Fiction: Luke Salisbury
—To the memory of Bill Whitmire, USAAF
He was on crutches when she met him on the beach in Daytona. He played volleyball leaning on one crutch, and swatting vigorously with his free hand. Sometimes he was the only man in the game. Seventeen thousand WACs were stationed in Daytona in the hotels along the world-famous beach where automobiles were allowed before the war. At five o’clock in the afternoon, all seventeen thousand poured into the ocean. It was a sight.
Bill Dixon, known as Dit, wasn’t interested in what could be had in hotel rooms. It wasn’t for lack of attention. Dit was six feet, four inches tall, with curly brown hair and looked, as he was told several times a day, like the movie actor Sterling Hayden. Dit had a girl named Betty; the girl on the beach was Turner. Turner was a friend. Dit liked to talk to Turner. He had been in a training accident somewhere south, maybe Boca Raton—he wasn’t supposed to say but bomber pilots trained in Boca, especially B-17 pilots. Turner knew men died in the accident and Dit bailed out. Dit told her once and then didn’t talk about it. The pilot wasn’t supposed to go down with the plane, but the plane wasn’t supposed to crash. Dit’s leg was healing. He wanted to go overseas. He said he owed.
Turner Lee Ashby would have been called Turner whether boy or girl. She was named for the Confederate hero of Old Stafford County, Virginia, where Ashbys lived “before the Wah,” when, according to her father, they had been wealthy aristocrats.
War raged now. Two years ago the glow of burning tankers was seen off the Florida coast. At first ships hadn’t been protected close to shore. Now PBYs—the long-range reconnaissance plane—blimps, and fighters patrolled the sea for U-Boats. Florida was so full of military, Raymond Bankhead Ashby, Turner’s father, joked it might sink into the Atlantic. Like many sixteen-year-olds, Turner could identify military aircraft and uniforms and combed the papers for war news as if it were word from God. Many planes flew overhead; many uniforms graced the streets. Men from everywhere, uniforms from everywhere. Turner and her sister Meredith competed to see who could identify a uniform from the greatest distance. It wasn’t just army, navy, marines, coast guard, or merchant marine, but the Free French Navy who trained in Jacksonville, RAF who learned to fly in Arcadia—a Free Pole had been spotted, Canadians, English sailors, a Dutchman. The sleepy Florida peninsula was an ideal place to learn to fly and now tankers bringing oil from Texas and Venezuela were well protected.
Like a few sixteen-year-olds, Turner had been married. It lasted three months and she was back home. Her father said, “I don’t know who’ll take her now.” He didn’t say it to her, but her mother did. Turner and Dit talked a lot about hurt. He wasn’t interested in making out. He said she was too nice.
This made her almost love him.
The day Dit Dixon got orders to join the Eighth Air Force in England, he went to the Ashbys’ house on University Place. Mr. Ashby was married to a woman with a modest income and less than modest drinking habits. Dit, a “gentleman by an act of Congress” from Steubenville, Ohio, could see Mr. Ashby—FFV, First Family of Virginia or not—was a ne’er-do-well.
The night before, Dit had said good-bye to Betty and it had been hard. Betty wanted to get married before Dit left. Dit said no; it wasn’t fair and wouldn’t be real. Betty said he didn’t want to marry her because she was a Catholic. Dit denied it but not fervently enough for Betty. She accused him of wanting to marry Turner because, “You can’t have her and you haven’t slept with her.”
Dit and Betty had. It happened quickly. It was wartime and there was plenty of whiskey and gin, just like there were plenty of soldiers and sailors. Dit didn’t think it made Betty cheap. He thought it was generous and friendly and if it hadn’t been Betty, it would have been others. Many others probably. It was wartime and there were women: seventeen thousand of them. Dit was loyal to Betty, considering the temptation. He liked sleeping with her but thought it was how dames hooked you.
