GO FOR IT!

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Squadron Leader Frank Beswick gasped as the Teleprinter spat out the latest radar results from Central Command: “500 PLUS ENEMY PLANES HEADED TO LONDON AND POINTS NORTH. LAUNCH ALL SQUADRONS IN GROUPS 11, 12 and 13.”

“Jeez,” he muttered.  “Goering must have committed his entire Luftwaffe to this one mission.“  Hitler had, in fact, ordered Goering to destroy the RAF bases and aircraft and take out the radar stations around Britain’s coast, in preparation for the planned invasion of Britain known as Operation Sea Lion.  That had to be accomplished in less than a month, before the autumn weather made the Channel too rough.  So the Battle of Britain had just begun with a big bang.

Beswick figured he’d better soften the news slightly to make the situation seem daunting but not hopeless for his pilots.  He sounded the alarm and, in the most commanding voice he could muster, he spoke through the loudspeakers and radios:

“This is a big one, fellows.  The Jerries are sending over 250 planes and we have to stop them before they wipe out all our airfields and radar stations.  Climb to 20,000 feet and use an inline astern formation.  This time we attack them head-on.  Let’s go for it!”

The usual strategy against German bombers was to climb above them and attack them from behind–preferably with the Sun behind our fighters.  This time, however, there were so many planes that most of the bombers would have done their damage before we started to attack from behind.  A frontal attack was probably more effective against the bombers, anyway, because it destroyed the morale of the bomber pilots.  For the fighter planes, however, it was a different story.  If a Spitfire pilot suddenly found himself face-to-face with a Messerschmitt 109, anything could happen.

Because he was handicapped, Doug Bader was allowed to park his Spitfire right outside the dispersal hut where he slept along with the other pilots in his section.  He liked to remove his two false legs before retiring. The three camp beds for Doug, Bill Perring and Roy York, the members of the Red section of the 12-man squadron, were all close to the door of the hut.  When the alarm sounded, Bill and Roy helped attach the legs to Doug’s stumps.  Then two mechanics in the ground crew rushed in and carried Doug out to his plane, while Bill and Roy ran to their planes parked nearby.  Lifted by the mechanics onto the rear of the wing, Doug grabbed the sides of the cockpit and levered himself into his seat.

As de facto squadron leader, Doug decided that he and Bill would attack the first two bombers, while Roy would cover their tails and chase off any Me 109’s that got too close. The German bombers at the front were Junkers 88s flying at 18,000 feet, while Me 109s were circling about 500 feet above them. To the surprise of the Red section, the Me 109s didn’t see them when they first arrived.  So Doug caught the first bomber by surprise and shot it down.  Meanwhile, Bill damaged the second Ju 88 and one engine was smoking.  The plane started dumping its bombs and getting ready to turn back to France.  Roy figured he would help Bill by attacking the second bomber.

That was a mistake, because the crippled Ju 88 had finally attracted the attention of the Me 109s. The next thing he knew, Roy was face-to face with a Me 109.  Both pilots pressed their gun buttons at the same time. Then the two planes collided, with Roy hitting underneath the bandit.  Roy’s engine seized straight away, the cockpit filled with smoke, and flames licked around the engine.  He reached to open the hood so he could bale out.  But his propeller had struck the front of the windscreen, and the whole fixture was so twisted he couldn’t move the hood.

He felt like a trapped animal—with a slim chance of survival.  After his Spitfire slammed into the German fighter, he had no engine and no radio. The cockpit was filling with smoke and there were flames around the engine.  He was surprised to find he still had oxygen.  But though that prevented him being choked by the acrid smoke, he could still be burned alive, with oxygen as an accelerant.  He prayed that the flames were merely an oil fire and that the fuel tank has not been ruptured by the collision. The broken propeller had jammed the canopy, so he couldn’t bail out. He would just have to go along for the ride.

