Fantasy Literary Fiction Historical war WWI Flying

Flying in the Heart of the Lafayette Escadrille

By James Van Pelt
Apr 21, 2019 · 4,675 words · 17 minutes

Photo by Alexander Popov via Unsplash.

From the author: Some bars try to create an atmosphere to transport their patrons to other worlds. After a few drinks, they might even succeed. Poor, lonely Eddie, adrift in a Denver singles bar, experiences two worlds that look like they shouldn't have anything to do with each other, until they suddenly do.


     At 14,00 feet the prop wash buffets my head.  Even with goggles, a thick, fur lined leather cap and a layer of protective grease on my face, the November air freezes me.  My cheeks tingle; my hands ache, and my knees crack with stiffness.  I clamp my elbows to my ribs to hold in the little warmth I have, but despite the discomfort, I enjoy the rising sun’s broad, lovely light shafts through the clouds and the long shadows across Verdun’s snow covered fields.  Everything is shades of white--the clouds, the lights, the fields below–except the brown and tan wings of my pursuit ship and the black length of the twin, Vickers machine guns before me.

     The engine’s roar deafens, but is so steady I have to concentrate to hear it.  I fly, then, in a kind of silence.  The clean air, the sun bathed countryside, the two-toned clouds cut into irregular halves of light and dark, and the Nieuport 17, an old and reliable partner now of three months are my only company. 

     I fly solo.  Dawn patrol.  I hunt an enemy, a specific ship, a blue and silver Fokker D-2 with a red cowling.

     The plane responds to my thoughts.  I think left, and the horizon tilts; I scan the air below.  At this height I am unlikely to be surprised from above.  The Boche send flights from Colmar and Habsheim, but they fly lower, relying on the fear of archie from the ground to protect them, and they seldom cross the lines.

     A stream glints like a mirrored ribbon and cuts a diagonal through the trenches.  An infantryman could put a note in a bottle and float it to the other line.  Maybe he could write about his family back home, or invite whoever reads it to share a drink with him, if whoever picks it up could read it that is, if he could understand the language.

     I think right, and the world rotates for me.  Three two-seaters several thousand feet lower than I fly south, but they are British observers, their bull’s-eye insignias obvious.  I don’t believe they know I pass above them.  They must be young.  At twenty-nine, I am not; I lied about my age to the French, although they might have let me fly anyway–they want the American volunteers to fight for them.  They even brought us together into one unit and called us the Americaine Escadrille, but the Heinies complained–America is neutral–and now we are the Lafayette Escadrille.  They’ve told us to say, vive la France.  God bless America, and to hell with the Hun!

     A cloud blocks my sight.  For the moment, all is soft and fuzzy, disconnected.  I could be anywhere; I could be diving or turning.  There is no way to tell.

     Smoke obscured everything.  I waved my hand in front of my face to clear the air.

     “I love this place, Eddie.  Don’t you?  You got to love this place,” Brian, the bar ace, yelled aver the rock-and-roll din of the Lafayette Escadrille (bar and grill).  “Look at that,” he said as a waitress walked by in a French maid’s uniform, beer pitcher and three mugs in one hand, black fish-net stockings emphasizing the curve of her calves and the aerobicized tone of her thighs.  “Makes me want to roll around in the dirt.”

     “Yeah, she’s O.K.” I said.  For a moment I felt dizzy.  There were clouds, weren’t there, and an engine’s roar?  My hand tingled.  I’d been holding something.  It had buzzed in my hand.  I rubbed the sensation away on my pants leg.

     Leaning the stool back, I balanced on two legs and rested my shoulder-blades on the sandbag wall.  Denver International’s blue runway lights backlit the dance floor.  A 737, its jets cranked for take-off, rushed by and rattled the heavy, insulated glass.  Even through the music, the engines pushed a subsonic vibration into the bar.  Glasses and change buzzed for a second on dark oak table tops.

     The Lafayette Escadrille opened a year ago when a group of Denver stock-brokers pooled their money and invested the a “high concept” singles joint; they turned a barn on the edge of the north-south runway into a World War I French chalet.  In front of the building, pointing skyward at a ridiculously phallic angle, are a pair of anti-aircraft guns; on the wall inside the door hand black and white photos: a fuzzy shot of Kaiser Wilhelm II visiting an airdrome; a crowd of officers standing around the wreckage of Max Immelmann's plane: George Guynemer, France’s leading ace, facing the camera with his hands behind his back; Baron Manfred von Richthofen standing for inspection with the pilots of Jagdgeschwader No. 2.  I’ve stood in the foyer and studied these pictures when the noise and smoke and disgust have driven me out of the bar.  I’ve looked at their grey and grainy faces for some clue as to what they felt when they climbed in their planes.  How could they go up every day?  No parachutes.  No early warning radar.  No way to talk to each other.