At the Ashby house, a two-story affair abutting a golf course—six-and-a-half gables, Mrs. Ashby called it—Mr. Ashby, no one but his wife called him Ray, sat in a leather chair on his front lawn. A handsome man of fifty, he wore neatly creased white trousers, a red silk smoking jacket decorated with an orange dragon, and slippers. He puffed on a Kool and picked at a plate of fried chicken and rice. A steaming cup of coffee rested on a small card table along with an ashtray—a brass bowl that made ashes and butts disappear by pressing a switch. Mr. Ashby was giving advice to an old black man who was two steps up a ladder, looking at a beehive attached to a gutter.
“Quietly, Moses. Creep up on them. They’re sleeping.”
“Yas, yas, Mr. Ashby, they is sleepin’ but if Moses creeps up on ‘em, they won’t be sleepin’ no more.”
“From the roof, Moses.”
“Doan’ want to go on de roof.”
“Just for the hive, Moses.”
The old man gingerly climbed to the gutter and eased himself onto the roof. He sat, panted, and looked down at Mr. Ashby.
“Sneak up,” said Mr. Ashby, who stood and pulled the red silk robe around him.
“You do look fine, Mr. Ashby. You looks like God in de morning.”
Turner had told Dit about her father and Moses. Mr. Ashby tried to get the old man to do things, like go on the roof, and Moses shrewdly found excuses. It wasn’t about work; it was some Southern ritual both men understood and one enjoyed. A little work got done, Moses got paid, and Raymond was in charge of one black man, if not the eleven hundred he said his great-grandfather owned.
“Is Miss Turner here, Mr. Ashby?”
The fleshy, silver-haired man regarded First Lieutenant Dixon, who was in uniform, from the lofty Virginian height Raymond Ashby absorbed long ago in lieu of a work ethic. The glance spoke eloquently. No sir, you aren’t quite good enough. And that quite is substantial.
“I’m leaving today. Within the hour, in fact.”
“Well, son, I wish you luck. You shall be in our prayers. No, Miss Turner’s not at home.”
Dit was sure she was, but didn’t insist. Dit’s family lived for “unforgettable moments,” like the day Dit came home in uniform with Airman’s Wings. This family lived for “unforgivable moments.” For all their so-called breeding, they seemed to hate each other.
“Mr. Ashby, are you Chinese?”
“Well, you eat rice and worship your ancestors.”
Moses let out a hoot and had to grab the gutter to keep from falling.
Mr. Ashby got up, walked over to the ladder, and took it down. “Moses, I reckon this is the day you’ll do all that work up there.”
In England, Dit wondered if he would have asked Turner to marry him. He thought he might have. It was wartime and people did things on whims. There wasn’t time for a lot else. He might have asked because he wasn’t suitable. Asked on a lark. Funny things happen in wartime. Turner was a prize. She was tall, five-eight. She had started smoking in boarding school because she had been told it would stunt her growth: it hadn’t. Turner was the nice girl you read about in stories in the Saturday Evening Post or saw at the movies. She wasn’t exactly pretty. Her nose was too broad, but her eyes were large and brown, and her dark brown hair was lovely. Turner’s problem was brains. She and her mother were the smartest Ashbys.
Mrs. Ashby handled hurt and frustration by trips to the kitchen. Dit had thought this was Southern hospitality until he noticed that behind the stove was a glass of gin. Turner wanted to get out of the South and marriage was her only way. She felt undereducated, underloved, underappreciated, and for a moment before the house of six-and-a-half gables, Dit thought he might be the one. There was so much in Turner that would be lovely if it got a chance.
She wrote at first. Then Turner was in Washington, D.C., staying with parents of a boarding school friend and doing her part for the war effort by going to officers’ dances. Dit thought without her father, Turner might marry anyone with bars on his shoulders. Betty wrote. She went back to Cincinnati to teach kindergarten. She wrote every day. The mixture of care for Dit, and tender, amused descriptions of her pupils made him almost love her.
