Chapter 1 Egglesby’s First Flight
FAR ABOVE THE glowing emerald chess board of Vietnam, Major Mike Egglesby peered from the cockpit of the F-4 with icy blue eyes the color of swimming pools, his handsome blond face twisted into a smile of death and resignation. He practiced his smile of death and resignation for several minutes each morning. The smile was going very well, he thought, searching the ground below carefully. He was looking for some infantry to support, and they were hiding from him.
Egglesby was the worst pilot in the Air Force, but also the prettiest. His handsomeness verged on the grotesque. Tousled blonde hair rose from his sun-bronzed forehead in a golden tidal wave that almost demanded a surf board to set it off. His chin jutted forward so appealingly that his detractors, who were many, thought it looked like a scoop, and the dimple that divided its forward protuberance was so deep that nature seemed to have been trying, perhaps in a fit of evolutionary whimsy, to grow a new and interesting bifurcate appendage. Above the eyes he looked like a crested cockatoo, and below, like a steam shovel.
Being the worst pilot in the Air Force did not come easy, especially when attrition in the north was forcing the Pentagon to train large numbers of replacement pilots hurriedly. The most terrible of the terrible new pilots were quickly killed, however, leaving Major Egglesby, who did not fly over the north, safe in his title.
From boyhood Major Egglesby had shown talent for being a terrible pilot. His disastrous career had begun when, as a boy of eleven in the State Theater in Tuskaweegie, Michigan, he had first seen the smile of resignation and death. The movie was Forgotten Skies, a grade-H potboiler about Chenault’s Flying Tigers. Tab Hunter played Rip Langley, a youthful and idealistic American crop-duster who had volunteered to keep China out of the hands of murderous squinty-eyed Japs. Late in the movie Rip had been trapped, low on fuel, above the beautiful Tsing Tsong River by twelve Zero fighters. They were led by his nemesis, Colonel Togo Fuji. Fuji was a fanatical sadist who practiced his swordsmanship by chopping up Christian children abducted from missionary homes.
Rip could have bailed out and lived to fight another day. However, he had just learned that his sweetheart back in the States had been run over by a train, leaving him with nothing to live for. The young idealist disdained to flee. Instead he stared death in the eye with a resigned and noble smile, shoved the throttle home, and dove, guns blazing, toward doom and the evil colonel. The sound of the engine rose to a scream, the guns shuddered backabaekahackabacka, and Togo Fuji’s plane grew ever larger in the windscreen until….
Young Egglesby’s eyes had frosted over and he had dropped his popcorn. While mingled bits and pieces of idealistic crop duster and sadistic colonel flew through the air, Egglesby realized that he was fated to become a fighter pilot.
When puberty struck, Egglesby had burgeoned into spectacular beauty and second-string quarterback for the Tuskaweegie Bruins. He was a terrible quarterback. The coach only played him in the closing minutes of catastrophic games, when the Tuskaweegie Bruins trailed by forty points. This suited Egglesby, for whom tragedy held a strong appeal. Like military officers in general, he believed in ideals and essences instead of results, and so, smiling the Smile, he threw long, hopeless, inaccurate passes and acquiesced with manly resignation to the tragedy of life. In fact, he had once thrown a long pass while on the three-yard line of the opposing team.
He also developed Rip Langley’s jocular and masculine mode of speech. “Hiya, guys,” he would say in a deep bass to his pimply classmates at the Candy Shoppe soda fountain on Main Street, “Why dontcha join the Air Force with Big Daddy. Eh? Little combat and then the bars of Paris. Join the Great Game. You don’t want to slave away in a bank, do you? That’s not for me, my friends.”
He would smile at the girls, to the venom of his less gorgeous competitors. Had anyone else said such a thing, the girls would have snickered, but no one else had a bifurcate chin.
After a pause Egglesby would say, “Sure, it’s dangerous. We all know that. I might not make it back some day. Well, nobody lives forever, eh?”
In college he still dreamed of sacrifice and the warrior spirit, of the brave and the perfect and the handsome. The only book he ever read without compulsion was Beowulf. He liked to imagine himself high in the windswept hills of wintry Denmark, gazing with the smile of death and resignation at the advancing merciless hordes. Hordes of what had never concerned him. Nor, for that matter, had victory. His imaginings had never gone beyond the romance of hopeless courage, and savoring the gray adrenal satisfactions of doom.
Flight school had not treated kindly his thrusting search for virility and extinction. The instructors quickly noticed that he couldn’t fly. Sometimes they suspected he wasn’t especially interested in flying. His emphasis was on mood over technique, his preference for the brave and spectacular in place of the practical. Once on a night flight, while concentrating on the poetic essence of combat, he had failed to concentrate on his altimeter and nearly rammed a water tower.
He had barely graduated because of academic insufficiency. What, he had wondered as he sat in his room struggling with definite integrals, occasionally stopping to smile into the shaving mirror over the desk—what had slide rules and hyperbolic functions to do with the hot flowing essences of a warrior’s soul? Fortunately the demand for pilots was urgent, and his eagerness was judged to compensate for a certain lack of acuity.