     Inside the stockbrokers had mounted on the walls propellers, machine guns, flight jackets, leather boots, more pictures and the other paraphernalia.  The real coup though, held by cables above the dance floor, the most distinctive decoration, is a completely restored Nieuport 17.  Its fifteen coats of hand buffed varnish reflect the runway lights so the plane looks like it’s floating in blue air.  When I drink too much I want to climb up to her, to start her engine and fly through the windows.  Two months ago--I don’t remember this, but they say it’s true--they pulled me off the access ladder to the catwalk above the plane.  The only way to get to the ladder is to jump on the bar.  I don’t believe I did that.  I stare at the plane for long periods some time.

     Brian’s right: it’s a great bar.  I go every week, sometimes with him, sometimes by myself.  Lots of stewardesses looking for fun on a layover, and nurses from Fitzsimmons.  Good bands.

     A short brunette wearing a fur coat brushed the edge of our table as she walked by.

     “Scuse me!” Brian yelled.  I’ve seen this approach before.  He says the key to scoring is getting their attention, that it doesn’t matter what you say as long as they look at you.  He told me once, “Get them into a rhythm, a call and response thing, and you’re halfway home.”  She turned her head, looked at him and slowed down.  Brian’s sun-shop tan and hair blonde to white gets most of them.

     “Nice jacket.  Does that have buttons or a zipper?”  He smiled.  His teeth are a little crooked and one of the top front ones is turning black from a bad root canal, but he talks so fast and smiles so often that women never seem to mind.

     She pulled the edges of the coat closed and hurried toward the bar as if she’d just seen someone she knew.

     “Frigid or a lesbo.  If they won’t talk, they’re one or the other.  He rested his hand on his beer.  The band kicked into a heavily drummed tune that sounded good to dance to.

     “So, did you ever dip her?” he asked me.

     “She wasn’t an ice cream cone, Brian.”

     “Yeah, so did you?”

     “You’re sick.”

     “And you’re avoiding the question.”

     “I’m not avoiding the question.  Asking it shows how perverted you are.”

     “Perverted!  I’m not the one who was in love.”

     “I was not in love.”  I drank a little of my beer that had warmed and gone flat since I poured it a half hour before.  “At least I don’t think I was.  It was a crush.”

     “So?”

     I pushed his beer toward him.  “Drink, and keep your mind out of her shorts for a minute.  Can you do that?”

     He pressed his fingers together on his chest, looked past me and did a slow scan of the bar.  “The only thing that matters is if you’re getting it.”

     “It wasn’t that kind of relationship.”

     “Then it wasn’t a relationship at all.”

     He pushed his elbows off the table.  The late flights were all in and unaccompanied women sipping from wine coolers or spritzers sat together in small groups.  So few men were in the place that women were dancing with each other.  They looked like they were having a good time.  The Lafayette is an undiscovered resource in Denver.  Most guys head for the bars in Glendale where the ratio is three to one the wrong way.

     “I’m going to the aviator,” he said.  “Prime time.”

     Lafayette’s toilets are labeled “aviator” and “aviatrix.”  When Brian’s on the hunt he will leave once an hour and lock himself into a stall to pop a wad of tobacco laced with coke.  He comes out ready to fly.  “Just a pinch between my cheek and gum,” he’d say.  I tried it once, but got sick.  No buzz.

     Another bar-ace I know named Quinn, when I asked what he did to make connections at singles joints, told me, “I plant seeds.  I strike up a conversation; maybe dance, buy them a drink.  I always make sure they know my name and I know theirs.  Two or three weeks later I see them again.  They know who I am; I remember them.  We’re friends.  But I never go home with anyone unless it’s her idea.  I’ve learned that it doesn’t do me any good to suggest it.  I plant seeds and wait for the harvest.”

     I’m no bar-ace with silhouettes of kills on my headboard.  I’m a novice in the Laffyette.  I want to be with a woman, but not like Brian or Quinn.  I mean, I like sex just like the next guy, but it doesn’t seem like really being with someone.  When I’m through and we’re lying there, I secretly grip the pillow, make a fist and squeeze and squeeze and squeeze, because it never goes far enough.

