The day before had been what Wizard called a real Nantucket sleigh ride — two hundred tons of bomber constantly bobbing and weaving to avoid heavy missile attack. The NVA had thrown up more SAM's every day since Linebacker II started, and last night a pair of MiG's kept buzzing around us like the constant Guam mosquitoes. We'd all been hoping for a well-deserved rest tonight.
Wizard came straight at me. "Up and at 'em, Homer," he said in his flat, scratchy voice.
Behind him, Cougar Yablonsky, our bombardier, stopped fanning himself with a Mad magazine and rolled his eyes. "Ah, shit," he said. "Sir," he added, as Wizard executed a smart about-face. "Even God rested on the seventh day."
"Ho Chi Minh's boys don't rest," Wizard said. "But you just keep rotting your brain with that trashy magazine. It's Homer I need. Those crews that came in yesterday, one of the pilots is down with a hot appendix. I agreed to fly, but not without my navigator."
"Briefing's in four minutes, Captain Stebbins. Get a move on."
I suited up, trying to ignore the cold sweat that had started trickling down between my shoulder blades. Usually before a mission, I was as clear and calm as a summer day back home in Mississippi. But tonight, without time to prepare, and without the automatic teamwork of our combat-conditioned crew, I felt as confused as I ever had been, confused and antsy. I wondered if this might be the night for something to go more wrong than it ever had before.
What a way to spend Christmas Eve.
Pop liked to say my whole future was made plain back in the summer of '53, just before my fourth birthday. Momma had gone out, leaving me with old Missus Porter, who lived next door. I soon got bored with the coloring book she'd given me and easily slipped out the front while she was in the kitchen rolling pie crust.
Standing on the wide porch, I looked down the long avenue that made a T with the street we lived on. The world was calling to me, and I couldn't resist.
I wandered about ten blocks, stopping at all the places Momma always dragged me past. The meandering tree-arched river. The blacksmith shop where old men reminisced to the clang of hammered iron. And my favorite place, the town park, where I was fascinated by the fountain, a jockey in red and white painted silks holding up a leaking riding boot.
By the time I reached the river again, two blocks from home, the entire neighborhood was out looking for me. Momma clutched me against her ample bosom, murmuring, "Clarence, oh, Clarence, I was so scared."
Pop just grinned and said, "Now, that's one hell of a sense of direction."
My cabin-mate in the windowless forward belly of the Stratofortress was the bombardier, Captain Alfred "Rangerider" Jackson, a tall, rawboned Oklahoman with huge red hands. He seemed pretty nerveless for a rookie.
The lead plane in a cell of three with fighter escort, we leveled out at twenty-five thousand feet and headed for the Thai Nguyen railyards in Hanoi. The weather on this op had been consistently terrible, and that night the turbulence was gut-wrenching. It wasn't hard to imagine that the wings were about to be ripped right off the plane.
We passed the first navpoint and dropped for tanker rendezvous, then climbed again, heading north towards the SAM's that bristled like quills on a porcupine.
When the hairs started to prickle on the back of my neck, I knew we'd crossed the DMZ. Without instruments, without charts, without a watch, I always knew, and I'd never been wrong. A look at the coordinates confirmed that we had indeed entered enemy territory, and that yes, my internal navigation system was still balls-on accurate.
Rangerider hadn't had much to say so far, so I was surprised when he said, "We're over North Viet Nam now, aren't we?" That set me wondering if he was tracking my navpoints, or if he had an internal compass as good as my own.
As usual, I flipped the intercom switch and said, "Welcome to North Viet Nam." Just then we hit an air pocket, and my two flight computers — calculators that looked like circular slide rules, the metal one official Air Force issue and the cheap plastic one my lucky charm since civilian flight school back when I was sixteen — slithered to the edge of my console, taking my papers with them.
Rangerider shoved them back. The intercom hummed as the weapons officer said, "Releasing chaff," strips of metal that would confuse the enemy radar. We dipped and twisted, avoiding missiles.
"Wild ride," Rangerider said.
Our station was a box, cramped, noisy as a vacuum cleaner, dimmer than your average cocktail lounge, and cold enough to make my fingers numb. Without seatbelts, we would've been bounced around like a couple of dice.
