| They came, they left no trace.|
At first the ringing sounded from the bottom of a well, then it got louder: the alarm bell. I turned over and switched it off. With bleary eyes I looked across my office towards the windows; the dawn was creeping in from the east. I felt tired; so far it had been an appalling week: We had already lost five pilots. I was fully dressed; it was four days since I last changed my clothes. As I looked up at the ceiling I started wondering where it would all end.
I was the commanding officer of the 46th Spitfire Squadron, responsible for a group of chaps struggling to survive on an ill equipped airfield in the South East of England. Orders were coming down from above without any realization of what was happening on the ground. Stupid buggers I thought. How I envied the boys up there fighting it out. Just my bad luck to be grounded with a broken wrist.
“Shit.” Instead of Whitehall sending down unrealistic orders why don’t they equip us with faster planes?” The tide was slowly turning in the Germans’ favor; they had developed a new Messerchmitt plane. The air battle raging in the skies pitted flying skills and maneuverability against speed. Under the present score the enemy had the upper hand. Speed was becoming the controlling factor.
My thoughts were interrupted by a knock on the door, immediately followed by my aide-de-camp’s cheery voice. Does the man ever sleep? He must be made of steel. Frank had been with me from the beginning of the war; he was the eyes and ears of the squadron, nothing happened without his knowledge.
“Sir, I heard the alarm clock, may I come in?”
“Frank, give me a couple of seconds to get out of bed and splash water on my face.”
“Very good, sir,” came the reply, “ I will go and get your tea.”
You could never win with Frank, he always had an answer, always busy, never wasted a moment. As I rose from the bed I smiled to myself thinking about Frank, irreplaceable, but definitely tiring. I splashed water on my face, ran the electric razor over the night’s stubble. As I combed my hair I got a close look at my face; the blush of youth was decidedly getting rusty. All the signs were showing; this war was slowly turning me into an old man. I walked across to my desk. The day had begun.
Minutes later Frank walked in with a steaming cup of tea.
“Frank, good morning, what’s the news? When can we expect the boys back?”
“Sir, they are straggling in. Two have already landed.”
“How many have we lost?”
“One for sure Sir, and one missing!”
“James, shot down in flames, and Harry is missing.”
“Oh! God! James, one of our best! This is going to be another ugly day.” James’s loss would mean contacting his parents, a responsibility I always dreaded. The lad was only nineteen. He was shaping up to be an excellent pilot. For the second time I wondered where this was all going to end.
“Sir, we have a problem, or I should say a mystery.”
“Frank, we have problems in spades. But a mystery, now that’s a new angle.”
“Sir, have you looked out of the window this morning.”
“No, Frank, its barely light and I am still half asleep.”
“Well, sir.” He paused and I could sense he was collecting his thoughts. “At 0200 hours a foreign plane of USA origins landed on our field. They didn’t even ask permission to land.” Again he paused. “Sir, we didn’t wake you up as you had not slept for forty-eight hours. The mystery, Sir, is that none of us have ever seen a plane like this before.” At this point he stopped, took a step forward, leaned forward and in a hush confidential voice said. “To add to the confusion the pilot seems to come from other planet, whereas the co-pilot from a history book.”
“Frank, we are all tired. It’s very early and no doubt, as usual, you have been up most of the night. Let’s take this one step at a time. First, where is the plane?”
“Sir, if you look out of the window to your left you can just make out its profile.”
I walked to the window, peered through the dirty glass; to my astonishment I could make out the profile of an aircraft I had never seen before:
It was huge, powerful looking, built for speed, swept back wings, a pilot’s dream.
As I turned back into the office, I suddenly realized I had not seen any propellers. Strange!
“Frank, where are the propellers?”
“Sir, the pilot told me it is a relatively new engine design; it is called a jet engine. Sir, these Americans are very creative, my cousin was only telling ……” I held up my hand.
“Frank, let’s not concern ourselves with the American’s creativity, or your cousin’s opinion; just keep to the facts. Where are the pilot and co-pilot?”
“Having a cup of tea, Sir.”
