The Further Adventures of Janice and Mel
THE XENA KORE
by Judy (Wishes)
The characters of Janice Covington and Melinda
Pappas are the property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures and were
introduced in the XENA, WARRIOR PRINCESS episode "The Xena Scrolls." This
story is fan fiction, and no attempt is being made to profit from the use
of these characters. There is nothing to warn you about. There's a little
violence, I guess, but only fictional characters were harmed in the writing
of this story.
This is a sequel to an earlier fan fiction story entitled "The Gabrielle Stele."
I feel badly about deceiving Janice in this way, telling her I was going shopping,
even inviting her to go along, while know she would refuse. Now I lie on my
stomach on a crisp white sheet and try to relax as a man's large, warm hands
move across my cool skin. I know that I'm blushing and
not only on my face.
"Please dress now." The tone is brisk, but not unkind.
I dress quickly and glance into a wall mirror. What I see is a youngish woman
with prominent cheekbones, long dark hair pulled back and pinned up under a
small blue hat. The blue of the hat matches the eyes behind narrow glasses.
Altogether, I think, an ordinary face, but are the eyes a little
A few minutes later, I face the man who has been probing my back and side.
He sits behind a polished desk in a well-appointed office. His hair is gray;
too old for the military, I speculate, so he's been able to continue this Park
Avenue practice. He has traded his white coat for a suit jacket,
dark blue, tailored with the wide lapels now so popular. My training has been to notice and value such style.
"Miss Pappas," he begins, "I understand that you were injured while in North Africa."
I feel obliged to explain. "Yes, I was working as an assistant curator at the British-Egyptian Museum in Cairo when the. . . .unpleasantness occurred."
He nods, apparently satisfied with my vague explanation. "So your initial treatment was in Cairo?"
"A village called Bani Suwayt actually. Then Cairo."
"The care you received seems to have been appropriate," he assures me. The injury was only a month ago?"
"You are an extraordinarily good healer."
I smile and say, "I'm told it runs in my family."
He looks doubtful and comments, "Youth and excellent health help. You were told, I assume, that the bullet that pierced your side was not removed?" He studies my face for a reaction.
"I was told more damage would be caused by removing it than by leaving it in." I feel a slight alarm. "Was that wrong?"
"No. That advice was probably correct at the time."
"At the time?" I repeat.
His tone and expression are serious, and I regret coming alone. I'm surprised that Dr. Janice Covington is the person I wish were sitting beside me.
"Miss Pappas, my examination confirmed what I suspected from the symptoms you described, the pain in your side and lower back, the occasional numbness in your right leg."
He pauses, and I ask, "And that is?"
Instead of answering my question, he asks one of his own. "Travel hasn't been easy since we got into the war. How did you get back to the United States?"
"A friend and I started out by air but crossed the Atlantic on a Merchant Marine vessel. My friend pulled strings to get us on board for the ship's trip to New York." I smile as I remember the circumstances and the "strings."
"That must have required a friend high up in the Admiralty," he comments. I smile and think, yes, it took an admiral's secretary, a pretty blonde girl who reminded me of Janice's friend Tereise.
"Was the crossing difficult?" the doctor asks.
I stop smiling. "Yes, the seas were rough, and there was a lot of maneuvering
to avoid U-boat attack. You wouldn't believe how brave the men were." Remembering
guiltily that loose lips sink ships, I add, "I can't say anything else."
Janice was sick throughout the crossing, lying in our
small space and moaning about death, but I don't talk about that either.
"So you were buffeted around, perhaps even fell?"
"I suppose," I answer. "No more than anyone else. Why?"
He leans forward. "Miss Pappas, the bullet has shifted. It's now resting against a bundle of nerves that controls feeling and movement in your right leg."
"In my opinion, the bullet needs to be removed before the damage becomes permanent." He pauses and waits for me to react.
"I'm returning home within a few days. Can it wait until then?" I ask.
He sighs. "Your charming accent tells me home is in the South. Georgia?"
"No," I correct, "South Carolina. Columbia."
"How will you travel?"
"By train, as soon as we can. With all the soldiers, it's hard for civilians to travel." I suddenly want to be home and among family more than I could have imagined. I ask again, "Can't this surgery wait for a few days?"
"I would rather to do the surgery myself and the sooner the better," he says. "However, if you're careful, there should be no problem until your return to South Carolina. You have a physician there?"
"Yes. Dr. Herbert Colvin. He's taken care of me my whole life." I
think about the shabby, friendly office in what should be the front parlor of
the large house on Genet Street. "He's not a surgeon, but he'll recommend
someone good." And be with me every minute during the surgery, just as
was when I had my tonsils out. I remember that my daddy was there, too, but he won't be this time.
