Read Kid comes back Online

Authors: John R. Tunis

Kid comes back

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The Kid Comes BackJohn R. Tunis































USUALLY AS THEYclimbed into the waiting truck outside the Operations Tent, Roy thought, How romantic all this would be if only I weren’t going through it myself. Somehow that night it wasn’t even abstractly romantic. There was no romance in it, none whatever.

Well, he thought, we didn’t have any too good reports on this one, this job of taking supplies to the Underground in Occupied France. That was plain enough in the Operations Tent when the intelligence officer showed us the pictures. We all knew it, every one of us felt it. These night flights are invariably hot missions. And the fact is, Roy realized, this thing is beginning to get me down.

The truck jolted and bumped down the road out to the field, and across to their waiting plane. They clambered down, yanking at their flak vests and chutes, and stood round, waiting. The worst ten minutes of all, the wait before they could take off—like the last minutes before a team takes the field in a Rose Bowl game, or the final contest in a World Series. The same craving for action, the same desire to do something, to release twitching muscles and tight lips. There was no emotion, no joking, no moving picture stuff. Just four extremely tired men waiting to do the unpleasant job they had been doing as far back as they could recall, as far as time stretched.

Scotty wandered round and round the little group blowing half-audible runs and trills on his harmonica. Earl sat on his chute, checking his compass. Jim leaned over to load his automatic. The others carried 45’s; but Roy, the tail gunner, had little room to move about in, so he wore a long-handled knife which he stuffed in his belt. For the same reason he had a chest-type parachute, with the harness attached to his body, and the chute on the floor under his seat when in flight.

Roy watched the mechanics readying the plane, as he had done dozens of times before. There were half a dozen of them, on top, underneath, inside, around the gas truck, all chattering in the quiet night air; all oblivious to the task awaiting the ship and the crew who flew her. Snatches of their conversation came to him.

“My wife writes, now she says eggs are sixty cents a dozen. Things keep on this-a-way, she says...”

“Got a letter from home this morning, and wha’d’ya think the little tyke wants to know? Wants to know all about this Brooklyn boy in the squadron, this here now Roy Tucker.”

Roy turned away. He had heard them like that, listened to the grease monkeys, watched them do the same things dozens of times before. Somehow that night they bothered him. All at once he wanted to yell at them as loud as he could. Hey, look, you guys; you up there in the turret, and you, Bud, out on the wing, and you, fella, you gassing her up, and you two in the truck. Look, we’re taking this ship up tonight, and maybe we won’t come back. Maybe we’ll ditch or crash somewhere in France or something. And we’ve got people at home, same as you have.

Aw, what’s the use? They wouldn’t understand what’s biting me. He turned away. Suddenly Earl rose and began climbing aboard. Jim was going up after him. O.K., here goes. But those mechanics, they’re sure something, those guys.

Jim, the pilot, immediately started checking his gauges, while Roy climbed into his place in the rear of the plane and adjusted the phones over his head. “Let’s have another time check, boys; let’s have one more to make sure,” said Jim. “In twelve seconds it’ll be ten minutes to ten. Nine seconds... eight... seven... six... five... four... three... O.K.! That’s it.”

Once again his voice came to them. “Pilot to tail gunner. Do you receive?”

Roy’s tone was cracked and queer as he heard himself reply. This is no good, no good at all, he thought. I’m getting jittery. “Tail gunner to pilot. Receiving you loud and clear.” Now the mechanics were scattering. They’ll go back to their tents and sleep in bed tonight, while we’ll be somewhere in France trying to find the headquarters of theMaquis, a pinpoint on a map.

At last the engines roared, one after the other. The plane bounced down the runway, and stopped for the final check. Then the ground rushed away underneath, there was the beautiful free movement as the ship caught the air and left the earth below, and Jim, climbing on course, swung over the airfield. Once they were airborne Roy noticed, as he invariably did, how little of their actual operations on the ground showed from above. The squadron had learned something since their debarkation at Algiers eighteen months before.

Now Casamozza vanished, and the field disappeared. Then underneath lay Bastia, a cluster of white, familiar houses with red roofs grouped about the tiny harbor, sharp and distinct in the moonlight. As they climbed, the remainder of the island with its mountain peaks came into his vision. He bent over to load his guns. When he lifted his head again, Corsica was vanishing fast astern. They were over the Tuscan sea, and slowly swinging round to point for France.

For perhaps two hours they were above water, then across the French coastline and over the moonlit countryside before Roy became worried. It was Jim’s voice, stiff and tight, that confirmed suspicions which had been deepening for some minutes. Over the intercom came those familiar tones.

