Friday, April 24, 2015

The Bombardier's Grandson

David was one of those people everyone knew but no one ever really knew. You would see him at a bar, usually by himself, sometimes with just a couple of other people, but you couldn’t pin down where you had first met him or remember anywhere he’d been with anyone. David was really super quiet and women liked that about him, but he very rarely dated. I knew one woman who went out with him for a couple of months and she told me he hardly said anything. At a restaurant he ate in a hurry, at movies he never laughed at the funny parts, and it took her walking out of the bedroom naked to get sex jump started. Most people assumed he was gay because back then that was the one answer for anything that was different about anyone.

A hurricane came through one year and I was one of those ride-it-out people who wasn’t going to let a little wind and rain chase me out of my apartment. I wish I had left because when things began to get rough I realized that if anything happened I was going to be stuck in the middle of a town with no one to come rescue the idiots. There was a knock on my door and there was David. His car had a flat a block from my apartment and he decided to just park it. It wasn’t the first time he’d been over but I could count the number of times he’d visited on my thumbs. But he did have beer. That was my kind of person; stock up on beer during a storm.

Guys won’t admit to fear when other guys are around. We’ll sit on the steps of an apartment with wind blowing grown trees over right in front of us and not go in until we need another beer. I have this theory that men drink because it’s the only way to remain calm when doing things that are bound to hurt. Someone once bet me I wouldn’t swim across a pool and back, naked, on one of the coldest nights in history. Of course I took the bet and that water was much colder than ice. I was lucky not to have hypothermia. It’s a guy thing. We boldly go where no man has gone before even if it’s stupid.

So David and I are driven back inside by the horizontal rain and wind and we drink more beer. The storm is here and now and it is rocking. The lights flicker, come back on, then go down for the count. We counted fifty-three beers in the cooler and the refrigerator and decided to kill off as many as we could to keep them from getting warm. We were going to drink twenty-six beers apiece before the storm blew out. It was a challenge. We had to finish the beers during the storm!
At that point in my life a twelve pack didn’t mean a lot to me at all. So we down the first four or five, apiece, in less than half an hour. I had a little pot but David shied away from drugs, other than beer. We built a pyramid with the empty cans and so the first two six packs were stacked three on the bottom, two on the next level with one on top. We were going to start trying to merge the two stacks after that. The wind was screaming outside and the ceiling began to drip water from it, but that the hell were we going to do at that point?

I went to pee and when I came back David had a beer opened for me and he handed me a pill. Pill? He told me, and this was about the fourth or fifth sentence he had spoken all night, that he had to take pills because of his condition. What condition?
“I’m crazy” David told me and he said it like he was telling me he was a diabetic or had back pain.

We killed off another couple of beers and I couldn’t feel my face or fingers. It’s wasn’t an altogether bad feeling but I could tell it was just the beginning. I asked him how long they lasted.
“I take one every twelve hours unless I get stressed out.” He said. David rarely smiled and now when he did it was like watching his lips move back but his eyes weren’t smiling. The candle light made everything just a little more surreal and I thought more beer might actually help.

I had heard about LSD but I had never tried it. David said it wasn’t acid, he had a name for it but I can’t remember it. But I knew LSD lasted about twelve hours. So, I figured I had a little better than ten hours left in the trip. The storm was raging now. The curtains were moving even with the windows closed. That was an eerie sight. It made it look like there were things crawling on the other side of the curtains. The Pyramid was getting bigger and David seemed obsessed with getting it right.

“My grandfather flew during World War Two” David said suddenly. “Over Germany. B-17, 1944. He was a bombardier. His name was David, too”

I really love military history and I always have. We opened two more beers, drank a toast to his grandfather, and suddenly, David wanted to talk.

So they go out on this mission, daylight bombing raid, and the Germans shoot down about half the planes, thousands of men die, and then for two weeks everyone is just sitting and stunned about how terrible it was. Then they went right back to bombing like it never even happened and the Germans are still there. They take off in clear weather but a few minutes out from their target they start seeing storm clouds ahead. So David the bombardier is sitting at his station waiting to take over the plane and set the sights when they get hit. Flak tears into the thin skin of the planes and they can all hear the ripping sounds from the guts of the plane. The bomb bay doors won’t open, even with the hand crank, and they’ve lost one engine. They’re leaking fuel. Crash landing with a load of bombs is something no one is looking forward to, really.

