The Red Beach
He was a veteran pilot; his gunner an ignorant kid, young enough to be his son—Which life should he save, his own or the boy’s?
H. VERNOR DIXON
HE FELT like screaming, but said calmly enough, “I’ll die in here, like a trapped animal.” “No, you won’t, sir. I’ll get, you out. Don’t move.”
“I can’t move; damn it. And you can’t get me out.” “I’ll get you out, sir. Please don’t move.”
The boy’s voice was high, like that of a young girl, almost hysterical, on the edge of tears. He thought of how the boy had been on the carrier and, somehow, in spite of the pain, or perhaps because of it, managed a smile. There the boy had been cocky, like the other youngsters, an old salt, a veteran, a man s man, a man who could take it as well as dish it out. Even in the air, his young, slim fingers on the triggers of his guns, in the worst of their many battles, the boy
had been all the man one could want in that rear cockpit.
But here on this lonely beach and deserted island, just the two of them, and himself trapped and broken in the smashed forward cockpit of the dive bomber— here the gunner was suddenly reverting to boyhood and going to pieces. If that happened the boy would never get him out. In a few moments it would be dark, with the terrible suddenness of darkness in the South Pacific, and the boy would not be able to see to pull the twisted metal away and get him out.
The pain was sharp now in a thousand places and he blinked lus eyes to hold it back and cursed the string of bad luck that had placed him there. He could feel the water on his legs, twisted under him, and
feel it rising, slowly, inexorably, with the incoming tide. But he was afraid to tell the boy to hurry, afraid to add to his excitement. He could hear him working at the broken metal, feverishly, and that was enough.
TO TAKE his mind away from the rising tide he thought of the fight and the landing and why he was here.
Wallace, insufferable aboard ship, but the best wing man in the fleet, had been tailing him as they went over the hump and followed that bright but invisible groove down the sky to the frantic cruiser below. The loop of the bomb could not be seen but its going away and the lightness of the ship were felt and himself squeezing down in the seat as he came out of the dive and looked back and around for Wallace and saw him destroyed in the concussion of his own bomb as it blossomed on the cruiser. Light calibre tracers poured by his side and fear was tight in his throat as the Zeros came dancing crazily in, with only the boy at his guns making it difficult for them.
The local squall, its skirts trailing the surface of the sea, took him within its cool embrace and offered temporary sanctuary, though he was blind within it and had to circle on instruments. The SBD bucked with the prop-wash of a Zero passing blind and that frightened him almost as much as the bullets. When he came out the other side two of them were waiting, bright silver and beautiful in the sun, poised in the sky like ballet dancers, poised directly over him and coming down and then, with a half roll, passing under to rake his belly and completing the roll to fall away. The shock and bang of the steel striking home
was under him and his seat was smashed loose, so that he skidded forward in the cockpit and dived toward the waiting sea. He shoved the seat back, with his feet hard on the pedals, and came out of it and got back into the protective cloak of the squall.
He had always known this could never happen to him, but it was happening and he watched oil pressure going down as he rode the safety of the squall and knew now that he would never return to the carrier. He knew he was too old for this to happen to him, he had been through too much, but while it was happening he rode the squall and when the Zeros were gone he came out and searched for the one island on his chart where an emergency landing could be made. There was not a tree on that tiny island, but there was a long curving beach and as he circled he saw that it was flat enough to land on with wheels down. He hit the wheels and the flaps and came down and levelled off and he sighed with relief as the wheels kissed the sand and rolled. Neither he nor the boy had seen the log. The left wheel hooked it and the ship spun wildly into the water and up on its nose. He pitched forward, with the broken seat strapped to him, and smashed through the instrument panel and was firmly wedged under it as the tail settled slowly to the water. The pain took a moment to arrive, but when it did come he was surprised he could feel it that badly and still be conscious of it. He almost hoped the water would rise faster than the boy could work, but he fought that off, as he had fought off so many things in his life, and concentrated on willing the boy to work faster.
THE BOY was saying, still with that high frightened voice, “I think I got it, sir.”
“Get this seat unstrapped.”
“Oh, that’s off, sir. That isn’t it. It’s the rudder pedals holding you in. You’re jammed on the other side of them.”