“Pancake Z. Pancake Z. This is Fried Spratt calling Pancake Z. Fried Spratt calling Pancake Z.”

They waited, all four of them: the pilot up front, and Scotty, the turret gunner, and Earl, the bombardier in the waist, and Roy himself in the tail. They waited for nothing because nothing happened. There was no reply from their base on Corsica. Only the usual hum of the intercom.

Boy, are we lost? It couldn’t be we’re lost, thought Roy. Jim’ll make it somehow; he always has. He got us through on that run over Anzio and Highway 7; on that nasty job we had at the Fiat works in Turin, when we lost Elmer at Leghorn, and the time the Messerschmitt jumped us over the Mediterranean. He’ll do it this time, too; he’s a good chauffeur, Jim is.

“Pancake Z. Pancake Z. This is Fried Spratt calling Pancake Z.”

There it was again. No use talking, we’re lost this time. Yep, no fooling, we’re lost. Say, isn’t that something! Fifty-six missions over Italy and France, then this. We’re really lost.

It was chilly, so Roy in the tail gunner’s seat wore coveralls and a sweater. Suddenly he felt sweat across his forehead. Why, this is terrible, this is awful, this feeling of fear. The fact is, I’m afraid.

We’re lost now; no mistake, either.


ONCE MORE THEYwaited, listening, all of them, Scotty in the turret, and Earl in the middle, and Roy squeezed into the tail of the plane. They listened like shipwrecked men, for that was what they were, shipwrecked in the skies, adrift, uncertain. Far below, that misty streak was the Rhone or the valley of the Durance or even the valley of the Dordogne, which they had been supposed to follow. They might be right after all.

Still no response from the base.

Suddenly the answer came, loud and strong, wonderfully reassuring. All at once, the way it invariably happened, for no reason at all the base came through. The whole ship seemed to lighten at the sound of the voice on the other end.

“Hello, Fried Spratt. Hello, Fried Spratt. Give me a long signal. Hello, Fried Spratt, this is Pancake Z calling. Give me a signal.”

The exultant tones in Jim’s voice penetrated every heart as he began to count in firm, even tones. “One... two... three... four... five... six... seven... eight... nine... ten... over, Pancake Z.”

They listened to the answer. And the voice of Jim again, asking for a bearing.

“Fried Spratt to Pancake Z. Fried Spratt calling Pancake Z. Can you give me a bearing now?”

Instantly, too quickly almost, the voice responded. “Pancake Z to Fried Spratt. Pancake Z calling Fried Spratt. Take up a heading of 220 degrees south, and come in at 5,000. Take a heading of 220 degrees south, and come in at 5,000.”

“Fried Spratt to Pancake Z. Fried Spratt calling Pancake Z. O.K., Pancake Z, willco. Willco.”

He switched off. Now there was silence save for the steady roar of the two Wright engines humming through the night. This boy Jim, he’s good. I’m just getting jittery; I’ve had about enough, that’s the trouble with me.

They had gone on for several seconds before Roy spoke up from his cubbyhole.

“Hey there, Jim! D’ja notice anything strange about that one?”

“No. Why?” The pilot, instantly suspicious, replied immediately.

“I dunno. Just the way the guy talked, the way he said the word ‘degrees’ He called it ‘degwees,’ d’ja notice?”

“I sure noticed it. Sounded kinda funny to me,” Scotty came in.

“Now you mention it, believe I did, too.” Earl’s voice was excited.

“Well, we’d better go in at ten thousand and see what happens,” the pilot said.

The plane rose slowly into the darkness. Far below an occasional light in a farm or cottage showed where the windows had been insufficiently covered, and there were dim outlines of blacked-out towns along the way. They went on for some minutes, watching carefully, all of them.

Yet although they were watching and waiting, everyone half expecting it, when it came they were astonished. Without warning, the darkness below them was suddenly filled with the bright streaks of flak. The fireworks appeared in the night air, died away, and flared up again. Every flak gun in the occupied countries seemed to be spraying the heavens, while they sailed along serenely five thousand feet above the fracas.

“Let’s get out of here,” said Scotty. The place was far too unhealthy, because those near-by clouds could easily shelter enemy planes, waiting just for them. Jim gave her the gun, and soon they were leaving the fireworks far behind.