"Homer," came Wizard's voice, "Crow's dropping out. A SAM just took off half their tail." Tails on the B-52's, especially the earlier models we flew, were huge, tall as a four-story building. We'd all heard miraculous stories of pilots transferring or dumping fuel and adjusting flaps to compensate for the loss of control surfaces, limping back to base with incredible damage. It was a crapshoot for sure. I bowed my head and said a quick prayer for the Lord to get my friends safely back to Guam.
We rolled again, evasive action taken against something I could guess at but never see. The good part was never knowing how close we came to being hit, to dying or ending up in the Hanoi Hilton. Every miss was a good miss.
I rechecked my compass headings, checked the compasses against the gyros, recalculated time and distance to target, and yes, my internal navigation system was on the money. Everything was copacetic, but I still couldn't settle down.
The intercom clicked on again. Wizard's voice. "Homer, the rookies are down. We're on our own."
The first crack appeared in Rangerider's composure. "Stoker's down? Shot down?" His voice broke on the word "shot," and his right knee started bouncing. I wondered if all his experience on SAC duty had really prepared him for the reality of combat. Planes went down. Friends died or were captured. We had to accept it and keep doing our jobs. There was no other way.
At the initial point thirty miles from target, it was time for me to take control of the plane for the bombing run. "Approaching target," I announced. "Let's boogie."
Rangerider cleared his throat. "This don't seem right. With all due respect, Captain, we've gone off course. I can feel it."
This was a distraction I didn't need, especially from some green bombardier who hadn't flown combat before. I wanted to believe he was afraid of the power of what he had to do, now that it was the real thing — the awful finality of the job, the knowledge that pinpoint bombing was an inexact science and that civilians could very well be among the casualties. I couldn't think about how he had known the exact second we crossed the DMZ, just as I had. No one else I'd ever flown with had an internal compass to match my own.
"Approaching target," I said again. "Open those doors." Rangerider crossed his arms over his chest and kept facing straight ahead.
I considered shoving him out of the way and dropping the bombs myself, but he was big enough to block me. I hit the intercom button. "Major Weld, sir, we got a situation down here," I began, but when I paused to take a breath, Rangerider cut in.
"I can always sense a target, sir, and this ain't it."
"It's not your job to put us — " Wizard began, but the co-pilot interrupted him.
"Sir, Rangerider could be right. Every training mission, he knew exactly when we were on target. I've never seen anything like it."
"This is not a training mission." There was an edge of frustration in Wizard's voice. "Homer and I are on our seventh straight night on this op plan, and I'd trust him to guide me into hell and back. He's a freaking homing pigeon, and I am ordering you, Captain Jackson, to drop those bombs."
I shook my head, even though Wizard couldn't see me. "Sir, we've overflown."
"Then we'll go around and do it again." I'd never heard Wizard sound so grim.
"Sir," said the co-pilot.
"We'll go around again," Wizard said.
"Back to you." I relinquished control and leaned back in my seat as the plane banked away. My lucky flight computer went sliding across the console. I grabbed for it, but it bounced off and landed by Rangerider's foot.
I reached down, but I was too late. As I looked at the shards of my lucky charm under Rangerider's boot, I had a yet another shiver of doubt.
It seemed like forever before we were IP inbound again. I had to believe that I'd hit the navpoints and the Thai Nguyen railyards lay below. It was all on me now. "Approaching target," I said.
Shaking his head, Rangerider went to work. Doors open. Bombs armed. Ready-ready-ready. Now.
We jinked sharply to port as the concussion rolled through the air. I imagined it rippling across the land, rails and ties lifted and pulverized, rolling stock blown to matchstick smithereens. I couldn't think about what else was happening down there, the human element.
We headed south, towards Guam and Christmas day. No one was talking, and it didn't take a genius to know what was on everyone's mind. Even after we'd re-crossed the DMZ, I was still in combat mode. The pieces of my flight computer were zipped in one of my pockets, but it just didn't feel so lucky any more.
I know we were all relieved when the recon photos showed we had demolished the Thai Nguyen railyards after all. Rangerider didn't apologize, and I didn't expect him to. My reputation was intact — Captain Clarence "Homer" Stebbins never missed a navpoint, always knew exactly where we were.
Our crew would continue to have that faith in me, continue to believe.
I would never have such certainty again.
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