever done. How the instructors had screamed at him. He gripped the door frame, assumed the proper stance with his feet wide. He tried to breathe. He put his hands on his waist, closed his eyes, and jumped.
He jumped more out than down. The horizontal stabilizer caved in the right side of his head. He couldn’t breathe right. His right eye wouldn’t open. He knew there was something he had to do, and, although he couldn’t think of it, he did suddenly remember the waist gunner’s name. Jack said it to himself once before he hit the ground.