“Get up,” said the Sergeant quietly. We all jumped out of our bunks with no man hesitating to stretch or yawn, within a few moments the RAF barracks was alive with movement. I smiled to think of how the drill instructors 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,” said Sergeant Brodie with more excitement in his voice than I had ever heard from him.
My arms and legs operated all the necessary movements by themselves, preparing for my first combat flight. 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 that is printed on the six-pence in my pocket, a noble profile but I’ve seen nobler adorned on 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 person. 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 that I have crossed fates with 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 shining into our faces, we felt exposed by its blood orange gaze and scurried into our cockpits. I was halfway in my plane when a strong hand came to rest on my shoulder, I spun around to face the Sergeant. “Wrong plane,” he said. And of course he was right. Flustered, I climbed down and made my way to my actual plane, as I walked way I heard him, “Don’t worry son, have faith.” My ground crew were also flustered and struggled with the propeller. A boy struggled with the propeller, he wore a tight grimace over his boyish face, I don’t know why he was upset he wouldn’t be 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 Sergeant was alongside me in his own plane, I smiled at him and he nodded, though did not return the smile.
My emotions 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 force pushed me back into the seat, it felt like an uncomfortable throne, and I, like a common-born usurper would find only 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 lingering sun’s 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 said. 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 has given way to pain. And the pain has given way to nothingness. And the nothingness gives way to joy again – 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?”
The land grows old under me. As we venture to the front, the pastures grow sickly yellow in sparse patches, bomb craters pocket her skin and trenches wrinkle deeper the closer we get. These wounds will heal eventually but the land will be impossible to farm to decades – Mother Earth forgives but she does not forget. The front itself is horrific, for a moment I think that I must have lost my way in a cloud and accidentally flown to another planet. An otherworldly land sat below in stagnation. Only disease thrived here amongst the mud, death, and screams. Disease of the mind also grew upon the utter boredom for the soldiers down there in the dirt, who sat, and did nothing but bide time by wondering when the call for the great push would come. When would the officer raise that bugle and watch others die? That bugle may as well be Gabriel’s horn to those poor souls.
Up in the air wasn’t that much better. The sky had its own ruined tinge, the clouds were famished, too thin and transparent to hide behind. I managed to stay in formation though my hands fluttered about. There was a slight shudder through the formation, something unseen was watching us. We could see no enemy planes and then the wind changed, a bad omen. A flash of light exploded to my right and a plane went down. Our formation was in disarray, panicked lambs running about an abattoir. The smoking wreck of my ally lay on the ground below. Did he bail in time? No time to think at all, the huns were upon us. I wonder if they cared about their Kaiser anymore than I cared about the King. I wondered if it mattered all. It certainly didn’t matter what I thought of those questions, I simply fought and fought hard because it was a game and some unknown piece of my soul wanted to win.
The sky was filled with packets of hot metal that burst and flew in every direction. My luck was running low, soon I would be plucked from the sky like the mallard I killed, a winged angel would guide a whistling bullet into my skull, a gavel strike for karmic justice. I couldn’t keep this up, every time I had a hun in my sights I would hesitate and pull away. Outnumbered and overwhelmed, I had to kill. A plane pulled in front of me, the pilot unaware that I was behind. Just as his parents were unaware, and his uncles, his aunties, his cousins, his friends, that stranger he met on the streets of Berlin last winter – they sheltered in a cafe while a blizzard raged on outside, they talked by the fire for hours and she made him promise to come see her after the war. It was a promise that I would make him break. I held down the trigger and a stream of bullets sliced through the rudder, up the tail, and splattering blood out the cockpit. My bullets made mince of the pilot, the boy, the man, the son, and now the absent lover. If you’re as cynical as me, you will be asking “How do you know this about him?” Of course, I am lying. I don’t know anything about the man other than the fact I killed him over Vauz sur Somme. But the point is he could have been all of these things and more — as safe an assumption as the strangers you walk past every day having the same number of problems and joys as you do. Safe to assume that at least one person loved him even if it was just his mother – even if he was the most detestable person on Earth, I took him from her.
All that was left of the plane and pilot went spiralling down into the mud of no man’s land, another monument to man’s ingenuity and its depraved ends. In my last glance of the plane, which I will forever hold sacred and terrible in my soul, I saw an unholy union between, strings of meat fused into the blood-splattered glass and splintered wood. Not even Da Vinci, when he sketched the first flying machines, could have pictured the violently absurd nature of modern warfare. I’m no genius and I certainly don’t live in any sort of renaissance but I predict warfare will become faster and more brutal than it is even now. Battles will last seconds, wars will be won in minutes. Never again will your noble king beckon you once more into the breach, there will only be the furious incoherent roar of engines – a cacophony of motorised screams; begging to fight, yearning to die.
