A tender and moving story of a wild Irishman who was afraid his beloved Spitfire might be jealous of The Girl Child

A. C. LYONS January 1 1944


A tender and moving story of a wild Irishman who was afraid his beloved Spitfire might be jealous of The Girl Child

A. C. LYONS January 1 1944


A tender and moving story of a wild Irishman who was afraid his beloved Spitfire might be jealous of The Girl Child



IT WASN'T his eleventh and twelfth Jerry planes, hurtling earthward in flames, that made Liam a legend. Nor even his blasting the Nazi-crossed

vultures with the chatter Banba spoke so decisively. Nor even Banba, now you think of her—soaring through the dawn clouds like to a bird with wings.

No. It was the wild Irishman’s way of fighting, of loving. Elusive and masterful, by turns. In one or the other. It was the inescapable feeling one had, looking at him, that here was Yeats’ Irish airman foreseeing his death, in person.

You remember the lines? All his squadron did. All his hard-bitten, fighting-man squadron pointed him out with the lines from it, as a kind of characterization:

“ƒ know that I shall meet my fate.

Somewhere among the clouds aboie;

Those that I fight I do not hate.

Those that 1 guard 1 do not love;"

And when the squadron quoted the lines softly, a soft light grew in their hard-bitten fighting men's eyes, though in their good-natured way they envied him.

There was Joe, the American, who had joined up for the sheer love of the sky. but who by now had

a stake in the war and would have put in for a transfer to his own U. S. forces, except that Liam O’Conal was a leader he hated to let down.

There were the Australians and the Canadians and the New Zealander, but they were of the Empire and fought from duty as well as delight.

So Liam stood alone among them—skilfully reckless, no stake at all but his own life, and a laugh for that; a bullet for anything that crossed his gun sight, a grin for the British colors he wore. O’Conal, the unmercenary Mercenary—climbing the clouds for the love of climbing; twisting, in the celebrated O’Conal sideslip, away from a Jerry fighter for the love of outwitting the fellow: and then roaring back on him at the top of a near vertical turn and blowing him to bits, for the love of that too.

And Hanba. With the ten tiny Nazi crosses painted on her for trophies.

Who was Hanba? Why, man, if you are as ignorant of Gaelic literature as all that it is well you didn’t ever meet up with the O’Conal. The black hair on his head would have bristled like an I rush wolfhound enraged. The blue eyes, with their long, womanish lashes shading them, would have thrown sparks at you.

“Everybody,” he would have said, and you would have shrunk in size as he said it, “—everybody knows

that Banba is the poet’s name for Ireland. Queen Banba she was—Queen of the Tuatha de Danann. A noble name, a noble bearer of it—the only fit name for a fighting plane that rules the blue skies . . .”

So you wouldn’t have asked for further trouble with saying, “Is she a Hurricane or a Spitfire?”

She was Banba; that’s all. Banba whom he always stroked, gently, for luck before he climbed aboard; who spoke decisively when her master touched the trip of her guns.

Banba who was the wild Irishman’s only love, that he loved, till just before the eleventh Jerry. Till just before the squadron took on the worry about their leader. Shaking their heads, murmuring among themselves.

Joe, the American, blamed himself for it. But Speed, one of the Australians, said no.

“It was bound to come. Sooner or later. It’s one of the horrors of war, but it happens—even in England where I’m surprised love thrives at all. Always figured the English sprang full-grown from the head of Duty . . .”

“Tt’s no use to joke,” Joe said. “It’ll show up in his flying. I’ll bet on it . . .”

That was the dawn they were taking off for a routine patrol and the pale sky showed soft streaks of light across it as the motors warmed, and Liam’s

long-lashed blue eyes squinted against the sun just rising.

Just back from leave the man was, with stars in those eyes that the sun would have to be stronger than this to drive away.

And the American, Joe, glanced across as he climbed into his plane that would ride the leader’s wing, and the American, Joe, said to himself, with feeling, “Women!”

Because he had practically put her in Liam’s arms, like the utter fool he was. Yet how was he to have known?

Elusive and masterful that wild Irishman had been, by turns—in fighting, in loving. In one or the other. How was anyone to know he’d crumple like a shotup wing when the one hundred and second girl walked beside him?

For Joe had gone on leave with O’Conal. It was the Fourth of July, and where else would a pair of Independents go on that day but to the American Club in London?