****

Roy figured he was heading inland, with an air speed of about 100 mph.  Suddenly there was a terrific jerk, and Roy was tossed left, then right, and finally pitched hard forward on his straps, which fortunately held fast.  He’d hit the ground in an open field where anti-invasion posts had been installed to destroy enemy gliders.  The plane ploughed through those and finally came to a halt. The remains of his ammunition was going off in a series of pops, and the flames were getting very near the cockpit. Impact with the posts would have ripped open his fuel tank, so he prayed it had stayed behind with the broken wings.  Roy hurriedly turned off his oxygen and ripped off his mask.  Fortunately, the impact with the posts had loosened his canopy slightly. He could slide it back enough to let smoke out of the cockpit, but not enough to let him climb out. A fierce stabbing pain in his left thigh, and blood streaming out of a gash on his forehead appeared to be his only injuries.  He brushed the blood out of his eyes with the sleeve of his flying jacket.  After unhitching his chute, he managed to find the plane’s emergency kit.  Inside he found a small adjustable wrench with which he was able to jimmy open the canopy and break open the windshield. He also found some first aid supplies, so he brought the kit along as he climbed out of the cockpit.

Roy ran from the plane wreck as fast as he could, though his injured leg slowed him down.  When he looked back he saw that the Spitfire was blazing furiously in the middle of a corn field and had left a trail of broken posts and pieces of wing and tail.  A woman came out of a nearby house and asked if he’d like a cup of tea.  Roy asked if she had anything stronger. She phoned the local police and they called the nearest RAF base.  Soon an ambulance arrived to take him to a hospital near the base.

While Roy was having his solo adventure, Bill finished shooting down the damaged Ju 88. Out of ammunition, he returned to Northolt, with Doug as his wing man, only to find that a German bomb had left a large crater in the middle of the main runway.  Forced to land on one of several neighboring grass airstrips, they were unable to refuel, rearm and rejoin the fray.

****

The temporary loss of Roy reminded Frank Beswick he urgently needed more trained pilots. So he assigned Doug to finish training three rookie pilots. Doug gave the kids a short lecture and planned to take them aloft after the runway had been repaired.

A kid named Billy Cook was the first trainee to fly with Doug in a second Spitfire. Bader wanted to show him some tactical maneuvers. But soon after they took off, their radios sputtered the message: ”German bomber approaching, escorted by two fighters.”  Almost immediately, they saw one of the Me 109’s, with a Dornier 17 behind it.  Billy fired the guns when he had the German fighter in his sights.  Streams of tracer bullets hit the plane, which immediately went into a spiraling dive.  “I got my first kill,” Billy shouted into his radio. “Very good,” said Doug.  “Let’s go back to base now.”

As Billy walked away from his plane after landing, the armaments sergeant shouted:  “Hey, you got lucky Billy.  Did you know your plane was unarmed?”

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THE SUICIDE SONG

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Singer-songwriter Beth Remington was having a bad day.  Her Facebook comment that morning read: “Just got my period and the car needs fixing.”

Actually, the car was still running, but it was due for the state emissions test, and performance had fallen way below Beth’s demands.  She dropped off the car at a local service station called Auto Specialists.  They were expensive:  Their labor charge was $125 per hour, and they inflated their parts costs—“It’s difficult to get parts for these old cars, and you have a lot of custom parts,” they explained.  But they did good work, and they knew how to hot-rod cars. In fact, they had upgraded Beth’s vintage Firebird.

Beth lived alone, except for occasional overnight stays by lovers.  Some of those lovers were men, some were women.  Beth summarized her lifestyle in one of her many Facebook messages:  “I let the love boat sail on by years ago, so I could ride the sexy train for the rest of my days.” Her ballsy singing style and physical appearance reminded older fans of Janis Joplin.  But she had a stronger voice and a more soulful style than Joplin.  Beth didn’t have a manager.  She booked and promoted her own gigs, and did much of her own studio work.  For recording, mixing and editing, she used a software package called Audacity.  It wasn’t the best music software available, but it was free—and she liked the name.

After she returned home, Beth decided to finish a song she’d been writing. The first line of the song was: “Lately I’ve been feeling, what’s the use.”  The official title would probably be “What’s the Use?” But Beth thought of it as “The Suicide Song.”  She wasn’t feeling suicidal, but she knew that suicide songs were becoming increasingly popular with teenagers. By the time she had finished paying “those greedy mechanics,” she would sorely need another hit song.  Beth recorded a demo—playing her own keyboard accompaniment.  Then she emailed the finished demo and lead sheet to her publisher in New York.

