The C-47 transport airplane circled the field twice before it began its final descent. Breaking through the low clouds, it landed with a bump and squeal before taxiing to a stop in front of the crowd on the tarmac by the tiny concrete block terminal. He could see his folks’ house on Beaver from 2,000 feet.
The crowd’s small American flags raised above their heads reminded Staff Sergeant Daniel “Dinny” Curran of the spring flowers blowing in the breeze back at his airfield in England. But a closer look at the tanned faces, especially that of his uncle, Mayor Charles “Happy Cholly” Curran, focused his foggy dream of life back at the 457th Bomber Squadron back into reality.
This was upstate New York and this was the last War Bond stop of the tour that the brass assigned Dinny to as blue-ribboned hero. They’d told Dinny it would be the last before he was sent back to active duty with a new bomber squadron, this one flying B-24s rather than the B-17s he’d previously flown in over Europe.
But the job of a waist gunner on each of those ships was pretty much the same: freeze your ass in that open window, defend your section of sky from German Focke Wulf 190 or Me-109 fighters with your machine gun, roll the dice your ship doesn’t catch a round from their cannons or from the flak below and don’t, under any circumstances, let them seal you into that Spam can of a ball turret riding like a barnacle (the boys who flew said testicle) on the ship’s underside.
Alighting from the transport plane, still wearing it’s black and white Invasion stripes, even though the only thing Dinny invaded these days was the pocketbooks of girls, Blue Star moms and Gold Star grandmas, the butt-curved wallets of the old guys and the comfort of the young guys who weren’t serving…yet.
“On behalf of the whole town, the county and Governor Dewey,” Uncle Cholly boomed, “I want to express our most profound respect and affection to you, our hometown hero, Staff Sergeant Daniel Curran. And declare today a county-wide holiday in your honor.” Chilly handed Dinny a proclamation to that effect in a gold frame signed by dignitaries from the state in Albany to the county in Wampsville and the crowd raised a cheer. Then followed a girl from the local high school singing “God Bless America” and the National Anthem with gusto if not consistent pitch.
Dinny spoke his usual War Bond pitch, adding his gratitude for all the kind attention of his hometown and then sat down an expression of detached sadness hanging from his face like the blue Congressional Medal of Honor ribbon and gold star hung beneath it on his chest. Following his getting his hand shaken, pulled, scratched and kissed, the show was over.
“Mind if I go see my folks for a hour or so, Major?” Dinny asked Maj. Elmont Tisch, the commander of the War Bond traveling circus.
“All right, Curran, but you’d better be standing here when I get back from lunch at 1430 hours or you’ll wish it was you died in that ’17.”
“Yessir, 1430 hours, sir,” Dinny said, saluted, waited for it to be returned, then spun on his heel and half-trotted/half-limped for the fence by the operations building where his mother, father and older brother waited.
“Dinny, my Dinny,” his mother called above the wind that blew her kerchief over half her face. She almost pulled Dinny through the fence when he got there.
“Hi, Din, how’s the back?” his father asked, with some knowledge on the subject, still carrying two pieces of Krupp-manufactured steel in his thigh he caught at Belleau Wood in the Great War.
“It’s getting better, Dad. Docs are better at this stuff these days, better medicine than you guys got in the Big One. Shrapnel ain’t goin’ anywhere and the burns are healing good. Hey, Bobby, how ya doing?”
Dinny’s brother favored their mom’s family and towered over him. He looked down and mumbled something about “fine” and “hero” and “squirt” and “goin’ to the club.”
Mr. Curran drove the family in his old Ford over to the Veteran’s Hall, where a buffet lunch waited and two taps of Utica Club had been flowing since breakfast. Bobby had helped launch the kegs and was anxious to get back to them.
Amid another roar from the half-juiced crowd, Dinny entered the club and submitted himself to more handshakes, back slaps and relaying the story of how he won his Medal of Honor. After a half hour of this, Bobby, a glass of beer in each hand, walked over to Dinny, offered him the one in his left hand and said, “Do you ever get tired of telling this story? I sure have hearing it.”
Dinny took two long pulls on the beer and said, “You bet your ass I do!”
“Tired of being the little hero of DeRuyter? Biggest soldier boy story since Herkimer at Oriskany?”
“Like I said, yes.”