Joe had taken O’Conal with him because Liam had said, “We’ve got a lot in common this day, lad. Both of our countries beat the British and both of us used the freedom that was won for us to fight alongside the blokes may God rest our fathers, turning in their graves as they are!”

“It is sure the night for it,” Joe had grinned through the clammy fog that shrouded them. “Gosh, I can think of the Fourth at home when I was a kid. Massachusetts outlawed the big four-inch salutes. We’d skin across the New Hampshire line and buy them. Then the Fourth would be hot and sunny and full of the smell of their burning powder in the air ...”

“And what is a four-inch salute, man?” Liam wanted to know.

“A cannon cracker. Big one. Goes boom. Like

this ” and Joe had let out a whoop, that parted the thick weather around them, and flung his arms apart widely in demonstration, and whammed the girl a whopper that sent her spinning into Liam, there in the fog.

“Hello, nice guvs—” her voice said, when the breath that had been knocked out of her came back. “What goes? Independence Day stuff?”

“American!” Joe had shouted happily. “An American girl child! Sister, this must he Christmas Day stuff too!”

Well, in a manner of speaking, it was. But for Liam instead of for Joe.

Because it seemed that the three of them were on their way to the American Club—-the girl child, a canteen worker there, hurrying because she was late.

So Liam and Joe hurried, too, but it was Liam she saw first when they walked into the light of the place and left the shrouding fog behind them.

Liam, with that wild and wonderful look about him and the gentle eyes, in their nests of black lashes, smiling into hers. Liam, with his great Irish wolfhound height, towering over her, and his lilting Irish phrasing wrapping her round. Liam. Liam.

“Me, her own countryman and all!” Joe had told Speed, the Australian. “And she doesn’t give me a glance after that lug puts the Indian sign on her. O’Conal! Like a big dumb punch-drunk fighter out of this world on his feet. Sure, I left after awhile.

1 should be strictly from crowding . . .”

SO JOE had lost track of the rest of Liam’s leave.

But the clue to it was those stars in the lug’s eves as he walked toward Banba this morning.

And the worry settled into the squadron as the motors turned. And swept like a chill wind in their hearts as they saw him get aboard Banba without

stroking her cowling as he had done every time before.

Of course, man. That was the O’Conal talisman. Banba and the devil-may-care way of his, that left, broken planes and broken hearts making a path behind him. That, was the O’Conal legend—his fixity to one star and his skill in following it. Besides, all the RAF knew the best fighter pilots were the unmarried, unattached, untrammelled ones.

But now with a girl across his vision. And not “a girl” either, mind you, because there had been more of them than of Jerries shot down. The Girl, she was—and if he were a greater man even than his squadron thought him, he couldn’t help but have her invading that singleness of fighting purpose that had been his before.

And if he were a lesser one . . .

The squadron wouldn’t think on that at all. Because if he were a lesser one then the wanton rollicking reckless fight would go out of him in pulled punches—nor would he be the first in this war, or any other, who paused a moment for the wish to be all in one piece for the woman he loved, who would be waiting.

It is easy to pause to think that. And sometimes the moment of caution is fatal—to a life, maybe; to a two-fisted fighting man’s devil-may-care laugh at that life, in certainty.

Well, the squadron was soaring now. The patrol outward bound to shepherd in a convoy—the paling sky all round them empty as Liam's heart had been when he bid the girl child good-by the night before.

Because she wouldn’t promise she’d marry him at all. She’d only laugh and put her soft, fingers across his mouth, and say, with her laughing, “But I’ve had only four dates with you, Madman! I simply don t know you well enough . . .”

“But marrying me is one of the best ways of getting acquainted,” Liam had insisted—his smile merry as hers, but his eyes, with all his seriousness in them, begging her.

And he had caught her to him so that the love of her was a soaring wonderful thing, like Banba, carrying him high out of this world into the God’s heavens above.

And the love of her was a deep and incisive pain, because he had to carry it. away with only her promise to see him again on the first leave he had. and no word at all to assure him of the marriage he had wanted the first, leave to bring.

“You are a lovely, stubborn, aggravating woman, Girl child,” he’d had to be content with saying. “Make

a note to enquire if by some devil s chance there could have been any English blood in your mother’s maternal grandmother . . .”

Because he wasn’t elusive now, or masterful. And suddenly he had no way of knowing how to lie either one. He was Liam O’Conal knowing this was his woman for whom he wanted a fireside with a root

over it—his home and his love to be her protection from this day forward.

