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- Our Pilots in the Air - 1/30 -
Prepared by Sean Pobuda
OUR PILOTS IN THE AIR
BY CAPTAIN WILLIAM B. PERRY
A BOMBING AIR RAID
The scene in the valley was striking in one respect. Low ranges of gently sloping hills had widened out, enclosing broad levels with what in America would be termed a creek but was here poetically named a river. By here I mean eastern France, not so many miles from No-Man's-Land. The "striking" feature was the "Flying Camp" spread out over a dead level of much trampled greensward, enclosed by high board walls, irregularly oval in shape, with a large clump of trees in the center and a multiplicity of large, small, mostly queer-shaped buildings scattered about.
There were a few wide roadways, with smaller avenues intersecting them, and larger open spaces, bordered by hangars, at either end of the oval.
On a bulletin board in one of these open spaces a placard was tacked, at which several young men in khaki and wearing the aviator cap were gazing, commenting humorously or otherwise. All that this plainly open placard published, apparently for all eyes to see, was as follows:
"Members of Bombing Squadron No. - will be on the qui vive at 7 p.m. tonight. Specific orders will be issued to each at that time."
Not much in that, an outsider might think. But wait! Listen!
"Say, Orry," remarked an athletic youth, throwing an arm casually over the shoulder of a smaller companion beside him and tweaking the other's ear, "does this mean that you and me go up together in that crazy old biplane they foisted on us before?"
"How should I know?" replied the smaller lad, a nervous, sprightly youngster, dark-eyed, curly-headed, thin-faced. "Did she get your nerve last time?"
"Not by a long shot! But when we made that last dive to get away from Fritzy in his Fokker, I noticed your hands on the crank were shaking. Say, if that Tommy in the monoplane hadn't helped us, where'd we been?"
"Right here, you goose! We'd have got out somehow, but it was squally for about five minutes."
The two strolled off together as others, also in khaki but with different fittings or insignia, gathered about to read, comment and then turn their several ways.
"We are in that bombing squad all right, I guess remarked Lafe Blaine, the athletic youngster. "But I am tired of this everlasting bombing that goes on, mostly by night. We're chums, Orry; we work together all right. There is no one in this camp can handle a fighting machine better than I; nor do I want a better, truer backer at the Lewis than you."
The Lewis gun was the one then most in use at this aerodrome station, which was somewhere on that section near where the British and French sectors meet.
"You always were a bully boy, Lafe, in spite of your two big handles. Say, how'd they come to call you Lafayette when you already had such a whopper of a surname?"
"Oh, dry up, Orry! Those names often make me tired. I'm only an ordinary chap, but with those names every noodle thinks I ought to be something real big. Catch on?"
Orris Erwin nodded and pinched the other's massive fore-arm, as he replied:
"So you are big! Bet you weigh one-eighty if you weigh a pound."
But Lafe was thinking. Finally he announced decidedly:
"I'm going to get after our Sergeant this afternoon. If he knows what's what, he'll let you and me take out that neat little Bleriot. We'll do our share of bombing of course; but if the Boches come up after us, we can do something else besides run for home -- eh?"
Erwin shook his head dubiously as he replied:
"I doubt if he gives us the Bleriot. It's French, you know. We're practicing with the Tommies. He likes the way you handle things, but I fear he don't build much on me."
Lafe, of course, disclaimed any superiority, but Orris felt that way. Later, when mid-day chow was over, Lafe found his way to where the squadron commander was checking off the different machines and assigning to each the various occupants. All this on a pad, in one of the hangars, with no one else near, as the Sergeant thought. In Hangar Four were two Bleriots all in trim order. The Sergeant stared at one of them, grumbling to himself.
"What will I do here?" he reflected, half aloud, though unconscious of his words. "I forgot that Cheval's arm is giving him trouble. Confound him! He's too risky. Won't do to leave one of these behind. Hm-m-m! Who else --"
"Your pardon, Sergeant!" A tall, athletic young American was beside him, standing respectfully attention. "Why not take me? Give me a chance!"
So dominating, yet so deferential was Blaine's attitude and manner that Sergeant Anson for the minute said nothing, but he stared at the lad.
"I was with Monsieur Cheval, Sir, the night he got hurt, and I brought the machine home, under his direction of course. You ask him if I am not competent to handle that Bleriot. I'd much rather be in it than in the big biplane I used last time."
"But - but -- you're too young, too inexperienced, too - too --"
"Now, Sir, please ask Cheval! You know what his judgment is. If I am to have an observer, let Cheval go. He can sit, and - and observe --"
"Dash your bally impertinence!" Anson was putting up a tremendous bluff. He knew it, and he knew that Blaine probably knew it, but "What do you know about Bleriots, anyway?" he asked.
In five minutes by enticing talk and really export fingering of the various parts of the admirable mechanism, Blaine half convinced his superior. More, for by adroit manipulation of a certain lock, with wrench and a pair of tweezers, he readjusted a certain valve hinge in the petrol tank which he had heard Monsieur Cheval grumbling about before. This he did with such dexterous rapidity and ease that Anson expressed approval, adding:
"Where did you pick up so much mechanical knowledge, Blaine?"
"At Mineola, in the States. They kept every applicant in the shops -- some of them for weeks, others permanently."
"How happened it they didn't keep you there?" Anson was grinning now.
"Well, Sir, I wanted to learn to fly -- high. That's what I went into aviation for. Before that I worked for the Wrights at Dayton. Well, when I tried flying, it happened there was a prize offered for flying to Manhattan and back, going round the Liberty Statue. I got hold of an old Curtis machine and somehow I came back second in the race. But --" here Blaine grinned at his own recollection, "but I pretty near busted up that old Curtis! After that they kept me flying until I finally came over here."
The Sergeant frowned then smiled and jotted something down on his pad.
"Go and see Monsieur Cheval. If he is not well enough to go with you -- well, have you anyone else in view?"
"Yes, sir. My partner, who has gone with me on several raids. He's all right --"
"If you were disabled or killed, could he bring this machine back?"
"Yes, sir. He is as good as I am. Cool as a cucumber, but he -- he's rather modest. In fact, if I don't get Cheval, I must have him, with your permission of course."
"Or without it, eh?" Anson again smiled, this time genially. "Well, well! Do what I have said. If you have to do without Cheval, bring that youngster who is so modest to me. I will judge." And the Sergeant turned off, resuming his penciling and further wandering as if Blaine were not there.
Half an hour later Lafe stood by the cot where a shallow-faced, trim-mustached man lay groaning discontentedly. At sight of the young American he raised up to a sitting position, disclosing his right arm and wrist still in splints and bandages. Moreover the pains of moving himself made him groan and ejaculate after the mercurial manner or the Frenchman unused to lying still and eager always to be up and doing.
"Ah, it ees mon comrade Blaine! Ver welcome -- mooch so! Wish mooch you speak ze language, ze French."
Monsieur Cheval, really a noted aviator, had chummed much with the American contingent and had been in the States once, though only for a short time. But he had learned "ze language" -- after a fashion. When Blaine briefly explained what he wanted and what the squadron commander had said, Cheval lay back with a deep sigh, saying:
"Merci, comrade!" Here he chuckled. "I like to go: I want to go! But I no use to you now. Not at all! I no use to myself. Voila! I got well queek; better so here; not over yon in No-Man's-Land. But you be sure bring my enfant back safe, my Bleriot -- Ah! A great baby is my Bleriot!"
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