I went to find him as he was getting ready to leave. I had a flight of my own by then and other loyalties, but part of me had stayed behind. We said goodbye. He was somewhat taciturn, as usual. I wondered if he was yet aware of what he had won and would have for a long time thereafter, the luster of those hunting days when his name became storied.
Later he came by to say a few words—to console me, I think. There would be other chances. Of course, I said. We would see each other sometime, we agreed. It was heartbreaking to see him go, not for the slender friendship we had, but for the achievement he was carrying off with him. I saw his name one other time, in an article all down a column of the Times during the Vietnam War. He was flying there. He was known, it said, by name in the war room of the White House itself.
I know how they appeared to me, and I try to step aside for a moment to observe myself, how I seemed to them. Even now I cannot be sure—a marked figure, certainly, convivial and aloof at the same time, not uncourageous, driven, a bit unlucky, or was it unwise? They may sometimes have wondered what happened to me. Did I go on, did I rise?
The first good weather in a week. The fighter-bombers are going north again in strength, to someplace up near the border. The briefing room is crowded and electric. It’s maximum effort—everything that can fly.
Far beneath us the silver formations were moving slowly, it seemed, across barren hills. Enemy flights were being announced, one after another, and then someone saw them along the river at thirty thousand feet. Blood jumping after the idle days, we dropped tanks and began to climb. We broke through a thin layer of clouds and into complete emptiness.
Moments later, coming from nowhere, they are on us, four of them at eight o’clock. We turn into them, they pass behind and disappear.
The flight has split up, we’re in two’s. By this time MiGs are being called out everywhere. The radio is brimming with voices, among them someone calling out MiGs south of the river at twenty-four thousand feet. “How many?” someone asks. “Many many!” We head that way and see two, far out, sail past us on the left. We turn to follow, and they climb and begin to turn themselves. The sky is burning blue, a sky things seem black in. I am on my back, Immelmanning up to get between them and the river, rolling out slightly beneath the leader who is turning hard to the right and cannot see me. I duck my head and try to find the gunsight which is an image projected onto a thick, slanted piece of glass that serves as the windshield. There’s nothing there—turning has pulled it off the glass. The MiG begins to level out and the sight drifts into view. About a thousand feet back I press the trigger. The tracers fall behind him. He begins to climb again and I am cutting him off, closing, glancing quickly back to see if my wingman is still there, firing again. A few hits in the right wing, then tremendous joy, at closer range a solid burst in the fuselage. The flashes are intense, brilliant, as of something vital shattering. He abruptly rolls over and I follow, as if we are leaping from a wall. He begins to pull it through. I am still shooting and something flies off the plane—the canopy. A moment later a kind of bundle, the pilot, comes out.
“Cope! Did you see that?”
“Roger,” my wingman says. He may have been talking to me all along, telling me I was clear, but this single word is the only one that remains.
The MiG, now a funeral craft that bore nothing, was falling from thirty thousand feet, spinning leisurely it its descent until its shadow unexpectedly appeared on the hills and slowly moved to join it in a burst of flame.