It was a lavish gesture, though no more than I expected of him. It would have been a victory we shared. I had already damaged a MiG a week or two earlier and discovered they were not untouchable. I knew, with the confidence that assures it, I would have many, entirely my own. “No, you’ve got him,” I said.
I was looking behind. It all seemed very leisurely. After a while I heard, “Do you still have him, Two?”
I looked to the front. Nothing.
“I seem to have lost him,” Colman remarked offhandedly.
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.