"I said that I'll send my findings to your personal physician. Just leave his name and address with my nurse." He looks at his watch, and it's obvious that I've overstayed my time. He rises, and I do, too.
Coming around the desk, he puts a hand on my elbow to escort me to the door.
He's not a tall man, and the top of his head comes to my shoulder. "Be
careful that you avoid too much activity and anything that might jar that bullet
into moving. Good day, Miss Pappas." Then I'm in the outer
office, and he's closed the door.
I quietly enter our suite at the Plaza to see Janice sprawled on her back on a Regency love seat. Her booted feet hang over an armrest. She's wearing the khaki pants she favors, but her blouse is the crisp white cotton oxford I bought her. I've talked her out of her broad-brimmed hat during our New York visit, and her red-gold hair lies loose and shining against the light brocade of the love seat. Relaxed, off-guard, the formidable Dr. Covington looks about eighteen years old.
"How was the shopping? Didn't you buy anything?" she asks. I look into alert green eyes that have noticed my lack of packages.
To give myself time to think, I remove my hat and place it on a small end table. I'll tell her where I really was, but later. "There wasn't anything I needed."
Janice snorts and sits up, the thump of her boots muffled by the thick carpet. "Since when has that stopped you?" But she drops the subject of my buying habits and motions for me to sit beside her. Placing my hat on a small end table, I comply.
"I've been having my mail forwarded to a friend at the Museum of Natural
History," Janice explains. "While you were shopping, I picked it up,
including a couple of years' worth of National Geographics." She holds
out the magazine she's been reading, and I take it. It's open, and the facing
pages show several color photographs. They're of artifacts from the Roman ruins at Karanis, Egypt. I read a couple of paragraphs, then look questioningly at Janice.
She points at the byline, Henry James Raimi, Ph.D., Kelsey Museum of Archaeology. "Henry and I were at the University of Colorado together. Maybe I can hit him up for a job."
"You want to live in Michigan?" I ask.
"I need a job," she states flatly. "In case you haven't noticed, I'm broke. I need money to live on and a way to get backing for my next dig."
"But I thought you would come to Columbia with me. I have a house there, and the Pappas name still means something at the university." I hear a whining tone enter my voice, and I stop.
"Then use your influence to get yourself a job or, better yet, finish your doctorate," Janice advises.
"Aren't we going to write an article about Cashi Zun and the Gabrielle Stele?" I counter.
"Based on what? An empty, blasted up tomb? And a translation of a stone tablet the Egyptian authorities have locked away somewhere?" She shakes her head ruefully. "We don't even have photographs--of the tomb or of the hieroglyphics. That's as much of a dead-end as the Xena Scrolls, which we also don't have."
I sigh, knowing that argument is futile if Janice has made up her mind. Returning
the magazine, I retrieve my hat and notice a long white envelope lying near
it. I pick up the envelope and see that it is addressed to Dr. Janice Covington,
c/o D. McCormack, Museum of Natural History. The return
address is smeared, but the stamp bears the likeness of King George VI.
"Aren't you going to open your letter?" I ask, holding it out to Janice. "Maybe it's a job offer from the British Museum."
"More likely the Tower of London," she mumbles and doesn't take the letter.
"It might be from Tereise," I suggest. "Maybe she didn't stay in Palestine."
"It isn't from Tereise," Janice says.
I start to place the letter back on the table.
"It's from my mother."
"Who?" I look from Janice to the letter and back.
"The letter is from my mother. I recognize the handwriting on the envelope." She isn't looking at me, and I can't read her tone.
"I thought your mother was, I mean, you said in Cairo that you had no family, so I just assumed. . . ."
"Well, that your mother, like mine, had passed away when you were a child."
"Melinda," she says, patience and exasperation at war in her voice. "When we were in Macedonia, I told you that my mother had run out on my father and me."
I'm mystified. "When was this?"
"When we were in the passage outside the sarcophagus chamber," she
says positively. "I told you that my father was a thief, my mother left
me, and so it only figured that I was the descendent of the useless tagalong
Gabrielle. That was when you told me that Gabrielle wasn't useless, that
she. . . ." Janice's voice trails off, and suddenly I know what she's talking about.
"You told HER, not me, " I say. "Me you told only that you have no family."
I still hold the letter, not sure what to do. Finally, I set it down carefully, pick up my hat, and walk into my bedroom. Just as carefully, I close the door.