They’re fighting for altitude, trying to figure out how to get the bombs off the plane and the pilot tells them if they’re going to dump the bombs, do it now because they’re nearly over France. There’s a debate on whether or not they’ll make it back to the airstrip and if they ditch over the water that might be better and… the bomb bay doors open and the bombs go tumbling out of the plane. The navigator is over there one the controls and he has no idea what he did but it worked. But another engine dies and pieces of it rip the wing open. They are going to go down and go down hard.

So there they are. They see this field and it’s not nearly long enough. The pilot tells them they’re going to clip the trees and hope they don’t lose their wheels but when they touch down their left landing gear collapses and they plow into the ground. The plane spins twice and stops. Fire breaks out but there’s a hole in the plane big enough to drive a jeep through. David drags the navigator out but there’s smoke and fire and he isn’t sure where anyone else is. The two of them wind up at the edge of the woods watching the plane burn like it’s tapped into Hell. Someone walks out of the fire and dies burning. David and the navigator are frozen in place and can’t get near the wreck. Ammo is cooking off left and right. The storm closes in around them and it starts raining like the tears of all the angels in heaven.

David got up at that point and went to get us both a beer. I down the rest of mine and knew, really knew, we were screwed if a tree hit the house or a tornado came. I couldn’t feel my hands or face. Worse, I felt like I had descended into a semi liquid world where everything was muted and fuzzy. There was an odd buzzy noise coming from outside as the wind gusted and whistled. We were in the teeth of the storm now. It sounded like there were a billion bees outside trying to get in. I watched in a detached sort of way as David rolled the first joint of his life. Yeah, more pot, more beer, got any more of those pills? I stumbled to a window and looked outside. Total darkness enveloped the world. The house was dark except for a couple of candles. I could hear the water hitting the floor from the hole in the roof. There was a flash of lighting and it scared the hell out of me. For a second, just as long as the light lasted, I thought I saw someone standing outside in the street.

That spooked me hard. What the actual hell was that? I went downstairs and looked out of the common area door but it was like looking into ten thousand feet of sea in a storm. But now there’s something else. I can feel it. I retreat back inside and David hands me the joint. He’s coughing from his first hit of weed and that makes me feel better, like okay, he’s a rookie and I have something to teach him now. Right? So I tell him about the first time I got buzzed and he’s smiling that smile that looks like he’s really trying to look happy but his eyes, man, I’m beginning to wonder what he gave me because my mind is bouncing around and I can feel every inch of my skin. It feels like it’s loose or something and I might slip out of it accidently.

David starts talking again. So they’re about to get the hell away from the wreck when there’s an explosion. The navigator takes a piece of shrapnel in the neck and bleeds out in less than five minutes. David is covered in blood and there’s someone in the field walking towards him, out or the rain. It’s a Frenchman and David doesn’t speak a word of French and the French dude speaks two or three words of English. One of those words is “Nazis!” so David goes with him, because really, what the hell else is he going to do? So the French guy hides him under some boards and scrap lumber in the back on an old truck and David feels real fear now. The truck seems to be headed east, not west. West towards Germany. But David is trapped under the boards and so he rides in the back of the truck in a pouring rainstorm and after a while, even the fires from the wreck begins to fade away.

David almost dozes off when the truck stops so suddenly some of the boards shift and nearly crush him. He drags himself out of the pile of boards and he realizes why the sudden stop. They’ve come to a village, or what’s left of it, and it looks like the front might have moved up and both sides hammered this place. Horrified, David realizes that this just might be where that load of bombs were dropped. He wanders around and tries to help as best he can. Nearly five thousand pounds of bombs have fallen here and it looks as bad as it sounds. There’s dead and dying everywhere, what passes as a local clinic took a direct hit, and now there’s a nurse doing triage in a horse stable by lantern light. Her husband is the local doctor but they can’t find him. She speaks enough English to tell David to go with the others and bring back only those they can save and leave the worst cases to God.