Trying later on to remember exactly what happened, Roy had trouble recalling just how long it took Jim to get them back on their course. Too much took place and in far too short a space of time for anyone to have a clear picture of the events that followed. Nor could Roy remember which one of the crew it was who actually picked out the tiny landing field in the misty valley below. Was it Scotty’s voice who broke in? Or Earl’s?

“Say! What’s that?”

“What? Where?”

“Those lights. See there!”

“Lights? What lights? I don’t see any lights.”

“Over there. About sixty degrees, beyond that town there. See the town?”

“I see the town, but I don’t see any lights.”

“Hey, I do, I do.”

“Oh, sure, I do now. I didn’t at first, but I see ’em now all right.”

“Me, too.”

The whole crew was watching now with attention. Roy twisted in his seat to get a glimpse of those lights which could mean their objective at last or nothing more than an isolated farmhouse with windows uncovered. Also, he reflected, it could be Germans signaling from below in the hopes of trapping them. Things like that had been known to happen before.

Certainly, however, that town could be the one, that could be Bergerac, and that twisting stretch of silver could be the river Dordogne. It looked exactly like the setup that had been described to them.

Then somebody was flashing a signal from below. Obviously it was a signal, whether to them or someone else. Two green lights and a red; two green lights and a red.

“There they go. That’s us, Jim!”

“Looks like it. But we’ll just take things easy. Let’s be sure this time. We got ourselves out of one tight spot tonight; let’s not walk head first into another. Let’s make it sure.”

“That’s right. Give ’em the signal, Jim.”

The pilot turned a switch which lit up a signal lamp on the plane, and immediately a green light winked three times from below. Plain to see this was no flak-protected and well-organized German airdrome, but a small, secret landing field of the French Underground. As far as they could tell from above, the field was isolated enough to be some distance from any indiscreet neighbors.

Jim descended lower and lower, preparatory to landing. They waited. Finally he spoke.

“Landing gear’s stuck.”

Landing gear stuck! Hang it all, if it isn’t one thing it’s another, this trip. First we’re plain lost. Then we get ourselves out of a slick Jerry trap. Next the landing gear has to stick. Fifty-six missions over Europe and then this.


ONCE AGAIN THEYrose in the night. Jim went to four thousand and tried to operate the hand pump to pump hydraulic pressure into the lines. Then he pulled the manual release on the floor which should have released the safety latch and dropped the wheels out of the nacelles. Nothing happened. Mechanical failure; or perhaps a stray bit of flak had broken the cables. Anyway the wheels did not budge. Jim tried every possible maneuver to shake them free. He fluttered the ship from side to side, dropped in a terrific dive, and then pulled them suddenly out of it. Next he wrenched them up and down until their stomachs were sore. The landing gear was stuck and no mistake.

Even before the orders came through from Jim, Roy realized what it meant—a belly landing. He un-hitched himself from his guns, felt for the knife at his side and the compass in his pocket. At his feet was his escape kit. It contained benzedrine, caramels, chewing gum, a small map, and forty dollars in French bills.

Here’s one time it will be useful, too!

What had he been told? He tried to recall the instructions given at briefing from time to time; told until it all became an old story one heard but hardly listened to. With all his heart he wished he had paid more attention. What was it now? Lie low for twenty-four hours. If you can hide for twenty-four hours, the Germans usually stop searching the locality, and likely enough you’ll be all right. Avoid all cities. Contact only poor people—farmers and workmen. Well, we’ll most probably do that, judging by this countryside below.

They were lower now, lower still. After circling the field once more, Jim approached from the northern end of the small runway. Gently, under his trained hands, the ship was descending into the blackness.

Roy scrambled hastily out of the turret and caught a glimpse of Earl’s tense and anxious face. Earl was stowing the lower gun, which he finally secured in its place. Then he slammed the bottom hatch door. In moments such as these one didn’t really think, one acted automatically; one was a robot following directions heard dozens of times on how to prepare for a belly landing. Well, this is it. We’re for it now.

Roy grabbed his flak helmet from the floor of the ship and jammed it on, signaling to Earl to do the same thing. This was protection against having one’s head cracked open. Roy knew perfectly well that when the ship landed, there was no telling what they might be smashed against or where.

Next he snatched his parachute pack from the side of the plane, placed it on the floor, and lay down, his head resting on the chute as protection. Earl crawled across and placed himself on the floor between Roy’s legs, with his hands bracing the back of his head against the gunner’s stomach. Roy, in turn, braced his feet against the back of the turret to prevent himself from being thrown forward when the ship actually struck.

