The skies are clear and blue, today.
And one of us will die; either myself, or the adversary.
Is it foolishness, that causes two opponents to forget the concerns of their warring homelands for the sake of a personal duel? Is it pride? Honor?
No matter. These events were predestined.
We’re a long way from the front. I last gazed upon the entrenched soldiers this morning… In desperation, the Fatherland is calling young boys – children, really- into service. And yet, they ask me, Hans Von Hammer, to retire. They say my death in the skies would be “bad for morale,” and even my friend Peter agrees.
Ridiculous. Could I leave the war while children fight in the trenches? Absurd.
My squadron received new planes this week; part of the value of my celebrity, I imagine. I refused, of course…I will not relinquish my Fokker tri-plane, my “diable rouge,” so easily. Not to headquarters.
And not to the Adversary.
It is a funny thing in the skies, but history seems to be written through warped gunsights. Taking nothing away from Richthofen, it does seem that he may become legend based at least partially on my own accomplishments. Certainly, some of the kills attributed to him came at the end of my gun barrels.
I’ve even heard it said that the Adversary’s famous vendetta is against Richthofen, and not myself.
Again, no matter. Let Richthofen keep his legend as the infamous “Red Baron.” I stopped keeping count of downed planes months ago, so it is indeed possible that he has scored a few more than I, but neither do I concern myself with tallies and medals and citations. Ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty or more–it means nothing. With each dogfight, each aerial duel, the thing on my mind is not glory; rather, it is, “This pilot will fall. This pilot, in my sights this moment, will fall.”
And, to my good fortune, they do. They always do.
But the Adversary refuses to stay down.
When I left my squadron today, they were merry, having downed a record thirteen planes in one melee only a day before. I gave a signal for them to continue their patrol, under Peter’s guidance. They dared not argue.
Each year since 1914, I have met my opponent over this nameless field, on this date. We have never spoken, nor even met on the ground, that I am aware of. Originally, we would come with our squadrons, but that proved costly in aeroplanes and friends’ lives, and inevitably, it would still come down to myself and the Adversary, dueling above the wreckage.
Now, we make our appointment alone.
Thrice have I shot down this pilot. As I am not in the habit of taking additional aim at a disabled plane, he hit the ground unharried each time, and each time I thought, “Surely, the aviator is dead.”
Thrice wrong. And now he has, in his stubborn return from defeat, achieved a certain legendary status. When other German pilots engage the English, they look for him. “Is he there? The one The Hammer of Hell cannot kill?”
It’s bad for morale, these superstitions. I intend to end his legend today.
At five thousand feet, I see him, approaching so that the sun will be in my eyes. His familiar yet peculiar profile not yet visible, and he flies a new plane, a Sopwith. We are only now beginning to encounter them regularly.
The Sopwith plane is tempestuous and temperamental. It is the only truly worthy craft to duel with a Fokker , and yet, it is prone to unreliability and frequent repair. The Bentley rotary throttle is elegant, but mercurial. There is a brief moment of doubt in my own skills as he fires his twin Vickers guns, far too soon, much too soon. Have I missed something? Have I miscalculated somehow? Is he that confident in his new craft?
But no, the bullets are no danger at this distance. We commit to descending spirals, as is customary, daring the other to bank, and thus become a target. I come close enough to see his proud visage as he shakes his gnarled fist at me, wailing in incoherent challenge. I feel a warm infusion of respect, for the man is clearly deformed, with grotesque and prominent facial features…and yet, he flies for his country. Admirable.
The Bolcke Chaser Squadron currently fights over the no-man’s land at the Siefried Line. I should be there, not indulging in this personal war. But I must fall this pilot. I must.
Because this morning, I had a vision–throughout the course of the war, after each battle, I have seen a huge black mastiff, a remorseless killing machine. I have come to think of that animal as my spiritual guide, after a fashion. My protector, perhaps. And last night, last night…in my vision…I saw…
I am a fool. My mind has wandered over this ridiculous portent, and now, I’ve lost the Adversary in the air.
But no, he is right in front of me. He is in my sights. This pilot must fall.
Here he makes a tactical error. He struggles to a half-loop, followed by a half roll, with the intention of climbing in a reverse direction. He hopes to take advantage of the Sopwith’s greater combat altitude.
I almost laugh. My brave, deformed opponent, I was Immelman’s squad leader the day he invented that maneuver. I am there, I anticipate, and I rain fire down upon him. Strange little fellow, all white and black.
For a moment, my eyes blur in the sun, and I completely lose sight of him. For one spectacularly disorienting second, my opponent is not a man at all, but a dog of some kind, and he flies, not the Camel, but a small wooden replica of a house! He is perched upon its angled edge, in itself an impossibility. I shake my head and my finger slips from the trigger of my Spandau machine guns. I feel an unusual sensation: terror. He is in my sights and I cannot fire. And then, he is behind me, and I cannot evade.
The vision from last night returns…the huge, menacing black mastiff as he comes confidently upon a smaller dog, a domesticated thing, a mere pet. Saliva drips from my spiritual guide’s mouth, in anticipation of the kill. And impossibly, inconceivably, the much-smaller dog, this mere beagle, turns and rips the throat out of the great, black hound, who yelps once, in surprise, and then collapses to breathe no more.
I am not surprised when the Adversary’s bullets rip through my fuselage, my engine block, and my own body.
Here’s the World War One flying ace, sitting in a quiet French cafe, being served far too many root beers by a pretty, yet somehow sad, French madamoiselle. “Stay a moment,” he wants to say to her, for his homesickness is terrible. “Désolé, monsieur,” she says, as she goes to clean the other tables. She begins to cry, for she sees the loneliness on the flying ace’s handsome features, as he drinks yet another root beer. Her heart is breaking. Do not cry, little one, do not cry.
Over in one corner, there is a band of infantrymen singing merrily, “It’s A Long Way To Tipperary,” even though tomorrow, they return to the trench. Poor brave blighters! The flying ace fights back tears, but does not join them. It would not be proper.
And despite his victory over German skies, he feels nothing but anger at the futility of war.
“Curse the Hammer of Hell and his kind!,” he shouts, amid the din “Curse the wickedness in the world! Curse the evil that causes all this unhappiness!
But mostly, curse the round-headed kid who forgot my suppertime.”
Madamoiselle! Another root beer, s’il vous plaît!