“On the Wings of Faith,” Part 5

 

Chapter 5

South of the Border

December, 1959

Otto glanced over at Bob. He was attempting a landing west of Mapire on the Orinoco River, and it looked very tricky. The FBO reported calm conditions, but when they made a low pass over the ramshackle building that served as a trading post and supply depot, from what Otto could tell from the right seat, it looked very tricky. They had both noticed tell-tale signs of higher water than expected, pushed by upstream winds. Neither of them had much experience with landing on choppy rivers. Bob took over after Otto had flown most of the mission so Otto let him have the landing.

“You want me to take this?” he asked.

“Nah,  I got it.”

Not only was the river running high and fast, there was considerable debris that had washed in with the night’s rains. Otto saw branches of trees, small buildings, and even a couple of dead pigs and a bloated cow.

“Do you think we ought to abort?”

Bob shook his head. “Nah. We’re bingo on fuel and can’t reach any place else. This is it.”

“All right then. Everyone make sure your seat belts are good and tight.” In the rear view mirror, he saw Luis and Jerome cross themselves. If he had been Catholic, he might have done the same. On second thought, he wouldn’t. He had supreme confidence in Bob’s piloting skills, and didn’t want to do anything to rattle him.

“Call out any debris you see,” Bob muttered. “We’re going in!”

Bob flew upwind beside the river, about 400 feet up, then turned on the downwind leg. He positioned the Cessna along the middle of  the water and lowered the big amphibian gradually toward the surface of the raging river. “Hang on guys!” he called. “Here we go!”

“Vaca al la derecha!” Luis exclaimed. Otto looked over to see the carcass float by two hundred feet below them.

“Tree branch dead ahead,” he said calmly.

“Got it. One hundred feet.”

“Chicken coop at two o’clock.”

“See it. Fifty feet. Keep your eyes open.”

“Wooden beam to eleven o’clock and closing fast.” As Otto said this, Bob chopped the throttle and the aircraft settled toward the water. With a tremendous metallic tearing sound, the beam speared the left pontoon. The Cessna slewed around, shuddered, and then wrenched free from the post and listed to starboard. Bob revved the engine, and they made a sort of crustacean sideways progress toward the dock, which looked like it had been through a hurricane recently and not been fixed.  Four men ran from the trading post and clambered down the side of the, three of them with lines in hand, while the other carried a gaff about ten feet long. He reached over and put the hook around one of the starboard pontoon struts and pulled. As he slowly and carefully drew the airplane to the dock, his compadres lassoed various parts of the craft, pulled it to the dock and secured it. It looked to Otto that it wouldn’t be torn away by the river.

Otto was the first out the door. “¡Muchas gracias, becarios!” he exclaimed fervently. “Estamos en deuda!” The men smiled and laughed. One of them rattled off something in Spanish that Otto couldn’t follow. He turned to Luis and Jerome.

“He wants to know if you will do your trick with the airplane again,” Luis laughed. “They have not had such entertainment for a long time.”

“Tell him I’d be delighted to oblige,” Bob mumbled, “but I have an airplane THAT NEEDS TO BE FIXED before I do.”

One of the men who had helped them spoke up. “Rodriego, who works on such things, is not here. He has gone up the river to visit his family. In any case, we are out of fuel for the welding torch. He can fix it, but he cannot do it without proper materials. Only God can create something out of nothing.” He crossed himself.

“When do you expect a delivery? And your name is?” Otto hesitated.

The man bowed from the waist. “I am Señor Carlos Blanco at your service, señor. And you are?”

Otto returned his bow. “I am Señor Otto Kerchner, and these are my amigos, Señor Donovan, Señor Viera and Señor  Hernandez. We are happy to know you. So, when do you think the supplies will be delivered?”

Blanco shrugged. “It is hard to tell. Maybe mañana, maybe the day after. Only God knows.” He crossed himself again. “The man who drives the boat he is fond of the, how do you say, distilled spirits. Sometimes he is drunk for days. It just depends.”

“Is there a way we can get upriver?” Donovan looked thoroughly exasperated.

“Sì. I am the captain of the proud craft, the Santa Maria.” He crossed himself yet another time. I don’t see how this guy gets anything done, crossing himself all the time. Otto smiled.

“The sainted Virgin protects me and all those who are in my boat when we go on the river. There are many dangers, but you will be in safe hands with me. I am very trustworthy.”

Sounds like a sales pitch, Otto thought.

“I know what you are thinking, Señor. You are thinking I am going to charge you a big expensive price. Do not fear, mi amigo. I will charge a modest sum, payable in gold, American dollars or chickens. But I do not think you have bought any chickens. At least they could still fly!” He dissolved into helpless laughter. Donovan looked like he wanted to punch him.

“How much to take us upriver to the settlement at Tres Cascadas?”

“For you, my friend, only 500 American dollars.”

“We’ll give you 300.” Donovan frowned.

“Señor…I must feed my wife and my little family. But I like you, and I will take 450.”

“Three-fifty.”

“Señor, you are a man who knows how to bargain. I like that. 425.”

“Three seventy-five.”

Blanco raised his eyes heavenward. “May the sainted Virgin help me deal with such a determined man. Four hundred.”

