Chapter 15 Feinstein Flies
On the day of Feinstein’s flight with Major Egglesby, the sun came up without hitch and began as usual to fry the brains of anyone foolish enough to be in Vietnam. Anesthesia woke early to feed a huge new torpedo rat he had acquired, now in training. General Grommett sat in his office, between his forward and rear props, and considered a plan to use cargo planes as bombers and thus get his numbers up. On AFARTS the squeaky-voiced corporal piped that discarded brass shell-casings were providing Vietnam with a priceless industrial resource for the fabrication of ash trays, Viet Nam’s largest manufacture since the rice had been mostly poisoned by defoliants.
As the mist burned off the paddies, the eleven-year-old agents sallied forth from hooches to sell boom-boom, and thousands of American soldiers walked around in the ghastly heat, as if they were part of a sane enterprise. Amtracs blew up with thunderous explosions as they found mines. Everything was as it always was, and apparently always would be, bureaucracy without end. That was the day Feinstein’s head got too heavy.
Hearn appeared in his jeep at Feinstein’s hooch to take him to the air field. When Feinstein struggled out, Hearn was sitting in the jeep with his legs propped over the steering wheel and reading Stochastic Methods in Multivariate Polymer Analysis.
“Hearn, that shit’s gotta soften your brain. You read it?”
“If I didn’t, who would?” asked Hearn, a master of the irrefutable question.
“I give up.”
Feinstein hated chemistry. He was already beginning to sweat, the drops leaving a trail of fine matted hair as they rolled down his arms. Feinstein decided he hated weather too, not any particular weather, but just weather.
“Nervous?” asked Hearn as he drove off toward the gate.
“Who, me? No. I always shake in the morning. It’s the best time.”
Hearn’s round face turned briefly toward Feinstein and he said, “I wouldn’t worry. I hear they’re pretty sure they’ve fixed whatever made the wings come off that F-4 over Phu Bai, and…”
“Stop it!” screamed Feinstein, who secretly believed that all airplanes were waiting to disintegrate the moment they got him to a fatal altitude. He was no longer sure he wanted to go with a certified maniac in pursuit of whatever Major Egglesby pursued. At the gate the swarm of spindly pimps began yelling of their wares. “Jesus, selling their sisters. Sorta turns your stomach, doesn’t it?” said Feinstein.
“I figure it’s like a paper route. Listen, I hope you told someone to give me my bourbon if you don’t come back. You know, like a last will and testament….”
“Shut up, goddammit. That’s not funny.”
“I know. It’s real serious. A whole case.”
At the ready room Feinstein hopped out and began to feel inadequate. He always felt inadequate around pilots. He knew he looked like an elongated tarsier with hair on his ear lobes. He was pretty sure these lugubriously masculine fighter jocks thought he was ridiculous. While he was worrying, a tall lantern jawed private named Dooley took him in tow. Hearn drove off, pleased with the way his war was going. He had never dreamed how easy it was to run a war. It still amazed him. You just told stories to reporters, and Congress did spasmodically irrelevant but endlessly amusing things.
Before coming to Vietnam he had had no idea the world worked in such a crazy way. It made him think of his patented rule for answering essay questions in college: On every third question, choose an absurd answer and argue for it cogently. Then you got credit for independence of thought.
If you had to spend thirteen months in this chemically uninteresting waste, you might as well shape international history. That’s how Hearn looked at it.
The tall private wore thick glasses like portholes in a capacious gourd. He spoke in a mournful uninflected monotone that didn’t stop for sentence endings.
“Sir. Good morning sir,” he droned, “I’m Private Dooley and if you’ll just follow me I’ll brief you for your flight sir.” He then waited for a response, peering glassily down at Feinstein as if he had just stimulated a new and interesting bug and wanted to see what it would do. This was not far from the case. Dooley regarded the Air Force as utterly amazing. He derived unending entertainment from watching to see what it would do next.
“Yeah, sure. What do I gotta do?”
Feinstein considered Dooley and decided he looked like the forequarters of a robust but chronically disoriented giraffe.
“Yes sir I have to tell you the emergency procedures sir in case anything goes wrong which it probably won’t but you never can tell especially in heavy ground fire and these worn-out airplanes.”
When Dooley ended a sentence, or rather an oration, he did it with such finality that Feinstein felt that he ought to put a coin in a slot to hear what came next. They came to the briefing room. Long rows of dark green helmets lined the shelves like moldering forgotten heads.
“Yes sir if you have to bail out you ought to put your head back so the ejection motor won’t crush your vertebra and then pull these striped handles but if you get nervous in flight don’t grab them for security because you won’t get any and keep your legs close to your body or they’ll hit the instrument panel and tear off.”
Feinstein eyed the myriad of ominous gauges and screens in the cockpit. Then he eyed Dooley. Next he thought of himself with his legs torn off. Then he wondered why he hadn’t become a stock broker. Stock brokers sometimes jumped from skyscrapers, but their chairs never shot into the air with them and crushed their vertebrae.
