Because he could, Lieutenant Mal Forbes flipped over his Nieuport 28 fighter airplane and flew upside down. He bent back his head, as to look up, but now up was down. He could feel the strain of his seat belt upon his waist, the blood rushing to his head. He peered over the cockpit coaming at the cloud-plumed blue sky now below his lower wing.
This ability to change point of view with a flick of his wrist and a kick of the rudder made these solo hours in the air, while potentially deadly, his respite from the foes he faced back at his squadron aerodrome.
After righting his nimble, though fragile, French-built aircraft, Forbes took one more swing along the front, hunting German artillery spotting planes. His fuel on reserve, he whispered a “Damn it” that blew away in the slipstream almost before he finished saying it, and headed southwest for the squadron landing field.
Forbes wished he could just remain up there, flying, never having to go back and face those Ivy League pretty boys and their snide jibes about the “half-breed” cowboy pilot. He’d passed five-victory Ace status in the American Air Service two weeks ago, more than anyone else in the squadron, and still they treated him like a stable boy.
Maybe it was his dark skin he’d picked up from his mother’s side of the family. She was half-Ute and he’d grown up on a ranch with his Ute grandmother.
“Hey, Forbes, is it true what they say about Indian women, real wildcats in the l’amour department?” Lt. Edmund Garry said one afternoon in the officers mess. This was the third time he’d made such a statement and Forbes instinctively reached for the Colt on his hip. Instead, he threw a left hook that sent Garry to the hospital and him to the Squadron CO. Other pilots confirmed that Forbes was to blame for the altercation. The incident gave him three days confined to quarters and a reputation as not only an Indian, but also a hothead.
Where more than half of his squadron mates boasted fathers and grandfathers who’d served as state governors, United States Senators, or congressmen at the least, he thought of countering with the fact that his Grandpa Forbes was once the mayor of Winfield, Colorado. He never mentioned that Grandpa was the only mayor of Winfield and that the silver mining boomtown went bust in three years.
They don’t even deserve a lie, he told himself.
After a smooth landing, Forbes taxied the Nieuport to its assigned hanger tent and hopped out of the cockpit to greet his mechanic, Dino Cenci, already waiting with a pail to drain the oil from the Gnome engine and prepare it for his pilot’s next sortie.
“Might be a ring going on one of the pistons, Dino,” Forbes said. “She’d give a pop and sag a little whenever I pulled up quickly to gain a little altitude. Check it out for me, will ya, please?”
“Yessir, Lieutenant. By dawn, she’ll be purring like our cat on mia dolce nonna’s lap,” Cenci said, as the rest of Forbes’ ground crew inspected their respective parts of the Nieuport.
“CO says he wants to see you, Chief,” Forbes’ flight commander, Capt. Benton Stearns, an upstate New York farmer’s son and Cornell graduate, called over from a nearby card table where he was playing penny ante poker with his crew. “I raise two cents,” he said.
“Thanks, Cap. Any idea what the Old Man wants?”
Stearns had to laugh. Their squadron commander was all of twenty-eight years old.
“Nope, just said to send you over to his tent when you got back. Or as he said, ‘If that pain in the ass gets back.’ For what it’s worth, I find you sterling company and a damned calming presence on my right wing. I call,” Stearns said.
“Thanks, Cap,” Forbes said.
When Forbes entered Major Phillip Bush’s office tent, he noticed Bush’s expression change from its normal staid to thinly veiled contempt.
“You asked to see me, sir?” Forbes said with a click to attention.
“Yes, Forbes. I see you made it back. Still flyable? No perforations and broken ribs or such?” Bush said. He meant the airplane. As far as he was concerned, Forbeses were more easily replaced than aircraft.
“Just a little engine trouble, sir. My mechanic will have it in good shape by morning.”
“Good. Now let’s talk about you.”
“Me, sir?” Forbes said.
