GIN FLY

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GIN FLY

Memorial Day,

originally called Decoration Day,

is a day of remembrance for those who have died in our nation’s service

“Kneel Where Our Loves are Sleeping”

by Nella L. Sweet

“To The Ladies of the South who are Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead.”

Kneel where our loves are sleeping, Dear ones days gone by,

Here we bow in holy reverence, Our bosoms heave the heartfelt sigh.

They fell like brave men, true as steel, And pour’d their blood like rain,

We feel we owe them all we have, And can but weep and kneel again.

 

Kneel where our loves are sleeping, They lost but still were good and true,

Our fathers, brothers fell still fighting, We weep, ’tis all that we can do.

 

Here we find our noble dead, Their spirits soar’d to him above,

Rest they now about his throne, For God is mercy, God is love.

Then let us pray that we may live, As pure and good as they have been,

That dying we may ask of him, To open the gate and let us in.

 

Kneel where our loves are sleeping, They lost but still were good and true,

Our fathers, brothers fell still fighting, We weep, ’tis all that we can do.

 

        It was the middle of the Great Depression.  Roger stood outside the entrance to the Sunny Side of the Street bar.  He was tall and lean and he was slouched like a question mark.  He went inside.

        Roger went up to the bar counter and sat down still slouched, looking at his face in the polished wood.

        The bartender called over, saying, “Roger?  What are you doing here?  I thought…?”

        Roger interrupted without looking up and said, “Gin, Jimmy.”

        Jimmy came over and said quietly to the top of Roger’s head, “I thought…”

        Roger said, “Gin.”

        Jimmy said, “Hey, sure, Roger.  Tell you what.  I’ll give you one free and then you probably want to get on home.  It’s Memorial Day, buddy, so you… after all you won’t be just drinking, OK?  You worked so hard to quit…”

        Roger looked up.  His face had been severely burned, melted, and now resembled a clay mask molded by a blind man.  His lips were too full and thick and his teeth protruded from under his upper lip like wax flippers.  His bright blue eyes peered from as if behind the mask and he stared right at Jimmy and said, “Jimmy, I already had a mother.  So they tell me.  Gin, please, without a nag chaser, OK?”

        Jimmy complied quickly, “Sure, Roger, sure.  On the house.  For Memorial Day,” and he slid to Roger a shot of Findlaters dry gin.

        Jimmy made diverting conversation, asking, “How’s things at Roger’s Garage?”

        Roger eased back the shot of gin and leaned forward again, saying, “I have the luck of the ‘early worm’, Jimmy.  It’s a good thing that ‘happiness lies not in the mere possession of money’.”

        Jimmy smiled wryly and nodded, saying, “Easy for Roosevelt to say, right?”

        Roger slid the shot glass toward Jimmy but Jimmy did not reach for it.

        Jimmy tried diversion again, asking, “Business must be ok, right?  I mean, I put out the word to all my customers about your prices and your work.  A good mechanic is better than a good whore anytime, right?” and Jimmy tried laughing.

        Roger mused, “I flew in the Great War ‘to end all wars’, I’m raising a family in the Great Depression, Jimmy, and you’re a great customer and I don’t want to be ungrateful but pour me another goddam gin, will you?”

        A customer was sitting one seat to the side of Roger and he had been glancing at Roger’s face and he was pretending badly not to listen.  He said to Jimmy, “I’ll have two of what he just had, please.”

        Jimmy said to the customer, “Comin’ up, Toby.”  Grateful for the interruption Jimmy moved over to provide Toby with two shots of gin, pretending he did not know what was coming.

        Toby slid one of his shots of gin over to Roger and asked, “So you flew in the Great War?  I’m buyin’.”

        Roger clasped the shot and nodded to Toby and tried to wink at Jimmy but his eyelid only twitched and then he administered the proffered gin unto himself.

        Jimmy said, “’Scuse me a second, guys,” and then Jimmy moved down the bar and made a phone call.

        Toby asked Roger, “So, what was it like, if you don’t mind sayin’.  Bein’ Memorial Day and all.  Out of respect.”

        Roger wiped his lips and said to Toby, “Out of respect, I’m going to tell you.”

        Toby called past Roger over to Jimmy on the phone and said, “Three more of these, please.”

        Roger took a breath and began, “I come from a family of mechanics.  My big brother Peter was fascinated by the new invention: airplanes.  He took it further.  Peter became a pilot.  I became his mechanic.  In 1911 he joined the Glenn Curtiss exhibition team and worked under Lincoln J. Beachey.”

