The late morning air rumbled with incoming transports. Rodger stood beside LinChing, a wiry, intense Chinaman who happened to be the best mechanic around. Rodger loomed over him at least by a foot, yet the man’s quiet dignity and self-assurance erased the differences between them. Together they waved at a C‑47 as the pilot taxied in.
“LinChing, let’s see if any of our supplies made it on this one.”
The pilot handed Rodger an official letter, which Rodger tucked into his shirt pocket. The third man off was short, gray‑haired and very familiar. Sam, the man who had given Rodger his wings, not to mention his freedom from his mother, his studies, and the boredom of his childhood, strode towards him with an outstretched hand.
Grinning like a fool, Rodger grabbed him in a one arm bear hug, pounding him the back, amazed by Sam’s iron‑grip on his right hand. Sam’s clothing had the worn look and smell of oil and planes, the essence of his life.
“I’ll be damned!” drawled Sam. “Had to come clear across the world to hook up with ya. I’ll be damned!”
“You probably are! And so am I!” Rodger laughed and Sam joined in. Rodger was thrown back to being twelve and training again in a Piper Cub. They had both come a long ways. Rodger pointed to a rickety jeep. “Hey! Come on! let’s go celebrate in style in downtown Dooma-Dooma!”
“Just let me stash my gear.” Sam stopped, trying in vain to light a cigarette in the stiff wind.
“Those things’ll kill you yet, Sam,” Rodger cupped his hands around the dangling Camel.
The incongruity of Sam’s presence suddenly hit Rodger. “Why the hell are you here, Sam?”
Rodger remembered the envelope that the transport pilot had given him. He pulled it from his pocket and ripped it open. It was orders to return stateside on the next departing plane. It meant only one thing: the Flying Tigers were about to be disbanded. Rodger, disgusted with yet another inanity, shredded the paper and let the pieces flutter like confetti in the breeze.
“Actually, I’m only here until the next transport. I’m on my way to Nanning. The US has some Martlets there that need lookin’ at. I’m your basic, over‑qualified instructor, pilot and mechanic. But this time, I really get to put my hands on ’em!” Sam’s face crinkled in unabashed delight.
Rodger led Sam into the newly erected wooden barracks and showed him a bunk next to his own.
“Sam, are we beefing up our forces over here?”
“Can’t say too much about it, son. Classified.”
“Let’s go in the mess hall before we leave. I want you to meet one hell of a mechanic.”
LinChing came into the room from the kitchen carrying two plates laden with rice and scrambled eggs, the silverware rattling against the underside of the plates. The aroma of freshly brewed coffee followed him.
“You shouldn’t be doing that!” Rodger scolded. LinChing set the food down before Rodger and shrugged.
“I help Mary Elizabeth, too.”
“The planes, LinChing?” Rodger sipped carefully from a chipped mug, staring back into the dark eyes.
LinChing nodded. “Good, very good. I very good mechanic.”
“How many are airworthy?”
LinChing held up two hands, fingers splayed.
“Ten?!” Rodger sat straight up in his chair.
Sam stopped eating to stare wide‑eyed. The Chinaman was smiling widely, his head bobbing up and down.
“Great! And parts came in today, too!” Rodger clapped his hands, yodeling.
LinChing offered him a cigarette, which Rodger could not refuse. Sam fumbled for matches, dropping them on the floor. As he came up from retrieving them, Mary Elizabeth stood in front of him. Rodger watched silently while the two assessed one another. With the look of a man bewitched, Sam, speechless, stared into the black, almond-shaped eyes set in a dirty, round face of an eleven-year-old girl.
Rodger laughed, breaking the spell. “Mary Elizabeth! Come here and meet Sam!” Rodger unfolded his arm to encircle her. Mary Elizabeth bowed slightly at Sam.
In a delicate voice, yet commanding of all their attention, she asked LinChing, “Father, are there to be any more to eat?”
“No,” he replied, “but make more coffee.”