“I won’t frame this in any coddling way, Forbes. The pilots tell me you’ve become a problem, a distraction, a victory-hogging vulture. In other words, they want me to transfer you to another squadron.”
“Would that request come specifically from Lt.Garry, Sir?” Forbes asked.
“It doesn’t matter, but, yes, he was one of the men who pointed out your consistent lack of team play and flight integrity.”
“Yes. It’s said you will break formation to hunt on your own, which I will not allow while a regular squadron sortie is being conducted.”
“Have you discussed this with my flight leader, sir?”
“No. Captain Stearns needn’t be consulted on such a command decision. Therefore…”
“Who’s command would that be…Sir?
“I beg your pardon, Lieutenant? You may have been able to play fast and loose with military decorum in your French squadrons, but not in mine. In the hopefully very short time you will be under my command, you will recognize my authority and that of all your superiors,” Bush said. His patrician pallor shifted to a farmer’s red neck.
“Yessir. And where is it you’ll be transferring me? Sir!”
“There’s an opening at the 103rd. Maybe you’ll fit in with Soubiran, Larner, your fellow Lafayette Corps types under Thaw’s command. I figure anyone who’d buy a live lion as a squadron pet, plus served with Bert Hall without killing him, should handle you and your…proclivities…quite… Well, he has a chance to make you a gentleman,” Bush said.
“When do you wish me to leave, Sir?” Forbes asked.
“After your dawn patrol with your new flight commander, Captain Garry,” Bush said with a smirk. “That’s all.”
Forbes stalked to his tent and began packing his effects into the cases he bought on holiday in Paris after his fifth victory in ’17. The one that made him an ace in his French squadron, Spa. 75.
Stearns burst into the tent and roared, “What in the hell is going on, Chief? I just heard that piss ant Garry whined to the Old Man and, et voila, you’re sacked? Going over to the 103rd?”
“Yep, but at least I’ll be with guys who know what they’re doing, and flying SPADs, to boot. They may have the glide angle of a brick, but at least they don’t fall apart in the middle of a scrape.”
“You’re okay with this, eh?”
“Sure. And you can’t help but love the irony of moving to a squadron whose insignia is an Indian head, can you?” Forbes said.
“These punks wouldn’t be that smart, would they?”
“And I heard you’re going up with his flight in the morning,” Sterns said.
“Yeah, a goodbye ‘Fuck You’ from Garry, Bush and their frat brothers,” Forbes said
“Well, bon chance, Chief. I’ve learned a lot from you. And my right wing will feel mighty bare-ass and at-risk starting tomorrow.”
“Bon chance, Cap. See you at Maxim’s when this is over.”
In the pre-dawn chill, Forbes met Garry and two other pilots at the flight line.
“Well, Forbes, nice of you to join us. Let’s see you stay with us for the duration of this patrol,” Garry said.
“You know, Garry, I wouldn’t miss this sortie for the world, just to see you oblivious to all the Boche observers with your head up your ass instead of on a swivel. You only join the fray when someone else spots the Boche and then fire off a few bursts and claim their kills. My guess is you’ll be dead soon enough, so this morning I just wanted to say goodbye,” Forbes said and headed toward his Nieuport and ground crew.
“We’ll be much the better for your departure, you half-breed mutt,” Garry yelled at Forbes’s back.
“The crew’s awful sorry to see you go, Sir. We liked to think you were one of us,” Dino Cenci said as he extended his oil-stained hand to Forbes.
As he shook each man’s hand, Forbes said, “I like to think that, too, Dino. Every time I step into that cockpit, we’re all in it together, right?”
“Now let’s twist this pussy’s tail and see if she purrs like your nonna’s cat.”
After a smooth start and climb to the flight’s prescribed altitude, the patrol began. Each man was to hold his aircraft in a specific position for the other’s protection and to multiply the chances of finding enemy aircraft to engage.