     A portrait of Raoul Lufbery, the leading ace of the Lafayette Escadrille, the real one, hangs in the foyer with the other World War I pictures.  He’s facing the camera, one hand in his pocket, the other holding a cigarette between his thumb and index finger.  The caption underneath is a quote, “There are only two kinds of combat pilots: those who shoot and those who get shot.”  I guess there is something to that.

     Brian hadn’t returned yet.  I rested my chin on my forearms and stared at the Nieuport 17.

     I've been shot down twice.  The first time was only a few miles from the Luxeuil-les-Bains airdrome.  An all white Halberstadt appeared out of the sun and fired one burst that destroyed my engine and blew oil into my face, blinding me.  The wind whined in the wires as I side-slipped hard to the left and started a flat spin to convince him I was dead.  German pilots will sometimes continue firing into a crippled plane so that they can report a clean kill.  A spinning plane is impossible to get a good shot at.  I tore my goggles off when I was convinced that he was not following and landed in a corn field where a French farmer and his wife fed me wine, cheese and coarse bread until the ambulance from Luxeuil picked me up.

     I bank my plane east now and head deeper into Boche air.  Nearly an hour has passed, and I will have to turn back soon.  The sun glares directly in front of me through the prop's thin shadow.  Subtle currents bump my craft.  My wing tips seem to move of their own accord as I balance in the air.  I make tiny adjustments with the rudder pedals and the stick.  A Nieuport is nothing like the broad-winged Jennies they trained us on.  this is an unforgiving machine.  A mistake, a moment's inattention, and the plane is out of control.

     I lean the mixture and retard the spark to extend my flying time.  The engine misses, and I nudge the levers until it runs smoothly.

     The second time was over Cachy Wood near the Somme front.  We were returning to Bar-le-Duc airdrome with a squadron of the new British Handley-Page bombers from a mission to destroy a supply dump when I became separated from the others in a cloud.  Clouds are dangerous when planes fly in formation because the visibility drops to zero, so commonly pilots increase the distance between themselves as they enter mist.  When the other planes vanished, and I was alone, the solitude, the soft edge of my wingtips and the drops of water streaming off the wires comforted me.

     finally I popped out of the grey darkness, and I searched the sky for my squadron.  They were gone, but thirty yards to my right and at my altitude flew a blue and silver Fokker D-2 with a red cowling.  The black crosses on the fuselage confirmed that I had found the enemy.  We stared at each other across the distance.  His goggles reflected pure glisters of sun as we flew side by side like migrating birds.  After we had flown together for a moment, he did an odd thing that has burdened me since, a thing I have told no one, not even the other pilots when we drink and laugh and sing each night to forget the day's sorties: he waved.

     I wasn't stunned then, only later as I thought about the image of him facing me, hand extended, palm outward, waving.  What I did was I dove right, then pulled the stick up hard, hoping to get a shot at his belly before he moved, but when I got into position, he was gone.  Bullets splintered my left wing spar.  I snapped a hard barrel roll into a vertical loop, but I didn’t shake him, and another shower of lead found my plane, turning the aileron canvas into fragments of flapping cloth.

     Turn after turn he hung to my tail, and though I tried every move I knew, he continued to place shots into my ship.  Never have I seen flying like this.  We fell 10,000 feet during the maneuvering, and then there was no place to dive to.  I hugged the ground, hoping that the French troops would shoot him and not me.  There was no place to go.  No room to move, and I waited for his killing shot.  I flew for thirty seconds, and no more tracers streaked by my head; I looked behind.  He had pulled his plane to the side and out of position to fire, but he was less than twenty yards away.  He pointed to his deadly Spandau guns, shrugged his shoulders and turned to the east.  He must have run out of ammunition or suffered a jam in the mechanism.  I crashed in Cachy Wood and walked away from the wreckage uninjured.

     I never had a chance to fire my guns.  I am a clumsy flyer, a technician.  My commander says, “You must be a flyer in the heart.”  I have never shot down an enemy plane.

     I am now deep behind the lines, and my neck hurts from craning left and right, looking for the blue and silver Fokker D-2.  Captain Thenault would not approve this mission, this search for a single ship, and I could not explain it to him had I asked.

     I rub frost off my chronometer.  I must drop to 8,000 feet to find warmer air, and I’m running low on fuel.  Below, war has not touched the country.  No crater pockmarks in the fields.  No black trench lines.  A thread of smoke comes from a farmhouse chimney.

     Why did he wave to me?

     I massaged my neck, which was suddenly sore, and my hands felt cold.  I’d been daydreaming about flying.  Too much time staring at that Nieuport, I guessed.

