Chapter #1 “September Days and Nights”

Septembers were the curse of my life. Bad things also happened in other months, but only the September ordeals were the kind that disrupted my life and killed the people I loved most.

September 1942, though, threatened to go so far as to kill me.

When previous Septembers had devastated me, I’d run away—first from Germany ending up in Britain then later from Britain to Germany and back again. By 1942, however, the world had changed and there was no longer any place to run to. I could no longer escape back to Germany where my earliest years had been happy and safe. Such a trip would now be horribly dangerous even if less so than obeying the orders Admiral Hickman had given me.

And by then the country of my birth was the enemy, even to my mind.

Three days passed from the time I received orders to fly from London to Cairo before I was to report for the flight. Each hour of those days was punctuated with visions of a fiery crash into the sea. And the nights had me waking up gulping for breath, flailing off water, smoke and fire, reminding me that the real crash would come with temperatures hot enough to peel off my skin, followed by death.

I would have been afraid to travel from London to Cairo at any time during a war that waged across Europe down to North Africa over to Asia and the Pacific. But for me to do so in September was madness even if no one would else could see it. I had vaguely referred to the pattern I saw formed by the Septembers of my life, and others laughed at me. But the pattern was obvious to me and fairly consistent.

The month of my birth in 1920 was also the month that killed my parents in 1927 and my grandmother in 1932. I had moved back to my father’s English homeland in September 1936 and since then the Septembers had continued to disrupt my life, and often the life of everyone around me. Threats of war one September then signs of peace another, followed by actual declarations of war between my mother’s people and my father’s, then bombings with possible invasions. All in Septembers.

For the first seven years of my life days followed each other throughout the year without major disruptions to my life. I spent every day with my father on my mother’s spacious family estate in the middle of Germany. He’d found no work in a country whose language he never learned, so he devoted himself to me as full-time nanny, teacher, and father. I became a native speaker of two languages, copying his way of speaking English and everyone else’s German. My mother had a social life in her home town among people she’d grown up with so she spent a lot less time with me.

After their car accident and funeral, I ran away to find them, and that night, cold, hungry, and lost, a Gypsy band came by and an old woman insisted on picking me up, though others feared being accused of kidnapping.

She tried to find a safe place to return me, but circumstances didn’t allow it, and she became my grandmother. When our group made it to Britain, I was able to help since I spoke the language. But in 1932 September struck again when my grandmother died defending me from bullies. Weeks later overhearing my grandfather discussing a marriage proposal for me I ran away returning to my mother’s family in Germany, searching for its remembered safety.

From then until September 1936 I lived with my mother’s brother, Werner—a German general—and his family. At the same time I started a correspondence to get to know my father’s sister, Iris, in London, who I hadn’t known how to contact when I lived in Britain with the Gypsies. Getting to know her by letter reestablished the two halves of my heritage. And it also gave me a place to escape to when I overheard my uncle’s adjutant, Hans, laughing with his buddies about having razed a Gypsy encampment. I had thought he cared about me. I had thought I cared about him. I had thought I wanted to be there. I decided, instead, that I wanted to be elsewhere. And England beckoned.

That September’s trip introduced me to Admiral Hickman of the British Navy. I had brought him complicated information that I had memorized, and he saw later uses for such a memory as I had and he snuck himself into my life which turned out to both an advantage and a complication for me.

September 1938 found me settled with my aunt, Iris, and her husband, David, in London. It was the month that lied about peace, but I doubted it, so started nursing school.

In September 1939 Britain and Germany declared war on each other, and I decided to focus on saving lives, a goal that was least likely to force me to abandon any of my loyalties and identities.

In September 1940 Germany bombed London, threatening to invade. The new Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, told us he had nothing to offer “but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” His honesty inspired me, as it did so many others, and Admiral Hickman, who’d become almost part of my new family used my reaction to manipulate me into joining the Imperial Military Nursing Corp. which turned me into Lieutenant Eleanor Bowman, a new identity on top of the ones I had grown up.

In September 1941 I refused to follow a doctor’s order telling him about research from Germany that showed his proposed treatment would kill a patient with the other conditions our patient had. Of course, I knew nurses weren’t allowed to ever contradict doctors, so even though I was proven right, when the patient died, no hospital in the country would accept me after that.

Admiral Hickman, with at least a fingernail in most aspects of the war arranged for me to report to him as an alternative to being thrown out of the corp. He sent me to help at disasters where I learned new medical skills. Sometimes he wanted me to sit in the corner of meetings where he had me memorize who said what then to type it up later. He also had me sit in on interrogations to pick up nuances of German language and help him read the person using methods my fortune-telling grandmother taught me.

