a novel by
Part 2 of the Wings Series
Otto was flying.
Sitting in the pilot’s seat of M&M Airlines Flight 224 from Pioneer Lake, Minnesota, to Minneapolis Airport, he turned the silver and white Beechcraft onto the final approach leg, pulling the throttles back as the ship lined up on the runway which seemed to slide toward them.
“Flaps twenty!” he called to Jimmy, his co-pilot, who pulled the flaps lever down. Otto cut the throttles a bit more to compensate for increased lift. Jimmy was a good flier and a good man, Otto thought. He guided the Beech down as if it were on rails, touching the runway smoothly, main gear first, and then letting the aircraft settle gently onto its tail wheel. Lots easier than a big heavy bomber, he thought, even if that bomber was empty of bombs and low on fuel.
Flying still brought back quick mental flashes of his crash landing a year and a half earlier. That seemed so long ago and far away now. There had been his recovery in the burn unit, rehab in the hospital after a hard ocean crossing, the long slow train trip home, and reunion with his sister Mata and, later, with Betty. Dear Betty. He was glad all the flights for M & M were turnarounds and he didn’t have to spend the night away from her. She had pulled him out of the pit his injuries and disfigurement had put him in.
M&M flight 224 rolled out to the first taxiway on the runway. Otto applied the left brake and the aircraft obediently turned onto the taxiway. They proceeded at a walking pace to the terminal where Otto cut the engines. He could see a Northwest ground crewman hustle to chock his wheels as another rolled a portable set of stairs up to the door. He and Jimmy got up and went to stand by the door to greet the deplaning passengers. Otto nodded to each person, saying, “Thank you for flying with us today.”
Most of the people half smiled and looked away quickly. One young mother holding the hand of a girl about eight years old met his gaze and said, “Thank you for a nice flight, Captain.” As they walked down the steps, Otto heard the child ask, “What is wrong with that man, Mommy?” He couldn’t hear the mother’s answer. He supposed he should be used to reactions like that from children after all this time, but they still made him feel bad. The last passenger, a man about forty years old, came up the aisle. Otto recognized him from other flights. His name was Waters and he ran an insurance company with offices in Pioneer Lake and Minneapolis.
“Excellent landing, Captain! “he boomed, extending his hand.
Otto shook it and answered, “Thank you Mr. Waters. Always a pleasure to have you fly with us.”
“Well, you have a good service at a good price, Captain! That’s the name of the game in business and you have it figured out! It’s a pleasure to fly with you! Believe me, I know something about flying. I was on a lot of aircraft during the war and they never made smooth landings. It was bounce bounce bounce all the way down the field. And hard—they landed so hard it’s a wonder they didn’t snap the landing gear off!”
“Well, sir, I’m sure they were doing the best job they could under the circumstances,” Otto replied, trying not to look at Jimmy, who was rolling his eyes.
Waters clapped Otto on the shoulder. “Sometimes someone’s best is not good enough. I think you understand that, Captain! See you next week!” He strode off into the terminal.
Jimmy watched him disappear through the double glass doors. “Guess he never tried to land an a/c under combat conditions,” he remarked.
“Maybe so,” Otto said mildly, “but he’s a good customer and entitled to his opinions.”
“He sure likes you, Otto. Or should I call you ‘Captain?’”
At least he takes me for who I am, Otto thought. He waved his hand. “‘Otto’ will do. C’mon, let’s get something to eat. I’m starved.” Flight 224 left Pioneer Lake at noon and got into Milwaukee about 1:30 PM. Neither Otto nor Jimmy had had lunch.
They pushed through the same set of double doors that Waters had gone through a few seconds earlier. The terminal was bustling with travelers free from wartime restrictions and shortages. They were all going somewhere, and they were all in a hurry.
Otto and Jimmy pushed through the crowds to a small standup hamburger stand. A harried young man in a white uniform with a white hat on his head looked at them. “What’ll it be, fellas?” he asked as his eyes flickered across Otto’s face. It was as if people had been trained to do that. It was a natural reaction to someone who had scar tissue instead of skin on his face, Otto thought. Still, it was tough to take. He let Jimmy order first.
“I’ll have a hamburger, well done, with everything on it, fries and a Coke to drink.” The young fellow nodded and looked at Otto as if he expected him not to be able to speak.
“I’ll have a cheeseburger, loaded, with fries and a Coke, please,” Otto said. The young man looked at him about a beat too long and then wrote down his order. He turned to the fry cook at the grill behind him to give him the slip of paper, saying, “You got it, gents!” as he did so. He turned back and called to the next customer in line, “What’ll it be, Mac?” Otto and Jimmy stepped back from the counter and looked for a seat at one of the red-topped tables scattered in front of the hamburger stand. Almost every seat was taken. I’m glad people can afford to travel and have money to travel, Otto thought. There were a few uniforms among the crowd, but everyone had pretty well demobilized—“de-mobbed” in military parlance—in the nine months since the war had ended.
Jimmy strode over and claimed a couple of seats by putting a hand on each of them. Otto joined him and sat down. They studied the crowd in silence. “Lots of people goin’ places,” Jimmy offered.
“Yes,” Otto said. “Good for business, too.”