Next day, Beth picked up the Firebird at Auto Specialists, and gave “the crooks” a check for $932. Then she rolled onto the highway to check out the car. Almost immediately, a Mustang drew alongside and gave the well-known “VROOM…VROOM” invitation to drag-race.  The driver looked barely old enough to drive.  Normally, Beth would have told him to get lost.  But this time, she thought it might be interesting to check out her re-tuned car under actual racing conditions. “The chick is gonna whip your sorry ass,” she hollered. Then she floored it.

At around 95 mph, she was surprised to see the Mustang still alongside. “It’s been souped up,” she figured.  With closely matched vehicles, the race would go to the boldest driver. The two cars were approaching a curve, and would be forced to slow down. Beth decided to push her car towards the rival car thus forcing it to slow down first. Unfortunately, Kurt in the Mustang had decided to use the same strategy!

<KERBAM—SCREECH—BAM—CRUNCH—SCREECH>

The Mustang slammed headlong into a tree.  Beth’s car slid along on its crushed roof.  The Firebird was soon wrapped in flames.

A paramedic pulled a blanket over Beth’s unrecognizable face. “She’s gone!” The cop shook his head. “What about the kid?” he asked. “He should survive, but will probably lose that leg”.

The music publishing company saw they had a potential blockbuster with the suicide song. So they slanted the press release and biography accordingly.  A tabloid headline read: “Suicidal Rock Star Dies in Fiery Crash.”

BANNED BY THE BBC

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The variety show started with its usual act. Around the middle of the last century, the “Monday Night at Eight” show on BBC TV started every week with a song from a large red haired woman named Regina Gibson. Apparently, the BBC had an unwritten law: “The show cannot begin until the fat lady sings.” Regina specialized in patriotic and religious songs, and scraped a living singing the national anthem before various sports events. This particular week, her chosen song was “Amazing Grace.” That rather odd choice was presumably intended to segue into the next act of the show—a magic exhibition by The Amazing Manzoni.

Manzoni’s act included a lot of juggling and some sleight-of-hand tricks with playing cards and colored balls and scarves. However his concluding stunt never failed to impress audiences of all ages. He produced a white dove singing in a glass cage. Then he covered the cage with a large black shroud. When he whipped the shroud away a minute later, the cage and the bird had disappeared. Even people who knew how the trick was done were impressed when it was done well. The bird was trained to fly into a pocket in the magician’s robe when the door of the cage was opened. Then the “glass” cage, actually constructed of sheets of transparent plastic, collapsed into a flat pack which was then slid into a pocket inside the shroud. If the bird failed to exit the cage on cue, then it would be crushed when the cage collapsed. So any performance in which a bird was not crushed was considered a success. Manzoni wowed the audience and triumphed on the night in question.

The next act featured Lonnie Donegan—a guitarist, banjo player, and blues, folk and rock singer. He was a mediocre instrumentalist, but he was a good-looking guy with a “bad boy” persona. So he appealed more to women than to men. On that specific night, he sang three songs—“Frankie and Johnny,” “House of the Rising Sun,” and “Rock Island Line.” In between the songs, he titillated the audience with patter about whore houses in New Orleans, though he had to be careful not to be too raunchy because this was an 8PM show when the kiddies might be watching.

The star of the show, and closing act, was Max Wall—a stand-up comedian and movie character actor. He had a reputation for doing “blue material,” and had been banned from the BBC for a couple of years. His triumphant return was responsible for the show’s exceptionally large audience that night. People were curious to see whether he would be banned again, or whether he had wimped out and stopped telling dirty jokes. Of course, back then (around 1950), almost any reference to sex was considered blue material—especially on the BBC and on an early evening show. However, “Monday Night at Eight” was broadcast live without a time delay.