Forbes was first to see the seemingly alone German LVG reconnaissance plane five thousand feet below. He wagged his wings to get Garry’s attention, but shook his head “No” and pointed up to the flight of eight Fokker D-VIIs breaking through the clouds.
An obvious trap, but Garry pointed down and the other Nieuports dutifully followed his attack on the LVG.
Forbes lagged behind, knowing that the flight would be under the guns of the Fokkers in moments. He broke off and swung around the diving Fokkers, picking out one with some bird device painted on its side. He may have hated Garry and the Harvard man’s gang of snobs, but he would protect them whether they knew what was about to happen or not.
He touched off his dual machine guns and hosed tracers up the spine of the Fokker to its cockpit, watching its pilot slump and then saw the plane burst into flames.
That’s one, he thought. Look the hell behind you, Garry!
The LVG dove away from the American pursuit planes just as the German fighters opened fire. Chapman, another Harvard man, never knew what hit him.
Forbes flipped his plane and turned on another Fokker as they began leveling off to chop up the over-matched Nieuports. The American planes had a slight advantage of maneuverability in the right hands, but Forbes’s were the only right ones in this fight.
He let go a burst just as the Fokker flashed by and saw its left aileron come loose and float away like a leaf. The Fokker dove in hopes of surviving a landing on the American side of the lines.
Above him, Forbes saw Garry tailing one of his flight members, who was jinking and rolling madly to elude another Fokker. Garry’s tracers cut through the German’s fuselage, but to no effect. Forbes pulled a twisting climb and caught the Fokker with a burst from beneath.
Three, Forbes thought. Now where the hell are the rest?
Red tracers whizzed past his head, as bullets from a pair of German Spandau machine guns stitched holes through his left wings. Tracers crossed the German’s path and Forbes saw Gerry’s aircraft, flight leader pennants straight out in the slipstream from its struts, flash across their path. With that distraction, he fired into the Fokker’s engine, which began to smoke.
But Garry didn’t see the Fokker behind him who buried a burst into his Nieuport’s slender, tapered fuselage. He immediately dove in attempt to escape, but the Fokker had the weight and power advantage.
Shit, I should just let the bastard get it and head back to the base, Forbes thought.
But his training, from his Ute Grandmother, his ranching parents and his French comrades wouldn’t let him. He gave chase and potted the Fokker with a burst and then another, causing him to pull away from Garry.
Five. Now get the hell out of my life, Garry, you pompous prick. Where the…
The burst of bullets arced from one of the remaining Fokkers Forbes had lost contact with while coming to Garry’s aid. Forbes felt the burn through his chest and in the briefest of moments saw all the good in his life, then the killing and the bad, then…nothing.
Garry managed to bring his damaged Nieuport down to a French aerodrome. When he returned to his own, he claimed three kills, which were approved and moved him past Forbes on the squadron’s victory ranking.
The two Fokkers who survived Mal Forbes last fight returned to their Jasta. There, a party of fellow Prussian officers clustered around one of the planes, praising its pilot for wiping out the American flight. Forward observers would relay that information to the Jastas.
Down the flight line, only the ground crew of the other pilot, the one that killed the American ace, welcomed their Herr home. They inspected the stripe of bullet holes that pierced the six-pointed star on his fuselage’s side.
From amid the cluster of Prussian officers walking past the lone pilot came a laugh from the other surviving pilot.
“Even the Jew got his Amerikaner today,” he said, just as they always described Leutnant Oskar Schneider, even after today’s fight brought him to ten-victory Kanon status and a sure Pour le Mérite medal of a hero of the German Empire. Even if he was nothing but “the Jew” to his Jasta mates.
Schneider wondered what it would be like to be on the other side, an American, where your comrades didn’t care about your race or religion, just your character and courage.
“Thus it will always be, boys,” he said to his crew, but they ignored him and had already begun preparing the aircraft for its next flight.
Here’s the too-long first draft of Story #2 for my September Story-A-Day Challenge. 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 night.