Valene Barwick “Hey Jerry! Look out! That cloud’s going to eat you!” Charlie’s voice called from above. A chuckle filled the cabin of the B-17 bomber. “Actually, I believe it will eat you first, Charlie!” Jerry’s deep voice called up from the ball turret underneath the plane. I sat strapped to my seat at my post at the side gun, listening to my friends’ antics. It was midafternoon and the sun was shining directly on the metal sidings of the aircraft. It was like an oven. I shifted my goggles on my forehead, wiping the sweat that was dripping from under my leather cap. Peeking out the small window in front of me, I looked to see what the boys were talking about. Ahead was a massive cloud. Very unthreatening and looking decidedly appealing. It would block the ruthless sunshine for at least a moment. As we approached the fluffy whiteness, I leaned my head against the firm foam of my seat and closed my eyes. We had been training for what seemed like years. These excursions seemed so worthless, flying over the Carolinas just to make sure we were comfortable in a plane and to give Johnny, the pilot, a little more practice. They were calling this the Second World War. The headlines about what was happening overseas were finally truly affecting the US. I shifted restlessly in my seat, my khaki pants sticking to the leather. I wasn’t ready to fly over seas. My only comfort was that I wouldn’t have to kill anybody. I was part of the flight crew. I would stay at the base and service the planes. I wouldn’t fly into battle or drop bombs on cities. My largest danger was detonating a bomb while loading it into the bay. Which was a considerable danger, as my wife, Hazel, repeatedly pointed out. I would calmly remind her that I was a professional and fully trained in the procedure. This would usually follow with a reminder that I have only a minimal chance of being shot out of the sky also. The only time I’d be airborne was while moving between bases. After this routine speech, she would huff and grumble, marching to the kitchen to scrub her frustrations away on some helpless pot or counter. Usually I didn’t fly with the crew. As head mechanic, I would stay on the ground at the base, training the newbies who appeared weekly. But, because of my eminent transfer, I was forced to train for flight as well. This flight was a practice for the long, treacherous trip over the Atlantic, a trip I was not looking forward to. I had heard too many horror stories about getting lost over the ocean and missing the islands to refuel, or getting shot down by enemy ships, or if you were lucky enough to get out of the plane, the stupid parachute wouldn’t deploy. I hated parachutes. The feeling of all that open air around me without anything solid beneath my feet…no, not my ideal situation. Sometimes I think that I would rather go down with the plane than leave my fate to a piece of cloth tied to my chest. My sickening thoughts were interrupted by the hoots and fake squeals of my crewmates. “Ah-ha-ha! The pain!” “It’s the end of the world!” “Save me!” I grinned and shook my head. We had entered the cloud. To my relief, the air in the cabin cooled slightly. I leaned my forehead on the now cool plastic window before me, sighing in relief. “Hey Bert! Do you live?” cried Charlie’s mocking voice from above. I chuckled lightly. “Of course. But I was just wondering one thing,” I called back. “What?” I could barely see his red face as he looked down at me, his blonde curly hair plastered to his forehead. His wide, toothy grin filled with cocky over-confidence. “How did a cloud get past all your hot air?” The guys hooted with laughter. “Ah he got you, Charlie!” boomed Jerry’s voice. I laughed. “You all sound like a bunch of sissies. We’re supposed to be professional US soldiers. Think what the lieutenant would say if he heard you all squealin’ like girls—”
I was interrupted by an outraged roar of objection. “Hey Bert! At least we don’t scream like girls when we jump out of planes!” countered Charlie. I didn’t say anything as the boys roared with laughter once again. My parachute training had not gone well the past few times. Last week we were jumping over some fields and the boys got impatient with me. If I had been given enough time to prepare I would have been fine, but—nobody likes getting pushed out of an airplane. If I remembered correctly, it was Charlie who did the honors. I glared at the machine gun in front of me, resentful that the boys found so much delight at my expense. We were coming out of the cloud now, the whiteness fading into whispers of fluff against the bright blue. I turned my head to look at the others in the cabin. Charlie and Jerry were seated out of sight but there were five others in the cabin with me. The boys had quieted, looking out their windows at the Carolinian landscape below. I looked from face to face. Most of them still held a trace of a smile from their joking as they stared out in contemplation. Each man had their own history; their own dreams. I couldn’t help but wonder if they would live to fulfill them. Some had wives or girlfriends. While Hazel and I walked around camp in the evening, we would see them seated close on the steps or talking with their foreheads pressed lightly together. We would have to leave our women soon, to go across seas to join the war. I thought of Hazel, her red hair and fiery glance. The way she’d stand up