by Damon Garn
Fourteen-year-old David Winchester was a troublemaker. He wandered the streets of Colorado Springs at night and sometimes lifted tools or other items he thought he could sell. He’d started hanging out with a group of rowdy older boys, and tonight had been his first big job with the gang. He’d been a lookout while they stole a brand new ’57 Chevy automobile. He was promised a share once the car was parted out.
The sun was rising as he was on his way home. He cut through the alley behind old man Mitchel Beech’s house. A few older men were moving boxes out into the alley and piling them by the trash cans.
David stopped to find out what was going on.
“Mitch Beech passed away a couple days ago,” replied one of the men. “He was my uncle. We’re getting rid of his old crap.”
“Mind if I take a look?” Mitch had talked to David sometimes about school, politics, and David’s home life. David had even once dared to ask the old man about girls. He paid David a dollar a week to mow his yard during the summer.
“Help yourself, young man.”
For a few minutes, David kicked around the old clothes and moved a couple boxes to the side. Some part of him hoped to find a box full of money or something. He had started to walk away when a faded brown sleeve caught his eye. He tugged it out of the pile. It was an old leather jacket with some colored patches. He figured a decent jacket was never a bad thing, so he walked back home with it slung over his shoulder.
David kicked off his shoes in the windowless loft he had over his father’s garage. He’d quit living in the house earlier that year and things were far more peaceful for both him and his parents. He turned on a small light and examined his treasure.
His first reaction was disappointment. The jacket was worn and scuffed. On a whim, he slipped it on over his shoulders. It was too big, of course, even though old man Mitchel hadn’t been a big man. The cuffs hung nearly to his fingertips, and even zipped it wasn’t snug.
David patted at the button-down pockets, feeling a few items press against his palm.
The first was a packet of old black and white photographs. A second, smaller envelope dropped to the floor. He found a big brass shell in the other pocket.
David opened the photo packet and took out the first picture. A much younger Mitch Beech was posing next to an airplane.
My P-40 was named Charlotte, after my girl. I painted the tiger shark mouth on myself. Got a damn splotch of red paint on the sleeve of my new jacket. Some Army Air Corps quartermaster issued me that A-2 jacket after I’d earned my wings; and it still smelled of home. Thought I was invincible in that jacket. Smoked a lot of cigarettes and a lot of Japs in those days. Those were good times, with my squad mates. I painted two Rising Sun flags under my canopy that year. In 1941, when the war officially began, we’d already been flying over Burma for a year or two, though no one really knew that of course.
David set the photo aside and tugged on the jacket sleeve. He saw an old faded streak of red paint across the elbow. Looking back at the photo he realized the shiny new jacket Mitch was wearing was the very jacket he held in his hands. Pulling it close, he caught the scent of old cigarettes and sweat.
He pulled out the next photo.
Son of a bitch that bullet hurt. The doc said it only grazed me, but I noticed that doc never got himself close enough to the front to know how a bullet felt. Tore a hole in the shoulder of my jacket and cut through just the top of my arm. I cleaned the inside liner as best I could and stitched that hole in the jacket with some sailors thread the Chief had in his shop. A flight jacket is more than just a survival tool for a pilot. It’s his companion, a place to record the squadrons he’s flown with, a calling card of his profession. Cap’n offered to get me a new one but I told him no. The ladies liked a man in a jacket with history.
Looking at the left shoulder, David could see the thick thread holding together a long, ragged cut in the jacket. Under the jacket he saw an old bloodstain all the way down the cotton liner. There were stitch marks all over the jacket from patches that had been added and removed over the years as Mitch changed Air Corps squadrons.
He removed a third photo from the packet. A small woman, maybe in her 30s, posed with Mitchel in front of a flagpole. Their arms were wrapped around each other and both were smiling in the sun. The jacket was slung over a bench just behind them.
I was a good lookin’ man in those days. Something of a dandy, I guess. There was this older nurse at the base named Caroline. She barely stood to my shoulder, but that woman could kiss a man until he forgot his own name. She looked like a pinup girl and no one realized she was married. One night we’d both had too much from the Cap’n’s still. She got her lipstick all over the collar of my jacket – a big pink stain that the boys teased me about for weeks afterward. One morning I climbed inside Charlotte for a patrol and found a whole case of that pink lipstick sitting on the seat. Those boys laughed as I threw the box over the side during takeoff. A bunch of melted lipstick falling to the ground from 100 feet makes a helluva mess on a General’s command car. Guess how I know that? Then Caroline got reposted and I learned she was married to a Navy boy with a big future. I thought that was just fine, since I was going to marry Charlotte when I got home anyway.