     Brian came back from the bathroom wired, and began a search and destroy circuit of the bar.  He approached two women sitting together, borrowed a cigarette, talked to them for a few minutes, went to the next table, asked for a light and talked some more.  He danced with one of them, moved to another table and started the cycle over again by borrowing a second cigarette.  He calls them “pick-up sticks.”  Forty minutes later, he’d hit on all the tables.  I finished the pitcher by myself.

     A woman sat alone two tables over, her elbows on the table, holding an empty wine glass by its rim.  I thought about sitting next to her and talking.  She saw me looking; I turned away.

     Brian sat down heavily, his chest sweaty, dark stains down the sides of his shirt.

     “You’ve got to dance, Eddie.  There’s witch wool all over the place, but it’s not going to flop down in front of you.”

     “I don’t see anyone I like.”

     “So you’re going to drink and feel sorry for yourself.  I don’t want to pull you off the ladder again.”

     “If I see somebody, I’ll ask.  I don’t know what I want just yet.”

     “Sure you do.  You want her.  Admit it.  You’re hung up on her.”

     “No, that’s not it.”

     “What, then?”

     He had me there.  Why did I want?  I’d been thinking about it all night.  I’d been thinking about it while I studied that Nieuport 17 suspended over the dancers, dreaming about flying.  I’d been thinking about it while men and women moved around the room in separate little flight paths, never really touching each other.  I’d been thinking about it while my hands cupped around the beer mug, while my butt flattened against the wooden stool, and while my feet went to sleep in my fashionable cowboy boots that were too tight.

     “How close have you ever been to somebody?” I asked.

     Brian brushed his hair back from his face, smiled at someone across the room.  “Skin close.”

     “Is that all?”

     He looked me in the eyes.  “You mean, have I been in love?  Sure.  I’ve been in love lots of time.  Every night.  Do you mean ‘close’ like in let’s get married close?  Yeah, I even did that once.  I know all about close.  How close do you want?”  He dabbed a beer-soaked napkin on his chest.

     That was the rub.  What did I mean?  Girls danced under the lights.  Couples sat at tables, but all the faces looked preoccupied to me.  All of them were behind their lines.

     “I want . . . to be in a woman.”  There, I had said it.

     He laughed.  “Now you’re talking.  That’s the best way.”

     I knew he would miss it, but I’d had beer.  I thought I could explain it.  “No!  That’s not what I mean.  Not sexual.  Like, when I kiss a woman, I just kiss her outside.  I’m not kissing her.”

     I paused.  I didn’t know if I could tell him this.  How would he take it?  “I want our lips to touch and . . .”

     “What?”

     Maybe if I rushed it out it wouldn’t sound so crazy.  “I want our lips to meld together.  I want to push our faces into each other, have our skin melt and flow and mix so that we’re one head.”

     His look was stunned.  I know he was thinking about broken teeth or something stupid like that, but I plunged on.

     “I want to feel each molecule swapping electrons inside so there’s no telling who is who.

     “I want to fill her up, to be smoke and seep inside her skin so that my smoke legs step into her legs, and my smoke belly presses against the inside of her belly, and my smoke arms slide all the way down the inside of her arms until my fingers fill her fingers like a glove.” 

     Brian moved his stool back a few inches.  The table tilted under my hands; it really felt like a tilt, but it stabilized.  I pressed down, and it gave slightly, like the table wasn’t on the ground at all, but on a firm cloud.

     “At the same time I want her filling me up.  I want her to pry open the top of my head and pour herself inside me, blood and guts and living liquid bone so I can feel her sloshing around behind my eyes, pushing herself into my tongue, running down inside my throat.  I want to feel her pooling in my feet, creeping up the insides of my legs, spilling over into my genitals like some smooth, heavy, golden lotion.”

     Everything in the room canted suddenly, and a part of me wondered why glasses weren’t rolling off tables, but I held the beer firmly in both hands and forced the horizon to level.

     I said, “But we can’t ever do that.  Every time I reach out to touch her, she flies away or attacks.  And it’s not just her; it’s anybody.  It’s you and me.  All people.  We have this war mentality about each other.  I see it in terms of her, but it applies all around.  I’m flying solo, man, and no one can get in my plane.  I can’t get in theirs.  We just want to shoot each other down.  Flames, man.  Flames!  It’s flames all the way to the ground!”

     Brian sat silently.  But I could barely hear anything else either.  My ears roared.  I felt wind in my face and the steady vibration of a plane all around me.

     “You asked!” I shouted to Brian.