At some point he must have changed my official record, even the place I was born. Otherwise, I certainly wouldn’t have been made an officer no matter how good my nursing school scores had been. Britain had an irrational fear that Germans who had made Britain their home for years, and refugees fleeing oppression, might work for the enemy.

When the admiral gave me the orders to take a medical administrative job in Cairo, he included a private assignment to weasel my way around Cairo Army Headquarters to check for anything that might indicate where new military leaks were coming from.

“I’m a nurse, not a spy,” I told him not caring that Army Lieutenants didn’t argue with Navy Admirals. But I had known him since before I had joined the military and grown up around high ranking officers and hierarchy didn’t impress me.

He ignored my tone since we were alone. If he’d ever expected me to follow military protocols, he’d been disabused of that over the past couple of years.

“Eleanor, you are so obviously not a spy that only someone who knew about your unique memory or the skills you learned from your grandmother would ever suspect you.”

“Because people usually find me undereducated, unsophisticated, socially awkward, boring, superstitious, nondescript, and plain,” I said translating his meaning back to him. “Mostly.” He was laughing. “You’re perfect for this job, and you might help shorten the war thus saving both British and German lives as you keep reminding me you want to do.”

“But in the month it will take me to get there on a ship around Africa, somebody else will surely have already found the leak.” I had begun to hope for an early end to the war after listening to one of the admiral’s meetings of retired officers who were sure we were now headed for victory especially due to America’s entry into the war after Pearl Harbor, and problems Germany had the previous winter in the Soviet Union and were about to face again. One man, though, still saw ways we could lose and warned the others against optimism.

The admiral broke into my thoughts. “I’ve arranged for you, and two other nurses, to fly to Cairo.”

“Fly?” My brain froze, so it took me seconds to come back with an argument against the idea. “Only Generals and Prime Ministers fly. People would suspect a nurse who came that way.”

“I’ve already sent two pairs of nurses in the last fortnight,” he told me. “They’ve complained, as you will, about some clerk sending them off on supply flights that had extra inches of space. You will meet two other nurses in Gibraltar. Stop shaking with your superstition that planes are too heavy to fly. Planes fly everywhere.”

“Because they are shot down.”

“Even if that was the only reason they crash, you cannot even attempt to convince me no enemy fighters patrol the skies between England and Egypt.” I was checking though my orders and stopped to express a stronger complaint. “Go ahead and try to tell me that the enemy isn’t bombing Malta where the itinerary says we’d change planes.”

“Lieutenant Bowman,” he said frowning at me, “do you need to reread Military regulations about following orders?”

He always called me by my first name when we were alone unless he wanted to emphasize military hierarchy. That stupid doctor wasn’t the only superior who had complained about my tendency to question orders.

I never even tried to explain to the admiral about September. He’d call it one of my superstitions. But I had dispassionately looked at my history with the month, and a definite pattern was clear. Even if no other month had ever attacked any other person, this one attacked me.

As his batman, Mohammed, escorted me out of the admiralty, I considered showing him the facts but decided even both of us together wouldn’t change the admiral’s mind. And Mohammed had been so indoctrinated as he made his way toward a Maths Doctorate, he might also claim I was superimposing patterns onto coincidences.

* * *

Uncle David was allowed a measure of petrol due to his work, so drove me to the airstrip outside of London. Aunt Iris kept her arm around me throughout the drive. She had sent her son and her brother off to the last war. One died, and the other refused to come home to face her and admit that he hadn’t been able to protect her son from every stray battlefield bullet.

Hugging them infused me with the courage not to disillusion them about me and so to walk across the tarmac to the plane. I climbed up the ladder into a monstrous metal beast. The door clanged shut behind me as if a mouth were about to chew down. I shook with fear during take off and with both fear and cold during the flight.

In Gibraltar, I barely had time to meet and return the salutes of Gail and Mary before we were stuffed into a packed cargo plane headed for the besieged Mediterranean island of Malta. Malta was less than a hundred miles south of German and Italian bases in Sicily. I’d heard a rumor that the people of the British colony of Malta were to be awarded a medal for heroism for standing up to the horrendous bombing. Heroism worthy of medals was not something I wanted to be too close to. Especially not in September.

But the flight to Malta was unremarkable except for the discomfort. We warmed up underground with tea and crumpets, and we nurses had a little time to get to know each other.

