|C O M B A T|
|the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones ™|
|ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 02 Number 02 Spring ©Apr 2004|
Taylor's face was a tight white mask in the beam of my flashlight; I thought he looked dead. But I'd never seen a dead person before, so I could not be sure.
“Sir, could you shine that light down here a minute?” Jones' voice jolted me. Our rear-gunner was shouting above the roar of engines and wind noise. He was also trying to staunch the mess inside Taylor's thick flight jacket.
Forcing the light down, I struggled to keep it in the vicinity of Jones' hands. At the same time, I tried to focus my attention on anything, anything at all, except Taylor.
Truth was, I was furious with Taylor. Part of me felt that he was just showing off, to let us see how tough he was. That was before I saw how badly he was bleeding. Since yesterday I'd wished nothing but bad things on that big lug — and now my wish had become a reality.
“Sir? Give me another dressing, and hurry. I've got to stop the bleeding!” Jones held out one hand in my direction.
I reached down into the first aid kit at my feet, and groped for the packet that held the dressings. As my hands found it, I realized that they were wet. A thick wet, like the viscous feeling of engine oil. Our aircraft was bleeding too. The Lancaster bomber had been damaged in some essential part, it seemed. I hoped that all the stories I had heard about how tough these aircraft were had not just been bar room gossip.
Even now, if I craned my head back, I could see the moon through Taylor's shattered gun turret. He'd stood guard in that turret throughout eighteen missions; through all the mind-dulling tedium, noise, cold and fear to which we had all been subjected.
How did we come to this? Taylor and I were friends. Not close friends, how could we be? I was an Officer he was a Sergeant. Aside from that fact of life, there was his annoying taste in music and his smug assumption that people from up North were somehow superior to everyone else.
Taylor and I never really hit it off. Not until that night at the Farmers Arms public house, when he'd stepped in to help in a dispute. His lanky six feet four inches reached over my head into the face of a local troublemaker. The troublemaker and his friends resented people from our air base drinking in the Farmers Arms, with our camaraderie, ample money and popularity with the local female population.
Taylor's approach was blunt and appropriate. “Have you got a fuckin' problem, mate?”
As the fight broke out, Taylor used the door-handle to the bar as a blunt-ended weapon, striking the local man in the groin. There was one thing about the arrogant sod, he was useful in a tight corner.
Which was more than could be said for me. Here I was letting Taff Jones take the lead in this situation. But the truth was, I was just an Officer as far as the needs of the Royal Air Force were concerned. To the crew I was just George, their quiet Navigator, who could happily nurse one pint of beer all night. I would remain an Officer only until the war ended ... or until I was killed.
I had met Vera on the previous Saturday night at the Officer's Club dance. There was a problem with beautiful, blonde Vera, who always seemed to be smiling: she was married.
Taylor knew about Vera's husband. He knew everything. Even knew that her old man held a senior post at our air base; something special with bomb fuses, he said. It was alleged that Vera's husband was known for having a somewhat short fuse himself, especially when it came to her.
It was close to last orders when I wheeled into the lavatory, bumping into Taylor. He had a few on board by that time. He never socialized without drinking. Not that booze incapacitated him. He was an individual with the ability to drink all night and still function without a problem. That is, unless you count his increased penchant for aggressive behavior.
“You know she's married, don't you?” This last comment accompanied by a pain relieving belch and a stream of steamy pee.
That was another annoying thing about Taylor: he could pee on command, whereas I was concentrating to even start.
It was all I could think of. For me, thinking and speaking had become two separate functions. I had downed two pints of beer in the last hour — a record by my standards.
“So you wanna quit messing with Sarge Delamont's wife, that's all. There are plenty of other targets in here ....”
I could feel unreasonable anger rising up inside me. Taylor possessed the knack of knowing how to irritate almost everyone.
I was smiling to myself in the dark as I remembered our “fight”. Talk about David and Goliath! Taylor stood head and shoulders above me. His reach was incredible. Above all that, I had never been in a proper brawl whereas Taylor had been the victor of dozens. Heck, he'd probably started them!
I remembered feeling fueled up on beer and bravado — feelings that were new to me. Taylor had brought this on by disparaging Vera. I wanted to lash out at his smug, knowing grin, and show him that he didn't know me like he thought he did.
“Ok, you bastard, let's go for it right here, just you and me ....”
I was saved from being beaten to a bloody pulp by the arrival of two other members of our crew. They got between us and stopped things before it was too late.
