Hey, little champ, did I ever tell you about my first mission as a Navy pilot?

        It was 1942. A long time ago, little champ; before your daddy was even born. There were six planes in my squadron; six TBF Avengers; Torpedo Bomber Fighters. We were on an aircraft carrier, the Constellation; we called her the “Big C”. Do you know what an aircraft carrier is? OK, little champ, I forget how smart you are sometimes. I’m just an old fuddy-duddy.

        There were six TBF Avengers in my squadron. I was a pilot. I always wanted to be a pilot. I used to watch the Navy planes landing at the airfield near the farm where I worked. Once I saw one of them crash. The plane burned. I never saw the pilot get out.

        But I still wanted to be a pilot. I was never going to crash.

        My TBF Avenger had two crewmen besides myself. She was a pretty big plane, over sixteen feet high. She had a 1900-horsepower engine, the same kind they used on the B-25 Mitchell bomber; except the Mitchell had two of them. You ever see a B-15 Mitchell, little champ? Yeah, that’s right: 30 Seconds Over Tokyo. I didn’t know they still showed that movie on TV. OK, little champ, you can show me your DVD next time.

        My TBF Avenger had two crewmen besides myself.

        Travis was my turret gunner in the back; he faced backwards with a .50 caliber machine gun to stop any attack from behind. His powered turret could move 180 degrees side-to-side, all around.

        Phillip was my navigator and radio man. He sat between me and Travis, right behind me. He would also go below in the belly, the “tunnel” we called it, to arm the torpedo and he could also man the .30 caliber machine gun that pointed out of the belly; we called that the “stinger”.

        Neither Travis nor Phillip could get forward to me or the controls. There was a thick shield of metal behind me to protect me from bullets coming from behind. When we were flying I couldn’t really see either of them. We used the interphone.

        The TBF Avenger wasn’t nimble; she was heavy but she could take a lot of punishment. We nick-named her “DUCKY SHINCRACKER”; it was a joke; that was a name that people used to call a good dancer.

        Little champ, my first mission as a Navy pilot was a disaster, a slaughter. We, the squadron, we were all so young … so young and inexperienced. The Japanese had been at war for years already. We didn’t hit one target. Out of my squadron of six we were the only plane left that I could tell, trying to get home to the Big C. We were hit bad. The engine was smoking. I was shot in the legs and a bullet had grazed my head. Blood was running in my eyes.

        I started to pass-out and I got scared. I called to Travis and Phillip on the interphone.



        “Travis, Phillip. Talk to me. I’m hit. Are you alright?”

        Travis replied, “I’m hit too. I’m still here.”

        Phillip answered, “I still have my fiddle fingers. You’re cool, alligator. You’ll get us home.”

        I blinked and shook my head. For a thousand miles all around was the ocean fused with the sky. The sky was the part full of puffy bright little clouds. I looked at my instruments. I was sure we were slowly losing altitude. The big engine was definitely making funny murmurs.

        “Phillip, my compass is shot up. Can you confirm our course?”

        We were forbidden to radio our aircraft carrier. I was afraid that even the interphone would give us away. They could be following us to find the Big C.

        Phillip replied, “I could sure use a left-handed cigarette, man. Get me home to my jelly-roll. Check two o’clock, man, there’s a thread of smoke on the horizon. Could be the Big C.”

        Travis said, “I hope she isn’t under attack.”

        Phillip said, “Why else would there be smoke?”

        I said, “She’s all we got,” and I made course correction toward the thread of smoke on the horizon.

        I thought then about your grandma, little champ. She was only 18 then. Imagine. Eighteen years old. Can you even imagine that? And it was my own 21st birthday that terrible day.

        My mind had drifted. Just to stay focused I said, “Hey, guys. Don’t forget it’s my birthday.”

        Travis was only 19, Phillip was only 18. They both started to sing an off-key happy birthday song to me.

        I laughed. My head hurt. I couldn’t really feel my legs anymore.

        I mused, “This truck took some punches today.”

        Phillip said, “Yeah, DUCKY SHINCRACKER is the Joe Louis of TBF turkeys.”

