My first installment of short stories has a lot of history behind it, if you’ll pardon the pun. This story’s journey started way back in late 2009. It’s a metaphysical one, for sure. It was a story I just couldn’t shake. It eventually found itself published twice, once in the Oct 2011 issue #103 of The Black Sheep, and more recently in the 2012 Longmont, Colorado Public Library anthology, “The You Belong Collection: Writings and Illustrations from Longmont Area Residents.” This WWII story is near and dear to my heart and features a character, The Man With No Name, who is in two of my novels, Sleepwalkers (you can get it cheaper here) and Psychic.
© F. P. Dorchak, 2010/12
All chatter was ripped from his ears.
The airman’s body slammed forward into the B-17’s twisting and turning airframe.
Ungodly ripping sound.
Had grabbed for something—but it’d been knocked from his hands.
Wind howled and screamed. Stability and straight-and-level had given way to
With some effort—his head feeling as if it had just gained a thousand pounds—the airman twisted it and watched as spent .50-cal machine-gun rounds, paper, and loose equipment were sucked out the gaping hole behind him.
He turned his head back around and found himself looking
His stomach lurched and the feeling reminded him of Coney Island roller coasters—or the Wonder Wheel—just as you rounded the top and were on the way
His body thrown forward, the airman shot his hands out to the frame of the
aft window before him.
Still going down….
Opened his mouth to scream—but, all expression had been brutally pulped out of him. Was buffeted by flak, exploding flak everywhere. All of his twenty-two years of life clenched up into his throat in one great, choking, knot.
Body pressed into the Browning machine guns and tail window, he looked into flak-filled airspace as he plummeted past the rest of the formation for German soil. He couldn’t breathe, only managing shallow, short, rapid gasps.
His eyes locked with the horrified eyes of the bombardier in the nose of another B-17 he just barely missed as he plunged past. Eyes he’d recognized. Eyes that’d shared cigarettes and stories and pictures of their girls the night before with a dozen or more other pairs of eyes at a dimly lit bar counter.
His vision swam. Blurred. Vertigo scrambled his senses.
Dropping out of the sky!
Sunlight traced a path where it shouldn’t have been able to trace a path. Ran across the now-exposed deck that now ran between him and 30,000 feet of oblivion.
His body shuddered and convulsed against buffeting the separated empennage took on its heretical plunge earthward. A sound escaped him that didn’t sound like anything he’d ever uttered during his entire short lifespan. Still couldn’t see straight. Stared down the short metal tunnel where there should be—by all rights—the body of a B-17 and nine other guys. Pilots, bombardier, waist gunners—
Gone! All of it!
If he could just jump…free himself from the anchor that was dragging him down. Parachute into—
Along with all the paper, shells, and loose equipment, he’d watched with soul-sickening horror as his parachute had also flown out that gaping hole. It had been knocked from his fumbling grasp after he’d been banged up against the bulkhead when the tail had separated from the fuselage.
A great weight pressed into him.
Unable to move.
This wasn’t supposed to happen! Was only supposed to happen to other crews—Germans, not his crew—not him.
It was over. All over!
Screamed down, ever down, out of the bruised and battle-damaged sky.
Again slammed against the bulkhead. The .50 cals.
Only seconds ago he’d been operating dual M2 Browning machine guns. Yeah, it had all been a game. Target practice, they’d called it. Get them before they got you. But they hadn’t been clay pigeons, had they? Towed targets? No, they’d been flesh and blood humans just like him. Also trying to get him before he got them.
Now he knew.
Knew what they knew.
What it felt like to be hit.
What it felt like to go down.
Wild, wicked, absolutely unhindered tumbling. Spinning and gyrating. End over end. No control.
Unable to breathe.
Unable to see straight. Focus.
A bright light.
His folks…his girl…his sister.
He stared into the light.
What would it feel like to slam into scorched earth? Bombed-out buildings? Would he know it? The moment of impact? Would he feel the hurt?
What would it feel like to just blink out of existence? To one moment be alive and thinking and conscious and scared, and the next—
A hand emerged.
He grabbed it.
Noise…lots of screaming and yelling and howling and
“Ticket, please,” the middle-aged gentleman in flannel shirt, jeans, and work boots greeted, hand outstretched.