That isn’t to say this warfare is slow. A man’s life can be snatched before you’ve wiped the fog from your goggles – as I am a living testament to. After I shot down my first plane, I took the opportunity to get some distance and see if I could find a friend. There! Close to the ground was the Sergeant, like a daredevil he weaved and dodged anti-air guns with the ease of a swallow. I took my plane lower and kept up with him, and when he also recognised me as an ally he made some sort of a frantic gesture with his hands. I rubbed my goggles clear to get a better look at what he was trying to communicate. As I lifted my fingers from the goggles and it was as if I had erased his plane with the condensation. There was no trace of him but a blinding red flash that passed with such speed and proximity that I hardly recognised it as a plane. Flinching from the cacophonous sound my ally was sent in a fiery descent down to the craggy hillside with the ease of Pharaoh dashing a newborn against the rocks. And I, as helpless as the Sergeant was, somehow survived by inaction and used a gentle breeze to float away as Moses did down the Nile.
I had been fighting for nearly two hours and now had to return, though a vengeance burned in me. The flight home went quickly, so did the debriefing, the dinner went by and then the moment of silence for our fallen brothers. It felt as if I hadn’t blinked since that red flash had made me flinch. The red devil could have only have been one man. The recruits joked and told stories of him to scare it each other, and the veterans, who wore angry frowns but whose eyes were stretched open with fear, discussed him in a hushed serious tone. I heard them tonight in the mess.
“We fought him today…”
“Who else, The Baron.”
“Ha! You wouldn’t be standing here if you had.”
“I was lucky to crawl out of that scrap.”
“Hmm, but I heard Brodie wasn’t so lucky.”
Both men nodded and went silent.
It fell on me to collect the Flight Sergeant’s belongings from his room. His death was a shock, but the emotional aspect of it had not yet hit. As I picked up family photographs that he kept in precious bundles tied in twine, a small piece of paper fell out. I almost threw it out when I saw that something had been scribbled on it with a blue biro.
AN AIRMAN’S PRAYER
Almighty and all-present Power,
Short is the prayer I make to Thee:
I do not ask in battle-hour
For any shield to cover me.
The vast unalterable way
From which the stars do not depart
May not be turned aside to stay
The bullet flying to my heart.
I ask no help to strike my foe,
I seek no petty victory here ;
The enemy I hate, I know
To Thee is also dear.
But this I pray, be at my side
When Death is drawing through the sky.
Almighty God, who also died,
Teach me the way that I should die.
I had always been jealous of officer’s private rooms but now I was grateful of the four walls surrounding me, hiding the quiet tears that I scarcely wanted to acknowledged myself.
Over the next few months, I went on another two dozen flight missions over France. The fear became thrilling and the thrill became pleasure. I no longer asked myself, “What does it matter if I am shot down?” I knew with that it did not matter. Perhaps it was the prayer caused this change in me, it’s impossible to know for sure – the human soul’s run as deep as the endless sky stretches. But the body is finite and so is a man’s time here, as was proven to me one fateful day.
I was placed in a flight mission that scheduled from an hour before dawn. The moon had decided to turn her face away from the violence that was to occur and the night was dark. We fly in a strange serenity, I could see the burst of gun fire in the distance, like a small candle. But I knew that small candle was a pilot light to the furnace we were about to consume ourselves in. Flames that licked our wings, hell-fire sparking and groaning and screaming, we were enveloped in the fighting at once.
A red flash. Beelzebub is that you? Come to take me to your icy lair? No, it must have been a plane, the only other alternative is that long ago vanquished beast painted in red for its never-ending rage – still searching for St George who cleverly had his tomb dug deep underground, hidden from vengeful sky-borne eyes. Forgive the romantics, I am getting sentimental in my old age. It was a red plane, though it may as well have been a dragon, I was petrified. A hot prickling ran down my back, itchy hives crawled across my skin – I was being hunted by the Red Baron. Somewhere in this night sky that glowing red knife of his was floating and hidden but could at any moment plunge down into my throat.
The thrill of the hunt is nothing compared to the thrill of being hunted. If only the upper-class gentlemen were aware of this fact. No doubt, they would employee tie foxes on to their horses, and teach them to ride, shoot and hunt. Their furry snouts at the horn would set off the gentlemen running with their tailcoats between their legs, the foxes giving chase, and shooting their backsides full of rocksalt.