to anyone and say what was least expected. I loved her dragon-like qualities. Her fierce loyalty, her determined attitude… I swear I saw her breathe fire at a man who was criticizing the war effort once. She was my life and my strength. I dreaded the day I would have to leave her. The silence was broken by a shrill beeping from the front of the plane. We all jumped but knew it was best to stay quiet. The relaxed feeling of companionship dissipated as tension filled the small space. After a moment, Jerry broke the silence. “Johnny, what’s happening?” his low voice carrying from below. We all waited. I could feel the hairs on my back stand up in apprehension. Fear clenched my stomach. As a mechanic, I knew what that sound meant. After a moment, Johnny called from the front, “Buckle on your parachutes, boys. We’re not going to make it.” Horror gripped my body. My lungs felt like the air was being squeezed out of them. I barely noticed as the cabin flurried into action. Everyone seemed to be acting on reflex, their training taking over their bodily functions as their minds tried to grasp the sudden change in situation. My mind was not grasping very well. I just knew my heart was going to stop and explode. I buckled the pack to me with shaking fingers as Johnny explained what I had already guessed. “We’ve run out of gas. That detour we took earlier really ran us dry. I don’t think we’ll make it to the base. You boys need to jump and get to the ground for your own safety.” “What about you, Johnny?” asked the young man beside me. “I’ll try to land the plane.” We were silent for a moment. “But…but Johnny…” “No buts! Now get moving!” hollered Johnny. He turned his head to glare around his seat at us. “I am the captain and what I say goes!” In the shocked silence, the beeping noise was growing more persistent and each shrill note tore into my nerves ruthlessly. I struggled to swallow the lump in my throat. When I spoke, my soft voice carried in the silent cabin. “But Johnny, you could die.” Everyone held their breath for his reply. I could hear him sigh before he replied. “You boys get yourselves out of this cabin, you hear? If I abandon this plane as well, I may survive but it could crash on a town, killing innocent people. I think I might make it to the base but that doesn’t mean I need to risk your lives as well. You boys are like family, and if you have any respect for me, you will get out of this darn plane.”
We all knew there would be no more discussion. Johnny was the boss, our superior. No matter how much we were worried, he was still in charge. I reached up shakily and pulled the goggles over my eyes. The boys started gathering around the door, settling their parachutes more firmly on their backs. As I moved to join them, Jerry came up and placed a large, black hand on my shoulder. “You gonna be alright, Bert?” I nodded hesitantly. “Ya, sure. Piece of cake.” He looked down at me, his brown eyes staring into mine. “Just remember, don’t panic.” He wasn’t talking very loud but his deep voice carried to the others and despite the stress of the situation, Charlie laughed. “Now we’ll see who’s the girly one!” I glared at him. One of the others hit the airlock and slid the door open. The air pressure pulled us towards the opening and we all staggered slightly. “See ya on the ground, mates!” the first man grinned and jumped. The others followed suit until it was just Jerry, me, and Charlie. Jerry and Charlie stood by the opening, their silhouettes almost humorously dissimilar. Jerry was large, dark, and muscular. Charlie, however, was pale and slim, his head held high with confidence that almost hinted toward superiority. He was about to jump when he stopped. Grinning maliciously he turned to me where I stood pressed against the opposite wall. “Come on, scaredy cat. After you. Have to make sure you get off. Comrade care, you know.” My stomach did a flip as I glared at him, my eyes determinedly not looking at the vast openness of the air beyond. My eyes flicked to Jerry who stood looking on with no expression. He nodded, his eyes staring levelly into mine. They made room for me as I moved towards the opening, the beeping still filling the cabin. When I reached the edge, I looked down. Big mistake. My stomach heaved. I turned my head away quickly and caught Charlie raising his arm to push me. I grabbed it with a growl. “Don’t touch me,” I said through my teeth. Startled, he stepped back. Turning back to the opening, I counted to five. One…of course this had to happen. Two…and over such a stupid thing too. Three…I mean, who had even filled the tank this time? Stupid. Irresponsible. Four…the beeping is getting louder. Fove…Hazel. I jumped. The air caught at my limbs as I hurtled towards the forested hills below. Panic began to cloud my brain as all reasonable thought fled from my mind, but I refused to scream. I wouldn’t give Charlie the satisfaction. Below and behind me I could see the white parachutes of the other men like clouds against the blue sky. Oh yeah…right— I began to shift my body into the correct position for deployment and I felt myself slow as the air resistance caught at my limbs. My training began to take over and I struggled to focus on what was happening. Tightening my churning stomach, I gauged the distance to the ground. When I thought the time was right, I pulled the small hoop and my parachute deployed. I gasped