And I always wanted to write something like this. Since I was, like, 8 years old. And believed I could fly. And that justice would always prevail. And that every hero should wear a cape. It is not original. It isn't supposed to be. It is something that I would have been ashamed to write ten, fifteen years ago, when people around me told me all the time that liking pulp was a bad thing, the way they tell you that masturbation is a bad thing, the way they tell you that you should grow up and tackle important issues.
And I believed them.
But sometimes, you should be allowed to be a child. And play dress-up.
This is me, dressing up (mentally speaking, in real life you would not ever see me without wearing a black suit, a lot of rings and often black nail polish.Which surely would prevent me from ever becoming a political pundit, since dressing up there is required as well, and their uniform is poorly made suits and ties and hair the size and weight of a brick)
I know it’s a dream, because when I wake up, I’m cold, weary and bathing in frosted air and red light. We are maybe forty minutes out and close to crossing the German border.
I am not a virgin.
Three of the others are.
They talk. They joke. They try their best to keep their minds off the reality of the sitation. They are young. They are Americans. They are looking up to me. The legend. The myth. The man.
We are not in a tin can. It just feels that way. Tin soldiers. Neatly stacked up, side by side, freezing. Give me a count, soldier. One, two, three.
There are eight of us.
On a wooden bench, at 12,000 feet.
The Ju 52 is lurching forward, through bad winter weather. The Ju 52 is not shaking, that’s us. The Ju 52 is reliable. The Germans know their engineering. The Germans know their shit.
The virgins are not so sure.
The virgins are fresh out of boot camp.
The virgins are jumpy.
I give the virgins a thumbs up.
They smile. They sweat. They talk fast. Their voices sound the same, barely rising above the sound of the plane’s engines. I don’t want to know their names. I don’t want to see them as people.
I close my eyes.
“Listen, okay? She’s standing at a street lantern, for fuck’s sake.”
“Doesn’t make her a whore.”
“Makes her a whore, son. You tell me last time you saw a good girl standing at a street lantern, in the middle of the fucking night.”
“For her fucking John, that is.”
“She’s German, see? So it can’t be a John.”
“Or a Tom or Harry.”
“But sure as a hell a Dick.”
“Fucking Lily Marleen.”
The virgins get the joke.
The virgins laugh.
I hear a familiar voice.
A voice like a rock. Old. Scarred.
“Sure as hell wouldn’t fuck any of you pussies. Come on, ladies! Grab and prep time! Thirty minutes, everybody! Check the ‘chutes! Think of them as the fucking finest silk panties you’ll never get to wear! Mission time, everybody!”
“Bet he never fucked anybody,” says one of the virgins. The other virgins stay quiet. The other virgins start checking their gear. The other virgins know that it doesn’t take much to die.
The scarred voice –
“And somebody here wake up sleeping beauty.”
I’m wearing it. I’m the symbol. I’m the legend. I’m the fairy tale the grunts tell each other in their foxholes. I’m the guy they count on to bring them home.
“I am awake.”
“Sir?” one of the virgins asks.
I open my eyes.
It’s the virgin next to me.
I check his uniform. I check his face. I check his name tag. I give him a smile. I give him confidence just by knowing his name –
I move. I stretch. I clench my fists. I shake the cold from my muscles.
“We are ready, Sir –”
“No need to call me Sir, kid.”
The old, scarred voice, from the front of the plane, knowing the drill. The man the voice belongs to, an old friend, a veteran of the Great One, a soldier who has lost his virginity in the trenches of France. Here to finish the job, a quarter of a century later.
“You call him Sir, soldier, he likes it or not.”
There are eight of us. Seven soldiers. And me. I am the target. I am the decoy. I am –
“The American Spirit,” says Private Johnson. He checks his gear. He shakes his head. “Didn’t think I would ever ever have the honor to fly a mission with you, Sir.”
“Honor’s all mine, kid.”
“Don’t let all that hero worship go to your head, soldier,” says the old and scarred voice. “I don’t need you spazzing.”
“Sorry, Sarge,” says Private Johnson.
The Sarge and me, having each other’s backs, lying to them. The Sarge, caring about the kids more than he lets on. The Sarge, with dog tags that tell his blood type, his serial number, all parts still running smoothly and ready to go.
I don’t need to read the name.
“Going to be easy, Lewis” I tell him.
“Like a walk in the park, Nate,” he says.
“Like the last time.”
The last time, three casualties. The reason the virgins are here. Three out of eight. Acceptable losses. If you sit in a comfortable chair at HQ in London.
If you look at the bigger picture.
If you swallow shit with Churchill. If you look at maps and numbers and tell your citizens that we are fighting them on the beaches, we are fighting them on the landing grouds, the fields and the streets.
That’s right. We are.
We are the ones who fight.
We are the ones who die.
We are the ones who remember that all it takes is one bomb, one grenade, one bullet. We are the ones who sit in a tin can made by Nazi slaves and thought up by Nazi minds and that is crossing the German borders now.
