Spring Green Ch. 03byAdrian Leverkuhn©
Thursday, 21 April 2005
My next journey with Maddie and her current beau Stephen began a little after seven the next morning when an unlikely looking train of abbreviated proportion pulled out of the Bercy-Gare de Lyon bound for Dijon, then Dole, a trip of about four hours if all went well. The countryside seemed to be waking from a hard winter's sleep, yet even so pale traceries of spring's green budding were everywhere I looked. Villages began their working day as amber sunlight slanted through puffy clouds onto lanes that meandered like gently bubbling streams deep within sheltering valleys. Little farms nestled sleepily into rolling hills; tractors smoked and bounced, were poised to till rich black soil – yes, all was renewal. As we creaked to stops in little villages along the way I looked at little snippets of the medieval world clinging to life in the late twentieth-century, and thought about the contrast between life here and the brutal existence that people clung to in equatorial Africa. Life in much of Africa was as it had been in medieval times too, but people in most rural African villages lived-on in that manner unknowingly, perhaps involuntarily. Out my window I saw villagers tending a usable past, stone walled sanctuaries where people manicured and watered their medievalism, nurtured and harvested tradition. In some villages it was obvious this tradition was a cash crop, in others it looked like a cherished way of life - and these people looked ready to fight to the death to preserve their past.
I remembered Dijon from my post-grad walkabout. The city is a pretty place in its way, full of quaint neighborhood parks and imposing palaces coexisting uneasily with 1950s Bauhaus modern, but we were not tourists, we could make no time for sight-seeing this trip. We left quickly with no regrets, no desire to spend more time than we had: Dole was calling us and we were listening. We were salmon fighting upstream to spawn.
Chuck had, apparently, spent a good deal of time in Dole on his last journey; Maddie told me as the train rumbled across that waking landscape that when she spoke to people who called from the small hospital to tell her of Chuck's passing she was left with the impression that Chuck had, in this last brief interlude, made a lasting impression. Chuck had not, however, mentioned anything to her about the people in Dole, or his experience of the place, and she'd talked to him only a few days before he passed. She had, however, told these people our itinerary. Someone would be, she had been assured, on hand to meet us and take us to the boat.
It was then with no small amount of curiosity in our hearts that we took-in waving banners with our names on them, an official looking delegation waiting on the platform flanked by a small band playing The Star Spangled Banner, old men in uniform everywhere we looked. As the train thudded to a stop I looked at Maddie and she looked at me and everyone on the platform was looking at us and pointing.
"Fark!" Maddie said slowly.
"Piffle!" I managed to say in a voice that quite probably sounded more than a little like Chuck's.
"What the fuck's going on?" friend Stephen howled. He looked scared, but then again he'd never met Chuck. He had no idea what a force of nature the guy had been. Now the truth of the matter was slowly dawning like the Spring Green all around us: maybe Maddie and I hadn't known a helluva lot about Chuck, either, but life was all around us. Smiling, too.
I think I mentioned once before that I didn't really know Uncle Chuck all that well, and that what I had learned had been fractured within the prism of my father's version of his brother's life. Maddie didn't even have that twisted compass to steer by – who knows what was running through her mind as she took this impossible sight in.
We got our bags down from the overhead rack and walked out into the craziest day of our lives.
Saturday, 21 April 1945
That faraway day began like so many others had. Captain Charles W Addington, U S Army Air Corps, was flying in a tight formation of fighters in the skies over eastern France; his wing's task to guard a formation of B-17s lumbering towards Bavaria. He flew a bright, shiny P-51 Mustang, and while not perhaps the best pilot in his wing he was certainly competent. He had three kills stenciled beneath his canopy and had been flying ground support missions ever since D-Day. Now, with German forces scattered and in disarray, Allied air forces were mopping up the last bits of infrastructure that supported the German war effort; today's raid was targeting fuel and ammunition caches in the mountains south of Munich.
