A Single Daring Act
Memoirs of Korea by an acclaimed novelist.
- By James Salter
- Air & Space magazine, November 1991
(Page 4 of 8)
The sickening losses of nearly forty years ago. The leaders have died have died of old age, the fights along the river in the dusk are forgotten. I still I see it clearly, the silvery fleck that is his plane, the string of smoke that trails from it as he fires, the serenity of it all, the burning fever.
We traveled far together, sometimes to forbidden places, deeper and deeper into Manchuria, almost to Mukden, looking for them in the sanctuary, so high that the earth seemed neuter. It was a great, barren country, brown, without features. The Yalu was behind us, no longer even in sight. Farther and farther north. Every minute was ten miles. No one would know what had happened to us, no one would ever hear. My eye returned to the fuel gauge again and again. The needle never moved but then it would be lower. How much do you have? he asks. Nine hundred pounds, I reply. Two brief clicks of the mike: he understood. Finally, giving up, we turned.
It was not duty, it was desire. Duty would not search with such avidity in the fading light, coming down the river one last time, the earth already in darkness that was rising slowly, like a tide, the heavens being the last to go. The things I had thrown away, given up—this was what I had thrown them away for, to be here and do this, to be one of them. Along the river a last time. Near its mouth the darkened earth beings to light up, first in one place and then another, like a city come to life. Soon the entire ground is flashing; they are firing at us far below. Black shellburts, silent, appear around us, some showing an unexpected red core.
It was victory we longed for and imagined. You could not steal or be given it. No man on earth was rich enough to buy it and it was worth nothing. In the end it was worth nothing at all.
We had many aces: Thyng himself, Asla, later shot down, Baker, Lilley, Blesse. In our squadron along there were Love, Latshaw, Low, and Jolley, as well as latent others with four victories, ready on any day to climb down from their plane in triumph, grinning, genuine at last. For me, though, for reasons I cannot fully explain, Kasler was the nonpareil.
He was in our flight, together with Low. I cannot remember exactly how he looked, and yet in a way I can. The image is like a dream just at the moment it begins to be lost in the light of day. He had a round head, thin lips, cold uninquisitive gaze. He was laconic; the words barely slipped from his mouth. He had dignity, from what I don’t know; it had been given to him, I believe, just in case. Skill, of course, great natural as well as acquired skill together with nerve, and a burning patience like that of a lion lying flattened in the tall grass. Crowning it all was the unsentimentality of a champion. He had served a long apprenticeship; he had been a B-29 tail gunner and was older than the others when he got his wings. He was an obscure lieutenant when he came. He left renowned.
There are certain indestructible people—stalwarts, leaders of squadrons and their best followers, mechanics numb-fingered in the cold, bleak colonels with eyes reddened by late hours—all having one thing in common, they are the dikes that stand against aimlessness and indifference, that hold back the sullen waters that would otherwise mingle and flood. Kasler was one of these. I flew on Colman’s wing; Kasler, in turn, flew on mine.
Darkness, silence, the dawn mission getting up and appearing, dull with sleep, in the lighted mess hall, gloomily looking into the empty steel pitchers. “Where’s the bunja juice?” I hear Kasler ask coldly. The Koreans call the canned orange juice, punch. “Hava-no,” they say helplessly. We eat in silence, looking at the tray, and ride in silence down the flight line.