Gail, was the tallest of the three of us and had a dozen more years of experience than I. Her hair had started to grey. She smoked whenever she could and with an almost mannish haircut, fitted the stereotype of a-tough-old-bird. She intimidated me without giving the slightest indication that she thought she should have been in charge or that she suspected I might not deserve to be an officer.

Mary, at nineteen, a year younger than me, was a recent nursing school graduate. She had dark blond with a modern haircut and wore makeup. She gave off an aura of being sweet, innocent, and idealistic, but also in search of adventure. Perhaps even delicate though I also detected a stubbornness with a tendency toward seeing things in absolutes. Such determination might help her on the front lines the two of them were headed for.

I told them some of my recent background without any mention of my ties to the enemy or any of my run-ins with superior officers. Then I decided to make it easier for Gail by telling them both to call me Eleanor during our trip since our assignments wouldn’t put us together after that.

The military attitude toward hierarchy, like its attitude to orders, didn’t suit me well.

A few minutes before we took off we met Lieutenant Robert Jones, the pilot for the last leg of our trip. He was tall and thin with a touch of gawkiness—as if he’d recently gone through a growth spurt. He sported light brown hair, ruddy cheeks, a dimpled chin, protruding ears, and the charming demeanor of a large, friendly dog. I thought him not over twenty-one, no more than a year older than me.

“Doesn’t Malta need all the planes it can get?” I asked him.

“We have new fighters on the way and have no room to protect an older cargo plane.” He noticed Mary’s unease, and I saw him decide to continue with reassurance. “It’s a perfectly good plane, and I hope to fly it back with more of the supplies we desperately need.”

He spoke with optimism and good cheer. I watched the other two. They believed him. As the officer among us, I could hardly raise fears even if I thought his optimism wasn’t quite justified.

The plane they took us to had an almost empty cargo hold. Gail and Mary stretched out against our personal bags and the canvas dispatch bag and soon slept.

I curled up in a coil of rope and dozed as my mind wandered to images of the German estate I grew up on: peaceful, quiet, safe. I luxuriated in feelings I had missed since the September which took my parents.

The plane banked stiffly then plunged.

Gail, Mary and I flew upwards, banging heads along with the hands we tried to put up as protection. Then we were dropped back down and thrown from side to side knocking elbows and knees and other fragile body parts. We each grabbed for whatever handhold we found giving us no ability to cover our ears from the increasing engine screech. After a while sand seeped in from outside and circulated around the hold making it hard to breathe.

When the plane stayed leveled off for more than a few minutes, I crawled forward from one hand or foot hold to another always prepared for another sudden dip or turn. I had a slight hope that Lieutenant Jones might answer questions unlike what I’d come to expect from other male officers.

I pulled myself upright, grabbing the frame to the open cockpit doorway. Lieutenant Jones smiled when he saw my reflection in the front window. “Glad you came up, Lieutenant Bowman. Sit there.” He motioned to the second seat as he shouted over the engine noise.

I twisted into the other seat, behind a half-wheel like the one he gripped.

“Find the two ends of the seat-belt and fasten it around you,” he said.

A belt held him to his seat. Ah, seat-belt. I found the ends of mine and fitted the prong into an eyelet.

Sand was hitting the front window and flying around us.

“Shouldn’t we be flying over the Mediterranean? Where did all this sand come from?” I asked.

“I turned south to avoid enemy fighters. Then ran into a sandstorm that must have been as big as the one that swallowed the Persian army more than two thousand years ago. This sand is just the tail end of that and we’ll be out of even this in a couple of minutes.”

“Well, I’m glad you avoided fighters. I’ve had nightmares about being shot down.”

“Well, things aren’t perfect. The sandstorm drove us further south than I had planned for. And I’ve injured my finger and need you to take the yoke.”

“Yoke?”

“That half-wheel in front of you.”

I threw up my left hand between us to block his words. “But, but, but… I can’t fly an airplane.” I shouted as loud as I could although he wasn’t much more than a foot away. I wanted to be sure he heard my objection.

“Can you drive a car?”

“Well…” I didn’t want to admit it, but I could hardly tell him a direct lie.

For some reason, he took that as a yes though before the war, few women drove. “The yoke moves in more directions than a steering wheel, but you’ll just be keeping it steady neither moving it side to side nor front to back. I’ll be here to make adjustments as needed.”

He took one hand off the yoke to hold up a swollen finger looking at it accusingly as he continued. “I jammed my finger between two levers. My own fault. I’ll be fine, but I want to take my hands off the yoke for a few minutes. So, if you’ll hold it.”

