Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Fly Away Home

by Janis Patterson/Janis Susan May

Last weekend The Husband and I went to a reunion celebration for the Flying Tigers at one of our local air museums. Yes, those brave men who fought as American Volunteer Group with the Chinese against the invading Japanese. Believe it or not, a very few of them are still alive – elderly, walking with help or in wheelchairs, stooped and terrifyingly frail. To see these few age-withered old men it's hard to picture them as young, vibrant daredevils taking on an immense and pitiless Empire, fighting in a pretty much ignored theatre for a country not their own simply because it was the right thing to do.

Most of the celebrants were sons of these young gods, and they themselves were of an age more suited to retirement than war. One of the most fascinating speakers was a Chinese man whose father was a mechanic for the Tigers. He was born during the conflict, and therefore has no personal memory of it, but he was generous enough to share the memories that his father had given him – through an interpreter. He spoke only Chinese. Probably a third of the people there were Chinese, perhaps more properly said of Chinese origin. Some had lived in America for two generations, yet all were very vocal in their thanks of the Tigers' fight to save thousands of Chinese from certain death or slavery.

There were three of the original airplanes there, planes that actually fought the Japanese in the skies over China. Holding one man each, they were painted with fearsome expressions. Don't ask me what kind or model or whatever they were; my mind is not the sort that retains such technical data. I can speak to the gracile beauty of these winged warriors, their sturdy compactness, the aura of power and history that radiated from each.

You've all seen pictures of these planes. They're low-winged taildraggers, with a protuberant nose and, under that, a great air scoop that feeds the engine. Usually the side of these air scoops are painted with a stylized shark's mouth filled with no-nonsense teeth. Sometimes eyes are added above the nose.

Which made it all the more startling that as we arrived there were museum volunteers standing in front of each plane, dumping bags of ice down the air scoop. I thought that either they were making an offering (it was a hot day) to an implacable alien god or that they had found a really neat place to store their beer. The truth was a lot less creative; the planes run hot and especially in a hot Texas day tend to hold their heat. A volunteer explained that they had run the planes that morning and wanted to cool them down before the flight.

Yes, these aged exhibits actually fly. I saw them. Before the luncheon there was a fly-over, where all three planes flew in a precise triangular formation over the field. It was Texas, it was sunny – meaning it was hot! - and yet as they roared overhead I felt goosebumps. Yes, this was just a showcase, a tribute, a tip of the hat to things gone by, but my romantic mind went on to what it must have been like in those same planes back when they were flying off to fight merciless men without any guarantee that they would ever return. The thought of such valor and courage made me weep.

That is not the most poignant memory of that afternoon, though. I was sitting in the shade (a prized commodity at the airfield) sipping the last of my luncheon iced tea and waiting for The Husband to return from his photo expedition. Across from me on the tarmac were the planes, sitting and waiting as they have sat and waited for almost seventy years. One of the frail old men hobbled to the closest plane, accompanied by the man who had flown it in the flyover and a couple of the air museum volunteers. A rolling ladder was produced and, braced and lifted by many hands, the elderly man shakily climbed into the pilot's seat. He sat there for a few minutes and the volunteers waited patiently, letting him enjoy a moment of the past. You see, this frail old man had been one of the Flying Tigers pilots. He had ridden a plane like that one out to fight and perhaps be killed or worse. Now, like the two old veterans they were, as an old man he and the plane were rejoined.

At last he signaled his readiness to get out and the process was reversed, helping him from the plane (no simple operation) and steadying him until he was once again firm on the ground. Leaning firmly on someone's arm he walked away from the plane, pausing just at the edge of the tail to reach and give it a valedictory pat. I couldn't see for sure, but it seemed that as he walked away there was the glint of a tear in his eye. I know there was in mine.


Believe it or not, my publishing blitz is still right on schedule. And that schedule is getting shorter – after this book there are only two more in this particular round. The Husband is insistent that once this is done I am to take some time away from the computer and – according to him – reacquaint myself with the kitchen. He does like frozen pizza and takeaway, but even the mildest mannered man has his limits!

This fortnight's offering is THE OTHER HALF OF YOUR HEART, a romantic adventure set in the jungles of Mexico – not far from Puerto Vallarta, where I lived for a while. None of the wild escapades that befall the heroine ever happened to me (drat!) but writing about a country I love was great fun.

A weekend in a Mexican resort with the man she loves quickly becomes a nightmare of fear and danger for Cara Walters. If she can just survive being lost in the jungle, captured by the army, hunted by drug lords and a man who wants to kill her, all the while being held prisoner by the man who has stalked her, she just might find out who is the other half of her heart.

And – for all you calorie lovers – my super-special dessert recipe called Chocolate Sin (try it and you'll know why it's named that!) was chosen for inclusion in the new book of desserts called BAKE LOVE WRITE, a wonderful compendium of calories and advice.  


Jacqueline Seewald said...

I love this story, Janis! It's touching. I think everyone should write an autobiography. It doesn't have to be a book, just an article or an oral history, so others can remember them.

Bart said...

The planes are Curtis P-40s and the paint scheme (called nose art) is of a shark. Supposedly to strike fear into the enemy. Not sure how well that worked, but it sure looks great. Good article on wikipedia.