Raine, your writing continues to impress. Really cleverly written little details, like the bit about the Collins' being a 'Times Family', just add such a nice level of depth and authenticity to your cast. Every time I read one of your episodes I learn something new about how to craft a story. Bravo!
Now, the latest from the Verdun sector:
Adj. James B. Fullard, Escadrille N.31, Ochey, France.
May 29th 1916:
Chaput stood before me on the morning of the 28th, outside the NCO’s barracks. His warm, kindly smile remained unchanged from my first day in Escadrille 31. “So, I’ve heard you are to join l’Escadrille Americaine. Your brother, Michael, is there, no? I’m glad to hear it!”. I smiled and lit a cigarette, passing one off to him. “Yes, me too. But, what about you? Where are they sending you?”.
“Me? I’m going to Escadrille 57. They’re on Nieuports, too” “57? Aren’t they near Verdun?” “Oui. I’ll certainly be busy!” “Well, take care of yourself, Jean. If I ever get the chance I’ll stop by”. “You take care too, Americain”.
We shook hands, my other hand placed on his shoulder. And then, with a wink, he turned and slung his kit over his shoulder, walking down the path to Pierre’s awaiting Fiat. The door clicked shut behind him, and with a cloud of dust he was gone, the little fiat speeding away down the country roads.
At One O’Clock I made to the hangars to retrieve my flying gear and make ready for the afternoon artillery spotting mission. As I entered I found Souris tightening the flying wires on my Nieuport 12. He nodded to me as I entered, quickly dropping and averting his eyes in his usual nervous way. “Say, Souris, where’s Therry?”. From within the observer’s cockpit came a voice. “Right here”. Thierry’s head popped out over the lip of the cockpit, a look of misery on his face. “I can’t believe the C.O. is making you fly this wretched thing!”. I laughed. “Me neither. Glad you’re thinking of me though!”.
“Thinking of you? Merde! It’s not you I’m thinking about! These damned old coucous are a nightmare to work on! Every cylinder re-bored, every wire frayed, hell, even the canvas is wearing thin! Not only that, but how are you ever supposed to get my rudder now?”. “I’m just as annoyed about it as you are”. “Tch! If you say so! Well, seeing as you’re here, you can give us a hand in wheeling it out”.
Removing my tunic, I obliged Thierry and we parked the Nieuport next to what was now the only other Biplace machine in the squadron, which belonged to Adjutant Papiel. A moment later, I observed the Bebes of Lemoine and little Devienne being wheeled onto the field. By the side of the hangars I could see young Lefevre wrestling with his flying coat.
At half past One the pilots and observers gathered on the flight line. Papiel approached me with a wide grin on his face. “You must be Fullard! It’s a pleasure. How are you finding the Nieuport 12? She’s no Bebe, but she’s a fine machine, no?”. I raised an eyebrow. “I heard about your show yesterday. Sounds like it was rough. Anyway, I’d better get myself ready to go. We can meet each other properly afterwards!”. Lemoine, who had been standing idly beside my machine, now came up to me.
“Fullard, got a smoke?” he asked, a slight slur to his voice. On his breath was the faint aroma of Pinard. I frowned slighly, looking him over.
“Lemoine, are you drunk?” “What? No, of course not…!” “Dammit. Give me your hip flask”. “What! Hell, no!”
Despite myself, anger flashed wildly in my eyes. “Lemoine! I won’t be killed because you’re too drunk to think!” I roared, as Lemoine’s eyes widened in shock. “Now give me the damned flask!”. Mouth agape, Lemoine reached into his breast pocket and passed me the flask. It was near-empty. I dropped it into the pocket of my flying jacket, my blood boiling. From over Lemoine’s shoulder, I saw Devienne peering out from within his Nieuport, a similar look of shock on his face. Cursing under my breath, I climbed into my cockpit. “Everything okay, sir?” Lefevre asked from behind me. “Fine” I muttered.
As our engines roared into life, I immediately felt nauseous with remorse for my outburst at Lemoine. I looked over at him, hoping to catch his eye and mouth an apology, but he was staring straight forwards, a dull look in his eyes. I felt miserable. All of a sudden I heard Papiel’s engine roar as he pushed his throttle forwards, and I was snapped back into the situation. Papiel’s machine crawled forwards, and I followed.
The flying weather was beautiful, the best we had had in weeks with not a single cloud in sight, but I was unable to enjoy it. In my pocket I could feel Lemoine’s hip flask knocking against my side. We made St. Meheil in good time, and soon Lefevre was leaning over the side of the cockpit with his signalling lamp as we oveflew the German positions. Above our heads, the Bebes circled vigilantly. Even so, I scanned the skies by force of habit. Every so often, a series of flashes caught my eye as a salvo fell on the German positions. We circled several times, and I could see the responses of the gunners to Lefevre’s furiously blinking light with each new salvo. I was amazed that no Bosches had arrived on such an agreeable flying day. Before too long, our work was done and we turned back towards Ochey.
