Chapter #1 “September Days and Nights”

Septembers were the bane of my life. So obviously September 1942 was going to use Admiral Hickman’s new scheme to kill me.

Bad things also happened in other months, but the September ordeals killed people I loved and changed who I was, turning me into more of a hybrid than when I was born in Germany to a German mother. But my father was British and his lineage granted me British citizenship as well.

I admit that I sometimes made choices during Septembers that added to my troubles. And not every single September was spiteful, maybe just about half of them. 

But the month of my birth in 1920, was also the month that killed my parents in 1927 and my grandmother in 1932. It didn’t matter where I was, Germany or Britain, September could find Eleanor Bowman in the midst of a city of millions people like in London.

Before my parents were killed in my seventh September, I lived on my mother’s family estate in the middle of Germany. My British father, who had never found work in a country whose language he never learned, devoted himself to me as nanny and teacher as well as father. The world I knew was safe, peaceful, wonderful.

I ran away after my parent’s funeral—thinking I could find them. Then in the middle of a cold German September night, I was rescued by an old Gypsy woman and her band. She become my pretend grandmother and months later after the band ended up in Britain, she taught me new skills and a different way of life.

But then September took that all away when she was killed rescuing me from British ruffians.

I ran back to Germany but September 1936 drove me back to Britain to live with my father’s sister, Iris, and her husband, David, in London. I hadn’t know how to reach them when I lived in Britain with the Gypsies but had started a correspondence when I got back to Germany.

September 1936 also introduced me to Admiral Hickman on my trip from Germany to Britain. My tutor, who was the first to tell me I had an unusual memory, asked me to memorize and take to the admiral some complicated intelligence that couldn’t be transmitted any other way and he couldn’t go. Hickman was so impressed by my memory that he inserted himself into my life and became a supplement to my new London family.

About that time September branched out making life worse for millions of people with threats of war one year, then a claim of peace in our times the next, followed a year later by actual declarations of war between my father’s people and my mother’s. That summer bombs fell around us while we expected an invasion, and everything culminated in a horrifying September that began to reduce London to rubble around me.

Nursing school had given me skills to save lives but then in another September Admiral Hickman manipulated me into joining the Imperial Military Nursing Corp.

I became British Army Lieutenant Eleanor Bowman, which didn’t seem to fit.

September 1941 destroyed my ability to save lives when I refused to follow a doctor’s orders knowing it would kill a patient. I’d have been kicked out of the corp except that Admiral Hickman intervened.

He had at least a fingernail in most aspects of the war. He actually arranged for an army nurse to report to him. Sometimes he sent me to help at disasters or to sit in the corner of meetings where he had me memorize who said what then afterwards to type it up. There were interrogations that used my native German and methods my fortune-telling, Gypsy grandmother taught me.

Then in September 1942 the admiral called me into one of his borrowed offices and handed me orders to take a medical administrative job in Cairo. He then included a verbal extra assignment to weasel my way around Cairo Army Headquarters looking for military leaks.

“I’m a nurse, not a spy,” I told him not caring that Army Lieutenants didn’t argue with Navy Admirals. He allowed me to be myself when 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 weeks it will take me to get there on a ship around Africa, somebody will surely have already found the leak.” One of the meetings I had listened in on caused me to hope for an early end to the war. But one man in the meeting, had reminded everyone that we could still lose and I should have paid more attention to his warning 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 and the three of you will go together. Stop shaking with your superstition that planes are too heavy to fly. Planes fly everywhere.”

“Planes crash and burn, and people in them die.” He would only laugh if I mentioned the pattern I had found about Septembers which I now knew would take this opportunity to kill me. This would make it too easy for it to resist. Doom descended with a weight that pushed me downward.

“Planes crash because they are shot down,” He used his most reasonable tone.

“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 desperately checking though my orders. “And this itinerary says we would change planes in Malta. The most bombed place in the war?” My hands didn’t shake but a tremor started deep within me.

“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.