A young woman in a white uniform pushed through the crowd carrying their meals and drinks aloft on a tray. Otto marveled at her sense of balance as she did not spill the load although she was jostled several times on her way to them. She set the tray down in front of them. “There you go, guys,” she smiled. “Enjoy.” She winked at Otto and turned away.
Why do women have less trouble than men with my appearance? Otto thought. Then he shrugged and picked up his burger.
“Look at that,” Jimmy said, looking over toward the counter. Otto turned and saw a young man about his age. He was looking for a seat, and carried his duffel bag hooked over one arm. Both arms ended halfway down the forearms. His efforts to find seating went unnoticed. Otto jumped up and made his way over to him.
“Hey, fella, you want to sit with us?”
The young man smiled. “I’d be grateful.” He did not flinch at Otto’s appearance. With half his arms missing, he probably got plenty of stares as well. He followed Otto over to the table, and Jimmy pushed the remains of their lunch aside to give him room. He sat quickly in a chair. “My name is Jones. Jay Jones,” he said, extending his right stump. Jimmy took it without hesitation in his right hand. Otto did the same. “Are you fellas pilots? I don’t recognize the uniforms.”
Otto nodded. “We’re with M&M Airlines out of Pioneer Lake.”
“I’m not familiar with that one. I’m just passing through on my way to Chicago to visit family.” Just then his food arrived. He picked up a knife with his stumps and skillfully used it to cut a piece off his burger. Then he put down the knife and picked up a fork, speared a chunk and put it in his mouth. “These burgers are pretty good, don’t you think?”
“Yeah,” Jimmy said. “We usually grab a quick meal before we fly back to Pioneer Lake.”
Jay nodded. “You’re probably wondering what happened to my arms. Most people do, the ones who don’t stare at me.”
Otto nodded. “I know what you mean.”
“I was aboard the Indianapolis when she was torpedoed and went down. I spent two days in the water. Sharks kept attacking us the whole time. Some guys were eaten. I kept fighting but they got my hands and wrists. The medicos had to amputate further up to save my life. So here I am.”
Jimmy responded, “I flew B-29’s off Tinian. You guys delivered the A-bomb to Tibbets and his crew.”
Jay nodded. “Yep, we did. And then we went through hell.”
The three men sat silently for a second. Then Otto said, “After all you’ve been through, I owe you an explanation about my appearance.”
Jones waved his hand. “You don’t owe me anything. It’s nice to find strangers who will talk to me.”
“Nonetheless,” Otto said, “I crashed landed a B-17 and it caught fire. This—“ he gestured toward his face—“is the result.”
Jay nodded. “Looks like you’ve done well since then,” he offered.
“Yes,” Otto returned. “It was a struggle, as I’m sure you know.”
Jones looked lost in thought for a moment. “I spent six months in a VA hospital. When I was released, my girlfriend broke up with me. She couldn’t stand the thought of life with a cripple, she said.”
Otto flashed back to Alice. “About the same thing happened to me. But then a wonderful woman married me.”
“Good for you,” Jay told him. He finished his meal. “I’d better go catch my flight. Thanks for your kindness.” He stood, and they shook all around again. He lifted his duffel and made his way through the crowd to his gate.
Otto and Jimmy watched him go. “There goes one brave guy,” Jimmy murmured.
“You bet,” Otto said. They stood and went back out onto the tarmac where the ground crew had finished servicing the aircraft. Otto did a quick walk-around of the airplane after he signed off on the crew chief’s report. All was in order, so he joined Jimmy in the cockpit where he had started the preflight checklist. He slid into the left seat.
“You know, these Beeches have been great to start with, but we’re carrying enough passengers I wonder if we ought to upgrade to DC-3’s. There are plenty of surplus C-47’s out there.”
Jimmy shrugged. “You’re the boss. You buy ‘em; I’ll fly ‘em.”
They both laughed. “I’ll have Mata run the figures when we get back. She’ll know if we can swing it.”
The flight attendant stuck her head through cockpit door. “Are we ready to board, Captain?” Mata had hired several young women after they graduated from Pioneer Lake High School and trained them as flight attendants.
Otto flipped a switch. “OK, Polly,” he smiled. She moved out into the cabin and went down the stairs. Otto could feel the aircraft shaking as the passengers came aboard. He heard Polly close and latch the door.
“OK, let’s get this show on the road,” he told Jimmy.
“You got it, boss,” Jimmy answered. “Number 1 TURNING!”
“Number 1 TURNING!” Otto responded. They rapidly ran through the startup sequence and taxied out to the active runway. “You do the takeoff,” he said to Jimmy.
After clearance from the tower, Jimmy turned the twin engine onto the runway, held on the numbers, and ran up the engines. Otto keyed the intercom that his ground crew had installed on all the Beeches. “Good afternoon, folks, this is Captain Kerchner speaking. Welcome aboard Flight 225, direct service to Pioneer Lake. We’ll be taking off in just a few seconds. The weather is good all the way to our destination, and our flight time should be just under an hour and a half. So sit back, enjoy the view, and as always, we thank you for flying M&M.”
Jimmy released the brakes. Flight 225 sped down the runway and lifted off halfway down into the bright sunshine.