Lieutenant Dixon thought about Betty and Turner when he had a minute not clouded by fatigue, fear, or alcohol. Then he hardly thought about them at all. The first mission was a short run over the Zuider Zee in Holland, then Dit flew eight days in a row. They woke at 12:30 AM, ate powdered eggs and bacon, were briefed, and took off at 3:30 AM. In eight days, the crew went from rookies to veterans, boys to old men. They lost weight, got nervous, drank too much, didn’t recognize themselves in the mirror. It was the eyes. The pupils got big, the whites got red lines, the red lines got redder so the whites looked whiter. Dit hadn’t imagined a man reached his breaking point so quickly. He wondered about the guys in foxholes and slit trenches. They slept in tents and didn’t see hot meals or women for weeks. At least pilots slept in a bed.
On the second mission, a Focke-Wulf came through the formation. It turned over so its belly-armor protected it, white crosses on the underwing streaking over the waist of the Betty Ash, and the fighter blew through the formation.
Dit’s headphones exploded with screaming. “Jesus, no!”
Thirty seconds later Dit understood the starboard waist gunner had no head.
They didn’t abort. The mission was completed.
No one had been hurt since, but you could go crazy thinking about it.
Bombers sat in formation, squares of 36 planes. Dit was a good pilot and found once more the steadiness he feared lost in the training accident, holding the plane level through the seconds of fighter attack, over bursting flak, over target. Dit was one of the pilots who kept things together. Other crews recognized this.
On the fifth mission, they not only saw Focke-Wulfs with their rapid climbing speed, but an Me-262, the German jet, which pilots called a “blow job” because it blew by so fast, even faster than the P-51 Mustang. They saw it on the horizon. Dit didn’t complain. He was lucky and he knew it. A year ago Fortresses didn’t have fighter cover during the last third of their missions. They sat in formation and took it; pilots started calling Germany the “big league.”
Flak was worse than fighters. Antiaircraft fire near any target was intense. The Luftwaffe had been reduced; ack-ack hadn’t. Sitting in flak was what a bomber pilot did. You flew to target; the plane was then flown by the Norden bombsight, and you sat there until the bombs were away. The flak burst in black puffs, soft-looking, not real, until it got somebody. If you didn’t get hit, you got the hell out of there. Sometimes the Germans didn’t aim. The guns were in lines pointing straight up, so when you crossed certain air space, flak was everywhere.
There was beauty. The gold autumn fields of England, the neatly divided hedgerow country of Normandy—so picturesque from the air, so deadly on the ground. The brown and gray of Germany. The raids were enormous. A thousand planes hit the Ruhr or Berlin. The bomber stream was five miles wide. The Forts would rev up, take off at thirty-second intervals, circle and join the stream, bounce in the prop wash, rendezvous with fighters over Holland—Jesus, they were a sight—and fly four hours into Germany.
He saw friends get hit. Dit saw Bud McMillan lose a tail and Hot Broad spin to earth. Charlie Taylor’s wing got shot off over Cologne, which meant quicker death. Two Forts collided over Bremen. Dit had seen smoke start slowly from a Fort’s engine, increase, then get heavy as the Bird lost altitude and the pilot tried to calculate if he could get to Switzerland or had to bail out over the Reich. A Fort had ten men and you watched for parachutes: a Bird gave birth, that’s what they called it. You rarely saw ten babies from a broken Bird.
The raid on Valentine’s Day, 1945, was different. Word went round something big was in the works. Word was every Heavy in England was queuing up for a big raid—the kind to shorten the war. For years the brass said big air strikes would finish the Krauts; they hadn’t. They tried. God knew they tried. Brits at night, Yanks by day. The question was strategic or terror: military targets or cities. Each side tried both. The Luftwaffe in 1940. The Allies in ’43. There were successes like three summer nights in ‘43 when the RAF incinerated Hamburg. Tinfoil was dropped to confuse German radar. It was called “Window.” The RAF dropped incendiary bombs and burned an entire city. People were boiled in water tanks where they leapt to avoid fire. Whomever was left walked away. The Germans fought on, as the English had in 1940.