All night long they’re trying to put people back together in this storm and right in the middle of it three Nazis walk through as if they’re sightseeing and one of them walks within a foot of David but doesn’t see him. Then there’re gone, not offering to help, not looking for trouble, just passing through, thanks. The nurse’s name is Angelina, she’s pretty as hell and David’s heart stops. As the sun comes up the storm is passing and she’s sent someone to the next town over that has a real hospital and they’re going to try to get some of the wounded over there. She tells David that he can go as one of the wounded and start heading west. But David wants to help. He feels like he ought to. So he stays. He helps get the wounded out and suddenly he realizes that the people here think the Nazis did this. They all believe the Nazis bombed the town because they had helped a pilot get out just a week before. David is dismayed but he’s relieved, too.

David stops talking and the wind picks up to another level. The rain coming through the ceiling has filled up a five gallon bucket and I realize I might have to move out when they do the repairs. It’s bad, really bad out there and the water goes off. But we have beer. There’s about half as many as before and we’ve cleaned out the refrigerator. David hasn’t moved except to pass the joint and drink and talk. I realize I haven’t moved either. My entire body seemed to be dissolving. If something happens now I’m screwed and I know it. The windows are leaking water as if we’re sinking under the ocean and I have no idea if this area is prone to flooding. I hear creaking noises as the building rocks in the wind. David sits up straight, looks towards the front door and smiles. This time he means it and it scares me even worse than before.

So David stays behind and helps Angelina with the wounded and helps bury the dead. Late in the day he notices a piece of sheet metal, maybe from a truck or something like that, wrapped around a tree, flung there as if from a terrible storm, or a five hundred pound bomb. There’s a man trapped between the tree and the metal and even though his body has been smashed flat into the tree the man’s face is smiling. David stares at the man and one of the guys from the village comes up, looks at the body and says, “Doctor”. David has found Angelina’s husband. So they pry the metal off the tree and the body and someone had to go tell Angelina. She knows, of course, her husband had to be either killed or injured but she’s devastated nevertheless.

So David stays on in the village, helps rebuild it, helps the people wounded by the bombing, and helps Angelina get over her grief. The war comes closer and closer but David isn’t interested in flying or killing or fighting anymore. Angelina teaches him French and he helps her English. When the Germans flee France and head back home, David realizes that sooner or later he has to return to America. He asks Angelina to join him and she agrees. They get married in the same little church Angelina was married in five years before and David walks back to the Allied lines and tells them he’s been in hiding.

It takes a little while, but he gets Angelina back over to America. They have kids and start a new life. But every time there’s a storm, David has this feeling someone is watching him. He keeps seeing shadows at night where there should be light. David also feels guilty about dropping the bombs that killed Angelina’s husband but he vows never to tell her. So one night David sees someone standing in the doorway of the bedroom and he freaks out. Angelina is upset, the kids wake up, they’re freaked out, and David breaks down and tells her that he thinks the ghost of her late husband is haunting him. Angelina reveals that she has seen him too, and tearfully, he tells David that she thinks it was American bombs that killed her late husband, not German, and she tells him that deep down inside, she was happy to be rid of him. Angelina reveals that she has always thought that God sent David to her for her to be happy again, but the ghost…

The building moaned aloud and I nearly screamed. I could feel it. The dead man was here. He was coming to settle his accounts with the living and there was nowhere on earth we could run. David just sat there in the flickering light and held onto the arms of the chair as if he had done this before.
“The first time was pretty bad, I must admit that.” He said. “And each year, on the day of his death, he returns. My grandfather dealt with it, my father dealt with it, and ever since my father died, I’ve had to deal with it too. The bad thing is it gets worse every year. Grandad saw shadows and things in the dark. My father saw images at windows and reflections in mirrors. I see the actual body. I have to look at his face. He stands before me once a year and I have to see through it. I’m sorry for coming here. I hoped he wouldn’t reveal himself to someone else.”
And I could hear the steps on the stairs now. One after another, the dozen or so steps leading up were being tread by a heavy foot. Boom, boom, boom, boom, it sounded like distant gunfire. I thought about running but into that storm? No, I had to stay. The heard the door swing open even though I had locked it.

“That’s why I never date,” David said almost in a whisper, “I want it to end with me.”
“What does he want? Is he really that pissed off that he was accidently killed and your grandfather married his widow?” I asked but as I asked it I realize that would likely be enough.
“What?” David seemed surprised. “No, it’s not the ghost of the dead Frenchman. It’s the pilot my grandfather didn’t try to save from the flames, look, there he is now!”
I ran from the room and into the storm and I never looked back.  


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