Most of Max’s jokes were unexciting. He had fallen back on mother-in-law jokes and regional jokes (“Anybody here from Newcastle?”). The response from a disappointed audience was muted. It wasn’t clear whether Max had decided to wimp out and then changed his mind at the last minute, or whether he was merely saving his best stuff for the end. But his last joke was a deal breaker for the BBC. It went something like this: “For my holidays, I went mountain climbing in Northern Spain. I was working my way along a two-foot ledge, with a vertical rock face on my left and a sheer drop of several hundred feet on my right. Then I rounded a corner and saw a blonde bombshell coming towards me. What should I do? Block her passage or toss myself off…”

TV screens went black for about 30 seconds. Then the MC made a brief appearance, mumbling an apology, and the credits started rolling. Max was subsequently banned from the BBC for life. But, of course, the publicity was invaluable for his night club and movie activities. And the BBC had record ratings for his final show.

Banned by LinkedIn

In an annoying comedy of errors, I just got kicked out of the Writers Hangout of LinkedIn. I wrote a piece for their short story contest. Because of the assigned mandatory first line, I was forced to describe a variety show. I chose to write a fact-based story about English comedian Max Wall being banned from BBC TV back in the 1950’s. But because the story was titled “Banned By The BBC,” some LinkedIn idiot figured the story should be banned from LinkedIn too. And in classic overkill I was also barred from posting any messages unless they had been cleared by the forum moderator. This wasn’t the first time innocent people got kicked out of Writers Hangout. So now the writers are trying to decide whether to shift the contest to Facebook or some other venue.

Of course, I can write anything I like on my own blog. So the story I’d submitted to LinkedIn will be my next story here (see above).

LOTUS AND THE DRAGONS

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The Panda House was a small restaurant in New York’s Chinatown–with chipped Formica tabletops and folding metal chairs. It was also a window into the Chinese underworld. The building was owned by the largest Triad in the US, a gang that called itself the Flying Dragons. It housed the gang leaders, and many of the prostitutes who were periodically shipped to massage parlors throughout New England. The restaurant provided a way to launder money and communicate with pimps, dealers and escorts. The Dragon leaders knew law enforcement tapped their phone lines, so they often communicated with messages hidden in the Panda House’s fortune cookies.

Lotus Luo looked out of place in the restaurant. A beautiful tall Eurasian woman with long black hair and a perfect complexion that required almost no makeup, she wore a maroon evening dress with a diamond-studded brooch for her upcoming date at the Metropolitan Opera that evening. But she was an escort working for an agency operated by the Dragons. For lunch, she ordered a bowl of wonton and received her usual fortune cookie. But when she read the paper message she froze—it said ‘KILL HIM TONIGHT.’ She ate the message, pounded the cookie with her fist into a pile of fragments, slumped across the table, and burst into tears.

Lotus didn’t want to kill anybody. Least of all, she didn’t want to kill Kingsley Wilson, whom she affectionately called ‘King.’ He was the British ambassador to the United Nations in New York. During the year or so she had been dating him, Lotus had become very fond of King. He treated her as a real escort, taking her to concerts, theater, opera and night clubs.

Wilson’s career included roles as both an MI6 agent and a diplomat. Most of his recent activities had been diplomatic, but he still carried a high MI6 rank. The Dragon leaders didn’t have a beef with Wilson. But they had a very lucrative contract from Chinese intelligence—which wanted to kill Wilson with plausible deniability. MI6 agents in China had identified the Chinese hackers who had cracked the Pentagon. And Wilson was scheduled to meet with top CIA leaders to negotiate what action to take.

Lotus knew that if she didn’t kill King, the Dragons would kill her. After agonizing for a while, she decided to tell Wilson everything, so she got a cab to his apartment in Gramarcy Park.

She buried her head in his chest:

“They want me to kill you, King.”

“I know I have a dangerous job, but I didn’t want to drag you into it. Why don’t we get married, Lotus, then I can protect you as a British citizen with diplomatic immunity?”

“You don’t want to marry a whore with underworld connections. That could get you fired–or worse.”

“Don’t worry about it, Lotus. I’ve done weirder things than that in my checkered career.”

Kingsley then took Lotus to the British consulate. He made a succession of phone calls, pulling all the necessary strings. Then they got married in a registrar’s office using the chauffeur and a street hooker as witnesses.

