Flying Fortress: My Father Survives the War

I imagine the roar as silent
after seven hours in the sky
over Austria or Dresden,
the Forts in stacked formations
of a hundred lumbering bombers
with payloads of five
five hundred pounders.

Every airman is certain this is not
the morning white flak exploding
from below or black flak raining
from above will slice a fuel line
or shatter a pilot's face or neatly
amputate an aluminum wing
and send eleven crewmen spiraling
like Icarus crazed by the sun.
If hit, my father had no way out.
His parachute wouldn't fit inside
the turret—his plexiglass world
where he pitched and yawed,
gloved hands locked
on .50 cal. machine guns,
open target for any Messerschmit
flashing through key holes in the clouds.
They swarmed like bees
one Sunday morning in particular
over Berlin, he 19 and sweating
in his heated suit, the plane pitching
jolted from artillery, death
from any direction, fuck,
after 33 missions, the war
almost over and luck's gone.
See the curved horizon,
puffs of dust five miles below
where bombs hit, a 17 to the left
break in half, no chutes.
Okay. Okay. Goodbye Mom, Pop—
the Messerschmits howl as they pass
falling back to pick off stragglers
lost or low on fuel, his own ship
pitching, bombs away like babies cradle
and all, him squeezing the triggers—
Did he hit one?—they gleam like knives—
Jesus if You love me show Yourself
the ship turning blind toward the sun
squeeze the triggers turn you sonofabitch
specks of sunlight
spiking the fuselage perforated
from bursts of bits of metal.

I will be born and hear these fragments,
how the sky opened once more,
how the German fighters vanished,
scattered by a squadron of Tuskeegee Airmen.
They escorted the 17s home
across the scalloped Adriatic,
above the Alps where ships
on earlier runs went down in fog.
In his red-tailed P-51, one Tuskeegee flyer
pulled aside my father's bomber.
Dad took off his oxygen.
So did the other flyer.
Dad waved, gave thumbs up.
The fighter pilot—a man with kind eyes
is all my father recalls—
nodded, tipped his wings and flew away
as the base in Foggia came into view.

I never asked him did he kill people in the war.
He did. Over the Alps, blocks of ice
spangled like broken blue cities.

In that world above this one
the four Pratt & Whitneys droned.
Up there he glimpsed his savior for a moment—
a guy from Alabama—the closest
to a black friend my father ever got.

Ed Harkness | Mudlark No. 13
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