I thought, true to British tradition, first a cup of tea and then let’s have a chat. I took a sip of tea; this gave me a few seconds to contemplate the next move.
“Before you bring them in, just one question. Did they ask for permission to land?”
I reached for the telephone. “This is your commanding officer. Is that you Richard?”
“Morning, are you wide-awake?” This was answered in the affirmative. “ I am here with Frank who tells me we have visitors. I understand we have a visiting aircraft that didn’t ask permission to land.
Yes, Sir, that’s right, never seen anything like it. They came in from the East. They were flying low and fast. We never even saw them on the radar screen. They hit the runway at a speed I never knew existed. To slow down they used a parachute braking system. The pilot told us it was a new system used on short runways. I thought I was dreaming.
“Richard, maybe you were.” I put down the telephone. “Frank, go and fetch them.”
I walked over to the window and took another look at the monster. The early morning light was now pervaded with the rays of the rising sun. I clearly saw the USA ensign on the wings and fuselage. The plane was painted silver; it looked like some space ship out of a comic book, or maybe a bird from some prehistoric age. Before I could decide the door opened and in walked the pilot and the co-pilot followed by Frank. I was too tired to show any forceful emotions, but inside me a battle royal was in progression. At first I wanted to burst out laughing, within seconds I felt stunned by the images before me, then a tinge of annoyance crept over me as I thought the chaps were playing a joke on me. Frank stood there to attention. Reading from a card, he announced the visitors as if nothing was out of place.
“Sir, may I introduce, Arty Wright, retired fighter pilot with the Texas 23rd Tomcat Squadron, and Don Quixote de la Mancha.
Tired as I was I could not resist it. “ And where’s Rosinante?”
“On the air field, she has taken on a new lease of life and thinks she is Pegasus” said the character that was introduced as Don Quixote.
“You mean the plane,” I said.
“Yes,” came the reply.
“And Sancho Panza,” I said without any trace of emotion.
“Arty here, is Sancho,” came the answer said in a tone tinged with the deepest respect and friendship for his faithful servant.
My sarcasm had no limit. “I am pleased to know all the family is complete.” This was definitely a joke the chaps were playing on me.
At this point the tall lanky Texan step forward. “Mister, let me explain.”
“Please do,” I said wanting to see where this was leading. “Take a seat.”
In the time they took to take a seat I had a close look at them. The Texan, by the name of Arty (renamed by Don Quixote, Sancho) was dressed as if he had stepped out of a space -aged comic book. His flying suite was a work of art, tightly fitting, various gadgets strategically place on his arms, legs and waistband. He moved comfortably with the elegance of a predator on the prowl. Compared to our boys, who always looked as if they had come from a party, he looked cool, mean, professional and highly competent. The other character now sitting in an erect position besides him was dressed like Don Quixote as I remembered him from my schoolbooks. The armor breast plate was a size too small. The ruffle round his neck was soiled; no doubt from previous battles, the shirt he wore had been mended a few times in the sleeves. His armored legs gave him a long, willowing appearance. His goat’s beard was well trimmed; an aristocratic face supported two large brown eyes that seemed to stare right through one.
I thought to myself that if these two were actors, then it’s was a pretty good show. I looked over at Frank to see if I could detect any tell tale signs. He stood there taking the scene very seriously, no doubt, waiting for my next order.
Arty, in a Texan drawl, started telling his story.
“ Mister, I will be b r i e f.”
Under my breath I said thank heavens for that, my head was starting to spin.
“ In 1997 I was awarded the National Best Fighter Pilot Award.”
It was only 1943! I was beginning to enjoy the show; the boys were really pulling my leg. If I didn’t feel so tired I would have no complaints, a little light relief always helped moral. But at the back of my mind I was intrigued about the plane, no doubt some optical illusion.
The pilot continued: “In 1998 my dear wife Betsy divorced me, she said she couldn’t continue living in a perpetual state of fear not knowing if I was alive or dead. Naturally when she left I felt lonely. In my spare time, instead of chasing women, I started to read. One day I read a book by Cervantes, called Don Quixote. His adventure completely captured my imagination. The character became an obsession. I renamed my plane, Rosinante. Two months later when flying at 2,450 kilometers an hour and over 32,000 feet, I started having illusions that I was Don Quixote chasing windmills in the sky.”