“Yes, Father.” Mary Elizabeth eased from Rodger’s embrace and went back to the kitchen. Her brown, bare legs were layered in streaks of fine silt, patterned by water drops.
“She takes care of us,” Rodger answered Sam’s quizzical look. “Can you imagine this worthless bunch of die-hards having to say good-bye to that little urchin before take-offs?” Rodger jabbed his index finger at Mary Elizabeth’s back. “Believe me, no one dares not to.”
“Humph! And why the hell not?”
“She says they don’t come back.”
Sam sneered, shook his head in disgust and pushed away his plate. “This is no place for the likes of a snot-nosed kid.”
Rodger amused by Sam’s discomfort, leaned toward him. “We even have her one and only doll in the debriefing hangar that we must touch as we come home. Blessed twice, you might say.”
“And I thought I was superstitious!” Sam mumbled, flicking his ash on the floor.
Mary Elizabeth turned from the sink, her eyes narrowed fiercely. But before she could speak, there were sounds of incoming planes. All heads cocked to attention.
Mary Elizabeth looked heavenward, whispering, “Buck and Jimmy come home.” She sighed contentedly.
LinChing left to help with the tie-down and examination of the planes. Shortly, the two pilots sauntered inside. At the threshold, before any acknowledgments, both men bent down on one knee to enfold Mary Elizabeth in gentle embraces, whispering in each ear something that made her eyes twinkle. Then, sweat-drenched and ragged looking, Buck and Jimmy stood before Rodger without any formalities.
Mary Elizabeth offered each one a steaming mug of coffee before she disappeared into the kitchen.
“Thanks, sweetheart,” Jimmy called out, then inhaled the steam. “Ahh!”
Buck, a medium, olive-complexioned man with a scar across his face abruptly began, “We’ve got troubles comin’ in across the border. They’re gearin’ up. Them Japs is crawlin’ all over Pingxiang.”
All of the men followed Rodger to the debriefing room. He brought out maps, tracing the enemy route across the border of French-Indochina into China. As he and the crew pored over the maps, Sam wandered outside.
“Here and here.” Rodger tapped locations. “McGree and Steve are on line tonight. You’ll patrol between Burma and Jongnan. Any questions? ”
Rodger pushed aside the charts, the men dispersed, and Rodger walked to the opened door. The last of the midday sun blazed in the sky as he watched Sam cautiously approach LinChing in the hangar. Neither man spoke, but Sam picked up a part and examined it while LinChing continued to work. In a silly way, Rodger wanted them to be friends and share the plane. He returned to his bunk, but before packing gear for their trip, Rodger posted a letter home to Ada, telling her about Sam’s arrival. As he left, Mary Elizabeth stood at the threshold of the door, making the sign of the cross.
“I will pray for both your safe return.”
Rodger smiled at her, momentarily stayed by his love for this child, so sweet and open, much like his eleven- and nine-year old sisters, Rachel and Heather. Yet, he felt closer to Mary Elizabeth. Almost as if their conversations never quite ended, as if their last words were never spoken. With a half wave of his hand to her, Rodger climbed in the jeep.
As Rodger started the engine Sam jumped into the jeep. They bumped along the landmine-studded road. Rodger bellowed to be heard above the din.
“Tell me about Big Red and that night. It’s one of my unresolved mysteries of youth.”
Sam chuckled and took a cigarette from his pocket. “You meant more to him than anything—or anyone. It’s a shame about his being a nigger and all.”
Rodger flinched, but Sam took no notice. It seemed odd that he should have such two different friends that meant so much to him in his youth. He could remember sneaking into the hangar and watching Sam with his plane, Lucy. Huddled in the cold corner, Rodger had spied on them. In the moment of confrontation, Rodger had steeled himself against Sam’s curses and kept repeating over and over, “I wanna fly. I got to,” until Sam, reluctantly, had given in.