Taylor wasn't crowing now though, he was lying beside me at the rear of our damaged airplane with a hole in his gut. Not so tough now.
“Pilot to navigator, how's Taylor?” Our pilot's voice in my headphones startled me. It was as if he had been eavesdropping my thoughts. What could I tell him over the intercom that he wanted to hear? Whatever I said would be heard by the whole crew.
“Navigator to pilot: we've patched Taylor up as best we can. He was bleeding a lot before he passed out. We think that he'll be fine — if we can get him to a Doctor soon ... over.”
There, I'd done it. I'd lied to the whole crew. I seemed to be turning into someone that I didn't much care for. Maybe I'd been hanging with Taylor for too long?
I caught Taff Jones looking at me; his expression seemed to say, “I didn't see you doing much patching up, Sir ....”
Our pilot was on the intercom again, telling Taff to return to his gun turret in the tail section. I was to stay with Taylor and keep an eye on him. It made sense to put Taff back where he was needed. After all, with Taylor down, we had no defensive fire available with Taff was away from his post.
If I was to be nurse to Taylor, I needed to be in a better position to see him. I maneuvered myself into the spot near Taylor's head which had been occupied by Jones. From here I could lean down into Taylor's face and hear his breathing; well, more like wheezing, really.
Close up, Taylor looked like a sleeping cherub. Red hair curled about the angular face, with its icebreaker of a nose. He seemed so peaceful.
As I watched him in the dim glow of my flashlight, I realized that there was a battle going on inside Taylor. The outcome of this battle would dictate if he lived or died. Why was I not surprised? Taylor was always at war with the whole World. He'd loved it when this war broke out: the Government would pay him to fight, and he even had two machine guns to use.
I remembered the night just before Christmas, when we'd been sent to bomb Essen in the Ruhr valley. With several hundred other aircraft of RAF Bomber Command, we would be flying over a very heavily defended area. It was a typical English winter's night. Calm and clear, with a bad frost that cut through the layers of our thick, fleecy flight clothing, even before we climbed aboard old M-Mother.
It was to be our tenth trip, and Taylor was unhappy that he'd not even had the chance to fire his guns in anger yet. Not that he was unique in this respect: no one on board had so much as seen a German aircraft, never mind fired at one.
But Taylor hadn't volunteered for a ride — he wanted a fight. I don't think he was interested in the kudos of shooting down an airplane, or of winning any medals, either. He just wanted the feeling he got from being in a scrap.
It happened just after we cleared the target area. We were climbing up into the star-filled blackness, relieved of our load of bombs. I had just returned to my desk behind the cockpit, when I heard Taylor's electrically powered turret whirring. At the same instant his voice came over the intercom, matter of factly, like this was what he'd been waiting for, so bring it on.
“Enemy aircraft three o'clock high ... climbing above us.”
As soon as the words were out of his mouth, MOTHER quivered as Taylor's machine guns started firing. He fired in short, three or four second bursts, as he'd been trained to. Taylor was not going to show he was a rookie by jamming his guns.
I groped my way forward to the cockpit and looked out in time to see the enemy aircraft pass above us, heading towards our left wing. It looked just like the silhouettes that plastered the Intelligence Office back at base.
Except this silhouette was on fire. As it passed over us, Taylor rotated his turret to keep the aircraft in his sights, firing all the time. Taff Jones, in his turret at the rear, could not bring his guns to bear on the German due to the acute angle.
The German aircraft dived away, out of my field of vision, but our bomb-aimer soon announced that it had exploded a few thousand feet below us.
Taylor was banging his fists on the plexiglass roof of his turret, and yelling “Come on, you bastards ... who's next?”
The enemy pilot never even saw us; he never knew what hit him. Popular opinion was that you never saw the one that got you. That same opinion also stated that somewhere there was a bullet with your name on it, too.
Taylor never imagined that tonight he would meet the bullet with his name on it. Actually, it hadn't been a bullet in the strictest sense. A piece of shrapnel had sliced through the wafer-thin fuselage of M-Mother. That shrapnel had struck Taylor in the stomach.
I was suddenly aware that Taylor's eyes were open and he was looking at me. His eyes seemed to be peaceful, not the usual aggressive, hawkish glare. His lips were moving. I had to lean down to hear him.
“I was jealous, you know ... when you were dancing with Vera ... always had a thing about her ... just too worried about her old man ... he's a nasty bastard ....”