Dinny placed his empty glass on the bar and a full one immediately replaced it.
“Nothin’ too good for our hometown hero,” said the old bartender, who served with the 50th Aero Squadron in France in 1918. “Never heard nothing like it when we was in the back seat of those DH-4s,” he said.
“Well, you never know what a guy will do under fire until you get there, I guess,” Dinny said. With that, Bobby moved to the far end of the bar.
“You really landed that busted up B-17 with no pilot, no co-pilot?”
“Well, the navigator, Lieutenant Balkman and I thought we could remain aboard and…”
“All them other boys bailed out over the Channel?”
“Wasn’t you, too?”
“Yeah, but, the skipper was out, hurt bad. The co-pilot, Lieutenant Malinowski, from Buffalo ya know, he was killed outright by a fighter got through our screen. Other guys was hurt and I caught some pieces in my back…”
“So it was just you and the navigator left?”
“Yeah, I wrapped up the skipper and Lieutenant Mal back behind the flight deck.”
* * * *
“You’re staying with me, Curran,” Lieutenant Balkman said from the pilot’s seat of what was left of the Home Cookin’ Honey, as Dinny checked his own parachute in preparation to bail out over the English Channel.
“Sir, we got orders to…”
“I heard ‘em. You’re the engineer, boy. You and me are gonna bring this baby home.”
“Sir, we’re down to two engines, no right elevator, I got more spit than we got hydraulic fluid to the right ailerons and we’re bleeding altitude all the time.”
“Take a seat, Sergeant. That’s an order.”
With an oil-stained rag, Dinny wiped most of the gore from Lieutenant Mal off the co-pilot’s seat and buckled in.
“Okay, raise the base and tell ‘em we’re bringing this baby home.”
“Sir, we can’t bring this baby anywhere but down. Period. And you know it. We got nothin’ to gain in tryin’ but…”
“Shut up, Curran. I need you and you’re going to help me steer this bitch back to base. Now help me push her around to a heading of 265 and hold her here at two thousand. We’re only twenty miles out.”
With a sizzle and pop, the radio squawked: “Blue Rock 15, Blue Rock 15, what the hell’s going on up there. You were ordered to abandon ship and her hit the drink.”
“Croydon Base, this is Blue Rock 1-5,” Dinny stammered into the microphone, Lieutenant Balkman…”
Dinny was surprised he could hear the click of the hammer of a Balkman’s .45 caliber Colt M1911. But it was pressed against his ear…
“Say again, Blue Rock 1-5.”
“Um, Croydon Base, uh…”
Balkman stared a quicker death than their potential certain one into Dinny’s eyes and pressed the Colt to his forehead.
“Croydon Base, the skipper, Captain Walsh is still alive but can’t be moved. We can’t dump him even with his chute open. Lieutenant Balkman and me ain’t leaving him.”
“Balkman’s still got control of the aircraft?” the only sane voice in Dinny’s shrinking world said.
“Control…yessir, him and I got this,” Dinny said. Balkman placed the big colt back in his lap.
“Okay, then come to heading 190 and bleed her down to 1,000 feet,” the base tower sizzled.
Dinny and Balkman both pushed hard on their respective left rudder pedals, cranking the control columns hard right. Home Cookin’ Honey shook and creaked and popped and settled into a heading of 190 and 1,200 feet.
“Okay, Blue Rock 1-5 we’ve got you in sight. Ease her back to 150 knots and swing her to a heading of 160 degrees.
Balkman howled and fought the column again.
“C’mon, dammit, Curran. Work with me here,” he screamed.
Dinny pushed and pulled and couldn’t blame Balkman for howling, as the ground filled more of the shattered windshield than sky.
“Sir, I’m getting out of here. We’re gonna auger in sure as shit.”
“Stay put, boy. Let me think. It wasn’t like this in flight school. Right rudder, give a little elevator and left aileron. Or was it right?” Balkman said to Dinny and no one.
“Blue Rock 1-5, take her down 700 and bring her left about another 30 degrees and keep her coming,” the voice of God said from Heaven below.
“Roger that, sir. Down 700 and left 30 degrees,” Dinny had his hand on the seat harness buckle but he knew it was too late to jump now.
“Curran, You’re gonna thank me when this is over. They’re gonna give me, us, medals for this action. Or the blame. Now help me hold her right there.”