“Four hundred it is, then, hombre.” Bob stuck out his hand and Blanco shook it. Otto nearly laughed when Blanco crossed himself for what might have been the fiftieth time since they had landed.

“Very well, it will take me about an hour to prepare my humble craft. In the meantime, I hope you will enjoy the hospitality of mi pobre restaurante. Come this way, por favor, and my nephew Julio will be happy to help you.”

I wonder what the menu will be like. Otto had never had the opportunity to eat in a restaurant situated in a place that looked like something out of Thimble Theater. Now that he had a chance to look at it more closely, he wonder how it withstood a gentle rain, much less a tropical downpour. “We need to unload our equipment from the aircraft first. Then we’ll eat.”

Blanco shrugged. “As you wish. I will tell Julio to keep the food warm. He is a good boy and does as he is told.” I’ll bet he does, Otto thought. He doesn’t want to be taken out into the jungle and left there. Blanco reminded him of Benson. He supposed there were that type of men in every country, human nature being what it was. He stopped this line of thinking and hurried to help his crew unload the aircraft. Julio helped them, asking about every piece of equipment placed on the dock. The kid obviously had a natural kind of curiosity, and Otto thought he might be helpful to them by being able to reach the younger members of the tribes they’d visit. He didn’t know if Julio knew anything about local dialects: he’d have to ask him.

They had everything unloaded and secured within an hour and turned to the meal. Later on, Otto would say it wasn’t the most memorable meal he’d ever eaten, but it was the most unusual. The gringos had to keep asking what they were eating. And they weren’t sure they could trust what Blanco told them. He said one of the main dishes was chicken, but Otto had never seen a chicken with parts eight inches wide. It was hard to tell what it was—it tasted like a combination of chicken and fish, and Luis later told him he was almost certain it was anaconda. “These crazy Colombians will eat almost anything,” he grimaced, “and I think we have been, how you say, had.”

Otto had similar qualms about a bowl of fried crunchy things on the table. They looked like some sort of crustacean, but again Luis was of the opinion that they were fried grasshoppers. Otto thought it well that he didn’t know what he was eating since he wasn’t sure he would have been able to keep it down had he known. It indeed would be a meal to tell everyone about when they got back—if they survived the native cuisine.

The group went back outside to find Blanco steering his boat to the dock. The craft seemed more an elongated skiff than the transport boats Otto had seen in the army. Julio, who seemed to do most of the work around the place in general, grabbed one of several lines and tossed it to Blanco, who caught it and made it fast to a bow cleat. The four missionaries stood on the dock, and Blanco threw each of them a line in turn. He made all four fast and crossed himself when the boat was secure. They then began the process of loading their gear onto the skiff. With five of them working (and Blanco supervising), they had everything secured in a matter of minutes, taking care to balance the load. Weight and balance, Otto thought, just like an airplane. Except the medium a boat moves through is a bit more substantial than thin air.

“All right, mis amigos! Let’s jump on and head upriver!” Blanco was as animated as Otto had seen him, although he seated himself at the steering position at the stern of the boat and commanded Julio to cast off the lines. The missionaries loaded onto the boat and took their places, helping Julio as they did so. Blanco lifted his head toward Julio, and the young man came over and gave the big outboard at the stern a mighty pull on the starting rope. The motor sputtered but did not catch. Julio tried again…and again…for five minutes with no luck. Luis clambered over and looked the engine over.

“You get your gas from that tank?” he asked, pointing to a rusted tank 50 feet away. Luis sighed. “There’s your problem. I was looking at the tank earlier and there are holes in the cap. Water got into the gasoline and that’s why the motor won’t catch. We’ll have to drain the tank and filter the water. Otherwise, no one is going nowhere, mis colega.

Blanco looked stricken. “We will have to wait. In the meantime, you will be able to sample the luxury of staying at mi recurso. I welcome you as I would a brother. Please follow Julio and he will show you to your alojamientos.”

I can’t wait to see this, thought Otto. I would like to see Blanco get off his lazy derrière and do something for a change. The six men clambered out of the boat, four of them helping Julio secure it. “I will put my stuff in the room and then come back to help you with the engine,” Luis promised Julio.

“Gracias, Señor.” Otto saw gratitude in the young man’s eyes.

They moved their baggage to the building, where they settled into two rooms, Bob and Otto in one, and Luis and Jerome in the other. Otto had stayed in some seedy places in his time, but this one qualified as the seediest. Long strips of yellowing wallpaper hung from the walls while a door with holes kicked in it led to a small filthy bathroom. I’ll take my chances in the latrine around back, Otto thought. He and Bob plopped their luggage on their beds which looked like they were left over from World War I. Threadbare woolen blankets covered the stained sheets stretched over a thin mattress which had more lumps in it than poorly made gravy. “Well,” asked Bob. “What do you think?”

“I think I wouldn’t board my best dog here,” Otto observed mildly. “But, oh well, any old port in a storm.”

“Yeah, and we’ve landed in the midst of a heck of a storm.”

“I hear ya, friend.”

“Let’s go talk to the other guys. We’ll need to organize ourselves for an early start in the morning.”

“Yeah, I won’t be able to sleep for thinking about the delicious breakfast awaiting us.”

“I hope it’s not leftover anaconda.”

“You know, I think I’m developing a taste for snakes. I can hardly wait to cut me off a big old slice of Mr. A.”