I fall asleep lying across my bed listening to Glenn Miller's "Little Brown Jug" on the radio. They say he hated that song but arranged and recorded it for his wife. He's in uniform now. . . .
It's dark when a knock on the door of my bedroom wakes me. There's another knock, louder, and then a voice. "Mel, come down with me for a drink in the Oak Room. Mel?"
I open the door to find Janice ready to knock again. She's wearing a dress. A dress? Where did Janice get a dress? And shoes, not high laced boots, but shoes. With two thin straps.
My surprise must be evident because she chuckles and then explains. "My friend at the Museum was storing a box of clothes for me, too. One of the hotel maids got it ironed for me this afternoon." She smooths the light green fabric. "Feels strange. Like I'm half-dressed."
I smile. "Well, you look great." I smooth my own wrinkled dress, the same one I've worn all day. "I should change."
"We're only going downstairs," Janice says.
"But the Oak Room? I'm not sure. Two women alone?"
"Times have changed," Janice reminds me. "And if they haven't changed at the Plaza, we'll change them. Just one thing. . . ."
"Don't flirt with any officers at the bar."
"Enlisted men are okay?"
"What? Was that a joke? Usually you just claim you don't flirt."
I get my purse from my room, and we walk toward the door. "I don't flirt."
"You do," she corrects, "but don't worry, I'll protect your virtue."
As we enter the hall, I'm saying, "It's not my virtue I'm worried about. It's my reputation."
"We're in New York City, not some hick Southern town. People here don't HAVE reputations." We find the stairs and head down.
The Oak Room is not crowded, and, as Janice predicted, there's no objection to two women alone. We're seated at a small table distant from the famous long oaken bar. A couple of Army Air Corp officers glance our way, but I avoid meeting their gaze.
Janice orders a Manhattan from the waiter and remarks, "It seems appropriate." I request iced tea, and she rolls her eyes but makes no comment. If I ordered liquor, we both know who would drink it.
There's silence until after the drinks arrive. Then, after a gesture telling the waiter not to hover, Janice takes an envelope from the slash pocket concealed in her full skirt. Trust Janice to have pockets. She hands the envelope to me, and I see that it's the one that was on the end table, the one Janice identified as being from her mother. It's unopened.
"You still haven't read it?" I ask.
Without answering, she takes two big gulps from her glass and signals for the waiter. "I think that stuff is rationed," I comment. She grimaces but waves the waiter away.
She takes another drink, sipping this time. Coming to a decision, she begins,
"My mother left my father and me when I was eleven. We were living in Turkey,
and they'd been arguing the whole time we were there. My mother wanted my father
to take a teaching job in the States. She was tired of
the rough way we lived, called it uncivilized. My father thought he was on to something, that the dig held clues to the Xena scrolls. He just needed more time and more help. And money. He always needed more money."
"You understood all this at eleven?" At eleven, I was learning that the forks go on the left.
"Most of it I understood; some I figured out later. One morning a long
black car drove into our camp. I was playing around outside our tent, sieving
some sand, looking for small objects. I started to walk over to see who was
in the fancy car, but my mother hurried out of our tent and
grabbed my arm. She was dressed for traveling and was carrying a suitcase. She told me she was going on a trip. She told me to be good, and she would see me soon. I asked her who was in the car, and she said a friend."
"Is that the last time you saw her?" My heart goes out to that little girl.
"Yeah. I guess she lied about the see you soon part, huh? I guess that's
fair, since I haven't been all that good." Her laugh isn't very convincing.
"A few months later, she started sending me letters. At
first, I read them. She always said how much she missed me and that soon she would come to visit or send for me. But she never gave me an address where I could write back." Janice finishes her drink, and this time I don't comment when she calls the waiter over.
With a fresh drink in front of her, Janice continues, "The letters came less and less often, and, when I was fifteen, I stopped believing anything in them. I never read another one. Finally, they stopped coming." She flicks a glance at the letter in my hand. "That's the first one in over ten years."
I study the address. "How did she know where to send this? Even to the name of your friend?"
Janice shrugs. "Maybe she knows important people, people willing and able to find out whatever she wants to know."
"I don't understand."
"My mother is a lady," Janice says.
I nod; my mother was a lady, too, I'm told.
My friend looks me in the eye and says, "I want you to read the letter."
At my suggestion, we have returned to our suite. I sit on the love seat, anticipating that Janice will join me there. Instead, she seats herself on one of the graceful chairs. She sits upright, looking down at hands folded in her lap.