In October ’43, the Americans went strategic. The ball-bearing works in Schweinfurt was the most strategic target in Europe. The Eighth Air Force went without fighter escort. “Window” didn’t deceive the Germans. Schweinfurt had to be defended. Sixty Forts were lost in one day. Pilots and crews went, sat, bombed, died. Before production could be affected, the raids stopped. Dit was lucky he wasn’t flying a year ago. Lucky he wasn’t flying the five months before D-day, when bombers were used as bait for enemy fighters so the Mustangs, Thunderbolts, and Lightnings could shoot them down. The skies had to be cleared for the invasion.
On Valentine’s Day, Dit and his crew got up at four. They were briefed and told the target was Dresden. A rail and refugee center. It wasn’t military manufacturing—that’s why it hadn’t been attacked. Dresden was a virgin city. Dit remembered the word “ancient” and thought tomorrow Dresden would be rubble and rats. And corpses. Except he wouldn’t see the corpses and rats.
All night the RAF flew. Every Lancaster and Halifax, every Heavy the Limeys had was in the air. East Anglia shook. The steady, powerful rumble of bombers went on for hours. The night vibrated; the darkness shook. The Allies owned the night. God help the Krauts.
The Forts were aloft by eight AM. It took an hour for all bombers to find their wings and start for Europe. Dit checked his crew—three officers and six enlisted men—on the interphone and found his place in the bomber stream. They would fly four hours, be over the target for a minute, then go home. They rendezvoused with their “little friends,” fighters. The winter sky was overcast, the undercast almost ten tenths. Clouds above, clouds below. At fifteen thousand feet they put on oxygen masks. Dit put on a flak suit while the copilot flew. Then he took over.
They flew into Germany and encountered heavy flak over Kassel. Then nothing. No fighters. No jets. No flak. They flew unimpeded to the Initial Point at Torgau, turned south, and followed the Elbe River to Dresden. Dit thought about his crew, the formation, and holding steady. He wondered how long the war could last. The Krauts were getting the shit kicked out of them every day, every night, from east and west, by America and Russia, by the British and what was left of the French.
At 12:22 PM four hundred American bombers reached Dresden. Dit saw smoke rising through the clouds. The city had burned all night and was still burning. He couldn’t see it. They would bomb through cloud and smoke. The bombardier and Norden bombsight took over. The bomb bay doors opened and Betty Ash dropped a stick of sixteen 500-pound bombs. The plane lurched up and turned away. Dit took control. No urgency. No evasive action. No hightailing it home. They were uncontested. The Eighth owned the sky. Dit thought Allied air power had never been so unbridled, so unleashed, so mechanical.
Lieutenant Dixon sweated. The flack suit was hot. Holding position in the bomber stream was difficult. Dit fought prop wash and held the Bird in position. He was calm and precise. Dit was good in the air. He shook on the ground. His hands couldn’t stay still holding a pint; he sweated and tossed in bed. Now he was calm. Dit wondered if he got his calm from his father: a serious, sincere electrician. Or was it from knowing how much his men needed it? Wherever it came from, it came at a price.
The Forts were the third wave to hit Dresden in fourteen hours. Dit did not think about what they left under the pall of smoke and cloud.
Over the North Sea he decided to marry Betty and become a teacher. Bombing wasn’t needed. Teachers were. They’d be needed when the world stopped burning. Dit thought about Betty going back to Cincinnati after he went overseas. She wasn’t dating the war, as a buddy put it about dames on the beach. Dit thought about Turner with her height, long hair, and habit of breaking into a Katherine Hepburn accent when excited. He decided he didn’t need what he couldn’t have. He didn’t have to impress anybody or prove his family was good enough. Dit wanted Betty and he wanted to be a teacher. That was enough. Betty, not gin behind the stove. It was time for life to be simple.
As they circled, Dit wondered what it would be like when no crew needed him. When no one cared how he’d been when flak got so close you saw the yellow flash in it. Who would understand hands trembling on a drink thrown down too quickly? The post-war world would be good for women and children. How good for men whose hands shook? Dit was glad Betty was a teacher.