I stood, saluted, and left although I should have waited to be dismissed. But my mind was screaming, No, No, No! Especially No in September!

I found a steel pillar in the hallway and leaned my forehead against it to collect the disparate pieces of me that threatened to fly off in all directions. I hoped that no one would see me but that was less important than putting myself back together again.

“Lieutenant Bowman, are you all right?” It was the admiral’s batman Mohammed Ahmed.

I focussed on him and took a deep breath. “Sure. Just one of those problems with the admiral.” I actually considered showing him the facts about September and me 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 superstitiously superimposing patterns onto coincidences. That’s what the one person I had told about my relationship with September had said.

Mohammed escorted me out of the building, and I somehow found the underground station and all the changes I needed to make it home.

* * *

For the next three days, before I was to report for my flight, my mind kept envisioning a fiery crash into the sea. But the nights were worse. I’d wake up in the middle of each of those gulping for breath, drowning, surrounded by smoke and fire with a strong reminder that the real version would also come with temperatures hot enough to peel off my skin, followed by death.

After my grandmother’s death. I had run back to Germany. But Germany was by then the enemy, even to me. And if in Britain  I got in trouble for not following orders, Germany would be worse. And I knew that although where I grew up had been safe when I was protected by my father’s encompassing love and attention, it was no longer the place I remembered and he was no longer there. Or anywhere.

Uncle David was allowed a measure of petrol for his work, and he had a work related stop to make near the airstrip. So he drove me. Aunt Iris kept her arm around me throughout the drive. She had raised her son and her brother together as they were near the same age. Then she had sent them off to the last war. One died, and the other refused to come home to admit that he hadn’t been able to protect her son from every stray battlefield bullet. She never would have blamed him, but he blamed himself. 

No one besides me understood what guilt could drive a person to. I lived with the guilt of my grandmother’s death. She came to protect me and I stood there while she was stabbed. I may have only be twelve years old and I may have been held by a much bigger guy. But I absolutely knew I should have been able to do something.

Hugging my aunt and uncle infused me with just enough courage 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 closed before chewing down and swallowing. 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, the two nurses who were to be my traveling companions, 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 island colony 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 did. 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 suspected I might not deserve to be an officer.

Mary, at nineteen, a year younger than me, was a recent nursing school graduate with dark blond hair, a modern haircut and makeup. She gave off an aura of being sweet, innocent, and idealistic, and spoke as if this was a grand adventure. I also detected a stubbornness with a tendency toward seeing things in absolutes. Such determination might help her on the front lines they 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 afterwards. 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 not 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 and circulated around the hold making it hard to breathe.

The plane leveled off. After 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 grabbed the frame to the open cockpit doorway and pulled myself upright. 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 over the Mediterranean? Where did all this sand come from?” I asked.

“I turned south to avoid enemy fighters. Then ran into a sandstorm; this is just the tail end of it. But I am sure it was as big as the one that swallowed the Persian army more than two thousand years ago.”

I’d never had nightmares of sandstorms and only vaguely knew what they were. “I’m glad you avoided fighters.”

“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. “You’ll just be keeping the yoke steady neither moving it side to side nor front to back. I’ll make adjustments as needed.”

He held up a swollen finger looking at it accusingly as he continued. “I jammed my finger between two levers. My own fault. It’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.

He took his hands off his wheel so I knew 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’d have told him the same thing if he’d asked for my medical advice. But he didn’t even ask me for confirmation and I wondered, as I had in the past, why men expected to know more than a woman who’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 far off course. This is a barren part of the Sahara. We actually don’t 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 in 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 plateau 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. We call him the Desert Fox not just because he keeps outsmarting our troops but also as an almost affectional term 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 following that up with a cursing 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 up the momentum.

I’m going to save us all.

A second later my blood thickened and stopped. 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. I opened an eye a slice for a second as he maneuvered us back to the ground. Brakes slowed us. I closed that eye and relaxed with a deep breath. 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 December 25, 2018)

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