I slip my thumb under the flap of the envelope and break the seal. Inside is one sheet of creamy vellum paper. The letter is handwritten in bold, flourishing strokes. I look at Janice. "Are you sure?" Still studying her hands, she nods.
My darling daughter,
Fearing that your feelings toward me are bitter, I hesitate to write you
after all these years of silence. However, my greater fear is that the
time to remedy our estrangement grows short.
My quarrels, such as they were, were with your late father, and not with
you. If I could have taken you with me on that long ago day in the desert,
I would have done so. My own future seemed too insecure to trust with the
fate of my little girl. Even if I had taken that chance on your behalf, I
knew that, while your father might welcome my departure, he never would
have surrendered you.
If you get this letter in time and are willing to come to me in London, I
will welcome you with open arms. However, even if we never again meet in
this life, I remain forever
Your loving mother,
I remove my glasses and, finding my lace-trimmed hankie, wipe my eyes. When I risk a glance at Janice, she sits motionless and stoney-faced.
"Janice?" I prompt.
I look into green eyes whose brightness has nothing to do with tears. "Lies," she says fiercely, "all lies."
I extend my hand, offering her the letter, thinking if she can only see her mother's handwriting, herself read the words. . . . but she shakes her head, unwilling to touch the paper.
Silently, I reread the letter. Then I ask, "What do you suppose she means by 'the time to remedy our estrangement grows short?' " I skim to the end of the letter. "And this part where she says, 'even if we never meet again in this life?' Janice?"
"I don't know. Moreover, I don't care." There's no anger behind the words now, just a flat emptiness.
"Mel, try to understand," Janice says. "That woman is nothing to me. She was my mother for eleven years, then she just. . . . quit."
"Maybe she had her reasons. You said it was a rough way of life."
"I said she called it a rough way to live. My father and I liked it fine," Janice corrects.
"What if she's ill?" I persist. "You say now you don't care, but will you always feel that way? Janice, my mother passed away when I was four years old. I say I remember her, but the truth is I don't remember my mother at all."
"I should be so lucky!" Janice exclaims.
"No, you shouldn't. I 'remember' my mother's face only from photographs. My 'memories' of what she was like and how she was with me are based on stories told by Daddy and Aunt Helen. Janice, you have a chance to get to know your mother, a chance to ask her questions you've wanted to."
"Ask her questions?" Janice echoes, as if this thought had not occurred to her.
"Yes," I say. "I would give anything for this chance you have. To meet my mother, to talk with her as one grown woman to another."
Janice is silent for a few minutes, but I can tell she's thinking. Finally, she meets and hold my gaze. "Would you go?" she asks.
"To meet my mother? Of course, if I had that chance. . . ."
"No," Janice interrupts. "I meant, will you go with me if I decide to go to London to see my mother?"
"I. . . . I can't," I start, and Janice is already shaking her head.
"Right," she says. "You tell me to go back across an ocean, into a war zone, say it's important to see this woman, but you? You're going safely home to South Carolina, to Aunt Helen, to a family that's always been there for you."
"Janice, listen, there's a reason, something I have to do." She rises, and I reach out a hand, trying to touch her.
"Maybe when you asked for my help, asked me to get you out of a certain
scrape in Egypt, I had a couple of things to do instead. Maybe if I had done
them, you would be wearing a veil and still living in a Bedouin tent!"
Janice brushes my hand aside. Before she turns to leave the room, I think
I see hurt beneath her anger.
I say quietly, "I'll go."
Janice faces me, hands on hips, jaw jutting forward. "Don't do my any favors. You have things to do."
"Nothing that can't wait," I answer. "And if it's a favor, that's something friends do."
We enter the huge aerodrome near Newark, New Jersey. Janice, back in khakis, boots, and leather jacket, precious broad-brimmed hat on her head, has her old knapsack slung over her left shoulder. I carry one suitcase, all Janice would allow me to bring, and a brand-new camera.
I am wondering when I became actively crazy. Was it the day at the Plaza when
I agreed to accompany Janice on this trip to England to reconcile with her mother?
Or was it several months ago when I translated the instructions for entering
a certain tomb in Macedonia? Maybe to find the
actual date you would have to go clear ack to when I first decided to leave my safe, comfortable life in Columbia to embark on an adventure.
"Can I help you ladies?" The voice is young and male and belongs to a soldier in grease-stained fatigues.
He flashes a smile, and Janice says, "We're looking for Captain Solari."
"Over there." He indicates the general direction of a huge airplane that towers over the other craft outside the hanger.
We approach the plane and see three women in coveralls. They're standing in
the shadow of an enormous wing. The tallest, a dark-haired woman with beautiful
olive skin, points at a section of the wing and back at a clipboard she holds.