He heard the boy grunting and working and then the boy’s hands under his armpits and his body untangling and sliding out with sharp pieces of steel and glass scraping at his left leg. He let himself go then.
When he became conscious he was lying on his back on the still warm sand, and the yellow stars in a blue night were above him. A dark form blocked most of them off; it was the boy bending over him, wrapping bandages about his left arm. He could hear the doglike lap of the surf on the beach and he also knew he was naked. The boy had probably undressed him to tend his wounds.
He licked his lips and tasted blood and asked the boy, “How am I?”
The boy paused, squatting at his side, saying nothing. After a moment he replied, “Not too good, sir. I managed to get all the stuff off the ship, but the morphine’s missing and there’s lots of other stuff you need.”
“I’m lucky to be here at all.”
“You and me both, sir.”
The boy went back to work, his long fingers cool and tender as a woman’s and his soft breath near the pilot’s cheek. But the pain returned in a sharp flood and the night was more red than it was black and the stars were gone altogether. It was like that all night, and all night the pilot fought the pain, silently, not moving, harder than he had ever fought against anything in his life. It was that or die and he was well aware of it.
In the morning the boy gave him water and chocolate tablets and put them in his mouth. He could not move. His whole body was smashed. His eyes blinked their gratitude at the boy, even though he threw up the chocolate and retched for some time after.
He watched the boy squatting silently at his side, his pale blue eyes turned out over the sea. The rising sun was in his yellow hair and the fuzz along his chin and his smooth cheeks were flushed as red as the sun. He was so young. The boy always lied about his age, saying he was 20, but the pilot knew he was exactly 17 by one month. He was a child, who wanted to play at shooting guns.
The pilot thought, I could be his father. He was 36, far over age for a combat pilot, but the best squadron leader in the fleet, knowing every trick in the book and using them all, and breaking in the boyreplacements—and so still in the air. A hundred times, on a dozen ships, his superiors had threatened to ground him because of his age, but his combat record had been a rebuke to them and the Old Man was behind him with his statement, “The hell with age. A pilot’s job is to fight and fight well. He fights and he fights well. He stays in the air.”
Now he was on the beach, broken, with the full acid knowledge that he would never fight again if he survived. Lowering his eyes, he could see the condition
of his body. The boy did not have to tell him how he was. He could also see the sand of the beach and he noticed a peculiarity which he kept to himself.
AS LONG as he fought back the pain with every L cell and tissue of his brain the sands of the beach were white and each grain was sharp and distinct But the moment he felt the slightest desire to let go, to give way to the pain and let it take him, then each grain blurred and the sands of the beach turned red. I’ll watch it, he thought. Red and white. The color will tell me whether I am losing or winning.
The boy left him for a walk around the island and was back in less than an hour, it was that small. He sat down and reported, “Nothing. Not even a crab.” “You could fish. How about that emergency gear in the ship?”
“Sorry, sir, but it’s all gone. I had to take care of you and the tide took it all away. We got four bars of chocolate, two canteens of water and part of the first-aid kit. That’s all.” The boy waited a moment, then asked respectfully, “How do we get off, sir?”
The pilot worked the problem out in his mind until he was satisfied with it, then he told the boy, “The force was moving north for a rendezvous, so they won’t come after us this time.”
“I know. That’s what scares me.”
“No need to be scared. We’re just within the limits of the Aussies’ PBY patrol. I know their schedule. One of them will fly over this island in—let’s see—13 days.” He saw the deepening fear in the boy’s face and said quickly, “Men have stayed alive on rubber rafts longer than that. And we can get more water in the sand. You’ve been taught how to do it.” “Yes, sir. But four bars of chocolate-—even for one man . . .” The unfinished thought hung in the air.
The pilot blinked into the propped-up coat the boy had placed over his head to shield him from the sun. He thought—Thirteen days and not quite enough food to keep one man going. I’ll have to think of other things. Irene . . .