It wasn't a large force of B-17s, just 18 of the droning bombers were ahead and below his formation, but there were still enemy aircraft coming up to meet the threat. German fighters, now mainly older Messerschmitt 109s flown by impossibly young pilots, were still managing to shoot down a 17 every now and then, so Addington's wing had been pulled from ground support and detailed to support this morning's raid. They had departed an airfield southeast of Paris an hour before, met up with the bombers and set about scanning the skies for any threat to the bombers as the formation thundered over the French countryside twenty thousand feet below.
Someone shouted. Three fighters below, ten oclock, a large formation at three oclock, high and diving for the bombers. Addington's section broke-off to take the three climbing up from below; he peeled away into a rolling left turn and – inverted and smiling because he thought this stuff was above all else really quite fun – he pulled back on the stick and dove down toward the threat.
The Messerschmitts saw Addington's section diving and broke off, they dove toward the countryside far below; Addington pushed his throttle to the stops and continued in a steep diving pursuit. The Rolls-Royce Merlin engine roared with unrestrained fury, the Mustang leapt through 400 knots and the Messerschmitts, without a significant height advantage, were soon in his sights. Then the three German aircraft broke formation and scattered; Addington took the lead aircraft and followed, lined up the Messerschmitt in his sights and fired.
He could see bits of the aircraft rip and flutter away in the slipstream, could smell raw fuel misting in the air he passed through, then orange fingers of flame licking the sky ahead. A small town lay just ahead, he could see a group of three German Tiger tanks firing on the city. He could see men on the ground defending the town as he roared over, not a hundred feet below. Addington fired another burst at the German fighter; it burst into flames and fell beyond the outskirts of the little town, then he pulled back viciously on the stick to climb over a wall of limestone cliffs ahead. Climbing through three thousand feet seconds later he rolled and reversed course, dove back toward the German tanks.
He didn't have bombs but he did have six 12.7mm machine guns. He arced around the town in a sharp banking turn, looked off his left shoulder at the tanks below, saw a truck with anti-aircraft guns firing at him and pulled up sharply, then pushed the nose over and to the right. He continued his approach, decided to come in as low as possible and use the hills and trees for cover. The mustang had literally tons of energy stored for the run; he climbed into a high banking turn then dove for the trees now five thousand feet below. He came over the last hill at well over four hundred knots and began firing at the Tigers and their support troops on the ground.
The tanks flashed by underneath in a blur; Addington pulled back and climbed into a steep banking turn again, maneuvered to get in position for another run, this time from a different and he hoped better angle. He looked at the scene below; one of the Tigers was in flames, troops were scattering in chaos.
He made his approach, decided to come in a little slower this run, came in right over the little town and began firing at the two remaining Tigers and the anti-aircraft truck. A second tank burst into flames, more troops fell; cannon shells ripped through his right wing. Addington pulled back on the stick hard again, pissed off now and wanting some payback. The Mustang looped over and he leveled off in a steep dive right back down onto the remaining German armor. He emptied his guns on the tank, ran out of ammunition before he could hose off the anti-aircraft guns blazing away just yards from the last burning tank. More cannon-fire ripped into the Mustang; he broke off and turned away.
The Mustang was vibrating oddly, he looked at the right wing and saw flames coming out the right side of the engine, then oil splattered back and blacked-out the windscreen and canopy. The Mustang lurched and shuddered; Addington released the canopy and let it fall away, the he rolled and – now inverted and with his head pointed at the ground below – he released his harness and fell away from the Mustang, fell towards the French countryside thousands of feet below.
He pulled the ripcord, his 'chute blossomed and jerked him upright and he settled into the quick descent. He saw the town below, the river that ran through it, red tile roofs and narrow winding lanes. People were running, putting out fires and pulling people from old stone houses that had just been shelled by the tanks. Something ripped through his left shoulder, he winced and turned, saw German troops across a field firing at him. About two hundred yards away, he thought; then a group of men who looked more like farmers and shopkeepers were firing at the Germans. He put his hand on his 45 as he hurtled downward, reassured by the cold, steely presence under his flight-suit.
He looked down again; the town was screaming up at him now and he thought in that moment he understood how a fly –through its many-faceted eyes – felt when it saw a flyswatter arcing-in for the kill.
