Thu 15 Sep 2005
The wingman had never been to a place like Hong Kong before, and he had to admit in sober retrospect that it had intimidated the hell out of him. He had grown up in central Nebraska, at home on the Great Plains and prairies, used to the horizon stretching out before him like a modestly attractive but compliant lover. So accustomed was he to undifferentiated vistas leaping out at him uninterrupted for great distances that the first time he had gone to sea and looked out across the limitless span of waters, he had felt immediately at home in spite of the fact that he was very far from Kearney. Flying an FA-18 at high altitude, the views were also was familiar to him, as the whole world seemed to shrink into a two-dimensional planisphere, one of homely and familiar proportions.
In Hong Kong, the daytime loom of the concrete canyons and thronging humanity had hemmed him in all sides, suffocating him, and he had felt a tickle in the back of his mind, the first inkling of some primitive need to scream or lash out blindly against the oppressive closeness of it all. At night, the garishly lit, neon-lined streets, the vendors of imitation Rolex’s and strange food, the teeming masses of short, black haired, almond-eyed busy people combined to further lend the atmosphere an aura alien in both time and place.
He had been born of stout Germanic stock, the third son of a third generation farming family, people who were used to the feel of dirt under their feet and under their nails, people who were familiar to the bounty of the land, to living their lives according to the ancient cycles, culminating with the harvest. He had learned to estimate distances by counting fence posts, and could, using the knowledge thus gained and a rudimentary understanding of ballistics, reliably drop deer or even smaller game in their tracks at over 300 yards. He had once brought to hand a six-point buck (Western count, he would be sure to tell his mystified city friends) at almost 400 yards, a trajectory drop of nearly two feet for a thirty-ought-six and he had thought it very well done indeed.
The wingman had learned to compute range and lead for moving targets before ever being introduced to aerial combat gunnery by scattergunning quail, pheasants and ducks when their respective times had come to be harvested. As a young man he had watched with narrowed and appreciative eyes the swooping, dodging, jinking flight of mourning doves on the second day of the season, when the survivors of the first day’s blood had realized that it could be a hard world and that it was best to keep it moving. It was in dove hunting actually, that he had first learned to envy, and where the germ of an idea had been planted. It was an idea that took him far from everything familiar, a seed which had germinated in flight school, down in Pensacola, Florida before blooming to full-flower in central California, where he had for the first time gotten his gloved hands upon FA-18 Hornet and realized there in the embrace of that cockpit that home could mean a very small place with a limitless view.
The FA-18 training squadron was behind him now, he was a “fleet replacement pilot,” and having been above average throughout his training syllabus he had been sent forward where the need was greatest. His new squadron had sent a lieutenant to the airport at Hong Kong to pick him out of the crowd at the arrival terminal and bring him back to the “admin” in Kowloon. With his height, short hair and the ubiquitous green parachute bag by his side, the one all jet pilots are issued to carry their bulky flight gear, the wingman had been easy to spot. The lieutenant had been polite and welcoming at first in the cab before lapsing into private silence as the city loomed up before them, with its high rises, “fragrant” harbor and mad traffic patterns. Soon the wingman had gone up a giddying ride in and external, glass-lined elevator at a four-star hotel to meet his new friends at the admin.
The admin, he was told, was a common suite shared by all the squadron’s officers – they would pool their resources to purchase the best rooms with the best view that they could afford, and a squadron’s honor ashore in foreign ports was often measured in square footage and vistas. In this way, men of modest means could for a brief time live like rock stars in foreign climes, albeit rock stars with quite a number unusually close friends kept in startlingly close proximity – in a squadron of perhaps 25 officers, excluding on any given night those on duty or otherwise away, a suite of rooms built for four person occupancy might very well sleep 15 or 16 exhausted FA-18 pilots at the end of a night’s revelry. Many small counterfeits would be used to get all these men into a suite reserved in the name of one of them, and the ensuing game of cat and mouse with the hotel management was only part of the fun. The beds themselves would typically all be occupied by 3 AM, so that the last remnants coming home after that point would either flop down on couches or on the floor itself, often using bath towels for blankets. These last avengers felt obligated to wake the others up upon their arrival home, and often no one would get to sleep again until the recent arrivals had had a brief but spirited wrestling match with those “non-hacks” who had wasted a perfectly good night of liberty in order to get rack space, disgraces that they were to fighter aviation. No respect was due to those who had gone to bed “early,” and by God you could sleep when you were dead.
It had been a long flight from Los Angeles, and the wingman was jet-lagged when he arrived in the admin, and would have liked nothing better than to lie down, but the evening’s flying squad was already being organized for a sortie on the town, and it was clear that his presence for the mission was expected. He also had the very clear sense of being measured and evaluated, and had as well the suspicion born of observing privately exchanged remarks and significant glances that he himself was somehow intended to form a part of the night’s entertainment. In this he was not mistaken, for three hours later he was standing in a Wan Chai alleyway, violently ill from overindulgence while his new friends stood round him at a cautious but protective distance. They had been “doing shots,” in honor of his arrival, but it had just been revealed to him that the others had been drinking water while he himself had downed glass after glass of tequila. Through his retching and the haze in his head, the wingman took this knowledge philosophically, for he had grown up playing football, basketball and baseball each in turn, because that is what young men did in Nebraska when not working on the farm, or going to school or hunting and he was familiar with the underlying psychology of teams and the petty masculine initiation rituals of humiliation.
In Nebraska, as previously related, young men learned to hunt and they learned to kill, but the wingman had never before taken a human life, and all of that was about to change…