        I dared to glance again at our left wing. A third of it was gone and we were still flying. I was over-steering to stay level and not spin out into the blue infinity below us. Landing this truck was something I couldn’t think about right then. We lost that stretch of wing when another TBF, right above us, was hit by 20 millimeter fire. That plane dropped like a rock right through us into the ocean. It was piloted by our friend Steve.

        Phillip said, “We should be dead too, man. Poor Steve.”

        Travis growled, “We’re not home yet.”

        I said, “Phillip, keep talking. Tell us about your gigs as a bass man.”

        Phillip said, “OK, well, man, there was this one time I was jamming with a hep cat drummer named Shadow Wilson at Leon and Eddie’s nightclub.  We were backing a hoochie coocher who was dancing on the floor. She joined us after her show and so ‘we’s a-mugglin’ together and gettin’ mellow’. Then she did jelly roll with both of us, man, I swear.”

        Travis laughed, “And you enlisted as a radioman? Did you think it was a jazz radioman?”

        Phillip replied, “So what were you sellin’, Travis, before you enlisted?”

        Travis stated, “Distributing Lucky Strike cigarettes for American Tobacco. By the way: if you smoke after sex you’re doing it too fast.”

        I groaned.

        Phillip said, “And that smokin’ on the horizon is a ship, a big ship.”

        It was the Big C. She must have been under attack but I couldn’t see that well anymore. Was she still under attack?

        I asked Phillip, “Do you see any anti-aircraft fire?”

        Phillip replied, “No, man. But I sure hope they don’t start when they see us approach. That smoke isn’t coming from the flight deck at least, it’s coming from the hull.”

        We had been losing altitude steadily. The big engine had started to shudder. I couldn’t send more fuel to the engine without risking an explosion.

        I said into the interphone, “Men, I think I can ditch us near enough to the Big C…”

        Phillip interrupted, “No way, man. We can make it to the flight deck.”

        I said, “If we crash on deck…”

        Travis pronounced, “We won’t.”

        I said with finality, “OK, guys. I appreciate your misguided faith in me. Anyway, I don’t know if I could get out of this cockpit by myself. We’re in this together.”

        Phillip cried, “They see us. They’re scrambling a fire suppression crew,” and then to Travis, “Hear that, ‘Mr. Lucky Strike’?”

        Travis said, “I just wish I’d had sex one last time.”

        Phillip laughed, “Well, this mission was one big fuck.”

        I barely could see well enough. I cried, “Here we go.”

        Our plane’s tailhook broke when it caught the deck’s arresting cable. We slid on the flight deck in smoke and sparks. The left wheel had collapsed under the crippled wing. We spun toward the edge of the deck. We were going to go over!

        But we stopped.

        Everything was in slow motion to me. The fire suppression crew swarmed on me and lifted me out, ignoring my screams as they banged my bloody legs. As they carried me past the plane I looked up at the gun turret and I saw two sailors; one of them was raising Travis’s right arm.

        They were taking Travis’s fingerprints!

        I yelled at the men who were holding me up under my arms, “Stop, fucking stop,” then I was shouting out, “Travis! Travis!”

        I shouted up to the two sailors there with Travis, “What are you doing?”   They were grim. “What are you doing?”

        Then I saw.

        The gunner turret was shattered. Travis’s head and chest were gone. His shoulders and arms were still strapped into the seat. He must have taken a direct hit from a 20 millimeter during the battle!

        Then I saw below the fuselage of our broken DUCKY SHINCRACKER, a blanket cast quickly over something on the deck.

        Then I started yelling, “Phillip! Phillip, where the fuck are you?” I began to cry, “What happened?! What happened?!”

        One of the guys holding me back said, “No, stop, sir. It won’t do any good to look. You’re already fucked up bad enough. That guy was blown out of your plane’s belly tunnel and he was caught on a piece of twisted metal, like on a meat hook. We saw him hanging there when you were coming in.”

        I felt dizzy with anguish. Phillip must have been hit over the target as well. What? What?! What the fuck?!! What was happening to us? I was talking to them both all the way here. I was talking to them both!

        I fainted.



        Hey, big champ, did I ever tell you about my first mission as a Navy pilot?






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