Arriving at Danang well after his reputation, Major Egglesby reported to the wing commander, Colonel Dravidian, for assignment.
“Major Michael Egglesby reporting for duty, sir,” he said, clicking his heels to attention and pointing his chin at Dravidian.
“At ease, Egglesby. And don’t make so much noise. This isn’t the Luftwaffe.”
Dravidian was a dark, shapeless man with a hairless cue ball of a head and a sour outlook on life. He looked at Egglesby with a vague sense that something was wrong. What was it, he wondered? Ah, that was it: The major looked as though he had been hit in the chin with an ax.
“You’re going to be with the 443rd Tac Fighter squadron, close air support in the area. The squadron commander will tell you everything you need to know. Now get out of here.”
Major Egglesby was distraught. This wasn’t what he had joined the Air Force for.
“But…the action’s up north! Can’t I…I mean….” Somehow Colonel Dravidian didn’t look like a man who would understand ideals and essences.
“Somebody’s got to stir up mud for the grunts, Major. You’re it. Don’t give me a lot of guff. I hear enough of it as it is.”
Month after month Dravidian watched green pilots come into his office, eager to bomb worthless targets in the north. Month after month he wrote their mothers to explain why they were dead. This was difficult, because he didn’t know why they were dead.
“Goddammit, sir! It isn’t fair. Let me carry the ball! I want to make the big play up north, sir. Give me a chance!”
He smiled his boyish smile of eagerness. He knew how to appeal to authority because he had seen Rock Hudson do it, in a movie about a star quarterback making a comeback from an iron lung.
Colonel Dravidian hadn’t seen the movie.
“Nuts, Egglesby. Anyway, you couldn’t hit Hanoi. It isn’t big enough.”
Judging by his flight school transcript, thought Colonel Dravidian, it might be safer to assign the major to Thailand. Major Egglesby did not seem the sort of man you wanted overhead with bombs.
The next day Major Egglesby had climbed into his F-4 on his first combat flight. “The old bird ready, sergeant?” he said to the crew chief. “Greased and oiled? Ha-ha.” It paid to josh with the enlisted men, he thought. It showed largeness of soul.
He was in a hopeful mood. He would prove himself in the south and be sent north later as a reward. Maybe it would not be so humiliating to brave a mere hail of ground fire in the south. He might even find a worthy opponent.
“Yes sir, she’s ready,” said the crew chief, figuring that the Air Force must be running out of pilots.
Major Egglesby pushed his cataract of hair into his helmet, cranked the engines, shoved the throttles forward, and began his roll. The engines howled like the voice of fate, like mournful dragons going to their deaths against hopeless odds. The green ugly airplane sailed into the air. Then, peering down from eight thousand feet over the checkered green world below he waited until the call came from Marines in need. Ten minutes later he heard through static.
“Bravo One Five to bird on station.”
Major Egglesby responded immediately with enthusiasm.
“Roger. Tell me where to put them. Ha-ha. Tell old Charlie I’m going to drop my wad right in the old hip pocket, smack on his helmet. He’s going to be nothing but hair, teeth, and eyeballs,” he said, dredging up phrases from old movies. He wasn’t supposed to talk that way on the radio, hut he knew that combat minimized formality.
“Uh, yeah. We got a sniper in the tree line. I’ve got two men down,” came the urgent voice from below. Can you lay’em 100 yards north of that funny-looking temple? I’ll mark with smoke.”
“Rodger. You got it, fella.”
Purple smoke puffed against the green near the tree line. His heart thumping, Major Egglesby pushed the stick over and dove, his face alight with the joy of battle. The F-4 screamed down toward glowing viridian squares that grew rapidly before the shuddering plane. A taut grin came over his face. Sunlight gleamed from his gauges, glinted from Plexiglas. The sneering face of Colonel Togo Fuji rose in his mind, and the Christian children chopped into bits. He pickled off the bombs and pulled from the dive into a streaking run-out over the paddies.
“Well, guys, did the Big Boy get’em?” he asked exultantly, watching the paddies streak by at 500 feet and feeling a sense of calm and purity. He was made for combat, he thought.
A long silence was broken by a roar of static “You crazy sonofabitch! North of the fucken smoke. Your other left! You just wrecked my motherfucken truck.”
By the end of his first week, Major Egglesby had bombed an amtrac platoon by mistake, almost killed a company of surrounded Marines with a misplaced napalm drop, and provided close-air support for a trash-burning detail from base whose smoke he mistook for a marker. The infantry, scared to death, stopped calling for support when Major Egglesby was on station. He just flew in big circles until he ran low on fuel and had to dump off his bombs in the ocean, and then land. It was a crushing blow to his ideals and essences.
For a while he tried to get targets by changing his voice and lying about his call sign, but he fooled no one. Someone, he suspected, was tipping off the grunts. For practical purposes, he was out of the war. Sometimes he bombed a tree line just to have something to do, but it wasn’t the same. He became despondent. Soon he took to sitting alone in his hooch with a bottle of Jack Daniels.