Dreams of Glory
Walking punishment tours at Maxwell field provided an opportunity for fantasy and daydreams. As I walked, stiffly at attention around the proscribed course, I became Irv Pliskin the fighter ace. During each fifty minute tour, I was the youngest most proficient, most skilled fighter Ace in the entire nation.
I was decorated and honored for my skill in the P-47 or sometimes the twin engine P-38 and the way I handled my aircraft. There I was, hand on the joy stick, finger on the trigger, doing loops and Immelemanns, barrel rolls. I was flying upside down as I engaged the enemy. Making holes in the sky, I was firing the six matched fifty caliber machine guns into the German Nazi bastards, firing short bursts of accurate tracers that knocked them out of the air and sent them to the flaming Hell they deserved.
Take that, you miserable so and so. Irv Pliskin, the youngest Jewish ace in the Air Corps is on your tail. You Nazis can’t escape, Irv Pliskin, hero of the air war and the nation has you in his sights.
There were other fantasies, too, of course. Since I walked eight or ten tours a weekend day, I had fantasies of southern girls and their charms. We can mention those day dreams, but we can’t enlarge on them here. They were just as real, just as vivid as the flying, and based as much on reality and experience as the flying was. As a matter of fact, with my ten hours in a Piper cub, I had ten more hours of reality with the flying fantasy than the other.
So, I walked my tours and dreamed of glory.
The class work at Maxwell field was tough. We studied aviation mechanics, flight mechanics, meteorology, basic math and basic navigation. We had to learn Morse code, too. The Army spent a lot of time teaching us how to be officers and gentlemen. Assumedly, if we passed the complete course we would be Army officers and so we had to learn to behave properly in all situations. It was the Army version of Emily Post, honed specifically for the military service.
The physical training demands were equally rigorous. Maxwell Field was a microcosm of West Point or Annapolis. We did what those cadets did: we ate square meals, we stood at rigid attention, we ran to and from the barracks to the class rooms and we worked out when we weren't studying.
When we finished working out, we worked out some more. We became experts at push-ups, sit ups, climbing walls, and going up and down ropes. We were being turned into tough, seasoned, hardened troops: we were being worked into peak condition.
For me, much of this was torture. I was not, had never been a “jock” . The work I had done before the service, tossing bolts of fabric around in New York’s Garment district had made me fairly strong. But I was more cerebral, I thought, than physical. Running six miles through the Alabama woods, on a hot and steamy trail we called the Burma Road was not my idea of fun.
It always amazed me that I could go the distance. I might come in dead last, but still on my feet, still breathing and alert. Along the way it was not uncommon to pass the dedicated, often derisive, jocks. They would be lying on the ground literally, or hugging trees gasping and struggling for breath. It was not uncommon for guys to actually pass out on the Burma Road from the July heat and exhaustion. Some men may have even washed out of the programbecause they couldn’t "cut the mustard" and run the distance. The Air Corps was relentless.
If you lasted the first of the two months at Maxwell Field, you became an upper clansman and were entitled to passes on weekends. Since I was still walking tours, I never did get to go to town for fun. I heard about it though: the guys would come back from a pass with tales of the beauty of the girls, and the Southern belles who spoke so slow, saying things like "No I don’t wanna, I don’t know you well enough". . . but, according to the folklore, by the time they got the objection expressed, it was over.
I was jealous of course.
But I did get to town once, as a Cadet MP, (Military Policeman) working with the real MP'S to make sure things were okay and all of the cadets behaved themselves. Cadets had some sort of special status in the Army, and a non com couldn’t arrest one: anymore than a non com could, theoretically, arrest an officer who was misbehaving. You had to have a person of rank equal to the miscreant: so I went as a representative of the Cadet Corps.
Oh, what I missed walking tours!
There were exotic and challenging fleshpots in Montgomery in those days: an education in the seamier sides of life to be savored. I can only imagine what I missed. Just another of the stepping stones in growing up.
After two strenuous and challenging months we were ready to be assigned to our flight schools. I was sent to Helena, Arkansas. . . a tiny southern town that hugged the banks of the Mississippi River.
At primary flying school my mistakes in Montgomery didn’t matter. I was no longer required to walk tours: my punishment was over and I was equal to all the rest of the cadets that arrived with me.
The facilities at the primary flight school at Helena were more than adequate. I remember being absolutely impressed with the food; it was far superior to anything we had had up until that time. The barracks, as I remember them were comfortable and even the beds were acceptable. It was a great place to be if you were in the Army.
The primary flying field in Helena was small. The actual field, the airport as it were, was just a meadow. No runways, just a clear grass area about a mile square. There was a windsock to show the wind direction. We took off into the wind, we landed into the wind, and that was it. No radio, nothing but our visuals to show us where to go, where we were.
We were trained in the Fairchild, PT-l9 and PT-23, a low wing monoplane with a fairly powerful radial engine. Many men learned to fly in the Stearman-- the Yellow Peril-- the bright yellow painted, bi-plane that is so often shown in pictures. The plane at our field was a somewhat different aircraft. It was supposed to be easier to fly. The wheelbase was wider than the Stearman’s so it was less likely to ground loop, swing around in a circle on landing. It was a simple airplane, simple controls in the cockpit: a compass, an altimeter, a turn and bank meter that showed the position of the wings, and the simple engine controls, airspeed, manifold pressure, oil levels, fuel. There were two tanks in the wings, and one of the things we learned was how to switch from one to the other. . . so you didn’t unbalance or run out of fuel. And, of course, there was the joystick and the throttle and the rudder controls on the floor.
This was classic flying: the stick to control the aircraft, and the rudder pedals and brakes on the floor to smooth the turns and maneuvers.
My civilian instructor was a Cajun gentleman from New Orleans, named Guy. At that time, it was hard for me to imagine a man with a name like G-U-Y: guy to me was always just an other name for a fellow--like "Hey, Guy. . ". It took a while before I could even understand that the name was pronounced Gee.
Guy had five cadets assigned to him and he was to teach us more than fundamentals. He was to teach us to FLY.
The instructor sat in the front seat of the tandem two-seater, the student in the rear. Communication in flight was one way, from the instructor to the student.
The instructor had what appeared to be a long stethoscope, a speaking tube. The tube had a mouthpiece into which the instructor spoke, or shouted, and the words, without the benefit of magnification, traveled along the tube to the simple headset worn by the student. This extremely fundamental one way communication contraption was called a gosport. It permitted the instructor to talk to the student, explain, give instructions, yell, rants, cuss and defame him. Students had no way to respond except to follow the instructions.
Although Guy, my instructor, was a mild mannered man, with only a small amount of vitriol in his soul, most of the other civilian instructors were exceedingly vitriolic and bellicose. They would shout and rant, attack and abuse verbally and in general make the student cringe the instant they began to talk. It was not a benign way to learn anything: it was rudimentary education, with verbal slaps of the ruler the instant one got out of line. The technique seemed to work for some. Cadets did learn to fly, despite the verbal abuse their instructors heaped on them.
Soft-spoken Guy had a different technique. It worked for him. He spoke softly, gave instructions in a very soft voice and helped his students a lot. On one occasion when I goofed badly, very quietly in my earpiece I heard a sigh and an exclamation. . . "Oh . . ." That quiet comment was as powerful as if I hadbeen slapped in the face.
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.