as the wind caught the fabric, pulling me suddenly upward, compressing my lungs. Triumph shot through me at my success. The ground approached much slower and easier now. Or so I thought. As the trees grew larger and larger, so did my panic. I suddenly realized that without slowing up some more I would slam into the trees. It would be extremely painful. I was quickly running out of time to find a clear place to land. I searched frantically for a clearing to land but none were in sight. The hills were completely covered by forest. I did all that I knew how to slow myself before I collided with the leafy branches. As I hurled through the canopy, leaves smacked my face and skin and twigs grabbed at my clothing. A small branch hit my chin, forcing my head back. I thought I was going to plummet to the ground and crush into a million pieces on impact, when I came to an abrupt stop. The straps holding on my pack cut into my armpits. Gasping for breath, I hung there for a moment, swinging slightly as leaves and dirt floated down around me. I was alive. Amazingly enough. As my panic subsided, I became painfully aware of my body. Everywhere hurt and stung. My face felt like it had been sunburned and then vigorously rubbed with a towel. My arms and legs ached where I’m sure I had received multiple bruises. I became faintly aware of an unpleasantly warm sensation on my chin. I reached up a quivering
hand to touch it. Wincing at the contact, I pulled my hand back quickly. It came away covered in blood. I froze, staring at the redness at it dripped down my fingers and onto my khaki uniform. Instantly I became dizzy and lightheaded. Closing my eyes, I tried desperately to control myself. I remained still for several minutes, swaying slightly. I began to wonder where the others had landed and if they were alright. With a shock, I suddenly realized that I had heard no crash. I strained my ears anxiously, dreading the inevitable boom of the explosion when the plane went down. I remained silent for some time, my body tense with apprehension, but no sound came to me. Eventually, realizing the futility of listening for a crash that would happen whether I was listening or not, I turned again to my own situation. I looked up, the gooey, warm blood trickling down my neck. My parachute was caught on a large branch, some ways up in the trees. Looking down I realized I was not too far from the ground. Maybe fifteen or twenty feet. With new determination I pulled a handkerchief from my pocket and gently dabbed at my dripping chin, wincing at each contact. Stuffing the soiled cloth back into my pocket, I looked around me. To the left and a little above was a thick branch about five feet from me. Carefully I began to swing my feet towards it, listening intently to the branch above me for any signs of breaking. I grabbed hold of the rough bark with my left hand and winced as my momentum pulled me back, yanking on my arm. I did not let go though. I swung my right arm up and grunted as I pulled my body up to follow, my sore muscles complaining from the strain. I suppose there was some purpose for the mindless chin-ups we had to do every day. I sat precariously on the branch until its wobbling subsided. Then, with an unsteady breath, I detached my parachute. The straps swung away from me, leaving me free and slightly unstable. Swinging into sloth position, I crawled, hand-over-hand, to the trunk of the tree where another branch sat beneath it. I ignored the stinging slaps of leaves as I moved through them and the disconcerting tickle of insects as they crept over my hands. Reaching the trunk, I swung my legs down and stood hazardously on the branch below, my hands pressed against the trunk for support. From here, the ground was not so far down. Crouching, I grabbed the branch near my feet and lowered myself down until I hung by my hands, my feet dangling a couple feet from the ground. With a steadying breath, I let go. My feet hit the leaf strewn ground and I sat abruptly. I stayed there for a moment, unmoving. My mind an exclamation of nothingness as the shock and relief set in. I ran my fingers through the gloriously solid dirt beside me and a leaf I had dismantled drifted gracefully down to sit in my lap. I was alive. Glory to heaven, I was alive. I surveyed my surroundings. All around me were the thick trunks of the diverse Carolinian trees. No roads or paths were in sight. Without rising, I sighed, scooting to the base of my tree of salvation. Resting my back against its coarse bark, I pulled out my handkerchief. Holding it against my still bleeding and throbbing chin, I settled down for a long wait. Hazel. I sighed. I would see her again. I smiled, and then chuckled ironically. She was going to be furious. Dinner was probably going to be thoroughly cold by the time I got home. I sighed, anticipating her fiery reputes but also her relieved kisses. On that pleasant thought, I drifted off into an exhausted sleep. They came for me a couple hours later. They supported me on my stiff muscles to the jeep and I questioned them about the others. Everyone had been found and was fine. Charlie had a sprained ankle (I chuckled at that) and one of the others had a minor concussion. Johnny had made it to the base after all, running on the final fumes of gasoline. I often ask myself, why in the world did we jump out of a perfectly good airplane?
Published on Apr 22, 2013