And knowing it, he’d had to run for the last lorry to the field, and, of course, he hadn’t slept worth the mentioning, and now here was the Dawn Patrol and not even a speck in the sky’s immensity to blow off at.

“And maybe, by some unmentionable circumstance, there is English blood in you, O’Conal,” he said to himself, over his motor’s roaring, “— to explain the run of bad luck you’re having. And there’s a laugh for you, lad. Almost 24 years to find the girl of your heart—elusive, masterful O’Conal they call you. So you find her and she’s the elusive, masterful one— you’re so unsure of her; you’re unsure of yourself now, too.

“When you grow big in the head, O’Conal, remember five-foot-two of American that took a fall out of you. The flying man with his shoulders pinned to the ground ...”

But then the voice crackled in his earphones; and he sprang alive out of his lonely musings. And then the three, five-plane V’s wheeled, all in one beautiful gesture, off in the direction specified.

Just 30 of them the report said. Just 30 of the blackguard Jerry bombers, plotted as on a line to take them to the same convoy Liam’s flight was out to bring in.

“Just 30 of them but only 15 of us—” and Liam’s fingers caressed the gun trip beneath them, and his spirits soared with Banba’s climbing—up, up into the clouds above them, up into their hiding place whence they would strike when he had found their targets.

Now he gave orders—for one element which fastened on oxygen masks and climbed above the others; for three more who moved farther to the right; for each of the 15 in the spreading or massing of fire power for the plan of attack.

In a moment, soaring pretty as you please, they were in their new formation—all eyes and trigger fingers, all senses alive and tingling; and maybe here and there a Norman do or die, but mostly, in this crowd, just one grand, rollicking blast-the-gizzard out-of-the-buzzard feeling, with no difference at all for being outnumbered, unless it was that the gumt* would be brisker, faster, more fun.

nPHE plan, of course, was to overtake the enemy X bombers from above— the direction change of this heading-off line should bring them in high; in a position for a quick dive down from the right because though Messerschmitts had the ceiling on Banba she had it on the bombers, and there was only the watchful Deity in His heavens above them when they had levelled off.

Liam, with the assault echelon,would---

swoop down to break up the bombers’ formation and get in the fast stuff. That would be tricky but they’d have surpris«» on their side. Then six moredown onto the tails of the disengaged Jerries, who would try to keep going to deliver their heavy loads. And, finally, the last trio—plummeting like hawks from the highest perch of all, to mop up where they would be needed.

Pretty soon now. They should be in here somewhere. Unless t he spotters had erred, and they didn’t usually.

And O’Conal didn’t usually, either.

And suddenly, roaring, laughing, shouting into his mike, he was tilting Banba in the lovely, lx»autiful arc of her descending, and Joe, who rode his leader’s wing, was wheeling down after him.

It was all right. The girl child hadn’t stopped this piece of war anyway.

O’Conal must still lx? able to sts* with those eyes that had stars in them—picking out that covey from the height the squad ron had been. And the men felt better, flying down after him.

But then their hearts wen* in their collars, and Joe was cursing all women roundly and praying, wordlessly, that Liam wouldn’t pause in a moment of caution now!

The mistake was made—now there was only the brazening out of it, to save their skins, because Liam, in his little personal girl child fog, had misjudgt»d the enemy’s direction!

Coming down fast on his circling from the right, he had thought the bombers already had attacked the convoy and were going home; and he had started after them, like a bat out of hell, only to discover they were coming at him!

But, praise God, he was going to brazen it out— going plumb through the centre of the bombers’ formation, he was—Joe and his four friends right along with him; the six of them hammering away, 48 guns at once.

Anyway, surprise was still on their side. The leading bombers were so startled they broke formation, and the support echelon of Liam’s squadron came down out of the clouds to a skyful of wildly soaring wings, every man for himself; the sea beneath gets the laggard.

Fighter-bombers, too, they were, worse luck. Fast, manoeuvrable, full of cannon and guns and goodness knows what all—wheeling and roaring in steep turns and climbs—30 against 12. Then 28 against 11. Then 25, 24—and down came the last section into a scrap to warm a man’s heart and scare the daylights out of him.

By now the Jerries were trying to make one of their great defensive circles, and the squadron dived in and out of it to thwart its completion—Liam swooping and turning and swooping again, like a crazy aerial cowboy trying to cut a maverick out of the herd.