Addington landed, if what he did could rightly be called a landing, on the steeply pitched roof of a rather tall, four-story building; he tumbled downward among clattering roof tiles and scattering pigeons, vaulted off the roof at an odd angle with his arms and legs flailing away as if trying to fly on his own, then he fell with a smacking-splash into the canal below.
He fell into the canal in front of a girl who was at than moment washing her father's dying blood from her hands; water from Addington's splash mingled with tears on her face and she thought for all the world that tears from heaven had come to wash away her sorrow.
Then Chuck Addington sputtered to the surface a few feet in front of her, thrashing the water like a puppy on its first swim and yapping at least that much. She stumbled back against wall behind her and looked at the flailing man as she might an angel who had just fallen from heaven.
Captain Charles W Addington, U S Army Air Corps, spat slimy water from mouth and turned, saw a beautiful young girl staring at him in wide-eyed astonishment.
"Howdy-do, ma'am," Chuck Addington said matter-of-factly. He watched as the girl's eyes rolled back in her head and as her body crumpled like wet tissue and fell to the little tow-path along the water's edge.
"Fudge!" he said as he swam to the edge of the canal. He pulled a clump of mossy muck from his helmet, then tried with little success to crawl up the slimy stone wall of the canal. He heard machine gun fire, felt the water erupt as a hail of bullets churned by his side. He turned in time to see a German soldier firing at him cut down himself, then a fat old man with a Tommy-gun ran into view and smiled, gave him a thumbs-up gesture before running off to join the fight raging on the south side of the town. Chuck Addington clung to the slippery sides of the canal like a wet cat. Two minutes before he had been safe in his Mustang – now this! And to drown in a French sewer at the feet of a beautiful girl!
"Fark! Somebody?! Uh, anyone got a rope!"
21 April 2005
We stepped off the train and onto the platform – all was good-natured chaos, a carnival atmosphere prevailed. The little band, apparently prepared to play endless streams of rousing patriotic music, launched into 'When Johnny Comes Marching Home,' little American flags waved everywhere I looked. We had, I can safely say from the perspective of passing time, stepped into another world; yet though it was a world I knew nothing of there was something reassuring about the atmosphere.
Had this response been generated by Chuck's coming to the town a few months ago?
As the delegation approached my mind rebelled: 'Not possible! This is not possible!' There followed a short speech by the Mayor where Captain Addington's role in saving the village during the closing days of the war was recounted, and I listened mutely, tried to pick up every detail, every nuanced reference, because they were clues to this unfolding mystery. And everyone, it seemed, knew everything about us, about Maddie and I. It was a little surreal. I remember feeling like a time-traveler I presumed might; that this was what it would feel like to travel back in time. This was what an altered state of reality felt like!
I heard a voice in the crowd say something about 'the day Captain Addington got shot down,' and my mind reeled. He... what?!
There had never been even one family story of Uncle Chuck getting shot down in the war! Maybe that's because there had been no stories at all of Chuck as a pilot! None at all – not ever, not one! Why? My dad mentioned once, I think, that Chuck went to Europe in the war's closing hours – but, he said, nothing of consequence happened. Oh, aha! Remember I said my father's impressionist landscapes of his brother were at best questionable representations of truth? If that was so, and if Chuck had been reluctant – for whatever reason – to dwell on the past, well, there you have it! Case closed! Yet one simple fact remained: as I stood watching and listening to the town's band and delegates I struggled to recall just one conversation with Chuck, and we're talking more than thirty years worth of idle chatter here, where either France or flying in the war came up. Why would he be so silent? Had he never even told my father any of this? Why not talk about it? There was no reason I could see, none! But there had to be! Had to be! Now, waiting on the platform I felt a great ruse stood ready and had indeed been waiting for some time to be uncovered.
Hundreds of smiling faces, each wanting to say hello and bid us welcome, waited beneath the soft medieval-blue sky. The train pulled away from the station, stranding us, leaving us no ready line of retreat, so blinking in the light we turned to confront Chuck's past.