“You can have my portion. And anything else you find lying around.”

“Well, I’ve had enough for one day. Time to hit the hay.”

“Me, too. Sorry about pranging the aircraft, boss.”

“I can’t think of anyone who could have done better. It was a difficult to impossible situation. You nearly pulled it out, so I’m not going to worry about it.”

“I wonder how the FMO is going to like my damaging their property.”

“These things happen, Bob. They know that. I don’t see any of them volunteering to fly for a sick pilot. They don’t know how. So it falls on us.”

“As usual, you make a great deal of sense. Good night and thank you.”

“Good night. Say, did you find your mosquito netting?”

“I’ll look for it before I go to bed. See you in the morning.”

“See you.”

Otto lay on his spartan bunk. He wondered what Betty and the girls were doing, and Mata and Tom and their brood as well. Going about their business, he guessed. Getting ready for bed and not thinking about having mosquito netting nor trying to identify animal calls in the night. Maybe he shouldn’t have gone on this trip after all. Who knows what could happen? Thinking of these matters, he quickly fell into a deep sleep.

 

Advertisements
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

“On the Wings of Faith,” Part 4

Chapter 4

Southern Nights

December, 1959

Otto was flying. He lined up the FMO Cessna floatplane on a narrow unnamed river in the pine woods of Alabama near where he had undergone basic during the war. Where he would be going there would be precious few airstrips hacked out of the jungle, and while he had never flown an amphibian before, in some ways it made takeoffs and landings easier. One of the other missionary pilots home on furlough had met him a week before to familiarize him and Bob with procedures for operating the aircraft. Otto and Bob picked it up right away and were ready to use the FMO’s aircraft after about three hours of practice.

Otto had flown down with Donovan and Luis, who was to be their translator. Most of the tribes they’d be visiting had someone who spoke English or Spanish. There were just too many dialects and too little time to learn them to make use of the local languages to communicate with any accuracy. And the director of FMO had made it abundantly clear that accurate communication was the key to the success of their mission and also to their survival.

Otto remembered what the president had said. “I don’t have to tell you that what you’re doing is dangerous work involving difficult landings, unfriendly tribes, disease and civil unrest. Please know that millions of people are praying for your mission all over the world. I wish you well and may God go with you. I’d like to have a prayer with you before I leave.”

The three other men nodded their approval. Stockton started praying in a clear, strong voice. “Father God, we pray your blessings on Otto, on Bob, on Luis and on Maurice as they go about the work of your Kingdom. May their faith and courage not waver, and may they bring these lost suffering souls to you. We thank you for the work you have given us for the upbuilding of your Kingdom. All these things we pray in the powerful name of Jesus, who commanded us to go to the ends of the earth with the Good News that He is alive and that you are truly a God of love. Amen.”

The other men around the table echoed the “Amen.” Stockton shook hands all around. “Vaya con Dios, mi hermanos.”

“Y con tu,” Luis returned.

***

Otto, Jerome and Bob went back to their rooms. Jerome did some reading, while Otto and Bob played poker in the living room. “How many games of poker do you suppose we’ve played?”

“I don’t know,” Otto murmured, throwing down the jack of spades. “We should have kept count. Probably in the tens of thousands.”

“Yeah, if I had known I would have lived this long, I would have kept count. Also taken better care of myself.”

“I hear you, friend.”

Donovan threw down his hand: two black aces and two black eights, with a nine of diamonds. “Read ‘em and weep.”

“Maybe it’s you who should weep,” Otto grimaced. “That’s a dead man’s hand.”

Bob raked in the matches they used to bet with. “Yeah, I guess it is if you’re superstitious. Want to play another hand?”

“Nah, I’m done for the day. Six o’clock comes mighty early in these parts.”

“That’s what I hear, cowboy. Good night.”

“G’night,” Otto called as Bob closed the door to his room. He hadn’t said anything, but he had felt a quiet frisson when Bob played his hand. A premonition or an errant breeze. He shook his head, prepared for bed, and was asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

“On the Wings of Faith,” Part 3

Chapter 3

Flying Machines in Pieces on the Ground

November, 1959

Mata and Betty could not change Otto’s mind, so Mata cancelled the trip, with a promise to everyone that it would be rescheduled, possibly as early as the next year. Mata heard back quickly from every crew member still left alive. “This doesn’t sound like Major Kerchner,” Berle Robinson wrote. “It’s uncharacteristic of such a fine leader.”

Mata read this and sighed. She picked up the phone to call Berle. A woman answered after two rings. “Robinson residence.”

“Mrs. Robinson, this is Mata Durham. How are you today?”

“I’m fine, Mata. How are you?”

“I’m well, thank you. It’s nice to hear your voice.”

“It’s nice to hear yours, too.”

“I was calling to speak to Berle.”

“He went into town. He’ll be back in about an hour.”

“All right, I’ll call him then. You have a good day.”

“You too, Mata. Take care.”

“You as well. Good-bye.”

“Good-bye.”

Mata put the receiver back on its cradle and sat there looking at it for a while.

The reaction of the rest of the crew would be similar, if not the same. Well, there was nothing else to do.

The door opened and Otto came in. “How’s it going?” he asked.

“Other than having to call people to cancel reunions, things are just dandy.”