     Finally, above the din, I heard him say, “What’s with all the flying shit?”

     I must turn back now.  I bank my French machine to the west.  Already I have cut my reserve too close and will have to chance the archie as I cross the lines.  The angry black and yellow puffs of explosive will seek out my fragile wood and canvas craft.

     To amuse myself and to take my mind off missing the blue and silver Boche, I sing a song that I heard in the billet last night:

 

     The young aviator went Hun hunting,

     And now ‘neath the wreckage he lay--he lay,

     To the mechanics there standing ‘round him,

     These last dying words he did say--did say.

     Take the cylinders out of my kidneys,

     The connecting rod out of my brain--my brain.

     From the small of my back take the crankshaft,

     And assemble the engine again--again.

 

     I begin the second verse over, but a hint of movement below stops my voice.  Sometimes I see motion when there is nothing, but this is another plane, black Iron Crosses readily visible on the top wing, flying a thousand feet below and in my direction.  I drop the nose and start a shallow descent into the blind spot above and behind the German.

     Heat rushes to my face.  The tail and wings are blue, the fuselage silver, and the cowling red.  The head of the consummate pilot who shot me down over Cachy Wood stays still.  Perhaps this far behind the lines he feels safe.

     The firing sights of my guns center on his neck.  The distance closes from a hundred yards to fifty, and his wings stretch farther and farther.  At twenty-five yards I place my hand on the lever that will send a fusillade of bright tracers and lead into his cockpit.  From this range I will surely pierce his petrol tanks and send him burning to the ground.  I can see where the bullets will strike, imagine his surprise and panic in the second before the heavy slugs pound out his heart and lungs, and envision the initial hint of fire as the wing tips up and the plane begins its final spiral into an unmarked, snow-covered field.  He will be my first kill.

     A turbulence hits our planes, and I have to fight to keep the sights steady.  He makes the same corrections, but his handling of the Fokker is so sure, so graceful.  The fighter snaps to his attentions.  He waggles his wings.  I see no reason for him to do this.  He doesn’t turn or change altitude.  He waggles them again, like a big dog shaking water from his ears, and I understand that he is playing.  His plane sweeps broadly to the left and then broadly to the right; I match the movements.  Still, he does not look behind.  I believe he thinks he is alone, and he revels in his ability to fly.

     I take my hand from the lever.

     I should peel off, dive away so he will never know that I have seen him, so that we will not have to fight in the pure November air above the virgin fields, so that neither of us will have to die.

     Instead I pull my plane next to his.  He looks at me from fifty feet away as we once again fly side by side.  He must be startled by my sudden appearance.  He must know that I could have shot him down.  I raise my hand; I wave.  The wind catches my arm and makes it hard to keep above the windscreen.  It seems a long time before he waves back. 

     We continue our course, but we must separate soon.  No one would understand our private armistice.  He flies well in his beautiful blue and silver Fokker D-2 with the red cowling.  I try to learn from him how to be so in place in the air.

     I wish the war were over soon.

     I found myself crying.

     Brian looked embarrassed and poured me a beer from a fresh pitcher.  He poured himself one too, but before he drank he spotted the girl I’d seen earlier.  The music overpowered any chance that she would hear even the loudest “‘Scuse me!” that he could holler, so he wadded up wet napkins and threw them at her until she looked at him.  As soon as he caught her eyes, he pulled his shirt open and started pointing at his chest while mouthing the words, “You and me, baby.  It can happen.”

     This was a new low in pick-up technique for him, but I wasn’t surprised when she walked over and asked him to dance.  I knew by the way they were talking as they move to the floor that he would have company going home again.

     All the tables were empty.  Everybody was dancing, a fast song.  I couldn’t tell who was dancing with whom.  That close together, and from my angle above the floor, they looked like a solid mass, bouncing and waving to the music.

     I didn’t care though.  Tears dried on my cheeks, and I rubbed my shoulder where it ached from fighting the wind and the prop wash.  He had waved.  He flew so beautifully.  The roar of the engine was a perfect silence.

     I finished the pitcher by myself while noticing some things: the surface of the bar is slick, and it’s a pretty good jump to that access ladder.  A guy would have to have secure traction if was thinking about climbing the ladder, walking across the catwalk and lowering himself into the cockpit of the Nieuport 17.

     I reached under the table and started the difficult process of pulling off my boots.

This story originally appeared in Quantum.


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James Van Pelt

An interviewer asked the author if he wanted to be the next Stephen King: he said, "No, I want to be the first James Van Pelt."