Planes landed all afternoon. Exhilaration gave way to exhaustion. The satisfaction of leaving contrails over Germany was gone. They’d flown eight-and-a-half hours. Eight-and-a-half hours of tension, rendezvousing, checkpoints, Initial Point, blind navigation, staying in formation. Dit was through.
Scotch was always available at interrogation after a mission. Some guys drank, let go, talked in excited bursts of energy, then collapsed. Dit didn’t drink after Dresden. A new intelligence officer, fresh from home, the proverbial stateside joker, came in the Quonset hut where Dit and his co-pilot sat in folding chairs. Their flight jackets were open and they stared at a map of western Europe. The officer was spiffy: his captain’s hat was at a slightly jaunty angle and he sported a new leather flight jacket. His eager face and broad smile boldly announced he was part of the action. The captain had a white silk scarf around his neck, like a Great War flying ace. The captain was sure of himself. Why not? He was the son of an Indiana mayor and represented the air force of the most powerful country on earth. Even if the guy didn’t fly, he was a cog in the machine, a planner, interrogator, part of the big picture. Dit tried not to pay attention but the scarf irritated him. Dit told himself what did he care if a stateside joker wore his hat like Van Johnson in Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo? Why talk to the joker at all? The raid was perfect. Target destroyed. No Birds down. A city destroyed.
“How was it, boys?” The captain had a faux southern way of talking. Dit thought he must have been around Texans in Basic. “How was the milk run?”
A common enough remark. The sort pilots and crew made to each other every day.
“Hot time in the old town tonight?” The captain talked out of the side of his mouth, like John Wayne. He stood with his feet apart, like Eisenhower addressing the troops before D-day.
The co-pilot lit a cigarette.
Dit said nothing.
“Good job, Lieutenant. Even the rats are cooking.”
Dit snapped. He got up, all six feet, four inches of him, took two quick steps, and hit the captain in the jaw. The punch landed squarely. The captain’s jaw broke with a sharp crack; then the stateside joker was on the floor.
“Jesus, Dit!” yelled the co-pilot.
Through his broken jaw, the captain spat blood out the side of his mouth.
Dit tore the room apart. Maps. Reports. Weather charts. He hurled a coffee cup through a window. When the MPs got him down, a bloody scarf was in his hand.
Lieutenant Dixon was court-martialed and given a Section 8. His commanding officer did everything he could, used every bit of influence, put his career on the line, said a pilot as good as Dit shouldn’t go to jail for hitting a nincompoop; but this was the United States Army and lieutenants, even lieutenants who were good pilots, didn’t hit superior officers. Had Dit been an enlisted man, had it not been wartime, he would have been in Leavenworth Prison for a long time. If Dit hadn’t broken the captain’s jaw in four places, it might have been handled with a demotion, grounding, transfer, but the joker with the silk scarf and jaunty hat pressed charges, and his father was a big shot.
A compromise was reached. Dit would go to a mental institution for two years. The captain didn’t like it and Dit had nothing to say, except, “I’m finished. All done. You wouldn’t understand.”
In their way the higher-ups did understand. Dit’s record was outstanding. His Army lawyer did the best he could. But the Army is the Army and rules bend, they don’t break. Dit was flown home under guard and put in a locked ward in a hospital in Nebraska. Dit saw the justice in it. He thought it was what passed for mercy in the US Army.
The hospital was on a base that housed German prisoners of war. It was surrounded by barbed wire and endless corn fields. For six weeks Dit didn’t talk. He sat on his bunk, head in hands, and stared at the floor. Sometimes he trembled; sometimes he cried out. The CO, Colonel Van Nest, who’d lost a son in the last war, looked in three times a day. He watched Dit shake, lie on the bunk with his eyes open, or stand for hours staring at the fields. When Dit looked at the colonel, he didn’t seem to see him. Colonel Van Nest told his wife he had a prisoner whose eyes contained every shade of blue God puts in the sky.
When Dit finally talked, he told the Colonel about the day he went overseas.
“I saw a Negro tricked onto a roof, and a man took away the ladder. I keep thinking about it. I don’t know how he got down.”
