The young aviator looked down into the woman’s upward turned eyes, saw her tremble a bit in the winter moonlight despite the fact that she was wearing his heavy motorcycle jacket, thick cowhide over a quilted lining. Too large for her slender frame, but still carrying his own body heat – he’d only just passed it over to her. He would have liked to take her somewhere inside, to see if the trembling went away. Or if it didn’t. But there wasn’t any inside space that they could communally share – it was just the way things were. They remained outside on the quiet street, their breathing sending out little puffs of fog that rose up to join the thin cirrus clouds scudding overhead.
A line of tension ran between them, something with a familiar shape that could not yet be named. They had only just met. She did not know him well. He believed she wanted to.
“What do you want,” she asked him. “Most of all.”
He turned away, looked up into the moon, the light blanching his face as her eyes adjusted to the darkness. His pupils narrowing. A young man still, despite the crow’s feet just beginning to show at the corners of his eyes. Too many hours squinting into the sun or into the gloom, trying to pierce the distance, gain that first tally-ho. To have an advantage at the merge.
He blew out another soft breath, the fog swirling, rising, fading. The moment stretched as he considered her question, and his answer. Most of them women he had met in his life would never have understood his response and the desperate desire behind it, but she too was a fighter pilot. He could tell her what he really wanted, and not what he presumed that she wanted to hear.
He could see it in his mind’s eye, it played out like an old cinema reel he had seen a dozen times: He had just come off target, leading a two ship, the other man one he knew and trusted. Over his headset he would hear the voice of the E-2 mission commander calling a pop-up threat, too close to evade – a short range commit. The order quickly given and immediately obeyed, his formation snapping towards the threat like hounds coursing a hare, fingers racing through practiced maneuvers on the throttle and stick: Air-to-air radar mode selected, short-range radar sets commanded, the glittering sweeps of the electronic eye lancing through the diminishing space. The other strikers coming off target behind him. The voice of the anxious Hawkeye NFO in his headset, a hundred of miles back but in the thick of the fight: “Kill, bandits 340, 12, single group. Heavy.”
With a scattering of targets on his radar display, was it three, four? More? He’d call his wingman to join him in the low search block, “Meld 338, 10, low, sort azimuth.” The passing of an impatient moment. Another.
And then the missiles would fling themselves downrange almost of their own accord, thin wisps of smoke trailing the burning rocket motors, pointing the way to the inescapable fight. The miles clicking down like seconds. A fireball, two. Tally one survivor! Were the others? How many? Where? Eyeballs out, auto-acquisition modes commanded on the radar. Heads darting about wildly, eyes squinting.
Left to left close aboard with the survivor, now up and turning hard to the left, nose high, the sun wheeling through the sky in crazy arcs, the g-forces clawing at his head and arms, the wingman’s call – “Tally two more, right three low – break right!”
And then he was back in the now, aware of her curious gaze, joining it, focusing for a moment on her curiously hazel eyes flecked with moonlight. Her lips had tasted of beer and cigarettes. He looked away self-consciously, the cool air clearing his muddled head.
“More than anything else?” He paused. Continued. “What I want more than anything else is to be in the middle of a desperate fight, with everything on the line, the odds stacked against me and the outcome in doubt. To not know how it will end.”
He looked back into her face searchingly. Saw the wry smile settle there.
“Be careful what you wish for,” she said. “It might come true.”
He nodded his head, remembering the PowerPoint presentation he had seen as a student at the Fighter Weapons School. A series of grainy black and white photographs spread themselves across the viewing screen, a four-ship of F-105 streaking through the skies, carrying heavy ordnance. Another shot of a similar formation in a dive bombing attack. A narrator’s voice ran in the background, monotonously describing a routine strike mission. Then a picture of a wheel of MiGs wearing the NVAF yellow star on a red bar on their tails. They were capping down low, a jungle canopy immediately below them. Frescoes probably. He had never been particularly good at identifying the older fighters.
The narrative changed, suddenly: Radio comm. Fighter comm. The sound of an excited voice. “Yippee, look at all the MiGs!”
The narrator again, explaining how dash-two had left the finger-four formation without permission, breaking fight discipline. Diving down on the MiGs swirling 15,000 feet below his swiftly disengaging wingmen.
Dash two’s voice again, “They’re everywhere boys, come on down!” A moment passed. Another. “Come on down and get some fellahs,” the voice beginning to show signs of strain, “Come on!” more a supplication than an invitation. More moments passing in radio silence. Finally:
“Starting to take some hits here guys. Getting hit pretty hard.”
And then the voice on the radio went silent. The narrator taking up the tale again, weary. Sad. “Thud two was observed impacting a mountain ridge while trying to evade three MiG-17s that had gained a tactical advantage by maneuvering to his six o’clock. There was a large explosion, no ejection was observed.”
A cautionary tale, the young man remembered thinking, asking himself not for the first time whether the Thud pilot had died happy.
Or had he merely died?
He looked back at the young woman by his side, then back up at the moon. “I guess I’d better get back now.”
He turned to walk away, looked back over his shoulder, saw an unreadable expression on her face. Hesitated for a moment before shrugging to himself. “Keep the jacket,” he said.