I swallowed, took several deep breaths, put my hands on the wheel in front of me, and tried to suppress my worry that I’d make some mistake that would kill us all.

A ripple went through the wheel which I assumed showed that I controlled the plane.

“I checked the finger before it started swelling.” he said. “No major break. Maybe a slight crack or maybe a sprain. I jammed it pretty hard. Either way there’s no treatment except ice and immobilizing it. We have no ice, and it has immobilized itself by swelling.”

I would have told him the same thing if he’d asked for my medical advice. I noticed he didn’t and wondered, as I had in the past, why men expected to know more than a woman even when she’d studied the subject.

Lt. Jones vigorously rubbed his arms, avoiding the injured finger.

My curiosity popped through my fears. “Shouldn’t there be a second pilot?”

“Out of Malta, we make do. No extra pilots and our planes are often old, incomplete, a mishmash patchwork of salvaged parts. The tanker that limped through last month gave us the petrol to fly what we do have. Things are easing up.”

He looked out the side window then turned back to lean over and check the compass with a furtive look at the fuel and other gauges. “You’re flying perfectly. You’re a natural.” He hesitated before adding, “We’re too far off course—in a barren part of the Sahara—to have enough fuel left to make Cairo or any British lines.”

I struggled to keep my voice level. “So where can we land? It looks awfully rough down there. I never pictured the desert with so many boulders.”

“Even if we saw a flat area, we don’t want to land where we have no hope of being found within a day or so. The Sahara is far more deadly than the Germans. If the enemy had a base within reach, I’d aim for it, but nothing is close enough. We’re now headed towards a crossroads of three trading routes. It’s the Piccadilly Circus of the deep Sahara and these days is used by military patrols.”

“Sounds pretty tenuous.”

“The possibility that someone will come by before we dry up is more likely there than anywhere else within our range. It’s a tabletop ridge that’s seen from afar. On the way we’ll look for signs of life, but we’ll be lucky to spot a decent-sized bush. This area is fairly devoid of water. I’ll be glad to see the enemy.”

“You aren’t afraid of the Germans?”

“Not here. Things may be different elsewhere, but Rommel’s Afrika Korps fights a gentleman’s war. They’ll kill you in battle, of course, but once you’re a prisoner, you’re safe.”

I nodded at the confirmation of what I’d heard as well. I didn’t fear for the safety of myself or the other two women. In addition to crashing, what I feared was to make problems for my German relatives, who I hoped wouldn’t be hurt if our connection was discovered. My uncle’s rank might protect him. His sons would probably be officers following in his footsteps. The name Eleanor Bowman with my birthdate was in German records as well as British ones.

My hands weren’t visibly shaking as I glanced at the fuel gauge. I resolved to keep my eye on it, one of only two gauges that I understood among what seemed like hundreds—probably only dozens—in an array below the front window.

Funny how when I actually faced aspects that had haunted my nightmares, I was perversely calm. At least we wouldn’t crash into the sea.

He reached over to make a tiny adjustment to the yoke I held. “So how do you like flying? I loved it from the first moment the instructor let me take the controls like you’re doing now. You’d be a great pilot.”

“You’re an optimist, aren’t you?”

“Most pilots are.”

“Well, that rules me out.”

“Pessimists are also useful. Someone said—Shaw maybe—that airplanes were invented by optimists, parachutes by pessimists.”

He laughed, and I joined in. But I realized that parachutes would only allow us to jump from our flying metal pan into the Sahara’s fire. And I hadn’t seen a parachute.

I mentally cursed Admiral Hickman for sending me here. And then i cursed September for its part.

I focused on something Lt. Jones had said that surprised me. “Women can be pilots?”

“Not in combat. But many flew before the war. Like Amelia Earhart and Beryl Markham. Now women deliver planes from factories to airfields and do other non-combat flying.”

“I’ve heard of those two, but you speak as if there were many more than I ever thought.”

“There’s a rumor that the Russians have even trained women to fly in combat,” he said.

My world expanded.

“Saw a great landing in a bad storm once,” he continued. “I was glad I wasn’t flying. I expected a guy to get out of the plane; instead this tiny girl pilot climbed down from it.”

He took back the yoke.

Perhaps to take his mind off the finger pain, he talked about his life, especially flying. He was a farm boy who’d wanted to fly since he first saw a plane overhead. The war offered him his escape from the life he had been born into. His stories made me doubt my own fear of flying. For a minute or two.