The collar of the jacket still had a bit of pink permanently staining the leather right where a woman’s mouth would be if someone were nuzzling her ear. David couldn’t imagine how lonely those pilots must have been, so far from home and in danger every day of getting shot down and captured. A companion would make that so much easier to bear. And the women posted with them must have felt the same kind of loneliness and fear of dying.
David pulled the next picture out and studied it. Mitchel stood next to a couple of other men. He had a big black eye and one of the other men had his arm in a sling. All three were laughing in the photo.
It was about three years into the war that my jacket began to get worn from Charlotte’s shoulder straps. It didn’t bother me. It was normal. But I was glad because it made it even more clear I was a fighter pilot and someone not to be messed with. Those Marines always think they’re hot stuff, but we taught them a lesson that night. The brawl cleared out the club on the base. Since even the MPs were in the fight, it took a long time for things to die down. When it was all over, the Marine officer in charge yelled long and hard at his men and marched them off to their barracks. Our squadron commander waited until they were out of sight before turning around to us with a big grin. That’s the last we ever heard about it. But we did give that club owner five dollars each to help cover the damages.
David could see the worn marks across the shoulders of the jacket where the P40’s seat harness would cinch down tight, holding the pilot in place during a dogfight. The marks matched what he could see in the photo of the three men who were obviously posing after the big fight.
When David was done looking at the worn shoulders, he noticed the envelope he’d dropped. A small ring had rolled out and settled next to it. He picked up both.
I hope you are well. I wish I could talk to you in person, but this letter will have to do. I am breaking our engagement, Mitch. My father wants me to marry Senator Anderson’s youngest son, Seth. I am so sorry, but Seth can provide for me now and I don’t have to wait for this war to be over.
I hope you will understand and not think too poorly of me.
PS – I thought it only right to return your promise ring. It is very pretty.
That girl done me wrong. She married Seth Anderson. Ten years later he went to jail for some money deal gone wrong and she had to move back in with her parents. It also turns out Seth drank too much and beat her when he was drunk. She deserved better than that, but I guess the money was too important to her. I kept the letter and the ring. Sometimes I’d pull it out and read it again, especially if I’d been drinking, too.
David tucked the letter and ring back in the envelope and took the final photo out of the packet. It showed American soldiers cheering from the side of a ship, with a big city cowering in the background.
The war is over! The Japs surrendered, and we were even taken to Tokyo Bay as part of the early occupying force. We were due to be returned home and mustered out. And I was ready. Ready to return to the good ole USA and find myself a job and a wife. I picked up a momento – an empty .50 cal casing from Charlotte’s last mission. The brass still smelled of powder. Those guns represented our strength. They tore through those Zeros like nobody’s business.
David sniffed at the big brass casing but the scent of gunpowder and war had long since wafted away. The shell felt huge. He could hardly imagine another pilot shooting a bullet from such a shell at him.
Down the left side of the jacket was a long dark stain. There was no scent left.
The whiskey sometimes helped keep the nightmares away. They started a few months after I got home. I said something to the Army doc one time, but he told me the dreams would quit. And he looked at me like I was weak. I thought about those friends who’d been shot down. I watched my wingman’s plane free-fall all the way to the sea, where it was torn apart when it hit. I hope Scotty was dead by that time and didn’t drown. I often thought or dreamed about those men who served with me, and the terrible missions we flew, shooting up ships while dodging their guns. I felt guilty for being home and for being happy when they never came back. And I felt grateful that they’d given me this chance to live. Five years after the war, when I was drinking from the bottle in my living room, I tripped and fell. Spilled that whole damn bottle down the front of me. I’d been wearing my jacket for old time’s sake. Never did get the stain completely out, but then I guess drinking to forget the war is part of the war, anyway.
That night with the jacket, seeming to hear Mitch’s voice in his head, changed David’s future. He went back high school with a new vision for his life, then he went on to college. He got himself into the Navy as a pilot. Eighteen years after he first put on that jacket, he was a decorated combat pilot of an F-4 Phantom over the skies of Vietnam. Old man Mitch’s jacket always hung in his closet, right next to his own Navy G-1 flight jacket.
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