21 April 1945
Strong-armed men reached down and pulled him dripping from the canal. He was blue, cold and shaking, machine gun fire echoed off buildings, small explosions drifted through the cool air carrying acrid smoke everywhere. The girl, the one who had fainted dead-away, had been roused by his calls for help; she had struggled to her feet and looked down at him then run away as fast as she could.
Addington looked at the men; they smiled, indeed one old man was quite toothless, as they pulled him up on the tow-path.
The girl must have summoned them... he'd have to find her and thank her.
"We go!" one of the man said. "Fass! Di Chormans, dey comink!"
Addington understood. Dripping wet and shivering, muscles aching and his tail-end hurting, he followed them down the stone tow-path until they ducked into a building. They were in sudden darkness and he couldn't see a thing but the men guided him to a room and led him in. They moved a huge stack of wooden crates and another passage was revealed; a few remained behind to seal off the escape route while Addington and his escort resumed their journey through what had to be an underground warren.
"You go there," the toothless old man said, pointing to a heavy wooden door. "Go! There!" He turned and left; Addington went to the door and opened it. The room was well-lit, a radio set hummed against one wall, several men dressed in black, their faces blacked-out as well, sat eating bread and drinking beer. One of them motioned:
"Right." Addington pulled up a chair and one of the men passed him a hunk of bread and a huge tankard of beer. Addington ate.
"You the pilot?" one of the men said in decent English.
"Guilty as charged, Your Honor," Chuck Addington replied. No one laughed.
"Good shooting. My name is Yves." The man held out his hand and Addington took it.
"Charles the first," he replied. "King of the Mustang pilots."
"Well Charles, if you had not happened along I'm afraid we'd all be very dead. Thank you."
"Just doing my job, sir."
"The pilot? Of the other plane? We got him out. A kid, not old enough for even a moustache! Can you believe it!" Yves shook his head in disgust. "You want to see him?"
"Not really," Addington said. He took some bread and a sip of beer. "Can you get me out of here?"
"Germans are laying down their arms all over the place now, but some fight on. Like these pigs this morning. There were a few hundred until you came along. Now maybe thirty or forty remain. Some British troops are on the way; they will be here soon then you can catch a ride with them."
Addington nodded. "Good bread," he said.
"I'm sorry we have no dry clothes for you..."
The ground shook, dust and dirt rained down from the ceiling, Yves and the other men looked up.
Two more concussions, far away, then another almost over head, this one with shattering intensity. Men running. Shouted confusion. The door bursts open. Men explain, Yves listens, gives orders.
"I'm sorry, perhaps you'll like to stay a while. The German has decided to counter-attack, the axis of movement is down the valley along the river. My men report several hundred men are approaching, and perhaps a dozen tanks."
Addington nodded, smiled.
"Why do you smile like this," Yves said.
"I guess you never know, do you? What people will do when there back is against the wall."
"No, I suppose not." Yves grinned, nodded. "Indeed. Will you stay down here in the dark or would you like to go fight some more Germans?"
Addington grinned. "I thought you'd never ask."
21 April 2005
Lunch was to take place in a reception hall at the university; we rode with the Mayor in his car.
"So, how was your journey?" the young, well dressed and, if Maddie's non-stop sidelong glances were any indication, handsome Mayor asked. "Any delays?"
"Well, no, but this is all a bit of a surprise?" I think I managed to say.
"A surprise, yes. I understand. Charles was..." he paused, as if he was searching for just the right word. "He was a bit of a character, sometimes. Yes."
Okay buddy, you win the understatement of the year award, hands down. "Uh-huh," I mumbled, my mouth closed.
The mayor's car turned down the Avenue de Addington and my stomach flip-flopped; Maddie turned and looked at me, her eyes growing wider and wider.
Stephen picked his nose.
"We will have some lunch with interested people," the Mayor continued, "then we will walk down to the boat..."
"Excuse me, but is this street named after my uncle?"
The mayor looked at me like it was simply stupid of me to waste time on the obvious: "Yes, of course."
21-22 April 1945
The firefight had been a fast, furious affair, but it had simply been a probing maneuver by advanced units of the German counter-offensive; no one had been hurt on either side. Now, with night coming-on Addington could hear a large column of German armor coming down the valley toward the town.