        Toby said, “Hey.  I heard of him.  Wasn’t he called The Man Who Owns the Sky?”

        Roger nodded and continued, saying, “When the Great War broke out Peter went to join the Lafayette Escadrille in Europe.  I went with him as his mechanic.  Peter scored his first kill in August of 1916 and he was an ace by 1917.”

        Toby said in awe, “Your brother must have been somethin’ else back then.”

        Roger drank another shot and raised the empty glass, saying, “He was.”

        Jimmy had come back over after the phone call and was listening to the story.

        Toby slid to Roger yet another of his shots of gin and Roger continued, saying, “The English slang for a chamber pot was a ‘Jerry’ and since the German helmets looked like chamber pots to the English they called the Germans ‘Jerry’.  Anyway, one morning Jerry caught us with our pants down on the ground.  A squadron of airplanes started strafing and bombing our field.  When pilots ran to their planes they were gunned down.

        Peter and I were hiding in the barracks doorway when he yelled ‘Let’s go!’ and he sprinted for his motorcycle.  I followed him without thinking and jumped on behind him.  He roared out zig-zagging to a plane in the next hangar, a bomber, a two seater called a de Havilland DH4.  Peter jumped off the motorcycle and it fell over between my legs.  Peter was already at the gunner’s rear seat and he released the safety on the machine gun.  He hollered at me ‘Get in.  It’s live!’ and I yelled ‘I don’t know how to work a machine gun’ and Peter said urgently ‘Just get the fuck in!’ and so I did.  In a minute we were roaring out of the hangar and somehow we got in the air in the middle of all that strafing and bombing.”

        Roger drank another shot.  He continued, “Peter was screaming at me to hold the machine gun up at forty-five degrees and to fire when he told me.  He then screamed ‘Strap in good.  We’re going to be upside down.’  I thought he was just using slang.  He wasn’t.  Peter proceeded to fly like he used to in the exhibition events, figure eights, loops.  Jerry couldn’t seem to catch us.  Finally Peter pulled the plane straight up under a Jerry plane and looped right over him and he screamed at me ‘Fire!  Fire!’ and I did.  I was just holding the gun at forty-five degrees and pulling the trigger when told.  Peter was aiming me while he was looping.  Jerry must have thought the devil was flying that plane.  I don’t know what damage we were doing but several Jerry lit out like whipped dogs.  I whooped ‘We own the sky!’ just when a tracer bullet must have ignited the fuel tank.”

        Roger tossed back a shot and his eyes glistened and he continued, “Fire broke out in Peter’s cockpit.  Our airspeed was whipping the flames right on Peter.  I heard him screaming.  I turned around and I reached out to him instinctively, helplessly.  Peter was still steering.  He was driving the plane straight down.  He could have jumped.  He would have died anyway, but not like that.  At the last minute Peter leveled the plane out enough so it didn’t crash straight into the ground.  I screamed as I saw the figure of my big brother on fire like a torch and slumping over.  Flames came into my cockpit.  The plane hit hard, tearing off the landing gear and I remember being flung forward out of the cockpit.  I don’t know…but I have an image of my brother waving at me.  His arms must have been flung upward, but I have an image…”

        Toby came out of his spell, saying, “Jesus.”

        Jimmy handed Roger the shot of gin.

        Roger drank the shot but this time he fell forward and he laid his scarred face on the bar counter and he wailed, immolated in his own memories and it was as if all the gin he had been drinking suddenly poured out of his sunken eyes.

        Just then Roger’s wife Jenny entered The Sunny Side of the Street bar.  Jimmy raised his hand at her and beckoned her.  Roger still was slumped on the bar counter rolling his head back and forth in the tears.  Behind Jenny following like ducks were their nine children, by age: Roger junior, Donald, Louise, Betty, Dorothy, Allen, Charlie, Carol, and Sonny.

        The younger children looked at their father in alarm and began to wail, the older ones cried ‘Daddy’ and Jenny went straight to her husband and fell upon his shoulders and raised him up.  Jenny was just tall enough to fit under Roger’s arm and she clutched his waist while Roger leaned on her sobbing.  Jenny had raised her face and she was kissing and kissing his scarred mask of a face, saying, “Roger, Roger, oh, Roger.”  The children all clung by one hand each to his shirt and pants.

        As Jenny shuffled the family out she turned and said to Jimmy, “Thank you for calling me.”

        Jimmy smiled wryly and said, “I knew he needed you.”

        Jenny and Roger with their brood shuffled all of the way out of town, over the bridge, and back to their little rented home together.

        It was a day I don’t forget.

^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^

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