The Baron wouldn’t be firing rocksalt at my behind, the rush I felt was genuine and moving. To even recount the experience to you is difficult, to speak of the wayward wind, the need to smash my stubborn fingers against the controls as my hands had gone numb with mortal fear, the fear that struck me looking at every suspicious cloud. My pen becomes sluggish and my hand resists me in anticipation of the horrific end to this story – the story of how I killed the Red Baron.
His death was his own fault and not by my skill. I still don’t know to this day whether his mistake was intentional or not. He flew with mastery and fought with honour, disabling many of our planes without killing the pilots. His attacks were as tender and final as a lover carrying a virgin over the threshold. Yes, I too had the same dreadful, feeble, and woman-like feeling that the Baron’s aura produced. My dread became reality and I ended up in a dogfight with the man himself. Some ancestral warrior spirit possessed me, took the controls from my shaking hands and I flew with a courage have never been able to reproduce. But even this miracle was not enough; he ripped my left wing to pieces, I felt the bullets dart past my face, and the plane began to spiral.
I should have bailed but somehow I managed to get the plane to slow and I brought it back level. The next few moments are like a strange dream. I observed my surroundings and saw the Red Baron was flying low, not manoeuvring or dodging or attacking, simply flying straight toward the sun rising in the east. All the other pilots must have felt that they too were in dreaming – no one attacked him, save for myself. My engine sputtered and I had to lean the aircraft at a strange angle, to tack back and forth, in order to fly straight. Slowly but surely, I crept up behind him while he simply observed the rays gleaming through the scattered clouds. A strong hand rested on my shoulder, a peculiarity caused by momentary euphoria is all I can assume of it. The phantasm made me think of Brodie, I shrugged it off, locked in my sights, and fired off a burst. And just like that, his plane dropped without another sound. It glided for a few seconds and then skidded to a halt into a muddy ditch. My plane went down soon afterwards. It was strange being on the ground, I felt like an unwanted stranger. The dead trees leered at me and the ground under my feet felt hollow. Smoke rose in the air from Richthofen’s wreck and after assessing my own plane, I crossed a small brook and stumbled over to it.
There it was. A smoking wreck, small flames licked at it – a dying hearth reduced to coals. I approached and saw that the demigod I had duelled was just a man. His uniform was dripping in blood as red as his infamous plane. He looked at me and when I got close enough to see his eyes, I saw they contained no anger or sadness just the glassy stare of a man who has died long ago.
Richthofen managed only one word.
He placed his right hand over his heart and died. It was silent except for the small brook that glittered in the dawn light, singing its common song. The gravity of the situation hit me, though it wasn’t till I properly researched the man that I really understood the enormous meaning behind his last word. The fighting above ended with the German’s morale broken by their hero’s death and soon after our soldiers arrived at the crash site. They cheered, put me on their shoulders, and sang songs. I smiled on the outside but I knew internally something was broken within me.
After the war, I looked into his history and his personal statements. He was a man sick of war and wrote it: “I am in wretched spirits after every aerial combat. I believe that the war is not as the people at home imagine it, with a hurrah and a roar; it is very serious, very grim.”
At a time when 15-20 aircraft kills were considered exceptional, he shot down 105 planes, far more than any other pilot in the war. And here I am, a man who anticipated a great joy in killing the greatest there was, then has realised too late that there is no joy in the destruction of beauty. I have ripped apart a rose, slashed the canvas of a masterpiece. Richthofen’s last word was spoken in relief, the Baron’s burden is placed on me now, and it is lonely at the top, the price of greatness is solitude. The only man I could possibly relate this to is dead by my own hand.
For centuries people will argue about the secret behind his skill as a pilot, and why he stopped fighting and simply flew towards the sun. These two mysteries tortured me until I realised they were intrinsically related. Richthofen fought with nothing to lose, took risks that others would never even conceive – each victory cost him a piece of himself until finally there was nothing left to lose and so he ceased to function. When a train runs off the tracks it’s engine still burns and smoke still pours out of its exhaust stack, and it was the same with Richthofen, his last unconscious desire was simply to rest and feel the satisfaction of warming his face in the sunlight. I think for long periods of time about these events, hiding from my fame in my house on the shore of Lake Ontario. I hide and wait for another war to start. Then I can fight in the skies again to join the Baron and the line of ancient warriors behind him that perhaps stretch back to Achilles. I am an ageing phoenix who is feeling the call of the ashes, as the Baron did. Like him, I will pass my flame to another young hopeful and fade into the blue yonder.
I watch the sunset reflecting off the marshes surrounding Lake Ontario, where I shot down my first bird, and smile as I imagine gliding on a summer breeze though my wings are tired, their clawing at the wind now but I don’t care, it was all just a dream. And I dream to close my eyes. To rest. To be finished.