But there was no honeymoon.

“I have to meet with the CIA leaders tomorrow, so I’m going to send you to London tonight and I’ll join you there later in the week, “he explained.

A limousine with tinted windows then left the British consulate, carrying Lotus but not King, and headed for the charter section of JFK airport. Meanwhile, the Dragon leaders had figured out that Wilson was still alive. They didn’t want to expose their people in the Customs and Immigration Service at JFK–they were essential to the gang’s drug smuggling and human trafficking operations. But the Dragons had no alternative to using them as it appeared to be the last opportunity to kill Wilson.

The Dragon-controlled agents at JFK commandeered a CIS wagon and some weapons. When they saw the British limousine enter the airport, they wanted to make the assassination look like an accident. So they started firing automatic weapons at the vehicle’s tires. But the AR-15’s weren’t accurate enough. Then they unleashed all their firepower–but the limousine was armored and bullet proof. In desperation, they pulled a launcher off the rack and fired an RPG at the limousine. That was the kill shot. The limousine overturned, skidded into the front of a hanger and exploded in a ball of fire.

***

Next day, Wilson met with top CIA and FBI officials in the Carnegie Endowment building across the street from the UN. He was very angry.

“Last night the US Customs and Immigration Service killed a brave woman who just happened to be my wife. You people should get the gangsters out of your government before we try to get the hackers out of China.”

SEEING SANTA

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Tina was not yet quite five years old, but she feared Mr. Binkley was up to no good when she saw him in her backyard at three o’clock in the morning. It was Christmas Eve, and she couldn’t sleep because she kept looking forward to tomorrow and all the gifts and food. Or maybe she was asleep and was just dreaming about the gifts and food.

There was a full moon, and peeking through her small bedroom window, Tina could see everything very clearly. That was how she was able to recognize Mr. Binkley. There was no fence separating her house from the one next door where Mr. Binkley lived. Instead there was just a hedge formed from a row of shoulder-high evergreen bushes that looked like Christmas trees. Tina thought Mr. B was a strange man sometimes, but she wasn’t afraid of him. If he had been coming toward her house, she would have called her mother. But he was walking towards his own garage—but on her side of the hedge. It was almost as though he didn’t want to be seen from his own house, but didn’t care if anybody else saw him. He entered the side door of his garage and disappeared.

A dim light glowed through the window of the Binkley garage, and a few shadows passed across the window. Then the light went out, the door opened, and Santa Claus came out carrying a sack filled with colored boxes. Now Tina figured she must be dreaming. She pinched herself on the arm. It hurt! She wasn’t dreaming! After she calmed down, she looked more carefully and realized that “Santa Claus” was really just Mr. B dressed in a Santa costume and with a false white beard. “Santa” then walked back on Tina’s side of the hedge and went into the back door of the Binkley house. It wasn’t a white Christmas, so there was no snow to capture footprint evidence. But Tina had eyewitness evidence.

***.

On Christmas night there was heavy snowfall. The next day, snow had piled to about a foot. It was now a white Christmas. So all the local kids swarmed to the park at the end of the street, where they could throw snowballs at each other or sled down the small hill at the edge of the park. There was also a small pond, but skating was forbidden because of the thin ice. Tina soon spotted the bright blue and red plastic sled of her next door neighbor Marie Binkley—Mr. B’s daughter. Marie was a couple of years older than Tina. Though they were neighbors, they mostly saw each other on holidays, because they went to different schools—Marie went to parochial school, while Tina went to public kindergarten. Tina figured she would tease Marie and find out if she still believed in Santa Claus.

“Hey Marie, did Santa Claus bring you some nice gifts?”

“There is no Santa Claus. My dad dresses up as Santa and then leaves the gifts under the tree. He thinks I don’t know, but I saw him last year. This year he gave me this sled—Santa Claus and my dad are both Giants fans.”

“That’s a nice sled though. I still have this old wooden toboggan from last year. I don’t believe in Santa Claus either. My pop just leaves toys under the tree without bothering to dress up. Got some good stuff this year. This hoodie I can wear without a hat whenever it snows or rains.  And I got a Barbie puppy doll. It’s nice, but I’d prefer a real puppy. Maybe they will get me one next year.”