The airman looked down to his own hand. In its white-knuckled death-grip it held a ticket stub. His entire arm and hand—his body—were tensed and hurting and trembling. He wasn’t breathing, his body as if in the constricting grip of a giant, angry malevolence trying to squeeze the life out of him.
“Ticket, please,” the gentleman again asked, still reaching out.
The airmen handed it over. As soon as he relinquished the ticket, he inhaled long and deep. Collapsed toward the dirt and dust—when the ticket taker caught him.
“Welcome to Coney Island!”
The airman looked up incredulously and out of breath. It hurt to breathe. “Where am I?”
“Where?” he again asked, swallowing hard and with great difficulty. His body hung limply in the ticket taker’s hold. He slowly got back on his feet.
“Why, you’re at Coney Island, young sir! The greatest amusement park on Earth!”
“I…I don’t feel right—”
The airman shook his head, then steadied himself; looked to his attire. It wasn’t much different than the ticket taker’s.
“Where’s…where’s my jacket, my—”
He brought a hand to his head. No leather shearling cap. “I feel like I fell…or am still—”
“Oh, you’re quite all right, sir. Just come on in,” the ticket taker said. “Everything’s A-OK!” He winked.
The airman looked beyond the smiling gentleman.
“Wow…haven’t been here since—”
“Yeah…nineteen-forty-one,” he echoed, still having difficulty swallowing and trying to catch his breath.
“We got all the rides! The Cyclone, Shooting-the-Chutes, Flip Flop, Wonder Wheel, the Human Pool Table! Come on in! Enjoy!” the greeter said. With a flourish of hands, he sidestepped to allow the airman entry.
“Place looks empty,” the airman said.
The airman turned to the ticket taker. Just looked at him. His oddly smiling—calming—face.
“You might find some people you know,” the ticket taker enunciated deliberately, motioning him in farther.
Calliope music, flashing lights. The smell of hotdogs, popcorn, and cotton candy filled the air—
The airman spun around.
Detonations exploded all around him.
Unnerving. Distant. Behind everything….
The airman turned back around and
remembered sitting at a bar one day, talking to two kids, really, that’s all they were. Kids in uniform. Nineteen-year olds. Fires all hot and burning in their fervent, youthful eyes. Displayed not an ounce of fear. “C’mon,” they’d goaded, all full of righteous hubris, “it’s fun!” They’d been gunners, one a tail the other a waist gunner.
“Fun.” That’s what they’d said…the word they’d used.
“Like shootin skeet, only it’s Germans!” they’d proclaimed. “Godless, evil, Krauts. Goddamned Jerries.”
They’d needed bodies, they’d told him, anyone willing to fly. Bombers.
He knew why, he wasn’t stupid. They were getting blown out of the sky.
Yet he’d volunteered. Long wondered about those two.
Flexible Gunnery School. That had been his next stop, since he’d already been in the Army Air Corps.
Aim well. Shoot straight.
That had been their motto. Las Vegas in the summer. Six weeks. They had to be good or they’d be dead. It was that simple. They’d started with BB guns. With shotguns, worked their way up through stationary and mobile skeet shooting. Went from blasting away off the backs of moving flatbeds to towed targets from behind AT-6 aircraft, at Indian Springs. Turret training.
Stripping a .50 cal blindfolded.
Berlin. Kiel. Kassel.
“Where am I, really” the airman asked?
He sat atop the Ferris Wonder Wheel, just before the zenith of its travel. The ticket taker sat opposite him. Intently eyeballed him.
“I can’t really be here. It doesn’t feel right.”
“Oh, you’re here, all right,” the ticket taker said, in a voice far more subdued—concerned—than upon their first meeting. “This is real, I assure you a that, son.”
The Ferris wheel moved up an increment…stopped.
“Last time I was here, I was with my family. Where are they?”
“Oh, they’re still where they’re at.”
“Why aren’t they here? Where’s my—”
“You’re girl? They’re all still where they are. They haven’t arrived. Yet.”
“But they will?”
The ticket taker nodded, keeping his eyes intently focused on him. “In time.”
“I used to love the view from up here.”
“What’s wrong with it, now?”