THERE was that summer at the lake when they were first married, at Globin’s on the southern shore. The pines grew right down to the water’s edge and at night there was always a breeze, so that the pines never ceased their whispering. The sand was warm underfoot and Irene was warm in his arms and
never far from them, especially before the big log fire in the evenings. The wharf went out into fairly deep ice-blue water and as you dived the mountains ringing the lake seemed to rise and fall away and the shock of the cold water pounded at your chest in a very good and very clean way. He never tired of sitting and looking at Irene in a red bathing suit, leaning back on her hands, her shoulders hunched forward, her eyes half-closed, slanted toward the mountains at the far end of the lake and then looking at him, and the warmth creeping into their depths, and going into his arms.
There were craps and roulette at the State-Line and good whisky and people you became friendly with in 10 minutes because there was no war and no thought of war. The little cabins about the lake and the sudden, extemporaneous parties and the elderly couple you liked because they thought you were the handsomest newly married couple they had ever seen. You even sat with them before the fire in the inn, drinking and talking, when there were so many more things to do, because you liked them for liking you in the way they did.
Irene was not much of a golfer, but she walked around while you tried to break 90 and never did. She made the 19th hole at the long bar a celebration, and you never had to rush home to the “little woman,” because home and the little woman were with you all the time, wherever you were. They were with you at Port Angeles on the Olympic Peninsula when you were horsing in king salmon and they were with you at Antoine’s in New Orleans, eating oysters Rockefeller and Pompano cooked in a bag with shrimp and crab sauce. Irene was always there, and how she felt about you was in her eyes and her slow smile for t he world to see. The two of you were so much in love it was almost painful, like now.
HE SAID aloud, “Those were real days. The best.” The boy asked, “What was that, sir?”
“Hmmm? Nothing. I was just thinking aloud, about places where my wife and I have been. Like Antoine’s . . .”
“Where is that, sir?”
“You’ve never heard of it?” He forced back the pain, as heavy beads of sweat broke loose on his forehead, and smiled. “You haven’t been around much, have you?”
“Not since before the Navy, sir. I’d never been out of Nevada. I’d kind of like to take a look around the country, too—when we get back.”
“Yes. It’s nice country. I’ve covered most of it, living here and there. The summer before the war I was stationed on Long Island. We lived at Freeport.” He looked down at the red-turning sand and fought it off until the sand was white again, even whiter than it was at Jones Beach.
THERE they would lie on their backs in the sun and listen to the surf breaking sharp and faster than it did on the Pacific side. There were long drives to Montauk Point and getting strangers to take pictures of them standing in front of the lighthouse, with a little box'camera they, had bought in a drugstore for a dollar, and then stopping at Canoe Inn for a bite on the way back. Tuna fishing out of Freeport was expensive on a naval flight lieutenant’s pay, but it was worth it to watch Irene, at 105 pounds, trying to boat a 60-pound tuna that had other ideas. The intense concentration of her expression, the fighting challenge in her eyes and then her glad victorious cry as the tuna surfaced. Yes, it was worth it. And the funny little bars on the Freeport wharves, with cold beer and hard chunks of eel in cut glass bowls. And the best sea food restaurant on Long Island—you.could never remember its name—where customers pulled up to the restaurant’s dock in their cruisers and yachts and ordered dinner served aboard and quite often you joined them. Everyone was crazy about Irene and sometimes that joining lasted for a cruise over the week end, if your shore leave could take care of it.
It could never again be like it had been then at F reeport.
THE BOY said, “I know you’re regular Navy, sir. But how long have you been in?”
He stared out from under the coat at the milky sky and looked down at hls body. The boy had placed his clothes on top of him and underneath he felt sticky. Blood or sweat, it made little difference. The boy could not do much more for him than had been done. He could lie like this for 13 days if he had to. He knew how far he could go. He had reason to know.
He looked at the boy and said, “How long? Let’s see. I went down to Pensacola when I was 20. I’ve been flying for the Navy for 16 years.”
The boy grinned. “Man, that’s really a long time! I
guess you sure liked it.”
Continued on page 39
The Red Beach
Continued from page 9
“Yes, I suppose 1 did. It was a good life. You like flying too, don’t you?”
“I’ll say I do.” The boy stared out over the water. His eyes were those of a child, wistfully trying to peer into an uncertain future. He said, more to himself than to the pilot, “I just got through high school. When I get back,” he paused and then continued, “I’m going back for two years of college and then take a crack at Pensacola myself.