The other two nod; there's a discussion I can't make
out; then the two smaller women hurry away.
Janice calls out, "Captain Solari?" and the remaining woman breaks off studying the papers on her clipboard and steps forward to shake Janice's hand.
"Miss Covington?" she asks.
"Laura. And this is?"
"My photographer, Mel Pappas." I hold up the complicated camera I bought yesterday and don't yet know how to use.
Laura Solari shakes my hand, too. "Mel. No photographs of the aerodrome or aircraft, okay?"
She turns back to Janice. "Major Tobias gave me your orders and authorizations." She flips through the papers on her clipboard, locates two she is looking for and hands one to Janice and the other to me. "My crew is excited about having a woman war correspondent come along. They think maybe you'll write about something other than how we fly the great big airplane by our pretty little selves."
Janice chuckles and explains, "Basically, we're just catching a ride to England."
Laura says, "Well, maybe you'll decide to write about what we're doing.
There's a flight crew room just inside the aerodrome. You and Mel can wait there.
I just asked for an adjustment to the hydraulics on that flap." She points
high above our heads. "There are several miles of cables in
this craft, so the changes may take a few minutes. Help yourself to coffee. It's hot, and it's strong. I'll let you know when we're ready to go."
Janice and I re-enter the hanger. I gaze up wonderingly at the expanse enclosed by the curving struts and sheets of metal a hundred or so feet above our heads. There's a controlled commotion as men and women move among the sleeping giants, climbing in and over them like Lilliputians seeing to their comfort. It's hard to imagine these weighty steel behemoths climbing into the sky.
We find a frosted glass door marked "crew" and enter. Inside are
a long metal table and a hodge-podge of battered chairs. On an old filing cabinet
there's a hot plate upon which rests a large coffee pot. The coffee smells like
strong brew, not the half-coffee, half-postum mixtures civilians
drink. Janice grabs a mug from several on the cabinet and looks at me. I shake my head, and she pours herself a cup before we sit at the table. She takes a deep breath, drinking in the aroma before taking a gulp. "Ah," she says, "it would float a dime." Contentedly, she leans back and props
her feet on my suitcase, which I've placed under the table with her knapsack.
I'm fiddling with the camera, trying to focus it and to figure out how to put a bulb in the flash attachment. "Laura said no photographs in the aerodrome," Janice reminds me.
"And I said no problem, since I haven't figured out how to load the film.
Why do I have to be the photographer? All we had at home was one of those little
Brownies. You held it at your waist, looked down at a little image, and pressed
a button. Not like this thing." I don't add that I never even
used that simple camera. I was always the one Daddy was photographing.
"You have to be the photographer because I'm obviously the world-famous war correspondent." Janice's smile is smug as she blows on the coffee.
"I'm not happy about entering a foreign country with fake press credentials," I complain.
"Our credentials are genuine," Janice assures me. "My friend Del owns and publishes the Rocky Mountain Gazette. Circulation about 400. I've been her foreign stringer for years. She wired those updated press credentials for me and new ones for you. Your ARE a war photographer, Miss Pappas."
"Don't I get to be world-famous like you?" I ask.
"After you learn to put film in your camera."
The door opens and Captain Solari, Laura, steps through. With her are two younger women, looking as fit as she in light brown flight uniforms. They join us at the table after each has gotten a mug of coffee.
"Ugh, awful!" Laura says, making a face. "Why I drink this stuff
I'll never know!" Turning to us, she says, "Ladies, I want you to
meet my crew. This is Lieutenant Jana Elkton, my copilot, LT, for short. And
this is Sergeant Stephiny Koulos, Sarge, our navigator and radio operator."
The women nod to us, and Sgt. Koulos, a cute redhead, smiles. Lt. Elkton, a
compact woman with close-cropped brown hair, seems quiet and more serious. Laura
finishes the introductions, saying, "The one with the hat is Janice Covington,
the war correspondent. As you probably guess, the one disassembling the camera
is Mel, her photographer." I look at the knob that has come off in my hand,
then hastily stick it into my pocket. I'm wearing a blue long-sleaved blouse
and dark gray pleated slacks, the kind
I've come to love. I now have pockets like my good friend Janice.
Laura pages through the forms on her clipboard before addressing all of us.
"I figured I might as well brief everyone at once. We'll be flying that
B-17 Fortress to Bassingbourn, England." She sends a significant look in
Janice's direction. "You understand that all place names are top secret."