“It just doesn’t feel right.”
The wheel moved up another increment. They were now on top, wind caressing his face and whispering in his ears.
“It used to be fun,” the airman said, growing antsy.
The ticket taker continued studying him.
“Where are those two guys? You know?” the airman asked, leaning a little over the side as he looked behind and
He quickly sat back in his seat.
“Oh, they’re around. Someplace.”
The airmen nodded pensively. Couldn’t sit still. Chatter…there was chatter in his head…
“Three of ’em, one o’clock high—”
“Four planes nine o’clock—”
“They’re comin’ around—”
“Got my sights on him—”
“I’m on him…come on, you sonofa—”
The car began its descent, when the airman fumbled madly for something that wasn’t there and grabbed the side of the car.
Instantly coated in sweat.
“Fighters at eleven o’clock, comin’ around!”
“I got ’em! I got ’em!”
“Two Fighters—six o’clock up! Comin’ in, divin’ at ya!”
There was a sudden lurch and a much pronounced bump—and the wheel stopped in a harsh downward jerk, sending the car wildly oscillating back and forth—
The airman stopped breathing and white-knuckled the swinging car. He looked to the ticket taker in wide-eyed terror.
The ticket taker gave him a soft, sympathetic look, then looked off into the distance.
The airman closed his eyes.
This is it!
.50 cal pressed into his back…
Gaping hole into a damaged sky still full of released bombs and bombers and flak and falling airmen….
He opened reddened and tear-stained eyes and looked to the ticket taker.
“It’s over, isn’t it? For me! This is it! This is it!”
The wheel advanced another position.
The ticket taker looked to him and smiled. Leaned forward and gently took a hand into his. Held it for a long moment.
“But you’re here. Look at me. Here.”
The airman’s breathing slowed, but not completely.
“But I’m also there, too, aren’t I? Still falling—o-or dead! I don’t understand all this—don’t know how—but it’s true, isn’t it? True.”
The ticket taker nodded.
“Why all of it? Why the need for any of it?”
The ticket taker said nothing.
The airman again swallowed. Wiped away tears with the backs of shaking wrists. Inhaled deeply.
They descended another position.
“It’s so sad, you know,” he said, finally slowing his breathing and clearing his throat.
“That we do…all that. The loss. The…the—”
The airman looked out into the dark distance in silence. Tears streamed down his face. He did not wipe them.
“It wasn’t fun, you know. Not any of it. Not at all. Not for me.”
The car advanced several more positions and came to a stop at ground level. After a moment, the ticket taker smiled and stepped out of the car.
The airman looked to the feet of the ticket taker. Listened and watched intently as his heels impacted the earth and ground and pressed into dirt.
“It’s time, my friend,” the ticket taker said.
The airman blinked. Nodded. “Yeah. Suppose it is.”
“Nothing stays the same, son.”
The airman stepped out of the car. The instant he touched soil there was a loud concussion and his knees gave out. The ticket taker again came to his aid, but the airman waved him off. Straightened up.
“I’m fine—thank you.”
Fought back tears.
The airman ran his hands through his short, dark hair; composed himself. Looked around. There were lots of lights, music, running rides…the smell of grilled food.
“They’re around, here—somewhere? Those two?”
“Yup,” the ticket taker said. “They all are.”
“All of them? Even—”
“Everyone’s here, my friend. Both sides.”
The airman again stared off into the distance. Exhaled long and hard.
“So…what now? What’s beyond there?” he asked, still looking off into the night.
The ticket taker chuckled softly. “There’s no hurry. Walk around…take in the place. Enjoy a ride or two. Cotton candy. Meet up with some of your buddies…and others,” the ticket taker said. “There’s absolutely no hurry.”
“And after that?”
“After that…we can talk. Some more. We have all the time in world. All we have, here, is time.”
The airman reached out and the ticket taker took his hand. They shook in a firm, heartfelt shake that didn’t let go.
“Thank you,” the airman said, and
the tail section of the shattered B-17 oscillated and gyrated and spun end over end all the way down through 30,000 feet…until it landed in the bombed-out ruins of what used to be a German apartment building. The parachute-less tail gunner who’d been pinned inside had been far from alone as he and the empennage impacted.
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