I got good marks in high school, so I think I’ll make it. I’d give anything to fly.”
The pilot wondered what he had ¡ given to fly. It had all been so much fun, such a gay adventure. He had not had to fight a war for it, then.
YOU made the grade and you passed the tests and went through the necessary hazing and then you were in the air. The first solo flight was a great thrill and it was fun dressing in whites with the other cadets and being allowed at the officers’ dance on Saturday nights and pretending you, too, already had your stripe. But the greatest thrill was stepping into stub-nosed biplane j fighters after basic and becoming then, j literally, a combat pilot. You made j fun of the Army for suddenly plugging | the compact little monoplanes and you enjoyed getting into dog fights with the hotheaded boys in khaki and you did not realize you were growing up with the most terrible weapon ever conceived in the mind of man.
There was one excitement after another: your commission, sea duty, carrier operations, the bull sessions in the wardrooms, experimental flying and the constant change in the design of j aircraft. There was never time to grow j tired of a certain type. Even when it was delivered to you another was ! coming off the drawing boards to take its place. And there was never time to grow tired of a base. You were all over the world and the pounding of engines was constantly in your ears and you were a mortal god with wings.
But what did you give for it? You gave your imagination the day after your first solo. A little imagination was dangerous in the air—you found that out while lost on a night flight—so you locked it away in your mind and never again were you imaginative about anything. You also gave away all attempts at abstract thinking. The world of ideas and ideals was decisively j cut away and your world became the I world of charts and clouds and weather ¡ symbols and miles per hour and revolutions per minute and hot oil and ! the octane rating of gas and all that j then pertained to flying or was to be j found out about flying. You gave away j everything about you and stood forth cleanly and simply—a pilot.
When you met Irene you almost gave away your life.
THE BOY leaned over to moisten his lips with a little water. Then he sat back, dug his heels into the sand and wrapped his arms about his thin knees. He looked down into the bruised face of the pilot and said, “Maybe you wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t gone in for flying.” He added, but in the form of a question, “But I guess it was worth it?”
The pilot was suddenly irritated. “Who knows what anything was worth? When I was flying I enjoyed it. That’s all. You didn’t think about anything else. Look, kid; 16 years is a long time in this game. I’ve seen the worst of it and the best of it. We flew crates that should never have been allowed off the ground and others that
! were sweethearts, like the first I Grumman fighters, the biplanes.”
The boy looked very surprised. “Biplanes? I didn’t know Grumman made biplane fighters.”
The pilot was now so angry he wanted to strike at the boy, but couldn’t. “Damn it,” he cried, “that was before your time. You’re a baby. 5 Hear me? A child. You have no busij ness being anywhere near an airplane, j Flying isn’t for children. You should Í be home, with your mother telling you ; what to do, running errands for your 1 I mother, going out in the morning for j the Sunday funnies, calling on your best girl and—Aw, hell! I get fed up with you kids washing your diapers in our cockpits.”
The boy said humbly, “I’m sorry, sir.
I didn’t mean to say anything wrong.” He looked younger than ever, almost as if he could cry.
The pilot looked away from him. All he could see was the sand of the beach and the milky sky and a tiny strip of the green-blue sea. Thirteen days, he thought. I can lie here for 13 days and look at the sand and the sky and the j sea and still be alive at the end of that time. Like the mudfish in Africa. I know I can do it because I have done it once before. I can lie here and lose weight and die a little each day, but not enough to kill me before the Aussies’ patrol finds us.
Then he glanced at the boy and wondered about him, startled and shocked that he hadn’t considered the boy before. A boy of 17 had enormously deep wells of strength to draw upon, but this situation did not call for j strength. This called for the ability to lock your mind tight against everything except the will to survive. The boy did not possess that. He had almost j gone to pieces already, at thought of j j losing the pilot to the tide and himself j alone on the island. Being alone,
I though, was trivial in comparison with what was to come.
Hunger would kill the boy in a week. He had no reserves against hunger. The older the man the longer he could withstand hunger. The energy of the boy, simply because he was a boy, would burn out his reserves in a very short time. Two bars of chocolate apiece—one bar for each per week. A ¡ nibble in the morning and a nibble in the evening. The boy would surely die and the pilot would lie in a suspended state, with a little more chocolate, and be alive when the Aussies came.