Sam was a lot like Big Red, only Big Red yelled less at him, but they both had made him go that extra, painful mile. Even when Rodger reached six feet, he always seemed to look up at Big Red. It was comforting when the man clapped him on the shoulder and said nothing, just nodded his head. He could still see Big Red kneeling on the floor of the ring in front of him, his large hands cradling Rodger’s bloodied and cut face, whispering harshly, “What are you backing up for? To admire your work? Get in there and keep your hands up.”
He’d always known something was different about Big Red, something not quite white. The sheer size of the man set him above the others; his laughter rumbled like summer thunder and his pink tongue against his yellow teeth made him seem a man of another race. A race of giants.
Rodger glanced over, looking down at the top of Sam’s head. Sam spat, hunched further down into his seat.
“Ya know, he almost made it in Wilmington. But no matter how far ya go, son, the past is always behind ya. It gets ya sooner or later.”
Rodger had to steer hard, tracking the ruts in the road. He remembered that awful day! He had only wanted to go to the hangar and see Lucy, just to run his hand along her contours, to be connected to such a magnificent plane. Rodger could be overwhelmed by his feelings for Lucy. And Sam. Rodger quickly looked at Sam, then back to the road. Sam wasn’t exactly a lovable guy, too moody, but he and Rodger were probably the closest either could get to another without being related, as long as Rodger let Sam call all the shots.
He had known before he stepped into the cavernous, emptied shed that the good part of his life was over. Gone. The tool chest. The stepladder. Sam’s overalls. Nothing. Nothing but a crumpled Camel cigarette pack ruffled by the wind.
He had backed out and started running towards the Simmons’ house. His school books weighed down his arm painfully, but he pushed against the wind and kept on until he came to the house. It had that feeling of having been stripped and left without a kind word or good‑bye. Rodger spied a trowel lying in the rose bush. He picked it up and put it on the doorstep beside the welcome mat. Katie was always looking around the yard for it. He went around back and peered through Dee’s bedroom window. The closet door gaped open, empty of clothes, with wire and wooden hangers strewn all about the room. The bureau drawers had not all been closed, and the vanity stool lay overturned.
He had gone home and holed up in his room waiting for his father. But his father had not come home for supper.
Rachel had scribbled a picture, and jamming it into his pocket, Rodger had walked down to the Longhorn Bank.
The street had been dark, eerie where the gaslight collected in orange pools. The windows reflected only shadowy images of desks, chairs, and teller bars. Where the hell could his father be? Walking rapidly, he had gone over to the gym, thinking that he would work out for a while, straighten out his hook. He began to jog, boxing at his shadow. He came to the steps and took them two at a time, and gaining the door, twisted the knob, then threw himself against it. Stunned, he had bounced back and landed on the ground. The club was closed up. When he had passed Ada’s house, it had had that same empty look with a single light on in the living room.
He needed someone to talk to, and the need became so great that he risked his mother’s anger and went to find Big Red.
Big Red’s house sat by itself atop Stormy Mountain, overlooking the Kankakee River. The worn roads of town curved into the country and became rocky and unevenly surfaced. Rodger moved to the center of the road so as not to fall into a ditch or trip on a boulder. A smell, like freshly cut timber burning, wafted faintly on the breeze. The moon was the brightest spot of light anywhere around for miles, casting ghostly shadows on the road. Rodger had kept his eyes trained on the road, marking the rocks and pitfalls. He felt something wispy land on his cheek and brushed it away. It felt grainy. The air was filling with blackened crispy shavings. Then Rodger saw a blazing bonfire on the distant hill.
‘Everyone must be there!’ Rodger strained forward, focusing his eyes sharper on the fire. He hurried, in sudden urgency to get there. Fear, like a tiny bird inside his chest, wakened. As he drew nearer, the fire took on the shape of a house.
The tiny bird grew wings that spread across his body, and grew, choking his breath off. Sweat ran down his face, arms, sides, dripping from his fingertips. His steps quickened, and he cursed the leather soles of his shoes. In desperation, he forced his feet to go faster, digging into the dusty, soft road. As he came up the sloping path toward the house, he tightened his shoulders, lowered his head and pushed off on his toes, swaying from side to side, taking short leaps. The acrid tinge of smoke filled his mouth as the great beast rose inside of his throat. He gasped. Still he ran on. He ran until he could run no longer.
