Ace of Reluctance

Submitted into Contest #205 in response to: Make your protagonist go through a rite of passage.... view prompt

3 comments

Sad Drama Fiction

France, Near the Front Lines, November 11, 1918

The cognac was deep amber, in a corked bottle with the brand name Martell scribbled in sky blue across its white label. It sat on a roughshod table that looked as if it had been constructed by a buck private with nothing better to do—four uneven cuts of plywood supported by four legs that bowed outward.

            Next to the bottle was a worn crystal tumbler, fingerprinted with a crack along its side, and next to that a dove-white silk scarf folded into a neat square, a crimson five-pointed star facing upward.

            That was the prize, the German pilot had said in Second Lieutenant John Ruland’s dream. That was what he had earned.

            Wear it proudly. You vanquished your enemy.

            Der Sieger bekommt die Beute.

            He didn’t speak any German, but somehow Ruland knew what that meant: To the victor go the spoils.

            “Welcome to the club,” Major O’Leary said in a bright tone to Ruland with a hint of an accent from the old country, before holding his arms high to get the attention of the fellow pilots and assorted officers that had gathered in the drab khaki tent for the ceremony. The sunlight from the entryway created long shadows of men along the walls. The tent itself smelled like the sweet tobacco of Bull Durham cigarettes.

            “Attention please,” he went on, looking past Ruland to the gathered crowd. “We are here today to celebrate the induction into a prestigious club a man who has only been in France for two months. In those two months—eight weeks, no less—he has shot down five Hun planes. He is now an ace.”

            “Hear, hear,” came a chorus of voices surrounding Ruland.

            Hear, hear, added the German-accented voice located deep within the caverns of his mind, which Ruland tried to silence by inconspicuously shaking his head.

            Das ist dein Moment.. Ruland knew this to mean: This moment is yours.

            But the only German words Ruland knew for sure were curses like scheisse.

            “Now, if I may have the squadron leader approach the table,” Major O’Leary said, which prompted a pilot bearing a striking resemblance to the gallant motion picture actor Douglas Fairbanks to rise and step forward. Around his neck and over the chestnut uniform Ruland, too, wore, was the same silk scarf, the crimson star pointed outward as if to make a point. It complemented his prominent jaw, seizing black eyes that seemed to cut through Ruland’s torso, and equally dark hair combed across his head from left to right. The only thing missing was the fetching actress Mary Pickford on his arm, the fancy of every man Ruland knew.

            This man was Captain Charles Baines, the unquestioned commander of the 44th Pursuit Squadron of the United States Army Air Service. It had taken Captain Baines just three weeks earlier that year to become an ace and earn promotion to his current rank. Rumor had it that the reason for his success had been the shot of Martell he took before every mission. He now had twenty-two kills, closing in on the Air Service record of twenty-six by Captain Rickenbacker in the 94th.

            Hence, the ceremony, the ritual. The scarf had become something greatly coveted by many, and achieved by few.

            Captain Baines spoke.

            “Second Lieutenant John Ruland,” he began in an imperious tone, crossing his hands at his belt line. “Yesterday, you achieved a major milestone, destroying your fifth enemy plane, making you a flying ace. As such, I am proud to award you our squadron’s highest honor, admission to the Legion of the Silk Scarf. My congratulations.”

            Captain Baines held out his hand, but Ruland didn’t take it.

            He hadn’t intended to kill yesterday. The mission was to be a routine reconnaissance flight, but the German air corps, sensing the end of the war to end all wars, seemed bound and determined to fight to the last man. He saw the Fokker biplanes on the horizon—six of them, in front of a sun that made them appear to be specters. He had assumed the captain would order retreat in order to avoid any loss of life with such little time left in the war.

            Instead, he pointed forward, his own silk scarf trailing straight and true behind him.

            Engage them.

            Destroy them.

            Truth was, Ruland didn’t remember much about the dogfight, save the fact that the German had made a mistake by attempting an Immelmann turn that dropped him within Ruland’s gunsights. Clip-clip-clip-clip, and moments later it was over; the Fokker’s engine caught fire.

            There was no escape, so the German pilot jumped.

            He seemed to hang there in the sky, as if he was willing himself to land safely on the fertile French farmland below. Simply sailing along gracefully. 

            He was a bird, a falcon perhaps. Or an eagle. But not an American eagle.

            Then in an instant he became helpless, both arms and both legs waving until Ruland saw him no more.

            That moment felt like ages ago.

            So did this moment.

            Captain Baines lowered his arm, and in order to save face, he turned to an aide, who handed him a small, perhaps foot-long and -tall box, white with a cover, the kind that one saw at those new department stores back home. The captain returned his attention to Ruland, and attempted to hand him the box. Ruland demurred.

            “And that’s an order,” he added, which elicited snickers and guffaws from the men gathered.

            Ruland accepted the box, fumbled with the cover, looked up at Captain Baines and then down again at the box.

            No. He wouldn’t open it. 

            No, no, no.

            Verstehst du, was ich sage?

            Do you understand?

            Captain Baines leaned forward and said, this time with no mirth but a cold command, “That is an order, second lieutenant. Open the box.”

            Ruland slowly tugged at a corner and pulled it up, then looked at Captain Baines.