Since we were technically of the same rank, we were soon on a first name basis. And I hadn’t needed to tell him much about myself, just the half truths I’d learned to recite.

Each time I checked the fuel gauge it showed a decrease.

Robert said, almost in passing, “Eleanor, after we land, we’ll need to get away from the plane until we’re sure there will be no fire. We’ll need to conserve water and also burn all the maps and papers.”

I hardly listened. He’d direct everything when the time came. I wouldn’t be in charge.

Robert reached down for a lever in between the seats and pushed it; nothing happened. He jiggled it and shoved it in all directions. Still it didn’t budge.

“This lowers the landing gear,” he told me. “Sand must be gumming up the mechanism. You try. With my finger so swollen, I can’t get a good grip on it. See how it’s stuck in the notch at the top? That locks the wheels up. Blow into the notch and along the runner, then slide the lever out and down into the slot at the other end.”

I unfastened my seat belt to use both hands and get as much leverage as possible. Not for the first time on this trip, I was glad to be wearing uniform trousers. Trousers I’d initially complained about, never having worn them before and knowing what my grandfather would have said about them.

“Prepare for a rough landing.” He yelled louder than he’d spoken to me. “Use the rope to tie yourselves to the frame.”

“Right.” Gail yelled back.

I no sooner positioned myself and gathered breath to blow into the mechanism than Robert gave a whoop. “Well, look at that. Our rescuers. See the sand being kicked up to the northeast along our route? Must be from military patrol vehicles.”

I twisted to look out the front. “Any chance it’s our people?”

“Don’t expect miracles. Possibly Italians. But my money's on Germans.”

“Great.”

“Quite. These Germans are our salvation. They’ll have water, food, transport. Oh, see that elevated, flat-plateau jutting out of the desert in front of the sand being kicked up?”

“Like a solid giant block?”

“Precisely. That tableland crest of ground is the ridge I spoke of landing on.”

“Impressive navigating,” I said before I jiggled the lever blowing into the slot and the runner.

“Always loved maps. Now, Lieutenant Bowman, the landing gear lever.”

Like Admiral Hickman, he used military rank to signal how serious and urgent this was. I ignored fears and doubts and put my entire being into the job he’d assigned me. I pulled, and the lever came out of the notch. Then I changed direction, and it stumbled down the run. I kept the momentum going.

I’m going to save us all.

A second later my blood thickened and stopped when the lever wouldn’t move sideways. “I can't push it into the slot.” I blew into the bottom slot and repositioned myself to pull then push. Nothing gave even that slight indication you get when a jar top is about to give in to your twisting. I looked around for something to hit it with.

“Eleanor, sit and keep us steady.” He unbuckled his seat belt.

I grabbed the yoke, and before I sat, I glanced out the window. Below, kicking up sand, were more than half a dozen German vehicles.

After jiggling the lever with much more force than I had been able to apply, Robert made himself into a spring with his knees at his chin and pushed with a foot against the corner of the panel in front of me. Grunting, his push shattered a gauge. The crack of the gauge’s breaking glass, and the click of the lever sliding into the slot, sounded together with a clank.

A second later, back in his seat, he took control.

“Put on your seat belt,” he told me, then he yelled to the back. "Brace yourselves. Lower your head to your knees, now. This will be rough.”

“What about your seat belt?” I said fumbling with the ends of mine. After I fastened it, I grabbed the part of his belt that dangled on my side and lifted it to him.

He groped down on the other side holding the wheel with his injured hand. He soon gave up. “No time. We land in seconds.”

The ridge rushed towards us. The yoke prevented me from putting my head down, so I braced myself against the side and the seat back. I squeezed my eyes shut against the sight of the rising ground.

We bounced over the terrain.

Firmly down brakes slowed us. Without opening my eyes, I took a deep breath of relief, and the tension in my shoulder muscles lessened. We were safe. Now, all we needed to fear was the Sahara. And the approaching Germans.

The plane stopped with a jerk.

I gasped.

The nose tilted down and the tail whipped around. My neck strained against whirling forces. I heard a crack as something broke.

As abruptly as it started, the airplane ceased spinning.

I gulped air and opened my eyes. Voices from the back assured me that Gail and Mary survived. “Robert,” I said. “What happened? Did a front wheel hit something?”

He didn’t move.

“Robert?”

His head rested at an unnatural angle. His body was partially out of the seat, slumped over the yoke. “Robert? Robert?” My hand shook as I reach out. He can’t be. He can’t be. No. No. No!

Apprx 4500 words (Last updated November 28, 2018)

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