“Sir, you’re coming in too hot, get the nose up, get the…”
“Blue Rock 1-5 abort landing. Repeat abort landing. take her back up and come around 90 degrees to 12 degrees North<“ the radio squawked.
“Sir we can’t…Sir, you gotta…” Dinny reached for Balkman, who was pushing the throttles forward, not back.
Balkman fumbled for the Colt and it fell to the floor with a shocking BANG. Shot through his femoral artery, he was gushing blood like a beer tap at the Vet’s Hall in DeRuyter.
Dinny grabbed for the throttle levers, but it was too late.
Home Cookin’ Honey shuddered as her nose came up, then dropped like a rock onto the tip of her port wing. She crumbled and squealed, threw up two acres of Britain and then came the boom. The emergency trucks, sirens blaring, raced to the crumpled, smoking wreck of the B-17. All remaining aboard were dead except for the airplane’s Captain and the little gunner from Madison County.
Captain Walsh died two days later. The brass decided to give Dinny a medal because his was the only voice they heard in the effort to bring the ship back to England, Lieutenant Balkman most assuredly having bled out before they cleared Dover.
* * * *
Dinny saw his brother at the end of the bar. The 4-F big brother of the little squirt he would bully and tease and beat like a rented mule at every opportunity, now a big war hero. Everyone always thought Bobby’d be the hero, the great football star, big man on campus at Syracuse, pride of the family. But then came the knee injury and he was rendered unfit for duty, even trying sneak into the Marines five times. To Dinny, he always would be his hero.
Dinny walked a beer down to Bobby and slid it in front of him.
“What do you want? Don’t you have to go back to the plane by 1603 or 1056 or whatever you heroes use for time keeping?” Bobby said.
“Yeah, I gotta go back soon. But c’mon outside. I got some things to take to you about.” Bobby hesitated, but Dinny took his arm and said, “Please, Bobby, this is important.”
Out by the picnic tables, Dinny and Bobby took their seats at one furthest from the club.
“So what do you have to tell me, Dinny?” Bobby said, looking over his little brother’s head at the highway.
“Remember that time you pulled me out of Jenkins Pond when I got my leg caught in a submerged branch. I was sure as hell gonna die in a few more seconds. But you dove in looking for me. You didn’t hesitate. Never thought of doing anything but saving my life. Selfless. My god damn big brother’s the true hero.”
“Aw, cut the shit, Dinny. I’m nothing but a crippled bartender for old lying vets in a jerkwater village in a cow fart of a town in Nowhere County, New York.” He pushed his cigarette into the blossoms of other butts sticking from a pail of sand.
“Let me tell you about this war hero bullshit. It’s sometimes all about nothing than where you’re standing when everyone else falls down. Here’s the real story about how I got this thing.” And Dinny told Bobby about crazy Balkman, his gun, the crash and how he was the only one who limped away from the death of Home Cookin’ Honey.
“So I’m no hero, just lucky. You’re a real hero. Always my hero. So I want you to have this,” Dinny said. He then unhooked his blue ribbon with upside down gold star, held it in his hand, sighed and forced it into Bobby’s hands.
“Din, I can’t take this, I…”
“Sure you can. You’re a real hero. Without you, we don’t have this thing. Besides, where I’m going, I won’t be wearing it. They give me a ribbon for my chest in its place. So now I want you to have it,“ Dinny said.
“Christ, Din, I dunno,” Bobby said, a catch in his throat, offering the ribbon back to his little brother. “Ain’t there laws against this stuff?”
“Tell you what. We’ll share it. You keep it until I come home. Then we’ll figure out what the hell civilians do with Medals of Honor besides break it out on Armistice Day,” Dinny said.
And that’s how, every November 11 and Memorial Day until he died in 2009, Bobby Curran proudly donned the blue ribbon and gold star of the Congressional Medal of Honor. He had to. Dinny said his hero had to take care of it until he got home.
Here’s the first draft of Story #2 for Story-A-Day May. It’s rough, as any first draft should be, but I think it has “good bones.” I was supposed to write a story using the following words: Blame, State, Frame, Holiday, Relay, Waist, Pail, Gain, Raise, Mayor, Airplane, Remain.
Pretty certain I did. You check. I’m done for the day.