Otto held up his hand. “I don’t want to hear any more about it. The matter is closed. Over. Finito.

“All right. It’s just—“

“I said no more. I mean it.” He went into his office. Mata busied herself with some invoices for a few minutes. The door opened and Dr. Vaught, their minister, came in.

“Dr. Vaught, how are you today?”

“I’m fine, Mata, and how are Tom and the boys?”

“Just great. Tom’s at work and Polly takes care of the boys for me while I work.”

“Ah, yes, haven’t I seen Polly in the company of young Mr. Peterson lately?”

“Yes, you have. I think she’s sweet on him.”

“Hmmm. Do you think I might be able to perform a wedding in the near future?”

“It wouldn’t surprise me a bit, Dr. Vaught, not a bit.”

“Well, we’ll see, won’t we? Say, is Otto in?”

“Yes, he’s in his office, but I have to warn you he’s in a foul mood.”

“Oh? What’s wrong?”

“He cancelled the reunion trip.”

“He did? Why?”

“He says everyone is trying to tell him what to do. And he won’t change his mind no matter what I say.”

“That doesn’t sound like the Otto I know.”

“That’s what everyone says. I’ll tell him you’re here.”

“Thank you.” Vaught busied himself looking at the maps on the wall. Mata picked up the intercom. “Otto, Dr. Vaught’s here. OK, I’ll send him in. All right.”

The door to the office opened and Vaught went in. Otto closed the door. “Welcome to our humble FBO, Dr. Vaught. I’m glad to see you.”

“Thank you, Otto, and I apologize for not coming out to see you sooner. I have been trying to visit every parishioner within six months of my arrival here, and I started with the older members. Perhaps you know they become upset if the minister doesn’t visit them soon after he arrives.”

“So I’ve heard.”

Vaught chuckled. “Yes, well, I’ve worked my way through the ninety-year-olds, the eighty-year-olds, the seventy and sixty and fifty and forty-year-olds, so I’m down to the thirty-year-olds, which includes you and Betty and some of the rest of your family. Actually, I’m sort of here on business. I plan to visit you and Betty at home in the next couple of weeks.”

“We’d welcome your visit. And what is the business you’ve come here about?”

Vaught moved forward in his chair. “As you know, we Lutherans support a wide variety of missions.” Otto nodded. “One of them is the Flying Missionaries Organization, which supports mission efforts all over the world. One of our missionary pilots has had to be evacuated to a hospital in Florida after contracting dengue fever. He’s going to be out for a month to recover, and the FMO contacted me to see if we had an qualified pilots who could fill in for him. I immediately thought of you, of course, so I want to ask if you would do this.”

Otto sat up straight. “Yes, I will.”

Vaught sat back in his chair. “Don’t you want to think about it, pray about it, ask Betty?”

“No. I don’t need to. I can do it.”

The minister ran his hand through his hair. He stood up slowly and extended his hand. “Well, all right, but if you have second thoughts about this, please let me know.”

Otto stood and shook his hand. “I won’t. I’ll come over later to get the details. When would be good for you?”

“This afternoon at 3 will work.”

“Good. I’ll be there. Thanks for coming by and thanks for the opportunity to do this.”

“It’s you who should be thanked. This will mean a lot to the people of the region. I’ll see you this afternoon at 3.”

“Take care. See you then.”

The minister left, and Otto stared out the window for a while. This was just what he needed to get him away from all these controlling women for a month. He’d better get Mata on it. He knew she had put in for passports for all of them, so that would be no problem, but he was certain he would have to have a visa and who knows what else by way of government paperwork. He walked out into the conference area. “Mata, I’m going to Colombia.”

“You are? Business or pleasure?”

“A little bit of both. I’ll tell you about it. Have a seat.”

Mata pulled up a chair and sat at the conference table. “So, spill the beans. What’s up?”

Otto drew in a deep breath. “Dr. Vaught wants me to substitute for a missionary pilot who’s laid up with dengue fever.”

“All right, where is this missionary stationed?”

“In Colombia.”

“Colombia as in South America Colombia?”

“The very same.”

“Not Columbia, Washington?”

“No.”

“Or the District of Columbia.”

“Guess again.”

“No, I get the picture. Isn’t Colombia a dangerous place with drug lords and wild animals and tropical diseases?”

“Yes.”

“So why would you want to do this?”

Otto sighed. “Because I can do some good. And frankly, speaking as a loving brother to his loving sister, it will be a chance to get away from you and Betty for a while.”

“I take it I’m not going on this trip.”

“That’s right. I’ll need the room for supplies and people.”

“And Betty’s not going either?”

“Correct again.”

“Well, isn’t this convenient for you, Mr. Don’t-Tell-Me-What-to-Do?”

“I would say it is…”

“I’d like to be a fly on the wall when you tell Betty.”

“You can be a Mata on the wall for all I care.”

“Have it your way. You always do.” She stalked from the room.

“Where are you going?”

“Home!” she snapped. “There’s nothing for me to do here—you’ve canceled everything!”

The door slammed. “Well,” Otto murmured. “Not everything. Not yet. But give me time.”

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

“On the Wings of Faith,” Part 2

 

 

Chapter 2

For in Sleep What Dreams May Come

October, 1959

“Otto! Otto! Wake up!”