Now he had one! His face pressed into the sponge rubber rests of his sights, and he had its tail in the ring, and he wasn’t even conscious of his fingers calling Banba to speak, till he saw the spurt of fire where she must have got into its gas tank, because the bomber was rolling over and spinning now—a great flaming torch spiralling into the sea.

“Banba! Banba!” he was shouting so that the entire squadron heard him on their earphones. Only the words were snatched out of his mouth with the rush of air where his cockpit hatch was shattered beside him, and there was a murdering Jerry coming at him from behind, and all in one reflex action he was in the celebrated, elusive O’Conal vertical slip— falling away from it; hurtling seaward out of range; providing himself a moment for the thinking if there might be any worse spot for a man in love to be, than under a bomber with a rear gunner drawing a bead on your bonnet. . .

And then it wasn’t the rear gunner alone but the whole ship, turning and diving at him—and now there was a bullet hole in his coat, and the air whistling merrily into it, and there was a little river of blood spouting above the woman-lashed eyes, where the

Magazine, January

dull burning was, and Liam gritted his teeth and pulled the stick into his belly, and held his breath while Banba’s beautiful nose quivered—like you smell something bad, and goodness knows, baby, you do!

But the smell of it got her nose up higher, praise be; straight up she was, the lovely thing, and climbing like mad so she near smashed the diving bomber as she arced up under and over it.

Now if she would turn quick enough! “If her wings only stay on as they always have—” Liam worried for her.

For that was when she was all in one piece and younger. Now? Holes in her hat already and who knows where else; the wind rushing into her broken hood, the broken pieces of it showering him when he got her over on her back—her belly to the heavens, but her beautiful nose coming down again, with the little tricky O’Conal sideslip thrown in—“Like a mad acrobat somersaulting on one spot,” his squadron used to say of it, admiringly, “—if it doesn’t tear the guts out of him . ,

THERE was the roaring pain in his stomach then, and the left arm numb. But the blood in his eyes didn’t dim the view of the bomber in his sights where it should be, and his burst of fire was silencing that fresh rear gunner, when he got to the Thing’s own bombs and the explosion split it in mid-air . . .

So near he was, the blast rocked him sideways, and he steadied Banba and put her nose up again for the cloud bank and a breather. But he had asked too much of her this time, and, of a sudden, he remembered he hadn’t stroked her cowling when he got aboard.

“Maybe she’s mad-jealous of the girl child, and is punishing me for it—” he thought, with the lyric superstition of the Irish speaking for him, because Banba coughed at him now and lost altitude with her coughing.

He turned and saw what could have been his Thirteenth Jerry making for him, and suddenly he took stock and suddenly he knew he couldn’t help what he was going to do. And without being conscious that his mike was turned on, he said to himself, to Banba, a little sadly, “That’s our thirteenth, Banba —and the first we’ve ever let go while you had bullets in you . . .”

The whole squadron heard him on the intercom, but it was devoted Joe, still trying in a fashion to keep on his leader’s wing, who came at the Jerry for him clenching his teeth on Liam’s first caution; cursing the girl child who inspired it.

T he getting of the fellow took a little time, wily

bird that he was, and the rest of the

had its hands full too. So

by the time Joe climbed back after the slaughter, Liam and Banba had disappeared between sky and sea— pouff! Gone as if to a rendezvous with oblivion.

Joe had a bitter idea where he would find them as he scanned the sky that was empty now of the Jerry attack— the remnants of it streaking for home —and he turned his own ship for her nest, wondering if she felt the extra weight, as he did, of his heart heavy within him.

At the field the squadron was waiting for him—a close-packed circle watching the sky for Banba, who didn’t bring O’Conal home.

And Speed, the Australian, was saying defiantly, “He got his eleventh and twelfth anyway, before he lost his nerve . . .”

And the New Zealander spat out, “Well, a man has a right to think of his skin when his thirteenth comes up . . .”

And the Canadians just scuffed the toes of their boots into the soft ground, and kept their heads down so the honest heartbreak in their faces could look out of them, unquestioned.

But someone said softly;

“Those that I fight I do not hate, Those that I guard I do not love;”

And Joe pounded the palm of one hand with the rolled fist of the other

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Continued from page 18

and barked, “Stow it! She took the fight out of him. Pulling his punches for the first time in his life. Then something must have jumped him when he was heading for home alone . . .” They couldn’t stand there any longer, though they wanted to. Though they wanted never to have to make out the flight reports that were required of them. The C. O. would want to know Liam’s last message. The newspapers would want to know—the world that thrilled to the legend of him. And the girl child, too.

