Chapter 12 – Fighter Pilot
Scrunched down in the cockpit, Henry flew by his gauges. Air-speed of 550 mph, above the clouds at 2000 feet, into in the Roor Valley, solo strafing run, mop-up action.
“Hey, boychick. Vassamatta?”
Henry raised his head to peek over the wing of his P-51 Mustang, careful not to lean on the stick because fighter planes at top speed can flip real easy. Dr. Israel was on his knees between two spidery rose bushes, holding his clipping shears at Port Arms or Present Arms, Henry couldn’t remember which. Mr. Rapaport teaches that stuff.
Across the stone patio Henry couldn’t tell whether Dr. Israel was friend or foe. He’d have to fly closer. He leaned to starboard, nudging the stick along with him. The wing dipped just below the flat, gray Nazi horizon. As his P-51, which he’d named Debbie, banked and dropped lower, her engine whined higher. He pulled his goggles down over his eyes. You never know.
“Vas ist los?” Dr. Israel said. He sounded like Bubby Ida, but it was German. Or Yiddish.
“You talk like my grandmother,” Henry said. But that could be a dirty Nazi trick. “How many home runs did Babe Ruth hit in 1921?”
“Lessee,” said Dr. Israel. He scratched the side of his nose with the tip of the shears. “Baberoot. How many faw-baggahs. Nineteen and twenny-one.”
Now he sounded like Huntz Hall in a Bowery Boys movie.
“I say fitty-nine. How’d I do?”
Okay, he got that one. “Why do you talk like a street kid? My grandmother says you shouldn’t talk like that. You’ll never get anywhere in life.”
“Well, dems is my ruths.” Dr. Israel chuckled and snipped a couple of times. Two skinny rose stems fell to the ground like shot soldiers. Maybe he thought I was too little to get the joke, switching Ruth and roots. Never under-estimate the enemy.
“Okay. How many homers did Hank Greenberg hit in 1938?” Jewish ballplayer, a Nazi wouldn’t know that.
“Gimme a toughie, whyuncha?” Dr. Israel said.
“How many?” Henry demanded. If he didn’t get it right, Debbie’s fifty millimeter nose cannon would turn him into mints meat.
“Okay, okay,” Dr. Israel said. “Don’t set your pants on fire.”
Henry banked harder to line the maybe-Nazi up in his sights. His right thumb flipped up the red trigger cover on top of the stick and rested on the button.
“Fitty-eight,” he said. “Betcha tawt I wouldn’ know. What kinda Jewish guy don’ know all about Hank Greenboig?”
Dr. Israel stood up. The knees of his khaki pants were stained dark, wet brown. He slid the shears into his pocket, like holstering a gun. He walked across the stone patio toward Henry. He stopped and touched Debbie’s fuselarge.
“Watcha got heah?”
“P-51,” Henry said. “I named her Debbie. Why do guys always name their planes and boats for girls?”
“Good question, captain. Mustang, huh?”
He knew a lot. Maybe he was a spy.
“So, Captain Henry, why aren’t you feeding the horses with the other kids? Does Miss Potter know you’re here?”
He was talking like a grown-up now. “I don’t like the horses. I don’t know.”
“Don’t know what?”
“If Miss Potter knows I’m here. You asked.”
Dr. Israel picked up the big wood block that was the left side of the engine, turned the red face forward and the blue one up, and set it back in place. “Why don’t you like horses?”
Henry didn’t want to say that he had fallen off Stumpy, so he shrugged. He stuck out his lower lip, which usually stopped grown-ups from asking more questions.
“I wish I could have fought against the Gerries,” Dr. Israel said. “Want to hear why?”
Henry lifted his goggles and put them on top of his leather helmet. He was going to put the P-51 on automatic pilot, but it was just a bunch of big play blocks now. Dr. Israel wanted to tell him about wanting to fight the Germans, so Henry folded his arms.
“I was a soldier,” he said. “Infantry. Do you know what that is?”
“G.I. Joes,” Henry said.
“Only, I wanted to fly.”
“Army Air Corps,” Henry said.
“How do you know so much?”
Henry shrugged. “Movies and comic books.” He realized he wasn’t stuttering, and Dr. Israel didn’t notice, or maybe just wasn’t saying. Miss Potter put little stones under his tongue, ‘Just like Moses,’ she said. ‘His mother left him, too. That’s in the Jewish bible.’
“Of course,” Dr. Israel said. He folded his hands on top of what had been the fuselarge in front of the cockpit. White scratches criss-crossed the back of his hands and there were a couple of spots of blood where the roses had stabbed him.
“So, there I was, a foot soldier without a war. We knew what was happening in Germany and Poland and the concentration camps, and we wanted to get into it. Some of us did. Stop Hitler. But the government was waiting.”
Now it was Dr. Israel’s turn to shrug. Henry wondered if he didn’t know or just didn’t want to say.
“I went in for my six-month physical exam. It was late 1939. You were just a babe in arms, just past a twinkle in your mother’s eye.”
Henry didn’t know what that meant, but didn’t want to stop Dr. Israel’s story.
“The army doctors didn’t like how my heart sounded. So, they put me through some tests. After the tests, one of the doctors said, ‘Soldier, the only thing you’ll be flying is a desk.'”
He said the doctor’s words in a deeper voice. “Kind of like my wooden blocks,” Henry said. “Not really real.”
“Are you going to tell Miss Potter?”
“I have to tell her something, don’t I?”
Henry thought about it and nodded. Miss Potter should care where he was.
“What should I tell her, Captain Henry?”
“Tell her I don’t like horses.”
“We’ll certainly tell her that.”
“Not in front of the other kids. They already make fun of me.”
“No, not in front of them,” he said. He smiled and nudged the yellow board that had been the portside wing. He moved it back, as if that was all it would take to make the pile of big colored blocks fly again.
“But you can’t just leave the class because you don’t like what they’re doing,” he said.
“Why?” Henry knew why, because everyone has to stay together. “I promise I won’t get hurt.”
Dr. Israel took a big sigh and said, “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all promise that and make it true.”