Otto felt himself rising from his post by the barracks wall and then falling into the familiar softness. Someone was shaking him by the shoulder. “Go away, Bob. I’ll be all right. Just a touch of something.”

“Otto! Otto! It’s Betty! Wake up!” He opened his eyes to darkness and the familiar dim shapes of their bedroom furniture. “You were having a nightmare! What were you dreaming about?”

Otto ran his hand through his hair and rubbed his face. “Something that happened during the war.”

“Do you want to tell me about it?”

He took Betty in his arms and held her closely. “It’s too horrible, hon. Maybe someday.”

He felt her familiar warmth and drew in the fragrance she wore. That’s much better, he thought. Much, much better.

***

A few hours later, Otto sat at his desk looking over the materials Mata had left about the reunion in England. As usual, her report was clear, complete and detailed. Just as he finished going over the material, she walked in. “Good morning, brother of mine.”

“Guten morgen, meine Schwester!”

“I see you’re playing the old German card this morning.”

“What other card would I play?”

“Let’s see—You also have the pilot card, the husband card, the father card, the FBO owner and operator card, the veteran card…”

“I get the picture. Remember I’ve known you all of my life.”

“A feat easily accomplished.”

“Don’t think knowing you all these years hasn’t been difficult at times.”

Otto grew serious. “I know. And I’m sorry for any difficulties I might have caused you and anyone else.”

Mata walked over and hugged him. “We’ve all had a few rough patches, but without you, we wouldn’t have gotten through them. I love you, Otto.”

“And I you.” She backed away, fishing a handkerchief from her purse and wiped her eyes. “Look, you’ve made me cry first thing in the morning, you heartless scoundrel.”

Otto twirled an imaginary mustache. “Yes, and I’ll do worse when the day is done. I haven’t tied any fair damsels to the railroad track lately.”

Mata sat down. “Do you remember when you came home that first Christmas after you had gone into the Army?”

“Like it was yesterday. I wanted so badly to be here for Christmas Eve, but the trains were so crowded I couldn’t get on one until the day after. The train people wouldn’t say, but I think about twenty of us were bumped by a general and his party. Rank hath its privileges, as the saying goes.”

“Yes, and the conductor had no information on you except you weren’t on his train.”

“So you just had to go home disappointed.”

“Yes, and had no idea of what I would find there.”

“They sounded like angels, Otto. The best singers in the angelic choir. Even today it gets to me.” A tear rolled down her cheek. She wiped it away with her index finger.

Otto reached over and took her hand. “I think the loss was harder on you than on me. I was away, but you stayed here and kept things together. More than just ‘together,’ you made improvements to the farm and enabled us to have the airline and ball team and FBO. I’m so proud of you.”

“Thank you, brother. You know, of course, I can’t hear ‘Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming’ without being ruined. You’d think I would have gotten over it by now.

“Emotions have a peculiar power to last, especially when something or someone triggers them.”

Mata nodded. “I think that’s what you’re encountering with Alice.”

Otto’s head snapped back. “What do you mean?” he asked in a harder and colder tone.

“I mean, you might not know it, but you haven’t gotten over her yet.”

“I haven’t?” Otto folded his arms and felt his face set itself. “Why do you say that?”

Mata looked him directly in the eye. “You’ve always been decisive. With Alice, I think you haven’t made up your mind. There still a spark there.”

“I’m glad you can see it because I don’t.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, dammit, Mata I’m sure. And I wish you and all the other women in this family would lay off. I have no interest in Alice. It was over a long time ago when she deserted me. I have work to do. Don’t disturb me.”

Mata watched him silently as he went into his office and slammed the door. He collapsed behind the desk and after a moment’s hesitation, pulled the bottle of bourbon out from the drawer. He poured himself four fingers and raised the glass to the ceiling. Here’s to you, Sparky and Benson. At least you had the sense to leave a fellow alone. Then he set about doing some serious drinking.

***

Otto dimly heard a bell ringing, a long way off. He thought it sounded familiar, but he couldn’t exactly place it. It sounded like an alarm bell. He would have to reason this out. First of all, where was he? And what kind of place would have a bell? A school? No, it didn’t sound like a school bell. And it kept ringing. School bells cut off after a while, but this one kept ringing on and on and on as if it would never stop.

His head hurt. He had one monster headache and the shrill sound of the bell felt like an ice pick in his ears. As he thought about the sound some more, he hit on a possibility. He was aboard the Mata Maria, during the war, and the bell was the bail-out bell. But he couldn’t hear the sound of the engines or chatter on the intercom. No, except for the bell there was no sound and no activity that he could tell.

He turned his head slowly toward the bell. He cracked one eye open and saw that the source of the sound was the black telephone on his desk. Well, that made sense. He painfully reached over and picked it up. “‘lo?” he murmured.

“Otto, is that you?” It was Betty.

“Who elshe wo’d it be?” His head throbbed anew.

“Are you coming home? I’ve been holding dinner for you. Mata said you locked yourself in your office and wouldn’t answer her knocks.”

“I wash busy.” He knew he was slurring his words.

“Otto, are you drunk?”

“Whoo, mee? Nah, not me. A li’ schleepy, perhapsch, but not drunk.”

“Do you want me to come get you?”

“Nah, I can findsch m’ way home. I schthink.”

“Otto, I’m coming over there.”