At Janice's vigorous nod, she continues, "We'll leave at eleven hundred
hours as part of a 6-plane formation, all new bombers being ferried to their
place of service. We'll be flying at 400 kilometers per hour at an
altitude of between 5000 and 6000 meters. Sarge, we've already gone over the navigation maps. Are you clear as to our route?"
The pretty redhead smiles and says, "Maybe you could just point."
Laura looks around and then points in the general direction of the Atlantic
Ocean. "Got it,"
"Did you get that hydraulics problem worked out, LT?" Laura asks.
"Yes. The hydraulics are still stiff, but that's not unusual on a shakedown flight."
Laura agrees, "We'll give them as much of a workout as we can so the boys don't have to do it during a bombing run. Any questions?" She glances at her crew and, when they have none, shifts her gaze at us.
"I have one," I say. "I didn't have any idea the military had women flight crews. How did that get started?"
Laura and Sarge laugh, and Laura answers, "Well, the idea is fairly new. Officially, we're known as WAFS for Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron, and we're the brainchild of Nancy Love. Commander Love had the idea that women could perform stateside flying jobs, such as delivering new aircraft, to free men to serve overseas."
"But you're heading overseas right now," I say. "Is that unusual?"
Laura flicks an amused look at Janice. "I thought YOU were the reporter." Janice shrugs.
Lt. Elkton interjects, "Yes, it is unusual. Mostly we fly point-to-point in the States." She doesn't sound too happy about this.
Laura adds, "That's one reason we're excited about this mission. It's a chance to show what we can do over long distances and over an ocean. In the future, I think, WAFS will routinely fly planes to England."
"Unless we're absorbed," the lieutenant says.
"Absorbed?" Janice asks. "By whom?"
"There's another group of women pilots," Laura explains. "They're called the Women Airforce Service Pilots."
"WASPS," I say, catching on to how the military names units.
"Right," Laura confirms. "Jacqueline Cochran commands the WASPS.
Have you heard of her?" Both Janice and I shake our heads. "Well,
when we cross the Atlantic, we'll be following the trail she blazed. She was
the first woman to fly a bomber across the Atlantic. The rumors are that our
battalion is going to merge with Cochran's WASPS and that our role is going to expand. Any more questions?" She looks at me.
"Does it really take only the three of you to fly that great big plane?" Janice kicks my shin. "Ow!"
Sarge laughs, whether at my question or Janice's reaction, I don't know. "It takes 3 women to fly a B-17. . . . or 10 men."
"I had better qualify that before we see it in print," Laura amends. "Actually, it takes only 3 women OR men to fly her, but 7 to operate the 5 machine guns and to sight and deliver the bombs. Since we're not going into combat, the 3 of us will be plenty."
"It's ten hundred hours," Lt. Elkton says.
Laura stands. "Okay, ladies," she says, "let's saddle up."
As we file from the room, the sergeant whispers to Janice, "That saddle up thing? The Cap is from Montana. She doesn't really think she's John Wayne. Much."
Having flown around much of Africa on military transports, when Janice and I were trying to get home from Egypt, I'm not surprised by the Spartan arrangements after we've climbed the long ladder into the belly of the Flying Fortress. We sit on a side-facing metal bench bolted to the wall just behind the cockpit. Sarge shows us how to buckle in and hands each of us a large piece of cotton. She smiles and says, "Put this in your ears" before following the pilot and copilot into the cockpit.
As each of the four engines is powered up, the noise is nearly deafening, even
with the cotton blocking some of it. The force of the engines pounds throughout
my body, making my heart beat faster and making it difficult to breathe, except
with the airplane's own rhythm. I glance at Janice, and
her face is calm, only her grip on the front of the bench seat showing that she, too, feels the engines' power.
The craft starts to move, slowly at first, but then there are two sharp left
turns and, unbelievably, the engines become even louder, and their energy strains
to be unleashed. We roll forward at ever increasing speed. I think we have to
have used up the entire runway and there is no way this
ungainly machine will ever leave the ground. Then suddenly we are airborne. The engines are still loud, but, away from the ground, the noise seems less overwhelming, and the throbbing vibration more bearable. I look at my companion again, and her green eyes are unnaturally wide. She
releases her breath and her death grip on the seat.
It is too noisy for conversation, so Janice and I relax--or not--with our thoughts. Some time later, LT comes back and, through shouting and hand gestures, asks if either of us wants to go into the cockpit. Once she understands, Janice grins and, unfastening her seat belt, jumps up. The copilot takes the seat my friend has vacated. Leaning close to my right ear, she shouts, "What part of the South are you from?"
"South Carolina," I yell back. "You?"