After we de-planed, I walked over to Lemoine, embarrassment and shame burning in my cheeks. I retrieved the hip flask and handed it to him. “Lemoine, I’m sorry. I don’t know what came over me”. Lemoine sighed, and then smiled. “No, no, I understand. It’s okay, mon ami. It’s just…” his smile faded. “After yesterday, I blamed myself. Falling for that Bosche trick, I mean”. Looking down, he turned the hip flask over in his hands, before holding it back out to me. “Say, why don’t you hold on to this for a little longer?”. I looked at him and made to protest, but my better judgement stopped me before I could get the words out. Quietly, I took back the flask and interned it in the breast pocket of my tunic. Lemoine patted me on the back and made for the barracks.
I was intercepted while making my way towards the mess for late lunch by Messier. “Fullard! The C.O wants you again”. I stiffened. Could it be, already? Quickly thanking Messier (to his shock - he was used to nothing but insults at this point) I rushed to de Villeneuve’s office, forgetting to knock as I burst in. De Villeneuve looked up at me with a sly smile on his face, and silently handed me a piece of paper. Hungrily I scanned the words on it, the corners of my mouth twitching upwards. This was it. My transfer papers. Wordlessly, I looked up at de Villeneuve. “You are to report to Capitane Thenault by 1200 tomorrow. Pierre is ready for you whenever you chose to leave”. Stiffly, I snapped to attention and gave de Villeneuve an impassioned salute. “Thank you, sir. For everything”. He laughed, a long booming laugh. “Best of luck, Fullard!”.
I ran back to the Sergeant’s mess, bursting through the door to the surprise of the pilots crowded in there. Waving the transfer orders for them to see, I cried out “They’re sending me to l’Escadrille Americaine!”. After a moment of stunned silence, the pilots broke into cheers. Little Devienne jumped to his feet, shaking my hand vigorously. “Congratulations, Fullard! Good on you!”.
Saying goodbye to all my good friends of Escadrille was an emotional moment for me, but it was Lemoine who accompanied me to Pierre’s waiting Fiat. The first pilot to greet me, the first to see me out. “Still have that flask?” he asked, as we came to a stop beside the car. I nodded, taking it out and handing it to him. Kneeling down, he produced a small knife and laid the flask flat before putting the tip to it and starting to etch into it a sentence. After a few moments, he rose back to his feet, dusted off his knees, and handed it to me with a wink. I looked down and read the messily-carved inscription.
À JAMES, BONNE CHANCE! - ESC. 31.
We shook hands for the final time, and I stepped into the car. “Take care of yourself, Lemoine”. He nodded with a smile, closing the door for me. “Until we meet again, Fullard!”. With that, he promptly turned and strolled back towards the mess, and the car rolled forwards. In the front seat, Pierre turned back towards me. “So, off to fly with the Americans! I won’t miss having to drive out and collect you all the time!”. I chuckled, and told him to keep his damned eyes on the road.
The drive to Bar-le-Duc was lengthy, and the sun had started to bathe the few solitary clouds in pink as we arrived outside a large, luxurious villa which marked the home of the Escadrille Americaine. In the last moments of the drive, I came to find that the location of my new posting was something of great beauty - through the center of the town, which sat on a wide plateau, ran a sleepy river, beset on each side by clumps of wildflowers and great arching willow trees. I stepped out of the car and Pierre helped me to the steps of the Villa with my suitcase. “Well, this is it, mon ami Americain! I shan’t linger. I shook his hand, and watched him as he clambered back into his little Fiat, speeding away down the road. I lifted my suitcase and walked up the steps, pushing the large, heavy oak door open and stepping into a decadent foyer. Two sets of grandiose stairs swept upwards on either side towards the high ceiling, and large portraits accented the white walls, and in the centre of the floor stood a pilot.
The pilot held himself in perfect poise, his postured stance with his arms folded behind his back displaying an ease of confidence. From underneath the brim of his horizon blue kepi, two kindly, slightly squinted eyes regarded me with a keen interest. The corners of his mouth flicked upwards in a subtle smile, and his squared-off moustache curled with it. Instinctually I snapped to attention, my suitcase following heavily at my side. The Capitane’s smile broadened as he carefully and deliberately strolled towards me, stopping a few feet away. I was immediately awed.