Now they were ready. Nothing to do but wait, the hardest moments of all. They lay there listening to the roar of the engines change gradually to a hum as Jim eased up on the throttles. Make it good, boy, make it good. Seconds were years for the two figures locked together in the rear of the plane, unable to help, nervously waiting. There was a strong westerly wind, and the pilot was giving the ship lots of rudder to keep it on an even keel. They were coming down now. Roy could smell trees and the sweet dampness of earth.

The plane descended, bit by bit, searching for the ground. It continued to drop; still no contact. Then there was a sudden, raucous grinding, which turned into a deafening roar. Next a spine-cracking jolt as the ship struck and plowed through the improvised landing field, sliding along on its belly, tearing up the ground with a terrific noise. With the jolt, everything went out from under Roy. A hundred, a thousand bands were playing, all together. He started falling into a bottomless abyss, down, down, away from the groaning engines and the screaming ship. He fell with no consciousness of a fall. He fell until there was silence all around.

When he came to, he was lying on the ground, pain shooting up and down his back, his head dizzy. For some moments he lay still, unable to move. Finally he tried to rise, and as he did so was violently sick, retching on the ground in agony. He sank back exhausted, conscious only of the intense pain in his back. Voices came from a long way off, loud, excited, strange tones. Suddenly he was surrounded in the darkness by a crowd of yelling, gesticulating foreigners. They helped him to his feet and held him up, talking continually. Their patois was so much Chinese as far as he was concerned. All he knew, all he felt, all his world was that pain in his back.

Someone handed him a flask. It was wine, strong and sour, but he drank eagerly and handed it back. Then with an arm over the shoulder of each man beside him, he hobbled along.


THE ROOM WASlarge and low. At one end was a zinc bar. Overhead, from huge black beams, hung two smoking oil lamps, and the place was thick with the smoke from dozens of pipes. There were tables, and seated at the tables, playing cards, was the worst-looking gang of bandits Roy had ever seen. The bandits rose together and surrounded the crew of Fried Spratt with friendly exclamations of interest and delight. At least they were not hostile bandits. Chairs were shoved out for the four Americans. A red wine was hastily poured from a bottle into thick glasses and handed to each of them. Over everything were the noise and the shouting and the laughter of thirty or forty men all talking together at the same time. Only a machine gun here and there at someone’s elbow showed that this was a nation at war.

“Tough-looking hombres, hey?” Earl, across the table, raised his eyebrows.

“Boy, you said it!” replied Roy.

Now the bandits were surrounding them, drinking toasts, clinking glasses, patting each one on the shoulder, shaking their hands, examining their clothing, admiring their 45’s with cries of interest.

Roy looked at them closely, like people from the moon. A few hours ago we ate dinner in the mess at Casamozza; here we are in the heart of France, in occupied territory, with Germans all around and these roughnecks our only hope of escape.

“Sure glad they’re on our side.”

“Me, too,” said Earl soberly.

Roy sipped the wine which was red, thick and extremely sour, regarding the circle with somewhat the same curiosity as that with which they regarded him. The bandits wore all sorts of strange costumes, none alike. Some had on furry coats, quite evidently made by the wearer from the skins of trapped animals; others, business suits, torn and shabby, with dirty shirts open at the neck and much the worse for continued wear; or odd bits of foreign uniforms, here a green German blouse, there a pair of khaki breeches, or English shorts topped by a blue French army jacket. Some wore stiff leather puttees round their legs; a few had wrapped strips of cloth between their shoe tops and their knees. Their footwear was even more astonishing; high boots that laced up the calf, sneakers, queer slippers of cloth with rope soles. A few even had on shoes made of abandoned tires, fastened together with pieces of string, that they had obviously fashioned themselves. Their appearance as a group was worse because most of them had not seen a razor recently—if at all. Every imaginable sort of beard, from a soft, silky down to a long, stiffish gray one, was visible.

A tough-looking bunch of hombres, as Earl remarked. Well, we don’t look any too handsome ourselves right now. Roy glanced at Earl’s forehead bandaged with a dingy white handkerchief, at Jim’s torn uniform, at his own soiled coveralls, the trousers cut above the knee where they had scraped on some piece of jagged metal when he was thrown from the plane. They were all hot, tired, and dirty.

“How’s the back, kid?” Jim stood over him.

“It’s not too good, Jim. That farm cart sure gave it a shaking up. Guess I’ll be O.K. though.” He shifted a little in his chair, and the spasm of pain shot up his hip once more, just as it had all through the journey from the airfield where they had crashed.

“There’s a doc coming. He’ll look at you, and at that head of yours, Earl, too.”