The Ju 52 sinks lower. The Ju 52 sinks into the clouds. The Ju 52 takes cover. Our tin can starts to rock and roll. One of the virgins, not Private Johnson, throws up, biscuits and coffee, liberated.
The others laugh.
The others have empty stomachs.
The pilot shouts. The pilot has a mustache. The pilot looks like a walrus. He wears a RAF bomber jacket. He sounds like he should be attending a tea party with Queen Mum –
“Ready for the first drop, chaps!”
“They’re playing my song,” I say to Lewis.
“You sure you know how to dance to it?”
“You asking me out?”
“You ain’t my type, Nate.”
“You want me to hurt you, you can always ask to get my boot up your ass.”
“I bet you say that to all the guys.”
“No. Just to that nice English fellow I met in London the other week. He was a weird one. Nice, but definitely one of the weird ones. You know how the English are.”
We both smile.
“Don’t ask,” Lewis says.
“Don’t tell,” I say.
He tousles my hair. Big, bad grizzly paws. I put on the mask. I put on the helmet. I put the two Thompsons around my shoulders. I get up.
I slap Lewis on the shoulder.
The Sarge slaps my ass.
Below us, the Germans wake up. The Ju 52 drops out of the clouds and into enemy airspace. The Germans hear it. The Germans look for it.
Sharp beams of light, fingering the winter’s sky.
Any moment now.
I walk past the men. I wish them luck. The light goes green. I open the hatch. The winter’s air kisses me with snowflakes and icy turbulence.
Any moment now.
“Give them hell, Sir,” says Private Johnson.
The pilot shouts. Go. Go. Go.
I jump into the darkness.
Below me, the fingers of light cut through the air.
I’m in free fall.
Above me, the Ju 52 kicks its engines into high gear. On its way back into the clouds. Below me, the fingers of light still try to find their focus.
Come on. Come on.
I’m the target.
That’s right, you Nazi bastards.
The plane is nothing. Don’t bother with it.
I’m the decoy.
Below me, the Germans shout. The Germans aim their artillery. The Germans sound the alarm.
Dozens of guns, loaded and ready.
I’m in free fall.
I don’t open my parachute.
I count the seconds. The spotlight, still not on me. The ground, rushing towards me. I light the flares. Hold them in my hands. Let them see me. Red fire that gushes into the night.
Below me, Berchtesgarden.
The best security this side of Berlin.
Hitler’s summer home, a short tank ride away.
I let go of the flares. They tumble upwards. I’m the snow. I’m the wind. I’m what the Wehrmacht doesn’t want you to know. I’m the horror stories your brothers in arms have told you about.
Look at me.
I drop into their spotlight. I provide them a good show. I do what I’m supposed to. There are dozens of them. Guns that start to fire. Shouts that rise up to me. Hot metal hail, against the laws of physics.
I’ve had worse times.
A drop from 9,000 feet like this is nothing. A drop like this is a day at the office. The Germans shoot at the flares. The Germans shoot at the clouds.
I drop like a stone.
I cross the line.
This is going to hurt.
I snap the grenades from my shoulder straps.
This is nothing.
I let the Germans have it.
Four grenades, an early Christmas present.
I pull the string. The parachute opens. Blue silk, catching the wind, catching my fall, four, five seconds too late to be effective.
In my head, a drill instructor’s voice, all the way from boot camp in New Jersey. Too late! Too late! The impact will kill you, soldier! Do it again! In the field there are no second chances!
In my head, I tell the voice to shut up.
I know what I’m doing.
I was built for this.
On the ground below, the grenades go off. One, two, three, four mushroomed explosions, doing a lot of damage. Blowing up ammunitions depots. Engulfing Nazi soldiers in death.
And heating up the air.
Hot winds, meeting me halfway, getting caught in the parachute. The blue silk above me flutters, finds its full shape, breaks my fall. The leather straps bite into my shoulders. The parachute yanks me up. The winds, barely strong enough.
Here I come, still too fast.
This would kill a normal man.
I let the parachute go, a jellyfish in the black-ink German night now, free of me, free of my weight. The final sixty feet is all me, all by myself. I hit the ground, cobble stone and concrete. Let my body take the impact, absorb it, roll with it.
There’s pain. A lot of it.
The scientists, they made me stronger, faster, they changed my muscles, my bones, my body, back in those secret laboratories, back when they turned me, improved me, tested me, but they didn’t think about the pain.
It greets me, an old friend.
It rushes through my body.
I roll with it. Accept it. Move on. Move up. Get up. It’s pain. It doesn’t kill you. The Germans can. The Germans are in the streets. Are on the plazas. Have this whole town under lockdown.
Have you surrounded.
There are no civilians here.
It makes this easier.
Two more grenades, thrown against a machine gun nest and curses, only marginally better than poorly done Hollywood impressions.
“Raus! Raus! Raus!”
The explosions stop the shouts. Another wave of heat, filled with chunks of bodies and blood. A Germans gets his hand on me. It takes a moment before I realize the rest of the man is missing.
I skid down the street. Get on my feet.
Face them all.
Find the triggers of my two Thompsons.
Catch my breath.
Introduce myself –
“Honey, I’m home.”