Disembodied voices lingered in the air, but Rodger couldn’t see through the haze. As he reached the top of the knoll, he stopped. Like dervishes, images whirled inside his head. A towering oak tree seemed to sway. Rodger focused his eyes.
In slow pendulum movements, a body clothed in white swung from a branch. Behind him, the flaming timbers crashed into one another, setting free sparks like thousands of shooting stars into the black still night air. Rodger screamed. And screamed again, the mighty creature of anguish and pain released from inside of him.
The frame of the house collapsed into itself, and a rush of sound and heat jarred Rodger, sending him stumbling over to the tree. He reached up to grab a handful of sheet, to stay the bobbing figure that wasn’t a man. The effigy looked like a battered punching bag with a charcoal‑smeared face and pieces of straw poking out of the seams. Rodger jerked, tearing the sheet, but he could not bring it down. He let it go and leaned against the rough and scratchy bark. The tattered sheet flapped, snapping over his head, brushing against his cheeks. The smoldering wood radiated an intense heat that seared his flesh. Revolving round and round inside his head was one word: Father. Around and around it went, never settling, stinging him. Had he heard his father’s voice? Could he be a part of this? Rodger crumbled against the tree and began vomiting.
Drained, but curious, he drew closer to the smoldering house, at once eerie and fascinating; the colors blended and separated at one and the same time, ending in the gray‑black smoke that curled in lazy strings upward to heaven. He took the wadded picture from his pocket that Rachel had given to him and threw it into the ashes.
Sam coughed. Rodger yelled against the wind. “But how the hell did anyone find out about Big Red?”
“Ya know, it probably was him being so good at poker and all. Your daddy and him cleaned up one game after another. Made people suspicious, and all, where he came from. Rumors follow a body.”
“Big Red was the one who taught me how to play my aces. Never knew my dad to gamble, and I thought I knew him pretty well!”
“Kids never know their folks all that well, son. Big Red and your daddy bet heavily on the fights, too. Your mother didn’t take too kindly to that. Or Big Red. Or Katie Simmons.”
“Jesus, don’t I know that! She had fits about me and Dee. I wanted to marry that girl.”
“A boy don’t know the difference between love and ruttin’.”
“Maybe I was less of a boy than even you thought, Sam.”
“Humph! You were just a hot‑shot kid in them days.” Sam lit another cigarette. “Got to admit, you had the magic touch.” Sam looked to Rodger. “Did me some pretty fancy flyin’ the night we got ol’ Red outta town. Yeah, Miss Ada and your daddy did some fast maneuvering to hide that bear of man in the back of her old Chevy and get him to the field.”
Rodger listened intently, a strange mixture of emotions welling up. He had gone to Ada’s house that night, hiding in the bushes until she had come home. He had frightened her, and she had recoiled from him. “Thank God,” she had whispered, pinching his arm and propelling him into the room. Tears, uncontrolled and shameless, had streamed down his face. Ada had reached out to him and hugged him.
“This lousy, god‑forsaken town of bastards!” Rodger sobbed as Ada held him.
They had all known long before he did about all of this. Ada had so many secrets. They all had.
“It’s not like it seems.” Her voice had come through, parting the floods of anger and pain inside of him. “Big Red is alive. Sam and your father got them all out of here. All of them. Katie and Dee joined them.” She had held him until the wildness in him had subsided.
He had sat on her couch, and she had brought him hot tea in his favorite mug. She had sat in the overstuffed, worn chair. Rodger had listened to Ada’s breathing and begun to time his own to hers. Ada had watched him from her chair.
“‘I need a ride to Chicago. If nothing else, I want to show everyone what kind of trainer Big Red was—is. I’ll get me some clothes together and hitchhike up there. I’m gonna win. That’ll show ’em.”
She had stood when he’d gotten up. “You’d better collect your wits tonight and leave Thursday.” Her voice had had the hardness of reality. “I’ll see what I can do for you.”