“Bonsoir, Monsieur Fullard. I am Capitane Georges Thenault, commander of l’Escadrille Americaine. I trust your journey was pleasant? S'il vous plaît, no need to stand to attention!”. “Yes sir, thank you” I replied, standing at ease. “Your room has been prepared for you upstairs and on the left. Feel free to leave your luggage by the door, I will have an orderly move it for you. Tomorrow I shall drive you out to our aerodrome. But, for now, you must be hungry, and keen to see your brother, no? Come! We are just about to serve supper!”.
I followed Thenault as he led me through a doorway which stood underneath the balcony at the top of the stairs, and we stepped through into a large, elegant dining room, its high cream walls ornamented in golden trim. On the marble tiled floor stood a long dining table, covered with a fine silk tablecloth, around which sat nine pilots, laughing and joking among themselves in English and French. To hear my own native tongue was a larger shock than I expected it to be. As Thenault and I approached the table, I suddenly heard the cry of “James!”, and before I could even turn to see who had called my name I was almost barreled over by Michael crashing into my side, throwing his arms around me and laughing out loud.
“Ah, it’s so good to see you, kiddo! How have you been?” “Never mind that, Michael, how have you been!” “Come and have a seat next to me! We have so much to catch up on!”
Graciously the pilot that had sat beside Michael moved to Thenault’s side, and I sat down beside my brother. I studied his face for a moment, not exactly the same as I remembered it. Slightly thinner, with shadows under his eyes. But that broad Fullard grin was unmistakable. Suddenly, his eyes widened and he prodded a finger into the ribbons on my chest. “What the hell is this?!” he demanded, and I reddened slightly. “Oh, well, I didn’t get them for doing anything incredible”. He shook his head while laughing. “You didn’t even think to tell me that my little brother had won both the Croix de Guerre and the Medaille Militaire?”.
Across the table from us came a voice. “Dear lord, there’s two of them now! As if the war was hard enough!”. Laughter echoed around the table as I turned to see, a portly pilot with a thick, wiry moustache. Smiling at me, he leaned across and extended a hand. “Nice to meet you, James. We’ve all heard plenty about you. I’m Bill Thaw”.
One by one, Thaw introduced me to the other pilots of the squadron. There was Victor Chapman, a French-American from New York. Chapman was very polite, and seemed to me the type of person who was, inexplicably, a well of genuine cheer and happiness. Beside Chapman sat Elliot Cowdin, another New Yorker. Clenched in his teeth was a large cigar, from which plumes of smoke made their spiralling patterns up towards the ceiling. Norman Prince, from Boston, was the pilot that had moved to allow me to sit next to Michael. Before the war he had studied Law at Harvard. As Thaw explained, Prince was one of the founders of the Escadrille, responsible for its organisation, the other being Thenault and himself.
Next were the two Texans, Clyde Balsley, from El Paso, and Lawrence Rumsey, from Buffalo. Beside them were Chouteau Johnson and Gervais Raoul Lufbery. The latter I took particular interest in. He was the only one to greet me in French, and he reminded me slightly in his mannerisms of Metayer - he had the same cold smile, his eyes betrayed the same killing intent, as the young flier I had known at Ochey. However, he was certainly more socially adjusted.
On Thenault’s other side was Alfred De Laage De Meux, a Frenchman like the Capitane. He seemed to be very interested in what I had to say, much to my surprise. “So, James! I hear you are an Ace! I imagine you will have no trouble in upholding the Squadron’s good name, then! I think we’ll get on like a house on fire, what do you say?”. Taken aback, I politely agreed. There were a few chuckles around the table.
Finally, Thaw indicated to a pilot on the corner of the table. “And this is Bert Hall”. The room seemed to tense up ever so slightly. With a smirk, Bert waved a hello to me, which I returned. Everybody returned to their conversations. Leaning over, Michael whispered into my ear. “Watch out for Bert. He’s a bad sort. Does a lot of lying”.
As promised, Capitane Thenault saw me too my room on the upper floor of the villa. As I opened the door and peered inside, I was amazed. Above a grand oak writing desk sat a large mirror. A chest sat at the bottom of the bed, on top of which my suitcase had neatly been placed. The bed itself was spacious, and impossibly comfortable compared to my modest little cot at Ochey, and it sat beside two large windows that opened out onto a small private balcony. “All this, just for me?” I asked, turning to Thenault. He chuckled softly, and replied “Welcome to the Escadrille”, before sliding the door shut behind him.
1) The Villa which became home to the American Escadrille was supplied my Maj. Fabiani, which had been abandoned by its former owner.
2) 'Bert' Hall was greatly disliked by his colleagues in the Escadrille, gaining a reputation as a liar and a troublemaker. Unsurprisingly, he did not stay in the Escadrille for very long.