            Now smiling again, the captain said, “Go on.”

            The box cover landed on the table next to the bottle of Martell cognac.

            Contained within was a black leather flight helmet, German standard issue. Ruland took it in his hands and it was cool, but there was no blood or any other indication that a dead man had been wearing it upon colliding with the earth at the conclusion of a two-thousand-foot drop. Etched in the leather inside was the name Schmidt.

            But Ruland already knew that. The dream had revealed he had shot down Leutnant Jurgen Schmidt. Same rank, different insignia.

            Different army.

            “He must have somehow pulled off his helmet while he was falling,” came a voice from behind Ruland. “We found it about twenty feet from him. We couldn’t find his goggles.”

            There were now murmurs, and someone muttered, “His eyes were open, laying there in the field. I saw him.”

            Ruland had troubled sleep last night. He hadn’t—couldn’t have—seen the German pilot’s face as he whirled in the air like a dervish, but in his dream, it was quite clear. Wavy blond hair with dimpled cheeks from excessive smiling and the ocean-blue eyes of not a killer, but an adolescent, a call-up from someplace like Munich or Berlin to try to stave off inevitability. 

            He had killed little more than a child, a child that had more to say beyond death.

            Jurgen Schmidt. Maybe nineteen. Maybe twenty. 

            Second Lieutenant John Ruland had just turned twenty-one.

            You bested me, he said.

            Herzlichen Glückwunsch.

            Congratulations.

            Ruland had awoke in the soft hours of that morning realizing what was coming at 0800, the face and the voice of Jurgen Schmidt fading into nothingness. He had considered volunteering for another morning reconnaissance flight, possibly even with a different squadron, but this would only delay the inevitable. Plus, word in the army traveled fast: the expectation would be that he would pridefully don his new uniform accessory as the latest member of the Legion of the Silk Scarf.

            But he simply didn’t want it. 

            There was no escape, however, so he rose, put on his uniform, slicked his hair back, had a cigarette, and walked across the aerodrome to the ceremonial tent.

            Captain Baines was now staring at Ruland, brow furrowed, apparently unsure of what to do next. But he was in command. The show would go on.

            After a few moments of uncomfortable silence, he took hold of the bottle of Martell, pulled the cork, and poured two fingers into the tumbler. Leutnant Jurgen Schmidt’s flight helmet was back in its box, though uncovered. Ruland’s purported silk scarf sat undisturbed, but Captain Baines gently took it up and unraveled it, holding it in both hands across his chest, with the intent of placing around Ruland’s neck.

            “For God and country,” the captain said, bowing his head slightly, a cue that Ruland should do the same. 

            He did not.

            Captain Baines lowered the scarf and spoke.

            “You’re a man now, son,” he said, the daggered words cutting through the now-silent tent. “You’ve done man’s work. This is your reward. Don’t you see?”

            A voice behind Ruland muttered, “This is bad luck for him.”

            Ruland considered speaking. He considered telling the captain and anybody else who would listen about Jurgen Schmidt, everything he had learned overnight, including the fact that almost all of his schoolmates from home, mostly infantry, had been killed in the trenches. That he was an only child and that his Eltern, his parents, were unaware of his demise, to say nothing of how it occurred. Word travels slow in a country that is being destroyed from without and within.

            He considered speaking on Schmidt’s behalf.

            Instead, he spoke on his own.

            “I respectfully refuse to participate,” he said, his voice not wavering, though clipped, on the cusp of cracking, but he caught himself. His strength, and that of Jurgen Schmidt, carried the moment.

            Captain Baines was now frowning. He peered down at the tumbler of Martell.

            “Drink it,” he demanded.

            Ruland didn’t move.

            “You want to be on desk duty, son?” Captain Baines said. “You really want to ruin your relationship with your mates? I suggest you change your tune.”

            “What’s he doing?” came a voice on the other side of the tent.

            “Yeah, what are you doing?” said another pilot, the handsome son of a rich New Yorker, one born with a silver spoon in his mouth who was not a member of the Legion of the Silk Scarf, and likely never would be.

            “Leaving,” Ruland said, and he turned on his heels and departed the tent. 

            As he trod across the uneven, truck-scarred dirt toward his own tent, voices erupting behind him, Jurgen Schmidt spoke to him again.

            I have no ill will toward you, Kamerad.

            Du bist mutig.

            “That’s right,” Ruland replied. “I am brave.”

            Ruland never flew again, at least not for the United States Army Air Service. The war ended three hours later, at 11:00 a.m. on the 11th day of the 11th month of the year of our Lord 1918.

July 05, 2023 23:00

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3 comments

Bruce Friedman
23:34 Aug 07, 2023

Beautiful, soulful story. Loved the WWI setting and the interaction between the men. Great dramatic hook being the end of the war.

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Gregg Voss
18:32 Aug 08, 2023

Hi Bruce, thanks for the note. I'm a history guy, so this was fun to write. I did have to do a fair amount of research on the little things, like the name of the cognac (Martell).

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Bruce Friedman
18:48 Aug 08, 2023

I have had very good luck using AI Bing for some of my research. It's up to date on web references. I also integrates results and you can click on any statement to jump to the original material. You might want to try any of the AI tools as an experiment to see if it helps. Bing has saved me hours

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