“Don’ bother dearie, I don’t need another womansch telling me wha’ to do.”

He heard the click of the receiver being hung up on the other end. He put his head down on the desk for an instant, and then gathered himself to stand up. He braced himself on a bookcase and shoved himself to his feet. He was unsteady, and as he attempted to make his way around the corner of the desk, he caught his foot under it and sprawled onto the couch. Good thing it wasn’t the floor, he thought. He lay there for a second and then decided he was too comfortable to get up and go on. He drifted off into sleep and was out for what seemed like only a few seconds when he felt someone shaking him by the shoulder. He tried to push the hand away but it wouldn’t move. “Go aweh,” he mumbled. “Lea’ mee alonesch.”

He felt himself being lifted to a sitting position. He opened one eye and saw Betty’s face. Actually, he saw two of Betty’s face. That was doubly good. He smiled, but she frowned at him. “Otto Kerchner, are you drunk?”

“Whoo, mee? Drunk? Not mee…I don’ drink…you remembersch…”

Betty tried to lift him, but couldn’t manage it. He heard a new voice: “Betty, let me help you.” Who was this? He turned his head to see that it was Mata. Oh, great. Another woman to tell him what to do. He felt Mata’s hands beside Betty’s, and together they got him to a seat position on the sofa. “Can you walk?” Betty asked.

“Of coursesch I ca’ walksch. I’ve been walking schince I was t’ree. Just let mee standsch up hereuh.”

He rose unsteadily to his feet, or started to before his knees buckled again and he sat down, hard. Betty and Mata helped him up, took him home, and put him to bed. Otto slept through the day until the evening.

***

He awoke about 8 and stumbled into the living room. Betty and Mata sat on the couch, obviously waiting for him and obviously none too pleased. “Well, look who’s awake. And with a hangover.”

Otto waved a hand and sat down. “Please don’t start on me. I was upset and I drank a little too much.”

“I’d say most of a bottle is more than a ‘little too much.’” Mata folded her arms. “What were you so upset about?”

Otto rubbed his face with his hand. “I’m tired of you and Betty and every other woman in my live telling me what to do.”

Betty looked genuinely puzzled. “How do we do that?”

Otto frowned. “Lately Mata has been going on and on about how I need to be in contact with Alice and see Alice and be a father to Alice’s son and so forth. I know you’re involved in that as well, Betty, and I want it to stop.” He put his hands on the sides of his head. “I can’t take much more.”

Betty and Mata exchanged a glance. Then Mata spoke slowly and evenly. “We just want you to act responsibly. You’ve done that in every other area of your life.”

“I know, I know. It’s just that the situation with Alice is…different.”

“If you did as we asked, we’d stop.”

“Mata, Betty, you know me. If I’m determined to do something, I’ll do it. If I don’t want to do something, I won’t. I’m telling you here and now I won’t have anything more to do with Alice or little Otto. And that’s final.”

Mata and Betty sat in stunned silence. “But…but…there’s the reunion and surely you’ll see her there.”

“Not if I don’t go to the reunion.”

“But you have to go.”

“I don’t have to go anywhere or do anything or see anybody if I don’t want to. And I don’t want to. You both go and have a good time. I’m staying here.”

A tear rolled down Betty’s cheek. “Otto, I don’t know what’s gotten into you. Your crew looks up to you, and they will be so disappointed if you aren’t there.”

“They’ll get over it. They’ve been through worse. Much, much worse. I’m hungry. I’m going out to get something to eat. Don’t stay up for me.” He went out, slamming the kitchen door as he did so.

Mata looked at Betty. “So…”

“So…what do we do now?”

“I don’t know. I’ve never seen him like this.”

Betty sighed. “I guess we’ll just have to see what happens next.”

“I hate to cancel the trip.”

“And I would hate for it to be cancelled.”

“Well, let’s clean up and then I’ve got to get home. The kids are with Polly and Tom’s going to be out late.”

“Thanks for all you do for us, Mata.”

Mata hugged her. “We’re family, Betty. This is what families do for each other.”

“I’m glad.”

“So am I.”

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

On the Wings of Faith, Part 1

 

Eagle On the Wings of Faith

On the Wings of Faith

A Novel by Dan Verner

Book Five in the Beyond the Blue Horizon Series

 

 

© 2017 Dan Verner

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 1

Fallen Angels

October, 1943

 

Otto was flying. He was somewhere over Germany coming back from a mission. The Mata Maria had become separated from the rest of the formation, and he and his crew were in trouble—serious trouble. The hydraulics to the ball turret had been shot away, and it was frozen in place with Riley inside. Unless they could get him out somehow…Otto didn’t want to think about what would happen. He knew exactly what would befall Riley if they were able to get him out. He thought back to last month…

He was in the ops shed one afternoon when a call came in from the lead aircraft.

“Blechley Base, this is Domino One.”

“Domino One, base here.”

“Base, we got a guy stuck in the ball turret. We’ve tried everything to get him out, but no dice.”

“Put him on, son.”

“Roger, sir.”

“Ball gunner, this is Colonel Rackham. What’s your name, sergeant?”

“Warren, sir.”

“Do you have a first name, Sergeant Warren?”

“Yessir Colonel. It’s Willis.”

“Willis Warren. I like the sound of that.”

“Yessir.”