"Mississippi." She smiles, and that's the end of the conversation.
When Janice returns, she is grinning from ear to ear. She gestures toward the cockpit, but I shake my head. LT returns to her post, and Janice takes her place beside me. She, too, shouts in my ear. "I flew the plane!"
I stare at her.
She bobs her head up and down. "Really! I put on ear phones, and Laura let me take the controls."
I'm still staring, and, although I can't hear her, I know that Janice is laughing out loud.
What seems like hours later, Sarge comes back to sit beside me. She hands Janice
and me each a wrapped sandwich. She holds a huge silver thermos, and she fills
the cuplike top with steaming coffee. Janice takes it, drinks blissfully, and
hands it to me. I take a sip. Strong. I offer it to Sarge, and she indicates
that I should give it to Janice. The pretty redheaded navigator smiles and places
the stoppered bottle between Janice and me. She points to the large dial of
her watch and holds up 4 fingers. Four more hours. I nod. She seems to hesitate,
then pulls from under the bench a gray metal bucket with a lid. She looks at
me, and I shrug. She lifts the lid, and suddenly I understand. I blush, and
her smile registers both my comprehension and my embarrassment. I don't look
at Janice, sure
she's enjoying my discomfiture. Sarge pushes the bucket back under the bench and, after giving my hand a friendly pat, returns to the cockpit. Janice and I enjoy our sandwiches, tuna fish on rye, and share the coffee.
The first time the huge craft bucks, I think we must be in a storm. When we
left New Jersey some nine hours before, it was late morning, and the sun was
shining brightly. However, from what Sarge told us earlier, we must have flown
over 3000 miles and into the night since then. Lit by a couple
of yellowish bulbs set into the walls, our section is in perpetual twilight. Perhaps we are flying into a thunderstorm, and even this gigantic machine is subject to nature's whims.
A more violent drop leaves my stomach a few hundred feet above us. I seek Janice's eyes. She smiles; nothing to worry about. But her skin is taking on the sickly green tint it had throughout our ocean voyage.
Sarge enters our section from the cockpit, and she is not smiling. She passes
through and into a passage so low even this small woman ducks. When she returns,
she holds several khaki-colored packs. All business now, she motions for Janice
to stand and turn around. Expertly, she places and
adjusts straps. Janice is trying to ask questions, but Sarge finishes with her and firmly pushes her back on the bench. The plane lurches violently, and, since I'm still belted in, I grab the standing Sarge, holding her until the violence subsides. Janice smacks into the divider between us and
the cockpit and lands on the floor. She smiles to show she's all right but apparently decides to stay where she is.
Sarge stands and motions for me to stand also and turn around. I bend down
so she can place the packs on my back and set the straps. As the plane drops
and rises again, we join Janice on the floor. Sarge shouts information and instructions
in our ears. "We're having a problem with the hydraulics that will make
it difficult to land. This is the ripcord to your parachute. If you have to
jump, you'll count to ten, then pull it. Make sure you are away from the plane.
As soon as you hit the water, jerk
hard on this other string. It will inflate your Mae West."
"Mae West?" I ask.
"Life jacket," she explains. She looks at Janice's face and then at me. "Is she going to be sick?"
Sarge reaches under the bench and pulls out a small bucket, also with a lid. She hands it to Janice. "One of us will be back to help you," she yells before half-crawling, half-lurching into the cockpit.
Janice and I huddle together in the corner between the bench and the partition. The bucking has grown worse, and twice Janice is ill. After two particularly abrupt drops, the violence subsides. I replace the lid on the bucket and slide it under the bench.
Laura steps into our section and, seeing us on the floor, gives each of us a hand up. Janice and I sit together on the bench, Laura kneeling in front of us. I am so relieved the crisis is past, I feel tears stinging my eyes.
Laura shouts an apology and an explanation. "I'm sorry it's been so rough. The flaps are stuck, and we just can't work them loose. But I will NOT ditch this plane. I'm determined to deliver it in one piece.
"Can you do that?" Janice yells.
"I think so. The crew is staying on board. But you two are civilians, and I'm going to let you make the choice. You can parachute with an inflatable raft. I'll radio your position and, this close to England, your chances of somebody picking you up are pretty good."
"Somebody?" Janice repeats.
"Hopefully, an Allied ship."
"What's the other choice?" I ask, hoping it doesn't involve falling several thousand feet.
"You can stay on board and take your chances with us and this ship."
Janice turns to me. "Stay?"
I nod, unable to speak.