At this point I was desperately trying to keep a straight face; this was wonderful; the lads were really laying it on. I nearly exploded with mirth, 2,450 kilometers an hour, why not 3000?
“Well the final outcome was, after various medical examinations, the US Air force retired me from flying and gave me a ground job, they considered me a danger. One night there was a knock on my front door. Don Quixote walked in and persuaded me to steal my plane. He said we would travel back through time and help worthy causes. At the time it just seemed natural, after all, in my imagination, I was living his adventures. So here we are.” He paused and added. “Hey! That air strip of yours is a bit bumpy, and short, I nearly didn’t make it”
I thought I would burst, I bet George, the squadron’s cook, wrote the story for these characters. He always had a vivid imagination. It certainly was good acting, this fellow Arty told it with such conviction. The silence left me in a terrible quandary. I knew if I opened my mouth I would just burst out laughing, how could I continue humoring these jokers. In short order two things happened to save the situation.
Don Quixote stood up and said. “ We must be on our way, ask the man if there is anything we can help with.” Before anybody could reply we heard the air raid warning. At the same time the telephone rang. I picked it up.
“Sir, catastrophic situation, there is a squadron of eight Messerschmitts following our boys in; they already have one down. We have only three planes to send up.”
I immediately forgot about the scene that had just taken place. This was serious; this concerned the well being of my crew.
“Permission accorded, send up the three planes.” I said. As I put down the telephone I turned to Frank saying:
“ Go down to the workshop and see if we can put two more planes out.”
I was just about to pick up the phone when I heard Arty say. “Don’t worry, on our way out we will take out the squadron of Messerchmitts. It should take all of ten minutes with that baby on the tarmac.”
Without thinking I said. “ What do you know about Messerchmitts ?”
“ Man, they are museum pieces; back home we fly them to amuse the kids.”
“Chaps. I enjoyed the meeting, let’s continue another day. Now if you will excuse me I need to make a few telephone calls.”
I didn’t even notice them leaving as I had already picked up the telephone and was listening to the dial tone. While waiting for the person to reply I started wondering how I could repay the chaps for their mornings theatricals. Good story, we were always grumbling about the speed of our planes. I had just started to talk into the phone when I heard an explosive noise, as if a whole squadron was taking off. I dropped the phone and rushed to the window. The optical illusion was taxing down the runway. As it gathered speed the thrust of its engines was awesome. Within seconds it had disappeared. I heard a voice from the telephone saying, “hello, hello……”. Before I could reach it the phone line went dead.
Twelve minutes later, Richard from the control tower, was on the phone. “ I have just spoken to one of our boys, it appears our overnight visitors eliminated the Messerchmitt squadron in precisely ten minutes! Who were those guys?” Without answering I put down the telephone.
A few minutes later, Sir James from the Ministry of Defense was on the ‘phone.
“Allen, old boy, is there anything odd going on in your neck of the woods? We have just heard an unidentified aircraft took out a squadron of Messerschmitts. They told me the aircraft didn’t show up on the radar screens.”
“Sir James, before I answer, may I ask you a question. Have you ever read a Spanish author called Cervantes, he wrote a long story about a character called Don Quixote?” If, Sir James had read the book he might believe me.
“My dear boy, all I ever read are technical documents and governmental directives.”
“In that case, Sir James, I have nothing to report, but when I brief the boys tonight I will bring up the subject.”
“Keep your eyes skinned.” The phone went dead.
I heard somebody coming into the outer office, and Frank’s head appeared at my office’s door.
“Sir, good news, all the boys are back. We have sent a plane out to pick up Harry who was shot down. He paused, “Sir, with your permission all the boys agree that we should forget about our visitors, no reports, maybe we are all over tired. It could be we were all dreaming.”
“How do you explain the disappearance of the Messerschmitt squadron?”
“Sir, let’s say we just got lucky.”
“You have my permission, no reports. Oh ! Frank next time you are in town pick up a copy of Don Quixote.”