Then the French leader, the man who had given the orders to destroy their plane, came pushing through the mob around them and spoke to Jim. His tones were those of an officer used to being obeyed, although he wore civilian clothes, with a dingy muffler around his neck and a cloth cap on his head. Of the four Americans, only the pilot could talk French, and it wasn’t easy for him. Yet somehow Jim and the French leader conversed, understanding each other a little, misunderstanding each other more, explaining, talking slowly, using sign language.

Roy glanced up. A small, thin, black-haired chap was watching Earl light a cigarette. The man had a machine gun crooked in his arm. Earl lighted his cigarette naturally and casually; but there was a strange intentness and fixity in the Frenchman’s gaze. He glared at the full package Earl pulled from his pocket, followed the lighted match as it rose to the bombardier’s mouth, watched the quick way Earl blew out the smoke. Roy seldom smoked himself, but he had a package of cigarettes in his escape kit. He opened it, took out the package, and extended it to the little black-haired man.

“Me? You give me?” He stood fixed, staring at the package in Roy’s outstretched hand. Suddenly he reached across the table and grabbed it. He leaned over. “For you... perhaps... is naw-theeng, the cigarette. For me, is everytheeng. Fifteen years I work with American company in Paris; smoke American cigarette. Dan, tree, four year... no more American cigarette. Wan year, two year... no cigarette... none.” He waved his hands. The circle of bandits listened with approval; they did not understand his words, but they knew what he was saying. Their tired eyes held the same rapture as his.

Roy watched. Now what? Will he keep them himself? Or, if cigarettes are as scarce as all that, will he pass them round? Would I pass them round if I loved smoking and hadn’t seen a cigarette for two years? What will he do? This is the Underground; the famous French Underground they’ve told us about so many times in briefing, that we’ve discussed in the mess in Africa and Corsica and Italy, heard stories and yarns about from escaped pilots and others. They’re wonderful; they’re terrible; they’re patriots; they’re communists; they’re generous and noble and cutthroats and murderers. Now let’s see what happens.

In the smoky light of the ancient inn, the circle round the table watched also, fascinated, while the thin black-haired man with the red-rimmed eyes opened the package of cigarettes, smelled them with a long breath which brought a smile to his weary face, held them up, took one out and twisted it round slowly in his fingers.

Then he placed the cigarette gently behind his right ear, and handed the package to the next man. He took one, smelled it, and passed the package along. It went round the circle; each man with courtesy and without grabbing took a cigarette from the package, fondled it, and held it with reverent fingers. Finally it was empty. The last man took the empty package, poured the crumbs out carefully, fished a torn piece of toilet paper from his pocket, and with great care rolled a small end for himself.

Roy looked over at Earl; Earl was looking at him. “Gee,” said the bombardier. “Gee!”


THEY WATCHED THElittle fellow smoke. Never before had they seen anyone smoke like that. Not as Earl or Scotty or the chaps in the mess at the base smoked, but slowly, reverently, tasting the cigarette, rolling it round in his mouth with those bony fingers, holding in the smoke, then blowing it out and smelling it at the same time, making the whole procedure last as long as possible. They were fascinated. Dimly they began to realize they were in another world, a world where things were upside down. When Earl carelessly stubbed out his butt, there was a moment’s quick silence in the chatter of the group standing above them round the table. Then three bandits leaned over and reached for the butt simultaneously.

The small black-haired man, who never put down his machine gun, began to talk. He spoke perhaps one word of English to four or five of French, thus making himself almost unintelligible. Roy was unable to understand what he said.

“Wish I’d known! I had a year of French in school and never once cracked a book. Wish I’d known back home there that it might help save my life some day.”

“Same here, Roy. I had two years in high school. I can’t remember a word now. What’s the little geezer saying?”

“Darned if I know.” There they were, the four of them; and all except Jim, who had studied French at college, were unable to understand more than a few words. Dimly Roy began to appreciate something of the meaning of that word he had used so often and heard used so often, usually without ever thinking of its real meaning. Suddenly he realized that the thing called education was not, as he had once imagined, merely a lot of useless exercises to keep youngsters confined in Jefferson High from eight-thirty to three. It meant living things, tools that were to be used later on in life. If you didn’t have them, well, it was too bad for you, that’s all.

Roy recalled how he spent his time in French, which came the hour before school closed for the clay. He could see the sky outside, and the trees, and could remember sitting there looking at the clouds through the open window in spring, wondering whether the rain would hold off long enough so they could play the ballgame that afternoon.

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