“Get up,” said the chief quietly. We all jumped out of our bunks with no man hesitating to stretch or yawn. I smiled to think of how the drill instructor used to shout and scream to get us out of bed. Now our movements were almost mechanical in their efficiency: shirts, pants, and boots flew on with a flurry of movements trained over hundreds of early morning just like this one, though this early morning was special.
“We’re fighting for King and Country today lads, I’ll see you out on the strip.”
My arms and legs operated all the necessary movements by themselves, preparing for my first combat flight. My body’s preparation was automatic, the real fight was preparing my spirit for combat. I mulled over the idea of king and country while I strapped on my leather helmet.
All I know of the King is his profile printed in the six-pence in my pocket, a noble profile but I’ve seen nobler in strangers walking London’s streets. All I know of Country are lines on a map and I have no pride in my lines compared to a foreigner’s lines. I’m sure there must be much more to it than that – what of our culture and tradition you cry out – well, to be honest, all I see when I look at a foreigner is two eyes, a nose, and a mouth. In simpler words; an ordinary man. That’s not to say all foreigners are ordinary, extraordinary people are rare no matter the country.
By coincidence, it happens that the most extraordinary gentlemen I have met happened to be foreign. The story of how I came face to face with him is equally extraordinary.
Sirens blared. We ran to our planes. The sun was creeping up at our backs, we felt exposed by its blood orange gaze and scurried into our cockpits. My ground crew were flustered and struggled with the propeller. I smiled at the young crewman who wore a tight grimace over his boyish face, I don’t know why he was upset – I would be the one flying over France, it would be me filled with bullets, charred in flames, ripped asunder in a crash. Only God knows why I was smiling.
The emotional whirlwind turned suddenly, the engine roared and I felt a deep dread building in me. I drove the plane to the main airstrip and prepared to take off. The pressure built and built as the plane gained speed. The familiar pull as I sunk into the seat, it felt like an uncomfortable throne, and I, like a common-born usurper would find either glory or death. The front wheels drifted off the ground and the back and I was free. My nerves levelled out as the ground became more distant as we escaped the chilly morning mist growing off the frosted pastures below. We passed above the clouds before the sun’s lingering kiss had left the horizon’s dew-dripped lips. It was a joy that wouldn’t last, I had yet another terrible mission, another burden to be chained to my tired soul.
You are a little soul carrying about a corpse, as Epictetus used to say. Then here we are, six corpses flying into battle, what does it matter then if I am shot down over a French forest, I am dead already. How do the dead feel joy as I do now? Perhaps it is a shared joy, the shadow of a joy cast by migratory birds who also sail above these pink trimmed clouds. Cotton candy. The country fair. Shooting tin planes for a prize. My dad lifting me up onto his shoulders. Strange vivid particulars come to me, moments of joy – which like all moments of joy have given way to pain. And the pain has given way to nothingness. And the nothingness gives way to joy again – and here we are still above the cotton candy clouds. Here I am still asking, screaming, begging for an answer:
“What does it matter if I am shot down?”