I crept into the small opening in the rear of the fortress.
Like a cloaca, this aluminum porthole, injecting, ejecting the kids who thought the end times were upon them.
It seemed people grew up a lot faster in those days. Displaced into a surreal world where survival wasn’t a convenience.
Marrying at eighteen, off to war at nineteen, dying at twenty.
So those stories went, growing up with Grandpa Joe.
Math was his strong suit. Jazz was second. He played the stand up bass in a bar band.
His timing: the ‘thump, thump’ beat of his thumb plucking four, thick strings.
His quick wit and discipline, what seemed standard in any adult from that era, made him a prime candidate for the Army-Air Force.
To get there, he lied about his age. Desperate to escape the West Virginia hollers. Away from the train his father conducted: the industry of shipping and dumping coal, blown from the seams, from the entrails of the Appalachian Mountains.
Away from a callous life in middle America. To become heroic in a demonic life abroad.
At seventeen, my Grandpa Joe climbed through this same porthole.
Inside the belly, they positioned him as bombardier.
It was an expensive ride. Something I saved for, for over a year. My ticket used mostly to subsidize the six thousand dollars in fuel. For a half hour flight. To circle the bay. A hundred mile round trip.
The remaining revenue, split up within the maintenance of the Flying Fortress. To repair and rebuild eighty year old, ancient electronics. To keep the mosaic of aluminum paneling, the jigsaw of its carapace, in working condition.
It was a miraculous resurrection.
A macabre celebration of death from above.
Inside, a hollow cigar of aluminum, with wires, stretched out in the open, extending from steering column across the ceiling, following the planes spine and ending in its bowels.
Each cable connected to a flap. Each flap a balancing mechanism to sustain the plane in flight.
Losing your balance as a passenger, reaching out, accidentally grappling a wire, could send the machine dipping back down to earth.
There was a dozen passengers. Two crew members. I sat down on one of many red cushions, laying lengthwise down its belly. Each person, sitting thigh to thigh, a thin seat belt pulled over, securing our waists. We stared forward, facing each other, in uncomfortable quarters.
Across from where I sat, flanked by two men, was a diminutive, elderly man.
His frame merely skin on bone.
Beside him, his two grandsons. They made conversation with other guests. Small talk on where they were from, on what they did for a living. Their grandfather, remaining quietly next to them, a veteran airman of the Second World War.
Here, in the bowels of the aircraft, were no windows. Just outside those thin aluminum walls, each Wright Cyclone engine was started manually. A slow chop at first, soon transitioning into a hellish grind, of twelve hundred horse power conjured within each engine.
Down the wing, each spun separately, one at a time. The second, the third.
And finally the fourth.
Combined, it was the sound of a freight train, of earth quaking.
The bellow of angry gods.
We began to taxi.
Gusts of air pushed through openings, a handful of windowless portholes going from front, trailing down its ribs to back. The influx of wind: a massive hair dryer pushing against our bodies, deafening our ears, as the plane lifted from the ground.
At the height of a couple thousand feet, we hit cruising altitude. Given permission to stand up, we walked single file through the hollow tube.
Past the waist gunner stations. One on each side. Facing East and West.
In the sunlight of those open windows, massive .50 calibre machine guns laid dormant.
Underneath us, the ball turret. That solid glass orb hanging from the fortress’ belly. I recalled the horror stories from Grandpa Joe: of the exit door getting jammed, of airmen getting stuck, dangling and helpless.
Of the ball turret getting shot off the plane. Shattered, those pieces of glass entangled with the airman himself, plummeting thirty thousand feet.
We passed the bomb compartment. A narrow aluminum bridge levitating over what was once thousands of pounds of bombs. A space now devoid of detonation, a vacuous compartment, separated us from sky by a set of flimsy aluminum doors.
Beyond, the plane opened up into the flight room. A split level, where above, the pilots steered us above our city.
I sunk below: a compartment stepped down underneath those control panels.
At the end, an egg of solid glass: the nose cone, extending out from the front of the aircraft.
Here was where my grandfather sat, waiting, propelled forward over Central Europe.
In the nose cone, I sat down in the bombardier’s seat. Between my knees lay the Norden Bombsight, an archaic instrument dictating geography. Dictating intended targets.
Many more of my grandfather’s stories stemmed here. Outside that glass, over Germany, the pop of flack. That exploding shrapnel yearning to puncture the plane. To puncture the airmen.
Of the Luftwaffe. Swarming like wasps, shelling whole planes in half.
And of friendly fire. Of allied bombers, knocked out of the sky by poor decisions, by bad reflexes.
In the nose cone, Grandpa Joe gave the signal to drop thousands upon thousands of bombs on factories. On train yards. On human beings.
With the device between my knees, I watched through the sight piece as my city below was obstructed by cloud cover. An eerie relief, it felt good being blinded.
The plane circled, we headed back and prepared to land.
Sitting back down on the cushions, we latched our seat belts. The elderly, retired airman was escorted in last by his grandsons. Calm, he sat down, a slight smile on his face as we heard the wheels distend from the aircraft.
Thinking of my grandfather, I watched the tiny hunched man exit the plane. His family easing him backwards down the escape ladder.
This was his final flight. His final mission. A coming to terms.
At the bottom of the ladder, the pilots greeted us.
I watched as the retired airman reached out to shake the pilot’s hand.
‘Thank you,’ he said, his lips moving slightly, his voice almost inaudible.
I too was thankful.
Thankful to have the opportunity to fly, in peace, in memoriam of my grandfather.
Thankful to exorcise his horrific memories, floating vulnerable, thousands of feet above a world, raging violently at war.