Laura says, "Good. Leave the 'chutes and Mae Wests on, and buckle your seat belts. The landing won't be perfect. I'm going to use every trick I know to cut our air speed without going into a stall. See you ladies on the ground."
A short time later, we feel the airplane begin to bank into a series of turns. The engine noise suddenly seems less, and there's a new timbre to its pulse.
"She's feathering the engines," Janice shouts, "one. . . . two of them. And she's throttling back the other two." I'm surprised by Janice's knowledge of airplanes.
I feel a change in the attitude of the plane. "It feels like we're climbing," I say. "Can that be right?"
"Yeah. She's raising the nose. That will slow us down, but. . . ." She stops.
She goes on reluctantly. "But with less power, the plane could stall."
"You don't want to know."
After an eternity, there's another subtle shift, and I can tell we're level and maybe even starting to descend. Then there's no doubt; we're moving toward the earth.
Janice reaches over and takes my hand, and I clutch hers. The plane levels
out, and I think Laura has decided to wait for another try. Then there's a bump,
and then another, harder, and a banshee squeals under our feet. The engine roar
is suddenly louder again, more high-pitched than before, and
the great machine shudders from opposing forces. I close my eyes and pray--for Janice, for the crew, for the people we love and who love us. . .
And then Janice is patting me on the shoulder and saying gently, "Mel, it's all right. We're safe. Mel, please let go; you're hurting my hand."
Cold and fog accompany us on our train journey from Bassingbourn to London. Trying to see through the white for some glimpse of the English countryside, I think about three new friends: Captain Laura Solari, Lieutenant Jana Elkton, and Sergeant Stephiny Koulos--Laura, LT, and Sarge. They've seen us off at the station before returning to the airbase to help sort out the problem with the bomber. Later, Laura has told us, they'll hitch a ride home on an empty cargo plane. Three brave new friends, may God hold them safely aloft.
A young family, a mother and two small children, share this compartment and
doze together on the opposite bench. Beside me, her head resting against my
shoulder, Janice sleeps peacefully. I wonder at how angelic she looks, trying
to reconcile this picture with the woman who stumbled into the
officers' quarters. At 4:00 a.m. Supported by a laughing Sarge, almost as inebriated as Janice.
I remember leaping from my bed to help and being startled when my right leg buckled, and I almost fell myself. Janice giggled and slurred. "Mel, if you can't hold it, don't drink."
Recovering, I helped Sarge put Janice on the other bed. Sarge said good night and started to leave. "Don't you want to stay here?"
She shook her head. "Officer territory. See you in the morning, Mel." As if it weren't morning already.
I removed Janice's boots and let her sleep in her clothing. I figured it would be easier to get her going at dawn if she was already dressed. It was, but not much.
Now Janice stirs, trying for a more comfortable position. "Good morning," I say.
Janice opens one eye and, finding the light dim enough, opens the other. "Where's the truck?" she asks.
"What truck?" I respond, playing along.
"The one that ran over my head!" She sits up and touches both temples.
"Why do you drink knowing how you'll feel the next day?"
"No temperance lectures please." Janice looks at the small family, still asleep. "Cute kids."
I nod and whisper, "Yes. Their father's a soldier. He's in a military hospital in London."
Janice's face softens, sympathy evident. "I hope they have a place to stay. Hey, I hope we can find a place to stay."
"They'll stay with relatives in London," I explain. "Don't you want to stay with a relative of yours?"
"My mother?" She says it as though the idea is ludicrous. "No, I don't think so. We'll have to find a hotel room, and it won't be easy."
"Already taken care of," I say. "I guessed you wouldn't want to stay with your mother, at least until after you've gotten reacquainted. After you left with Sarge, I wired London and reserved a room."
"What? Just a room? Why not a suite?"
"There weren't any available, but I . . . ."
"Mel, I'm kidding."
Janice clears her throat. "Uh. . . . there's something I want to discuss with you. This is probably a good time."
"It's about money."
"What about it?"
Janice spreads her hands as if to show they're empty. "I don't have any."
"No problem. I do."
"Look, Mel, I haven't minded using your money up to this point. . . ."
I smile, remembering Cairo and New York. "I've noticed."
"But I don't want to break you." Her green eyes are earnest, and I realize she's not kidding now. "When we return to the States, I really will get a job and pay you back."
"Janice, I said it's not a problem, and it's not. You don't need to pay me back."
She looks at me for a moment, ready to argue, before comprehension dawns. "You're rich, aren't you?"
"Where I come from, we say 'comfortable,' " I answer.
She nods, absorbing the information. "Where are we staying in London?"
She nods. "It figure"
Continue Chapter 8-15
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