“Where you from, Willis?”

“Boston, sir.”

“How do you think the Red Sox will do this year?”

“I don’t know, sir. With so many of the fellows in uniform, it’s hard to tell. I like listening to the games on Armed Forces Radio.”

Rackham chuckled. “I do too, Sergeant, but I’m a Yankees fan.”

“I supposed we’ll have to agree to disagree, then, sir.”

“That we will. Warren, your crew is working real hard to get you out or to get those gear down. I’ll stay on with you until something happens one way or the other.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“You’re a good man, Warren. We don’t want to lose you.”

“Yessir. Would you do something for me?”

“Of course.”

“If the worse happens, would you write my mom and dad and tell them I died in combat. It doesn’t sound right to die because of an equipment malfunction.”

“I will write the letter, son. Don’t worry.”

“Thank you, sir. There’s one other thing.” Otto could hear Warren’s teeth chattering over the radio link.

“What is it, Warren?”

“Is there someone who could pray with me?”

Rackham looked around the room. He was not known as a Holy Joe like some commanders. “Kerchner, will you say a prayer for this boy?”

Otto hesitated. “I’ll try, sir.” Rackham handed him the mic. Otto took it, looked up for a moment, and then spoke. “Warren, this is Lieutenant Kerchner. How you doing, airman?”

“I’ve been better, sir. It’s cold up here and I’m scared to death.”

“Sure, sure. Anyone would be. I’m going to pray for you. My first language wasn’t English, so forgive me if I throw in a few terms in German.”

“Sir, you could pray in Swahili and I wouldn’t mind.”

A low undercurrent of laughter ran around the tower.

“All right, Warren. Let’s pray.”

Silence descended over the normally bustling control tower. Otto thought for a moment and then prayed,

“O God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, our shelter from the stormy blast, and our eternal home! We come before you today for a brother in distress. We ask your continued blessings and mercy on each and all of us. Hear us when we cry to thee for those in peril in the air. Be especially close to your servant Willis and bring him through this dark valley to a safe landing. Protect and uphold all who work and fight for an end to despotism and tyranny. In your strong name we pray, amen.”

A chorus of “amens” echoed around the room. Otto turned the mic over to Rackham.

“Rackham here again, son. I’ll talk to you all the way in. We’ll get you out of there, and you’ll have a great story to tell your buddies at supper tonight. OK?”

There was a brief pause, and then Warren spoke again. “No offense intended, General, but could Lieutenant Kerchner talk to me? His prayer made me feel better, and there’s something about his voice that keeps me calm.”

“You got it, son.” He handed the mic to Otto.

Lord help me know, Otto thought. After what seemed a long interval, he clicked the mic to transmit. “I’m here, Sergeant. We’ll get you through this, and I’ll buy you a drink when you get down.”

Willis laughed. “Thank you sir, but I don’t drink. That’s a very kind offer anyhow.”

“Neither do I. Tell you what—I’ll treat you to a real hamburger and a Coke when you get down.”

“Can I have cheese on it?”

“Sure you can. That’s how I like my burgers, so I’m in good company.”

“I’m the one who’s fortunate to be in your company, Lieutenant.”

“All right. Do you play baseball as well as watch it?”

“Yessir, I played shortstop for my high school team.”

“Were you adopted, Willis?”

“Nossir. Why do you ask?”

“We’re so much alike I think we must have been separated at birth and adopted by different families.”

“I take it you played ball as well, sir.”

“Yes. Shortstop for my high school team.”

“Were you any good?”

“Not really. I couldn’t hit a curve.”

Warren chuckled. “I couldn’t either.”

“So much for baseball, then. Have you met anyone else from Boston here?”

“A few. One guy is on your crew. I think his name is Riley.”

“Yep, that’s him. You two hit it off?”

“Not really. Riley strikes me as the kind of guy who goes looking for a fight.”

Don’t I know it, Otto thought. One of the controllers handed him a piece of paper. He read the information written on it, thought for a moment, and keyed the mic again. “Sergeant, are you still there?”

Warren laughed. “Believe me, sir, if they could get me out, I wouldn’t be talking to you right now. I mean, not to be rude, I’d thank you and all that, but I wouldn’t be talking to you from the ball.”

“Understood, Willis. I’m told you’re aircraft is going to circle for about half an hour to burn off fuel, and then they’re going to make a couple of low passes down the runway to try to jar the gear loose and then the last thing they’ll do is go up a bit and try to free the gear by sudden climbs and dives. I’m letting you know so you won’t be surprised when all that happens. Do you have that?”

“I have it, sir. And sir—“

“Yes, Willis?”

“I’ll never forget what you’ve done for me today, for as long as I live. Which might not be long.”

“Try not to think that way, son. I know it’s hard not to.”

“Yessir, I’ll try.”

“I’m going to the latrine now. I’ll be right back.”

“Yessir. I’ll be here.” I suppose that qualifies as gallows humor, he thought. In truth he didn’t need to visit the head. His blouse was soaked with sweat, and he needed to steel himself for what was looking like the inevitable end to this tragedy. Shakespeare would understand this pass, he thought. He would have to ask King if he knew of any pertinent passages for such an occasion. Something about the inevitability of death maybe. Something tugged at his memory, but he couldn’t quite dredge it up. Something about seeing the future, seeing the inevitable end and still living a dignified and serene life, no matter the length of that life, as Warren said.