Dooley’s voice droned down from between his huge globular lenses. “If you eject at an altitude of more than ten thousand feet your parachute won’t open because there’s not enough oxygen at ten thousand feet and you might have brain damage so don’t worry and just wait until you get to ten thousand feet and it opens and if it doesn’t then you better think of something to do although I’m not sure what but it’s a problem that doesn’t last real long and….”
Feinstein struggled to picture it. This military shit was fundamentally weird, unsound. At thirty thousand feet the cockpit fills with acrid black smoke, he thought. I lean my head back so my vertebrae don’t crush and, foomp! I squirt out like a goddam pop tart, and there I am hanging in fucking giddy space with no airplane and starting to…urg…fal-ll-ll. Yes, that makes sense. Keep calm, says this bug-eyed lunatic.
“Dooley, this is crazy. It’s diseased.”
“Yes sir but it’s the Air Force and I go home next month anyway.”
A door opened and a handsome blond in a flight suit strode in. His hair rose in a crest and his chin pointed in two directions at once. Feinstein stared at him, never having seen anything so gorgeous or deformed. This guy looks like a slingshot, he thought. Or some kind of tropical bird.
“Ah, the minion of the Fourth Estate, ready for a little air combat, eh? Play the Big Game? Nothing like it!”
He shook Feinstein’s hand with a steely grip that had once thrown long hopeless passes for the Tuskawegee Bruins and slapped him on the back. His blue eyes sparkled with courage and zest and confusion. Feinstein stared into those empty pools and thought, hmmm, nice house but no furniture. The lights were on but nobody was home.
“Well, Major, it’s a big story and we minions…you know, anything to get the story.”
“Anything for the mission, eh? Hey, I like that.”
“Uh, Major, level with me. Do these invisible airplanes, you know, exist?”
Major Egglesby gazed at him from between the golden tidal wave of hair and his magnificent chin. He found the question somehow confusing. Probably it was in bad taste to have asked it. To tell the truth, Major Egglesby was no longer entirely sure about the invisible airplanes.
He had been sure they didn’t exist until his interview with Colonel Dravidian. Now, however, they existed, as a matter of Air Force policy. But then, where had they come from? There was something puzzling about it all.
“Certainly they exist.”
“How do you know?”
“Because those are my orders. Obedience to orders is a martial virtue. You have a lot to learn about the military way. I can see that, my good man. It’s a cleaner, nobler way of life, but there are sacrifices.”
“Your orders are to tell me they exist?” asked Feinstein, groping for something he could get hold of.
“No. My orders are that they do exist. I don’t have any orders about what to tell you.”
A loon, thought Feinstein. What entertainment. He was putting his life in the hands of a scatter-brained airborne Beowulf.
On the runway, in air shimmering with little squiggles of heat, he proceeded to strap himself into the wizzo’s seat. He found it unsettling. There was a great sea of writhing green belts and harness, all with different and puzzling buckles. Most were ingeniously designed to snap painfully shut on his thumbnail, although a few pinched his fingers as he jammed one part into another. Within moments he began to feel as though he were being engulfed by some insidious nylon octopus. He wondered why he was doing this. The wings would come off, he was sure of it.
Major Egglesby watched his spiderish passenger and thought of the Good, the True, and the Warlike. He was pleased with the importance of his mission, pleased he had after all gotten to the heart of the great Southeast Asian combat. He was fighting the invisible airplanes of a devious foe. He was glad he had been wrong about their not existing. He attributed his discovery of them to the essentially warlike instincts of his soul. He would soon be an Ace, Colonel Dravidian had implied. He smiled a smile tinged with doom.
The canopy slammed closed and sealed with a sepulchral thump. Oh god, I’m going to drown, thought Feinstein. Then came a whine and the big engines began to howl mournfully.
“Eh? What’s that noise?” said Major Egglesby over the intercom.
Feinstein realized that he had begun to howl mournfully himself. He stopped.
“Guess it’s nothing, said Egglesby. “All right, let’s roll! Up and at’em! Roll the dice with fate, yank and bank, back for lunch with our comrades in arms! Ah, that’s the life. And if one day you don’t come back? Who lives forever?”
Major Egglesby rammed the throttles home. The squat fighter lumbered forward. A weight pushed against Feinstein’s chest. The air field began to roll past, faster and faster. Jesus, Feinstein thought, how can anything as big as South Vietnam accelerate so fast?
He peered blankly down at the receding earth, a frail, hairy, hawk-nosed bundle of distress, and began to moan quietly to himself. Fear had nothing to do with it, although he was afraid. He was offended in a deep and inconsolable way by the sheer unreasonableness of things. Only a few years before he had been a normal kid in East Hoboken, groping at Mary Jenkins in the overgrown weeds behind Marzrati’s Chevrolet and worrying only about transient acne.
Now here he was, flying off to do battle with airplanes that apparently didn’t exist, for which he would almost certainly win a Pulitzer Prize. It was crazy. He had invented these immaterial craft, when he thought they did exist, and now, when he thought they didn’t, he was going to win a Pulitzer for discovering them. He had tried to explain to his editor in New York, but without success.
