Wednesday, 29 June 2011

The Cold Weather Guys - a short story

James Martin lay in his bunk, flicking through the pages of Esquire and taking an easy drag on a Lucky Strike. It was two in the morning and getting light outside. Outside he could hear the distant drone of aero engines warming up across the base. It would soon be time for his first operational mission of the Cold War - flying across the Arctic to Russia, into Soviet airspace, to photograph airbases from which the Red Air Force could launch attacks against the USA. He scratched his chest and made his way to the shower room for a wash. A mission that officially was not taking place. He felt apprehensive yet marvellously excited.

It was the summer of 1951. The Korean War was not going well, the Soviet Union had long since ceased to be America's ally. The previous fall, James had heard some general on the radio talking about the danger that the free world was in, what with Communist Chinese troops pushing the United Nations forces down the Korean peninsula. He knew what he had to do - rush down to the recruitment office and sign on again, nearly six years after being demobilised at the end of WWII.

But then, saving the free world was only part of it. Hell, it was a tiny part of it. James had failed to find himself after the Pacific war. God knows he'd tried to keep himself out of it long enough - a farm deferment on account of his dad dying and him having to keep the family farm going, he was a damned good mechanic and could keep all that machinery going - but they got him in the end. He got his call-up papers in May '44, bid farewell to his mother and girlfriend and - on the day after D-Day, had his hair cut and became a Marine.

Throughout basic training he'd always be making one thing clear about himself - James Martin was more valuable to the USA as a mechanic than as a warrior. After he made some miraculous repairs to his unit's trucks and and the base commander's motorbike, he found himself transferred to the Marine Air Wing. He spent the rest of the war fixing broken piston engines on fighter planes based on Tarawa and other Pacific island bases. Although he was not one to get into harm's way unnecessarily, James had always fancied flying - something that had bugged him since childhood living close to Plane-O-Field, near Bowling Green, Kentucky. His mechanical skills and aptitude to learn technical stuff quick got him promoted as a flight mechanic, getting him airborne on long-range patrol and reconnaissance types just before the war ended.

He got home in the fall of 1945 to find his mother had just died, the family farm sold to pay off debts. Just a little money was left for him, his parents' only child. So he spent it on a big motorcycle and joined a biker gang, terrorizing respectable citizens from the Midwest up to Pacific and across to the East Coast. His attempts at settling down never amounted to much. He'd got a routine job in New York City just before Christmas 1946, mechanic for a delivery van company. Had a steady girl - Evelyn - but hell, she kept wanting from him, always wanting; he didn't feel right settling; so in the summer of 1948 he roared off into the night and rode all the way to Duluth, Minnesota, to try something new - new city, new job, new girl - but it still didn't feel right for him.

So he tried to pin down why he was dissatisfied; he craved freedom, excitement - action - the War had given him just a touch of this but without any heroism he could brag about. He'd loved flying, even as a flight mechanic, it felt good to be up there above the clouds. He signing up with the Minnesota Air National Guard as a 'weekend warrior'; a chance to learn to be a pilot - but they wouldn't let him, just fix engines. Then the Korean War kicked off. He rushed to the recruitment station and signed up. USAF this time. But not Korea though. To the far north he was assigned. After training, he ended up in a strategic reconnaissance squadron. And now he was going to fly over the North Pole to spy on the Reds.

Kitted up, Corporal James Martin crossed the tarmac to the waiting aircraft, a huge ten-engined RB-36D Peacemaker. The plane was capable of staying aloft for two whole days; its cameras could photograph a golf ball from 40,000 ft. James's job was to ensure it stayed airborne for the duration of the covert mission. He boarded the giant craft, proud to be serving his country again.

[Stay tuned for Part II - click here!]

This time last year:
Bike ride along the banks of the Vistula

This time two years ago:
Three hill walks around Dobra

This time three years ago:
90th Anniversary of the Polish Navy

This time four years ago:
Memory and comfort

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