And lingering there, they made a pact with each other. For the man he had been they would cover what he had become.

“None of us,” Joe said, staring at the tight-packed circle around him,

“—none of us heard him say anything at all, after he got his twelfth Jerry. Do you get it, fellows ...”

“I did,” Speed, the Australian, cut in, and the tears spoke in the voice that said it. “I heard him say, ‘This is it’— and then I saw him break into flames, and spin down toward the sea.”

“Yes—I saw that,” one of the Canadians put in eagerly. “Banba was afire—I think the cockpit hatch jammed and he couldn’t bail out. . . ”

“No,” the New Zealander had the last word. “I was pretty close and I saw him. He was slumped over the stick, just as Banba took him down. The way he’d have wanted it, I think. What was the rest of that Yeats’ poem we used to quote about him? Didn’t it go something like:

“ ‘I balanced all, brought all to mind,

The years to come seemed waste of breath,

A waste of breath the years behind

In balance with this life, this death—’ ”

So they walked wearily across the field, wordlessly. Their little piece for the world all memorized—their little gesture to his memory all that remained because the life had gone out of them and no censure for their lost leader took its place; only a deep and sorrowing sorrow took the place of the vibrant, rollicking, fighting life he had given them.

That’s why they, at first, didn’t hear the C. O. tearing out of the shack as they neared it. Yelling at them, the telephone message fluttering in his hand.

“How did he get it? Man! What a story! O’Conal’s thirteenth Jerry when he and Banba both were shot up! Did you chaps see it? How was he wounded?”

“Shot up?”

“The thirteenth?”


The squadron sounded like a flock of feeble-minded parrots—standing there, looking at each other, stuttering; wonder growing in them; an incoherent, irrepressible wonder that had life in it again, and excitement mounting, and gratitude that, somehow, O’Conal hadn’t failed them.

IT WAS Joe who was sent to the auxiliary hospital, halfway across England, to find out what they didn’t know. And quick as he thought he had got there, it was no faster than the girl child, who was beside Liam’s bed ahead of him.

“O’Conal, you big dumb punch-

drunk fighter—” Joe said, in that awkward way men have when their voices won’t come out of them steady. “Where’s Banba?”

“Safe as a wounded bird, she is,” Liam grinned at him. “Having her wings fixed and a new heart maybe, and a hat for the one that was blown away. . .”

And then there was something about her not having been able to climb after the blasting of the twelfth Jerry had asked so much of her, and something more about Liam with one arm numb, and the blood from the bullet that had creased the bristly black hair flooding into the long-lashed eyes. But he’d been able to see her losing altitude all right, and decided to brazen her through.

“Jealous and all as she was,” he grinned at the girl child in the telling,

“—I thought she wouldn’t fail me.”

So he’d put her in the long glide that | was to carry them both back to land though her heart didn’t like at all the idea of leaving a fight with bullets left for her to chatter at his call.

And in the glide he’d spotted the laggard Jerry, wave-hopping in its desperate flight for home, and Banba had swooped down and spoken her piece anyway, with the bullets remaining, so the blackguard Jerry had sunk like a stone. And then she’d had to wave-hop herself, since there was no climb left in her.

But the coastal observers, through their glass, had seen her sink the Jerry and they were waiting for her to crash-land on the beach below their cliff —so with ropes they got Liam up, and now they were seeing to wounded Banba.

“At least, they said they’d see to her,” Liam pleaded suddenly. “Would you go, lad, and make sure they did. . .?”

“Sure,” Joe said. “But first, what was the idea? You could have killed yourself in that crazy landing—the beach likely was mined. Why didn’t you call for the squadron to get that Jerry while you took yourself and Banba safely home?”

“With ten planes to my belt when I was only fighting for England,” Liam said, with merry horror in the voice that said it, “—you’d want me to pass up any one of the three I could get when I was fighting for the girl child, too!”

Joe glanced down and saw the girl child’s hand stroking the black hair above its bandages then, ever so softly, ever so gently, but with a kind of ownership to the stroke as well. So he muttered something about checking up on Banba, and had the odd feeling they didn’t even notice when he left.

“That wild Irishman is wilder than ever!” he told the squadron later, happily. “He’s possessed to shoot down everything in sight for fear it might harm a hair on that girl child’s head! Women? Nuts! Though it’s a pretty good-looking head, now I think of it— American, too. Stay long? Gosh, no! You want I should be strictly from crowding?”


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