Too bad, the pilot thought, and fought back the returning redness of the beach until it was white again and the ! pain was sharp and distinct, like it had been once before, rather than all over him. He fought it down quickly and was proud of his ability to do so. He was sure he could survive. But it was too bad about the boy.
His anger was gone and he whispered, “Forget it, kid. I was blowing my top. No reason for that. Just | popping off.”
The boy smiled. If he had had a tail he would have wagged it. “That’s all right, sir. You got a right to pop off. You’re sure busted up bad.”
“Well, you can’t be slammed through an instrument panel without breaking a hell of a lot of bones somewhere. What do you think my chances are?”
The boy looked away from him nervously and the pilot was amused. “Aw, gee, sir . . .”
“No kidding, now. Straight from the shoulder. You and I have been through plenty together. Tell me exactly what you think.”
The boy looked into his eyes and said flatly, “All right, sir. I don’t think you’ll live.”
“Remember when Stevenson cracked 1
up against Lucky E’s island? He wasn’t banged up half as much as you are and he died. They couldn’t save him. I was there and saw it happen. Gee, sir, you shouldn’t make me say . .
“That’s all right. But you’re wrong. Understand?”
“Sure, sir. Sure I am.”
“No. That isn’t what I mean. I mean you really are wrong. I mean I have to be killed outright to die. That is the only way it can be done. Otherwise I manage to live through it.”
The boy was looking at him queerly. “How do you mean, sir?”
“I mean this has happened to me before. Years ago. You know, that’s odd. You probably weren’t even going to school then. You were about six years old when it happened to me.” “Was it in a bad crash, sir?”
He could not nod his head, so blinked at the boy. “Yes,” he said, “a very bad crash. I was practically scraped off the ground and carried away in a basket. And yet here I am, doing it all over again. The pain is the same and—” he managed to grin “— even the sand is the same.”
WHAT was not the same, even worse, was being pinned under a wrecked airplane for three days and nights without food or water and only one chance in a million of being found.
It happened because of Irene. He was a lieutenant (j.g.) then and proud and cocky about his stripe and a half and considered by the other men of his squadron as a “hot” pilot and a terrific guy for arranging blind dates. Irene had been a blind date, for the other man. There was a young debutante he knew in Beverly Hills, who had a friend she could persuade to go out with his friend. Irene was the friend and he took one look at her auburn hair and slumbering green eyes and forgot about his own friend and his own date and concentrated on a flanking attack around Irene. It had been a bad evening for the others, but eminently successful as far as he was concerned. Irene had shown some interest in him. That was all the opening he needed.
He threw away his book of names and phone numbers and pursued Irene back and forth across the continent. Fortunately he was ashore at the time, doing test work that carried him all over the country. He took her to the shows and night clubs in New York and had lunch with her at Fishermen’s Wharf and dinner at Solari’s in San Francisco. He was with her for one glorious week in Honolulu, where she was visiting her parents, and, even better, rode the Matson liner with her back to the States.
But then you fell in love and you started thinking of marriage, and the ideas that had lain so long in the back of your mind came out again and imagination was rediscovered. Caution grew upon you and flat hatting went by the board and altitude became important and you began to wonder about the strength of those wings that had sustained you so well—until now. When the engine coughed and missed a beat your heart skipped with it and each landing in a jittery little fighter had to be sweated out. You doubted the airplane and you doubted your own skill and you wondered, “What in hell am I doing in this dangerous business, anyway?”
But you stuck because you were in love with that, too, and your mind was in a turmoil and it was impossible any longer for you to think clearly. Your squadron mates kidded you and thought it all very funny, but to you it was deadly serious. You were to take a fighter from San Francisco to Chicago, but you knew Irene was staying at Palm Springs. You thought,
though you knew you were breaking regulations, “I’ll pick my own route,” and took off for Palm Springs without checking the weather. You simply had to see Irene.
