Moments ago we were laughing and joking but an ominous silence had swept over us – it wouldn’t be long now until the jump. It was June 6th, 1944 and we were the Screaming Eagles. The plane’s engine howled and rattled and most of us tried to keep our eyes a way from the open door, the black hole of which we would all soon be facing. Well every man but Sgt. Rian O’Conner or ‘Irish’ as we called him – he was a peculiar, queer man of sorts. He gazed out into the blackness of the sky in a state of juvenile reverie. His long neck twisted and almost bent out of shape as he awed – He’d been with 101st division for many a year but no man trusted him. He seemed weak and ill adjusted; a son of a bitch and he knew it too.
A gust swirled through the open cabin and I raised my hand to feel the breath of god. I could tell most were trying to get into the mindset of battle – Ghost sat opposite me, his eyes were closed and he prayed scrupulously, a silver cross bound to his clenched and trembling fist. Fritz sat beside him, a Jew from the upper west coast. He was fairly stoical, his eyes tired – he was curling his golden moustache with a sardonic smile. ‘Fearless Fritz’ we called him, he was a damned maniac but he was like me – neither of us had to ready our selves for battle. It was just in our heart.
His blackened eyes pierced mine and he leant forward and said something but I couldn’t understand over the roaring of the plane. He threw his head back and laughed, showing a horseshoe of perfectly straight purling teeth.
“What is the shortest book ever written?” He shouted suddenly, and I flipped my palms in surrender. There was a pause and then he shouted “Italian War Heroes!”
I smiled passively and drew a cigarette; Fritz glanced to the men either side of him watching for a reaction but got nothing. He then went back to curling his moustache.
We hit a series of stubborn air pockets and by the third bounce my cigarette had left my grasp and was at the feet of Rum.
William ‘Rum’ Jones, he was an older type, big jaw, big brow and big ego. He didn’t like me and the feeling was mutual, he sat three up from Fritz. He sent me a caustic wink and put the cigarette to his lips and I watched in amusement as he tried to light it. Rum was second from Irish and that unforgiving draft was playing him for a damned fool. I smiled and gave him the thumbs up then drew another cigarette.
The plight of war was a strange beast sometimes, my heart felt nothing but contempt for most in this regiment, but because of the savagery of what we were to face. There was something soft and something kindly – the transfiguration of battle. I knew even Rum would have my back.
The drop zone in Normandy couldn’t be far off now and Operation Overlord would soon be in effect. I watched the dead light at the door, the steady anticipation that soon it would glow red and we would leap into the unknown. Irish the gawky son of a bitch continued to peer out the hole and into the gushing blackness. He would be the first to jump and you could almost see his heart thumping out of his chest. He pressed his helmet to his head, his eyes wide and uneasy.
I felt myself smiling and then I couldn’t resist and I began to laugh like a schoolgirl. Fritz leant forward, “What’s so funny Marlon?”
I looked at him and drew from my cigarette. I couldn’t help but feel amused by the white stencil on the side of Irish’s helmet. “Nothing… just irony Fritz, Irony,”
I mean I knew what it was for – each regiment had playing card motifs. Diamonds, Spades, Clubs etc, but of course our regiment was Hearts. We all had a stencil but it seemed so juxtaposed, so to the contrary, yin and yang, day and night. And then I thought about how that heart would look for a sharp shooter.
“Hey Marlon, what’s got 6 reverse gears and 1 forward gear?” Fritz shouted -a note of revelry in his voice. I looked at him and then glanced out into the darkness for the first time. “What?”
A flash of white bounced within the nebulous of clouds and then it was black again and I was still without a reply “What?” I shouted again.
Fritz grinned and then pulled a tooth pick to his lip, “Italian tanks but…”
We hit some more turbulence and I pressed my hand against the cabin wall to steady.
“Italian tanks but the forward gear is only if they are attacked from behind.”
I forced a smile and leant forward “Stop it with the Italian jokes Fritz, we’re fighting krauts.”
“All the same to…” – a slug blasted through the cabin floor and blood hit Fritz like a bomb. The plane fell into severe turbulence and I watched as the silver-cross unraveled from Ghost’s grasp. He slouched over and the cross fell to the floor. Fritz stood up and wiped blood and bone fragments from his brow, “Enemy Fire!”
The cross slid across the floor and hit my boot and I stepped on it, the sky was lit up – planes were falling down all around us.
The red light was on and Irish’s wide eyes looked over us “Get Ready!”
“Stand up and Hook up!” his voice was high and diffident and we stood up. A bullet whizzed passed my ear and I took one last drag of my cigarette.
“Sound off for equipment check!” Irish continued. The left engine was suddenly struck and we were thrown to the right. I tried to steady myself and shouted “6 okay!”
“5 Okay,” shouted another.
“4 Okay,” continued Fritz.
“3 Okay,” and so it went until Irish shouted “1 Okay!” I glanced across the madness. Terrified faces filtered in red, bullets zipping in and out. Blood ran the floors. Suffering blasts drummed our ears. The plane was going down – god was lost.
Irish disappeared from the plane and we one by one crawled closer to the door, the hole and the fiery blackness. Rum paused as he peered out, his arms stretching to the panels on either side of the hole – he wouldn’t jump. “I can’t do it – I – I – I can’t do it!” he was a trembling wreck and tears striped down his big jaw and his big ego.
Fritz sighed “Son of a bitch,” and struck his boot at the base of his spine. Rum disappeared into the clouds and the blazes of hell. Fritz bit at his toothpick, slapped his helmet twice and jumped, laughing like a maniac. Then it was me – I stared out into the unknown, the inferno and the falling planes like bleeding wounds over a sheet of black - there was a peacefulness to insanity. I jumped. I shot out like a newborn, like an infant from a ripened cunt.