Wait. It was from the Gospels. Somewhere in Luke, Jesus predicted the fall of the Temple. While others saw the power of an ages-old religious establishment, he saw the inevitable fall from power because those misguided guides, the “blind fools,” as he called them failed to live up to their own understanding of what mattered in belief and and in life. By looking at what was going on around him, he warned his listeners that the Romans would “level you to the ground and your children within you, and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation.” Yes, that was it. In the present context, he and Warren and everyone else around knew that, short of a miracle, Warren was dead. He sensed that Warren knew it as well. They were all just waiting for it all to play out.

Otto sighed and walked back into the tower. “How’s he doing?” he asked the lead controller. The sergeant shook his head.  “He’s crying, sir. I can’t get him to calm down.”

Otto took the mic and headphones. He could hear Warren sobbing through the connection. “Willis,” he called. “It’s Lieutenant Kerchner. I’m back.”

The crying continued unabated. “Willis, talk to me. Come on, son, buck up.”

Then Otto thought of something he had not thought of in years—his mother singing to him and to Mata when they were very young, singing in German. Maybe he could still recall some of the words. He looked around, gathered his thoughts and sang in a low voice:

Guten Abend, gute Nacht,

mit Rosen bedacht,

mit Naglein bedsteckt,

           

Guten Abend, gute Nacht,

mit Rosen bedacht,

mit Näglein besteckt,

schlupf′ unter die Deck!

Morgen früh, wenn Gott will,

wirst du wieder geweckt.

 

As he sang, he could hear Warren’s crying diminish gradually, and then he sang with Otto, in English. Otto finished the first verse and looked around. The faces of the men were strained, but Otto saw something different in their eyes, maybe a memory of having the same song sung to them, in German or English or French or Navajo or one of hundreds of tongues. He turned back to the mic.

Guten Abend, gute Nacht,

von Englein bewacht,

die zeigen im Traum

dir Christkindleins Baum.

Schlaf nun selig und süß,

schau im Traum ′s Paradies

 

He finished, and saw some of the men wiping their eyes. Rackham’s hand came down on his shoulder. He spoke kindly. “You’ve done all you can, Kerchner. They‘re going to bring him in now.”

Otto handed the mic over to him and left the tower to walk back to his barracks. Everyone on base knew what would happen next. The B-17 would come in to make a belly landing, and Warren could be crushed by the weight of tons of aluminum, glass, plastic, wood and steel smashing into the unforgiving macadam of the runway. He had heard that when the maintenance crews lifted the bombers up to see what could be salvaged, they cleaned what was left of the shell of the turret with a steam hose. There were not recognizable human remains to pick up. The rest of the crew rode the aircraft down: it was simply too risky to have them bail out, even over the airfield. It was another tradeoff in the cold calculus of war: one man was sacrificed to save another. Was it worth it? Otto didn’t know. He just knew that things like this happened, and he hated it.

He reached the corner of his barracks and, stricken by a sudden grabbing pain in his stomach, leaned over and vomited. He wiped his mouth with his handkerchief when he had finished, and through tears thought, we all did the best we knew how to save you, Willis Warren of Boston. But it wasn’t good enough. We hardly knew ye, lad. God rest your soul, and Christ have mercy on us all.

Otto heard a Fort on final approach from the other side of the barracks,. It had to be Warren’s ship. All the other survivors had landed safely 45 minutes earlier. He pictured the big Boeing slightly nose up its gear stuck in the retracted position, the pilot bleeding off as much speed as he could, fully aware of the terrible thing he would have to do in a matter of seconds. In his mind’s eye Otto saw the props chew into the hard surfaced runway and then the plane settle onto its belly, crushing out Willis Warren’s all-too-brief life. There was silence for a moment and then the horrid shrieking sound of metal against the hard amalgam. The shrieking went on for about 45 seconds and then silence fell again, a tiny counterpoint provided by unseen birds. Otto looked at the sky he loved so well. God, I hate this war, he thought. No one knows how much I hate this war.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

On the Glide Slope

seven-eight

That’s the phrase I use when I reach 70,000 words in a novel (I’m 7/8 done), as I just did with On the Wings of the Sun, Book Seven in the Beyond the Blue Horizon series. The idea is that just as an airplane comes in for a landing, so I have the end of the book , the landing spot, if you will, in sight and so I can “coast” to its resolution. I know exactly what’s going to happen in the rest of this book, and so it will be about ten more days before I can write the final words, which always are “[Someone] was flying.”

If all goes well, this book won’t be published until early 2020. I hope that if you’ve read the first four published novels you’ve enjoyed them, and that you will like Books Five and Six  (which have been written) when they come out in 2018 and 2019 respectively, and that you will follow Otto’s adventures all the way through Book Twelve, which will be called On the Wings of Eternity.

Thanks for reading, and I look forward to writing more for you!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

On the Downhill Slope

autumn-downhill

I just reached the 60,000 word mark on Book Seven of the Beyond the Blue Horizon series, On the Wings of the Sun. It’s all downhill from here (relatively speaking). I’ve decided I need to stop spending three chapters describing the events of one day. A chapter for each month is my watchword now. That should get me up to the present when the series is done.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment