I was cleaning out my old room at my parents' house recently (that has been co-opted by my 8 month old nephew's furniture) and found a short story I wrote in 10th grade. It's probably the first thing that I was proud of, as far as writing is concerned, and I remember my teacher read it out loud to the class without telling me first. She just started reading it-- and I was thrilled. Her margin comment reads, "Save this story! Show it to your children some day. You should be very proud of it. There is so much understanding in it and such memorable, vivid description-- and it moved me to tears." So, for your reading pleasure, here it is, unedited, without my usual parenthetical asides or interruptions.
I wish I was back in Jersey. I miss the smell of it. Some might find that hard to believe, but I sincerely do. I miss my crusty old baseball mitt with all the stitchings coming undone. I miss the pleasant smell of freshly cut grass, and the silence of picking weeds in the vegetable garden. I miss the sight of my lovely mother bending over the hot stove at dinner time, tasting her spaghetti sauce and then adding a pinch of oregano to the mix. Why am I here then? What have I done wrong?
The damn stick is stuck again, and the engine keeps on sputtering like an old woman. Damn French, you can never trust em. They couldn't build an airplane if their life depended on it... and it does. And so I'm here. Why am I out here? For them? For democracy? Fight your own goddamn war! That's what I say! Why should I have to travel a thousand miles for these ungrateful, unsympathetic bastards. I don't want to get killed a thousand miles from home defending somebody else's country, lousy bastards.
And that noise! I just wish that Palmer would die already. It seems like a pretty awful thing to say, but he's been gurgling back there ever since we got there. Every time he manages to hack out a nasty cough, a hundred little droplets of blood splash on the back of my neck. The sad thing is, is that they are warm. So warm it sends a shiver down my spine every time he does it. I can feel the sensation run down my back, like a little spider running towards the bottom of my spine. I keep straining my neck, just to try and get a look at him, see how he's doing, but he's just out of sight. I can only see his hands. His hands are grasped to the sides of the cockpit, holding on for life. He looks like he is bracing himself for a shock that will never come. Yet, I dare not speak to him. I could never. Then I will know that he truly is dying. A way of cheating myself, I guess. And that sound! He sounds like he is gurgling mouthwash- ha- mouthwash. Wouldn't we be so lucky?
Cocking my head to the side, I can see that the nimble biplane is passing over the front now. Boy, it looks like Hell erupted from the depths of the Earth, with fire and brimstone, and settled right here. The front is an ugly brown snake, weaving its staggered path past the horizon in both directions. I have to keep myself from turning away in disgust. What I am witnessing I dare not wish upon Satan himself, for this must be his doing. The smell of ash and death fills the open air, making me want to clog my nostrils, even at eight thousand feet. Craters, corpses, barbed wire, more corpses, more barbed wire. The sun is glistening off the wire like raindrops at dawn. If only it were that. The corpses are scattered throughout the front, but mainly in the belly of the snake. No Man's Land. Simply a graveyard of thousands of men. Most of the corpses are not intact. Heads, legs, torsos, lying around, without a body in sight. There are scattered puddles which were at one time some woman's son, some daughter's father. Looking down, there are no Germans, no French, nor any English, just death. It looks like a giant children's game from above. People run, people run back, some fall (they are out), some make it back. They sit and rest, and then do it all again. No real purpose, no real progress. The game of war.
I can breathe a sigh of comfort, not of relief, as I cross over the front now. The terror is over for now. I turn my head to check on Palmer. His hands are no longer there. I hang my head for a moment, and say a small prayer. I'm not a religious man, but it seemed like the right thing to do.
What purpose does this serve though? Is God testing my courage? My strength? My sanity? My one partner in this hell has a bullet lodged in his neck and is now gone. Now don't get me wrong, I am a man, yet, at that moment, I began to cry. I was not hysterical like a little girl who lost her puppy, but the kind of crying that makes other people want to come over and ask what's wrong. But that didn't happen. And I wept. I thought about how when he was first hit how he screeched like a dog whose paw got stepped on. He called to his mother, asking her to come get him. He called to God, asking Him to forgive his sins. And I wept. He called to me. While holding his hand upon his blood soaked neck, he told me to tell his mom that he died gloriously in battle. Tell her about how we shot down seven Jerries, and killed ten on the ground, before he was killed-- shot through the back of the head. Tell her how we were getting a medal for our bravery, and how the squadrons across the front were holding memorials for him. But no. Mrs. Palmer's son did not get a medal. He did not get a ceremony. He did not die valiantly. He died while scouting a farm house. He was killed by a hidden machine gun nest-- the one he was looking for. He never killed a German. He never fired his weapon. He never made it back. He was just another casualty. And I wept.
I can see our aerodrome from here. But luck is not on my side. The aerodrome is gone. The airfield is a crater. The hanger is rubble. The hospital is in ruins. I am alone here, without a gunner, with a swarm of Jerries heading right for me. I wish I was back in Jersey.