The Colonel thought for a moment and said, “How do you get down, Dit?”
“I don’t know.”
Van Nest and Dit looked at each other.
“Everybody gets left, don’t they?” said the Captain. “My son Richard was killed in the Argonne Forest. He’s still there.”
“I’m sorry,” said Dit. “I’m truly sorry.”
“I appreciate that,” said Van Nest. “But what I’m saying isn’t about being sorry. It’s about getting down. In some ways my wife and I never got down. In others, I suppose we did.”
“I’d like to think about that,” said Dit.
The colonel allowed Dit to read what he pleased, use the telephone, send and receive mail, and have visitors, but Dit didn’t have any visitors. The war ended in Europe and then with Japan. Dit read about nuclear energy, concentration camps, bombed-out cities, and listened to the shrill commentary of HV Kaltenborn. During the fall the German prisoners began to be repatriated. The camp felt empty. Tar paper blew off the roofs of former POW barracks. Winter came and the fields froze and what had been rows of corn looked like waves on a hard brown and white sea.
Van Nest recommended Dit’s sentence be reduced. In his reports the colonel said Dit had struck out at the war, the raid—at anger, fear, tension. All behavior he had seen in men in two wars.
Before Christmas, Dit’s brother Fred wrote. He said Mom and Dad wouldn’t speak to Dit. Dad thought Dit had disgraced the family and the uniform of the United States. Dad said Dit was no longer his son. Mom went along with Dad. “They can’t face the neighbors.” Fred forwarded Betty’s letters on to Dit.
Dit learned from Betty that Turner had married a corporal recovering from wounds at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington. Dit wondered how Raymond Ashby took the news. Betty was unmarried, teaching first grade, and worried about Dit. Dit didn’t write to her. He didn’t think Betty should get mail from a man in a place with bars on the windows.
When Dit told Van Nest about his parents, the colonel put his hand on Dit’s shoulder and said, “They’ll come around.” The colonel wrote Mr. and Mrs. Dixon saying their son had an outstanding war record, had done something he shouldn’t, and was recovering. No one sent a reply.
The colonel suggested Dit write the young lady. Dit shook his head.
“Sometimes a man can’t get down by himself,” said Van Nest.
Dit didn’t reply.
The Colonel shook his head. He wondered whether he shouldn’t contact Betty for Dit. He hated to see a man punish himself.
Dit’s sentence was reduced to one year. Colonel Van Nest wrote Mr. and Mrs. Dixon informing them of the date of Dit’s release. He told Dit.
“They won’t speak to me because I struck an officer,” said Dit. “They shouldn’t speak to me because of Dresden.”
“Things are done in war,” said the colonel. “By all kinds of people.”
Christmas passed and the wind blew harder off the prairie. Dit cut a photograph out of Life magazine. It showed a stone angel looking over acres of bombed-out Dresden. He stared at it for hours.
On a February morning in 1946, Lieutenant William Dixon collected his belongings, which fit into two suitcases—one was full of books—and walked out of the hospital in a new suit supplied by the army. The colonel waited with Dit for a taxi at the base gate. It was snowing. A hard wind lashed their faces. Van Nest kept looking around. Dit stared straight ahead, as though holding formation, while the driver loaded his gear. At the station he bought a ticket to Cincinnati.
When he changed trains at Chicago, the conductor told him he’d be in Cincinnati in eight-and-a-half hours. Dit didn’t sleep. He watched smoke from steamers and tugs drift into the clouds over Lake Michigan. It was snowing when the train crossed the Kankakee River. Snow clung to telephone poles, cross-gates, and signal towers. Flurries blew across empty roads. Pedestrians shivered and baggage-handlers at local stations pulled up their collars. Dit stared out as the train hurled on through Indiana.
LUKE SALISBURY is the author of the non-fiction The Answer Is Baseball, a collection of stories Blue Eden, and the novels The Cleveland Indian and Hollywood and Sunset. He teaches at Bunker Hill Community College and lives in Chelsea, MA.
(c) copyright 2005, Luke Salisbury; author retains all rights.