“Don’t exist?” Murphy had roared over a staticky line from New York. “You bet your sweet ass they exist. Eleven hundred and twenty-three column inches we’ve run on those goddam airplanes, and you say they don’t exist? They exist, goddammit. That’s company policy.”
“But that’s lying.”
“What you think this is? A fucken high-brow monthly? Can you prove they don’t exist?”
“Then they might exist, right? Whaddya want, for Christ’s sake? Godlike certainty?”
They reached thirty thousand feet and circled in the high crystalline world of altitude, bathed by intense sunlight. Over his own moaning, Feinstein heard the engines howling like great unhappy vacuum cleaners. Witches ride brooms, he thought, but I ride vacuum cleaners. He was beginning to feel nauseated by the turns. The oxygen mask gripped his face with a clammy feel, which didn’t help his gut. The hose was attached like a crimped worm. The oxygen flowed, “Sssssssss….ehhhhhhhhhhhh,” and his voice sounded hollow and impersonal, like an asthmatic on Quaaludes. The green table of Vietnam sprawled below, riding out yet another incomprehensible war. It was used to it.
Major Egglesby also was puzzled, and for once knew it. He peered with the eyes of a great hunting bird into the arching blue dome of the sky, wondering what to do. The Air Force, he decided, was more mystifying than he had thought. Before, when the invisible airplanes didn’t exist, he had known how to fight them. Now that they existed, he wasn’t sure how to proceed. How could he tell when one was out there? He decided to do as he had always done. Everyone seemed happy with it.
“There they are!” he shouted. “Bandits! Ten o’clock low!”
“Where?” said Feinstein, looking hard but seeing nothing. He wasn’t quite sure where ten o’clock was.
“Low! They’re sneaking in to bomb the orphanage! My god, it’s Togo Fuji himself!”
Major Egglesby assumed that Colonel Togo Fuji lived chiefly from a fiendish hatred of orphans, whom he cherished as being necessary to the practice of swordsmanship. He wasn’t sure whether it was Air Force policy that Togo Fuji existed, as Colonel Dravidian had said nothing of it. Maybe it was optional, he decided.
A note of steel came into his voice. “We’re going in,” he said, and shoved the stick into a rolling dive. A ghastly weight forced Feinstein back into his seat. Outside the canopy the green earth suddenly leaped and began a massive roll over the airplane.
“There they are! Engaging! I’m engaging!” screamed Egglesby, gripped by the joy of combat. The smile of resignation and death played grimly at the corners of his mouth. The plane stood on its nose and went straight down.
At that moment, Feinstein’s stomach revolted. He leaned forward to vomit in his airsick bag just as Major Egglesby entered a turning dogfight with—yes, Major Egglesby could never mistake that flying style—Togo Fuji himself, his plane an agile Zero. In a sustained five-g turn, Feinstein’s head suddenly weighed 75 pounds. He found he couldn’t lift it. His face stuck between his knees by a terrible force he vomited profusely and miserably into the bag. He wanted to die. He suspected he might. He could barely breathe and his brains were trying to migrate into his spinal cord.
“Ooooagh!” grunted Major Egglesby to relieve the strain. Togo Fuji’s plane slid sideways and turned yet tighter, seeking to throw off Major Egglesby’s inexorable attack. Like an eagle falling on its prey the major plummeted, turning ever harder, seeking the limits of existence and the airframe. His eyes glittered warmly and a savage satisfaction, which he had first encountered in Captain Marvel comics, flowed hotly into his soul as he realized that he was slowly but surely creeping up and inside on the Zero.
“Ah so, you monster! Chop up children, will you? Little ones? Innocent? Now comes the price!” he exulted, finger tightening on the trigger.
“Urrrrrghak!” shrieked Feinstein, who decided he would never eat chipped beef on toast if he thought he would have to look at it again.
“Your moment has come!” Major Egglesby was yelling as the sighting pipper slid slowly onto the cockpit of Togo Fuji’s Zero. He was so close that he could see the sallow face of the evil colonel turn to gaze at him, knowing the game was up. For a moment they stared at each other, remembering their many battles over the Tsing Tsong River, the camaraderie of each in his respective camp, the whizzing sword and diced orphans. The dark colonel’s face twisted into an unexpected expression. It was …yes…a smile of death and resignation.
Major Egglesby fired, almost hating to kill a worthy opponent. The heavy thumping of the twenty millimeter sang its vicious song of doom. Fragments of cockpit tore from the Zero as Togo Fuji committed hara-kiri with his last breath.
“Well, how do you like the sport of kings? Eh? Beats being a mere stockbroker, doesn’t it? I’ll bet you’re thinking of going to flight school, eh?” said Egglesby.
Feinstein pulled his face from his lap and moaned. That night he was able to tell Murphy that the invisible airplanes must exist. He had been in a dog fight with one, he would say, and he hadn’t seen a thing.