Rodger had not understood. Not until he overheard her speaking with Vern Strater did he realize she was setting it up for him to leave on the pretext of taking her car to Chicago for repairs.
Once he had longed for a return to his former self, that time of certainty and purpose that he had had under Big Red’s wing. Yet, those times of fire and loss, those nights of longing and regrets, had all been swept into his days of flying and command. He had no more desire to return to the ring. As Sam droned on about the night of Big Red’s rescue, Rodger was relieved that it was over and done.
“Hey, Sam! I’d cut my eyeteeth out to fly that new Martlet with you!”
Sam stuttered, “I…I don’t know. I can’t authorize it.”
Rodger shot him a quick glance. “Hell, I’ve never been one to ask for permission!”
“Hey, boy! It’d be like old times, us flying together!” Sam peeked over the windshield. “Rodger, what happened to you in Chicago, after the Golden Gloves? You kinda disappeared there for a couple of days. What in the hell were you doing?”
“Sam, I’ll tell you all about that, over a beer or two.”
Rodger drove into town honking his horn continuously to clear a path through the people and beggars milling about the streets. Never having seen a car, few paid any attention to the strange contraption making loud noises. Sam, impatient as always, leaned sideways and shouted, “Get outta the way, you idiots!”
Rodger skidded to a stop, causing a flurry of dust to rise about them. The sun poured mercilessly over them. “Well, here we are. Downtown Dooma‑Dooma.”
“Ugh. Get me to a bar.”
“In a few.” Rodger walked over to the center of town, where stalls of the open market crowded one another like nestlings. Sam trailed behind him, careful not to lose himself among the hundreds of browsing men in fatigues and scurrying Chinese women in colorful pants and brocade jackets. Flies swarmed over the displayed food and emaciated dogs lay around the stalls. Though sordid and destitute, the market had a carnival atmosphere. Rodger roamed up and down and through the sideways, poking his head into a stall to look closely at each item.
He spotted a doll in the corner of BenTang’s stall. With an ugly, ever‑present grin that exposed the blackening teeth, the known black-market racketeer bowed quickly, bobbing his head up to eye‑level with Rodger.
“Very nice. See more?”
“How much for the doll?”
“Very nice doll. American-made. See. Label say Seers.”
“It’s misspelled, BenTang. How much?”
BenTang shrugged. “Fifty dollars.”
Rodger held up two fingers. The crafty merchant puckered his thin lips and shook his head.
“No, no. Four.”
“Go to hell.” Rodger pulled away.
Rodger extracted a wad of thousand Chinese bills from his pocket. He peeled off two bills and tossed BenTang the money. Picking up the doll, he walked briskly away to where Sam waited.
He threw his arm around Sam. “Now old buddy, let’s you and me get serious.”
“Ya ain’t too smart about that kid, Rodger. She doesn’t belong here.”
Rodger gave him a playful shove. “None of us do.”
They drank and ate and drank some more, swapping war stories. Sam, crusty and hardened by his own experiences, still listened with real concern to Rodger as he told him of his time in the Citizen’s Military training in the cavalry; of his promotions and flight training; and coming to lead the volunteer Tigers. But in the telling, he left out the story of his stay in Chicago, promising Sam that one night, sober, he would fill in all of the glorious facts.
On the morning of the third day, Rodger left Sam sleeping at the make‑shift barracks and strolled around Dooma-Dooma. No one spoke or made eye contact. Irritated, Rodger mulled over his thoughts. ‘You take our money, we take your women. You give us war, we give you our lives.’ But deep inside the layers of thoughts, he admitted to another truth: the world did not hear the death cries of thousands, but politics listened to self-interest. Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek had convinced Washington, D.C. that it would be in the best self-interest of America if China remained independent of Japanese domination. And that had been the reason for the Americans involvement here. So much right for the wrong reasons. The humid air pressed against his skin, and even his sweat caused him to ache all over. A rosy haze lay over the horizon. Rodger went back and woke Sam. The little man looked shriveled and miserable.