“I’m too old for Barbie dolls, but ‘Santa’ gave me a Bratz doll dress set. That lets you dress Barbie as a tomboy or terrorist or whatever. Apparently, now women can marry other women, it is okay for us to be tomboys. But you’re lucky, Tina, ‘cos you don’t have to wear a uniform to school.  At St. Lawrence’s we have to wear uniform plaid skirts. Dunno what plaid has to do with religion. I saw on the Internet that the Christmas tree wasn’t really Christian either but was part of some Pagan deal. It’s weird the way grownups make us believe in Santa Claus and all those traditions when we can just look up stuff on line.”

REMEMBERING ROOKIE

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One summer day, when I was about eight years old, I was sitting under an elm tree watching a cricket match in the local recreation park. Then something plopped in front of me. It was a ball of fluff with short black feathers sticking out. I turned to my friend Sam.

“Look Sam, a baby bird fell out of its nest. I’m going to take it home.”

“You can’t have it, I saw it first,” he retorted.

“You didn’t know it was there until I told you! You can have the next interesting thing we find.”

“Okay. Nursing baby birds is too girly for me anyway.”

Unfortunately for Sam, the next thing we discovered was an unexploded German Butterfly bomb. Sam grabbed it eagerly. “I’m going to cut it open and get the powder out.”

I stayed as far away as possible, so I wasn’t there when Sam tried to dismantle the bomb. Apparently, he clamped it in a vice and attacked it with a hacksaw. When the bomb exploded, he was killed instantly, and his tool shed was demolished.

I carried the baby bird home in a paper cup.

My mother helped me make a nest for the bird by filling an old shoe box with worn-out socks. Then we used a clean ink filler to feed the bird by squirting milk into its open beak. The bird rapidly recovered from its trauma and had no serious injuries. After a couple of weeks we switched the diet to bird seed, which it ate without assistance. The bird was black, so we thought it was a rook—and we gave it the name “Rookie.” A few weeks later, we went to the aviary at Regents Park Zoo, where we compared all the black birds—rook, raven, crow, blackbird, magpie, etc. We found that Rookie was merely a common crow. But because rooks and crows are related subspecies, we figured the name was close enough. Also, of course, “Rookie” suggests a beginner, so it seemed appropriate.

We never intended to keep Rookie captive. As soon as he could flap his wings, we put him and his food outside. Soon he learned to fly and forage for food. But he still stayed close to the house. Then he reached maturity. We assumed he was male, because he didn’t lay eggs or build a nest. One day he wanted to find a mate, so he attempted to join a huge local flock of crows. But they figured he wasn’t a real crow, and chased him off. It suddenly made sense that a group of crows would be called a “murder.” However, researchers have found that crows are actually very social and caring creatures, and also among the smartest on the planet. They can count up to five, and they can recognize people’s faces.

After his rejection by the local murder of crows, Rookie seemed to understand he would have to spend the rest of his life in the human world. He no longer did much flying, and became cranky—perhaps because he knew he was never going to get laid. He developed some very human emotions. Local children started to taunt him–so he started to attack them and chase them away. However, Rookie also retained some annoying crow characteristics. He kept stealing shiny objects (such as people’s jewelry and coins) and stashed the loot on top of our tool shed. Also, he would peck holes in the silver foil on top of bottles of milk that had been delivered and left on our doorstep. Perhaps he had developed a taste for milk as a baby.

One day, Rookie disappeared. My parents said he had probably rejoined the flock. But I knew that was impossible, because he had already tried and failed. Later, I learned that my father had taken Rookie to the local chicken farm, and had him destroyed. I don’t know why he did that—he was probably afraid of being sued by the parents of the obnoxious children that Rookie chased away. But my father had lied to me and had killed Rookie–a sort of surrogate kid brother (I was an only child). And that wasn’t the first time my father killed a pet bird. A couple of years earlier, my mother took me to Wales for a few weeks in the summer (to get away from the bombing in London). When we returned, the pet canary had died because my stupid father had forgotten to feed it.