Climbing High
by Irv Pliskin

In 1942, The Army’s educational techniques and philosophy were pretty primitive. We were taught by abuse and by rote. But we learned. We learned to march, to make a bed with four corners so tightly tucked you could bounce a fifty cent piece at least a foot into the air.

Basic training for incipient airmen was probably no different than it was for infantry troops. We marched, we ran, we did close order drill, we crawled on our stomachs under live machine gun fire, we learned to carry, shoot, field strip and clean a rifle. We did calisthenics and hundreds of push-ups. In Atlantic City we ran on the beach in the sand, we trotted on the boardwalk, we did KP duty, scrubbing pots in the kitchen or pealing mountains of potatoes.

Since we were all candidates for the Aviation Cadet training program, we also took tests.  We marched regularly into the cavernous Convention Hall where we sat at movable school desks and took hours and hours of written tests.

We had gotten there in early January. By mid March we were ready to ship out for the next step in our training. At this point we learned that we were going to be sent to colleges all over the country.

I was sent to the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.  The army took over the dorms and we were assigned to them, as barracks. There were six men to a dormitory room.

We were no longer privates. We were now designated Aviation Students and we proudly expected to soon become Aviation Cadets. There were five academic Aviation Student groups designated by alphabet, at the University of Mass. The senior group, those men that would leave first for further training and or evaluation was designated “E”. If you were in group “E”, you would have the least time at the college: they would move you out for further combat classification as soon as they had space for you.  I was amazed to find myself in group “E”.  Most of the other men in that group had had several years of college We were the top academic group, the men who would be assigned to further testing and training first.

Since we were the first of the Aviation Cades to go through the colleges, they were not particularly prepared for us. One of the areas they were not ready for was the food service. We needed lots of calories to compensate for the heavy physical activity, which did not stop just because we were in schools. The college food service was not accustomed to men who had to have as many as four thousand calories a day just to maintain weight. So they did not have enough food to feed us, or a sufficient variety. Our complaints fell on deaf ears, until the flight surgeon intervened. He was beginning to see men with malnutrition: most of our diet was home fried potatoes and pasta. There was darn little protein.

Our rooms were on the fourth floor of the walk up dormitory, and we ran up and down the staircases on a regular basis. The rules were specific, and punishment for breaking the rules came quickly and relentlessly.

One of the inflexible rules was that after evening chow, you went to your dorm-room-barracks to study, play cards, shoot the breeze read, or whatever, but under no circumstance, were you to leave it.

One evening, however, my roommate Ed Phillips, a boy from Portland, Maine who talked with a funny down east accent started to complain about feeling ill.  His face flushed, he threw up, he groaned and he became listless. To the back of my hand, his forehead was blazing.

There was no one in the barracks to go to, no one to call for help. My roommates told him to wait for sick call in the morning, and tough it out. When his breathing became absolutely labored, I decided that something had to be done. “Forget it,” they said, “wait until morning. You leave the barracks your ass is in a sling.”

I decided not to wait. I picked Phillips up in my arms, put him over my shoulder in the fireman’s carry and walked two blocks to the infirmary through a mid spring blowing snow storm. I figured that if I got washed out, that would be my hard luck.  Ed needed help.

My instincts were right.   Had he not been taken care of then, according to the doctors, he might very well have died. He had severe viral pneumonia: a disease that needed instant attention in those days.

There was no punishment; there was no reward, either.

Ed survived, and the only reason I remember this event today is that Ed contacted me--through the marvels of the internet--a few years ago and we are now, once again, good friends.

Living in the dorm room ‘barracks’ was not easy. We were crowded into a room that was designed for two men: six of us in bunk beds was a bit much. Sometimes we got on each others nerves, and when that happened, fights broke out. One of the few fistfights I have ever had in my life happened there at the U of M. I don’t know why, I don’t know what it was all about, but I know I had a bloody nose and contusions. I don’t remember at all what happened to the other guy: I may not even have hurt him.

Another recollection, this one quite painful has to do with cleaning the ‘barracks’ room.  I was assigned the windows both inside and out.  I pushed up the window to clean it, and had to remove the wood framed window screen to get the job done. Somehow, I dropped the thing, and went sailing down and smashed into the head of one of the men who was cleaning the window at a lower floor.  I don’t know what the consequences of that were, either. I think I may have hid under a bunk bed for two days.

One morning we stood formation and were told that that was the day we were to fly for the fist time.

Special arrangement had been made to give each Aviation Student ten hours flying in light aircraft. Piper Cubs. There are some first experiences in life, as you may well know, you never forget. Among them is your first flight in an airplane with the “joy stick” between your legs.

My civilian instructor was a tall, sanguine New Englander who looked at me with considerable disdain.

We rattled down the runway and suddenly were airborne. What a thrill! I was amazed with the feeling, exhilarated with the look of the land, the feel of the air, and the shear excitement of being there.

He had me put my hand on the joystick. In those aircraft the flying was done with a control stick between the pilot’s legs, and the foot pedals.  By holding the stick, I could feel how the plane responded, move the stick forward for down, pull back to go up. By touching the foot pedals I could sense how it turned and how it moved about the sky.

It was wonderful, just wonderful.

After about thirty minutes the instructor indicated he wanted control. I took hands and feet off, and relaxed in the pure enjoyment of everything.

We started to climb, rapidly.

The nose came up, up, up and I was somewhat surprised. Not yet alarmed. Then, suddenly, without warning the plane plunged towards the earth, the engine noise became a high pitched whine, the world was upside down, we were spinning madly, headed pell mell for the ground.

My joy became fright, my fright became terror, my terror made me ill and I became air sick and threw up.

My instructor beamed.

He had taught the ‘wiseass, New York Jew boy a good lesson.  Learning to stall the plane and recover from a spin was part of the training, but all of the other students had been warned and told what to expect.

I flew nine more hours with the man, and through all of them he told me that I would never learn to fly. I was too stupid, too inept, to be able to cut the mustard.

Although he weakened my confidence in my ability to make it, he strengthened my resolve, at least, to try.

Two weeks later, Ed Phillips had recovered; we had completed our ten hours flight instruction. We were on our way again, to Nashville, Tennessee, for our in-depth tests and assignments to training paths.

If we survived Nashville, we would become Aviation Cadets.

Irv Pliskin is a retired advertising agency owner. He is a combat veteran of World War II and an Ex Prisoner of War of the Germans. Married, with three kids, and four grandchildren he devotes his time to writing flash fiction. He hopes, that someday, he may become the Grandma Moses of flash fiction. He lives with his wife of 57 years in Cherry Hill,NJ.  Contact Irv.

Once we read "Final Mission," Irv's amazing story of  his B-17 being shot down over Germany, we had to hear the rest of the story, so Irv sent us this third in a series.  We hope you enjoy it. "Off We Go" was featured last month.

"Final Mission"
"Off We Go"
Climbing High,"
"Mister, You Wanna Buy This Place?"
"Like an Eagle" 
"Dreams of Glory"
"Finding the Way"
"A Pair of Silver Wings"
"Roll Call: Comrades in Arms"
"Learning the Trade, Honing the Skill"
"Over the Bounding Main." 
"Big Ben Here I Come"
Don't forget to  read our
Interview with Irv, too.