You ranrinto bad weather over the desert and were afraid to turn back because you would be found out, and so you pushed on until it closed around your wing tips. Blind flight instruments in a fighter were almost unheard | of then and you got panicky, for the first time in your life, because you . were in love, and you spun in. You lay under the wreckage for three days and three nights and knew you were going to die. There was no help for it. But you thought of Irene and concentrated on Irene, and spoke aloud every word that had been said between you, and ; thought exclusively of Irene, and you | lived.
He was found by a private charter pilot flying some hunters into the desert and sent to a hospital and then to other hospitals. Eight months he spent in hospitals, until his bones knitted together and his wounds healed and he was discharged. The medics told him he would never fly again. But after three months on the desert, with Irene and the healing sun, he went down to San Diego, took his physical and passed, much to the astonishment of the medics. His imagination was tucked away and he flew again, as well as he ever had.
The experience had been a grim one, almost fatal, but later he was proud to add it to his other list of experiences and dwell upon how close he had been to death. Few men had ever been that close and survived. It colored his life and added an epic chapter. And it ' brought him Irene. It was, then, ' worth while.
E SAID to the boy, “This is really ¡ no worse than it was then.”
The boy was breaking off two pieces from a bar of chocolate, two very small pieces, but one rather larger than the other. The pilot knew the larger one would be for him and the smaller for the boy.
The boy said, without looking up, “I hope you’re right, sir. You’ve been through more than I have. You oughta know.”
When the chocolate was handed to him he shook his head. “Not now. I’ll have mine as soon as it gets dark. Right now I don’t think I could get it down. My throat is still pretty raw from this morning.”
The boy sat back and chewed at his own small piece. “Yes, sir.”
The pilot stared at the chocolate and could almost taste it in his mouth. He wondered why he had said what he had. His throat was not raw and the i juices of his stomach were boiling for ! food. He wanted that piece of chocolate as much as he wanted life. It was life. j
He thought, I guess I am getting a little crazy, refusing it. No sense to j that. Lying here, watching the kid munch his piece, this is ridiculous. I j want that food. But if the kid had the ¡ four bars for himself, for 13 days . . .
The boy asked, simply to make conversation, “Where is your wife, sir?”
The pilot stared at him. “Irene? Oh, she’s waiting for me in San Francisco. Little apartment down on the Marina.”
He lay quietly for a long while, as the last rays of the sun colored the sky, then replied softly, “No. We always wanted children, but that crash—Well, it’s all right. We certainly had everything else. Ten years with someone you love is worth a lifetime of . . .” His words faded to a pause and then he shouted at the boy, “Damn you, I don’t owe you anything. Understand?”
The boy’s mouth fell open and his
eyes grew round. “Bul, sir, I didn’t say . . .”
“You don’t have to say anything. I’m saying it. I don’t owe you a thing. You hear me? Not a damned thing. You’re just a snot-nosed kid who doesn’t know what the devil it’s all about. You haven’t had a chance to know. No one ever thought to give you a chance—except me. I’m thinking of it, though. I’m thinking too much and no pilot should ever think.”
The boy leaned over him, worried and anxious. “You’d better have your chocolate, sir.”
The pilot relaxed and smiled. “I have already had my chocolate, son. All kinds, bitter and sweet, and the bitter made the sweet taste sweeter. Sure. I’ve had mine.”
He closed his eyes and thought it’s all right, Irene. Please believe me. It isn’t bad at all. It’s really very easy. And think of those 10 years. That is almost as long as this boy has lived.
The strong fingers of his hands slowly
unclenched themselves from fists and lay flat at his side. He let go then and his eyes half opened and he lay there quietly listening to the surf and watching the changing color of the sand.
WHEN the Australians took the boy aboard the ungainly looking PBY, he was down to 90 pounds and unable to walk without assistance, but he was alive and conscious.
The pilot of the patrol ship grinned and told him, “You’re sure lucky, youngster. Too bad, though, that we couldn’t have saved the officer.”
The boy’s feverish eyes sought those of the pilot. “Nothing you could do,” he said. “He went out of his mind and died the second night.”
“Yes. Too bad. Well, youngster, you’ll just have to remember that not all of us are strong enough to live through an experience like that. You should be thankful you’re alive.”
“I am, sir. Very thankful—and grateful.”