“What a great pair of drinking men we are!” Rodger roared.
Sam, running his hand through his thinning hair, grimaced. “Can we get some decent food around here?”
“Sure, I’ll take you to a French restaurant.”
Sam winced, then slowly stood up. “All right, let’s go.”
They ate without any conversation. With mechanical motions, they gathered gear and miserably set about returning to base. As they sighted the scorched, pocked-marked wasteland, encircled with brush that camouflaged the base, Sam glanced over to Rodger, and moaned, “I’ve missed the outgoing transport, haven’t I?”
Rodger shrugged, amused by Sam’s expectations. “Sometimes they show; sometimes they don’t. The boys over here are notorious for breaking dates.”
Rodger walked into the mess with Sam lagging behind. Mary Elizabeth waited for Rodger to hug her. Sam would not, although she had stepped directly into his path.
“I don’t like kids,” Sam snarled.
Mary Elizabeth frowned, staring at Sam. Rodger stroked her head, looking about the room for a distraction. “Hey, Bright Eyes, what are you doing?”
She walked back over to the table and sorted through the mail, making a bundle of the letters for each pilot who had mail, a space for those who didn’t. With a wary look from the corner of her eyes, she continued her task and replied, “I am doing my job.”
Rodger picked up his bundle, tapping it lightly on her head. “Hey! Got something for you Bright Eyes!”
She stopped and turned. Excitement made the light dance in her eyes. Sam slammed the door shut, stomping outside, muttering to himself on the way to the hangar. Buck and Jimmy, lounging in the bunks, chuckled. Rodger cocked his head to one side.
“What would you say to a new dish towel?”
Waving her hand toward the kitchen she replied, “All yours, GI.”
McGree roared with laughter, as Buck and Jimmy applauded.
In the lull, Rodger heard rumbling in the air. That would be the transport coming in. He gently nudged Mary Elizabeth aside and went to the door. Heat waves snaked up from the ground around him. Westward, the horizon glimmered red and black. Then he knew.
“Japs! Comin in!” He grabbed Mary Elizabeth and threw her into her room, yelling as he slammed the door, “Keep down!”
The men, on the run, yanked on their flight suits, shoving pistols inside holsters while pulling on gloves, helmets dangling from an arm. They scrambled for their planes. Rodger ran to the nearest P‑38 and tore away the blocks beneath the wheels, giving McGree a hand up to the cockpit.
Sam and LinChing came running, separating into a V to reach the other planes. Rodger quickly scanned the revetments. Then, looking back at the hangar, he saw his P‑40 with its gaping cowling and parts strewn beside it.
“God damn it!” he yelled.
Two planes taxied into position as the Japanese Nates came into sight. Rodger waved frantically to McGree. As the plane screeched off, Rodger bolted for the protection of the hangar. Two of the five Zeroes swooped low, spraying the ground with lead. Rodger zigzagged. Sam was beside him, wheezing.
Rodger looked over his shoulder and reached out to Sam. Bullet holes crisscrossed his chest. He halted mid-stride, bowing forward. Rodger thrust his arms out and caught him, pressing Sam’s frail, bloody body against his own. With an anguished groan, Sam crumbled into Rodger. Dragging him along, Rodger ceased to think or feel.
He laid Sam alongside the hangar and knelt by his head, smoothing shut his eyes, and then sat heavily on the ground, leaning against the splintering wooden building. The planes were off in the distance, like kites dancing in the evening breeze. Rodger fought the memories, the keen flashes of the times he had been the happiest, the times he had flown Lucy, and only Miss Ada and Sam knew.
Then he shivered. The only other person in the world that Sam had cared about was Ada. He’d have to ship the body back to her. He’d have to write her a letter and hope it got there before the casket.
“Oh, God,” he begged, “Oh, God!” as the tears flowed for his dead friend.
Want to read more? Read online for free>> Or buy your own copy of Forcing the Hand of God: paperback or hardcover on Amazon.com or ebook (multiple formats available) on Smashwords.com.