“I didn't think that you ever worried about anyone.”
“... Shouldn't believe everything you see, George ... learn to fake it ... got to make them think you don't care ... that you're hard ... harder than them ....”
His voice trailed away.
“You mean the tough guy routine is just that? An act?”
Taylor coughed. It was not a pleasing sound. What my father called a grave-yarder.
“I'll tell you something else. I've never liked flying ... especially the take off part, with all those bloody fat bombs on board ... gives me the shits, every time. Reminds me of those poor bastards on Creaking Door ... remember when they piled in on take-off, just after we started? Never stood a chance ....”
I didn't know how to respond. Taylor vulnerable? How could this be? Wasn't he made of caste-iron?
I realized that Taylor was groping for my hand in the darkness. I reached for his gloved hand and felt foolish, holding the big paw. His eyes had filled with tears and had taken on a faraway look.
“You can have first pick of my stuff, if you like ... for what its worth. I've got some classic records in my collection ... not that you'd know your arse from a good record, George.”
“I don't want your stuff, Brian. Anyway, what are you going to listen too?”
“Don't try to bullshit me, George ... I know I'm not gonna make it ....”
I looked away as he spoke. I was just not cut out for this sort of thing. It had taken a huge effort to use Taylor's first name, which no one ever had the nerve to use. When I looked back, he was smiling again. I struggled to come up with something witty and appropriate. When I couldn't, I settled for a lie.
“You'll be Ok ... we'll be home soon — it wont be long now.”
He continued to smile, and I had the sudden feeling that I was talking to myself. I squeezed Taylor's hand but there was no response. Leaning down into his face, I strained to feel his breath.
A panic filled me. I grabbed the thick collar of Taylor's jacket and shook it. His head lolled to the right, towards the wall of the aircraft.
Looking back, it's hard to describe my emotions or what I was thinking. I couldn't believe that Taylor was dead. Someone who was so outspoken about everything could be snuffed out as easily as blowing out a candle.
I sat in the dark with Taylor's body, trying to get a handle on what had passed between us. My point of view was irretrievably altered. I would never look at a person again and think I knew everything about them. People would be a closed book to me. After all, we need our little secrets. How terrible life would be if we could see through a person, and know them intimately, as we know ourselves. Best to believe that there are good people we can trust and love, even if that is mostly a delusion.
I suppose I was in shock. In some ways, Taylor had been the glue that held all of our crew together on the ground and when we flew. Of all the people to lose, I never thought it would be him.
I knew from the first flight we made together that I could not fight Taylor's type of war. His had been a visual war, made up of moon and stars, clouds and shapes that shifted, and things that burned in the night sky.
Taylor saw the results of our work every night: burning cities that illuminated the underside of the clouds with their red glow; the bright flash of the anti-aircraft shells exploding around our aircraft, and beneath us, the destruction that our bombs wreaked.
For me, the war was confined to a dark, curtained desk: maps and compasses, pencils and charts — these were my weapons. Isolated from the outside World, I could pretend that I was immune to its vagaries and violence. I would never stare through a gun sight at a dim, speeding target that was bent on our destruction. Not for me the responsibility of guarding the aircraft from a multitude of possible attacks that could happen at any time.
My main concern was trying to locate a landmark through the clouds, and come up with a best guess heading to steer when the pilot called for one. Yes it was essential that I perform my job well, but somehow I could lose myself in numbers. I liked that. Wind speed numbers, heading and bearing numbers, time numbers, latitude and longitude numbers. We would come through unscathed, I believed, as long as we paid homage to the god of numbers.
Of course we did make it back to England that night, landing in the predawn chill. Our pilot brought off a tricky landing with an unstable airplane.
I'll be honest, I don't remember much until I stood alone on the runway, feeling the cold on my face and hands. I was looking up at the millions of stars that lit the sky. I knew that I had passed a turning point: all I could think was that if Taylor had been scared, too, then what hope for the rest of us mere mortals?
The crew of M-Mother went on and finished our allotment of thirty missions without further mishap. A replacement gunner filled Taylor's post on those flights.
But there was an eighth person with us on those missions. He would lean inside my curtained office with his casual manner, whenever I thought I'd lost our way, whenever the shrapnel from the anti-aircraft shells rained a little too hard on the thin skin of our machine and it seemed we might not make it through.
He'd scowl and swear, and I'd smile up at the big lug ... and I'd feel a little better.