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Authors: Tracy Daugherty

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Six months earlier, on August 23, 1944, orders for the 340th Bombardment Group, 488th Squadron, list “2nd Lt. J. Heller” as a crew member on 8P. Among 8U's crew that day is “2nd Lt. F. Yohannan,” known affectionately to his buddies as “Yo-Yo.” Heller trained with him stateside. If time really could warp, the way it often seemed to when men took to the skies and stress began to alter their perceptions, the fates of 8P and 8U could have intertwined earlier, on the day Heller and Yohannan climbed aboard them. The lives of the two men would have ended differently than they did. History would have been changed. Not for everyone, of course. Or yes—yes, for everyone, whether they knew it or not. Absolutely.

*   *   *

MANY DECADES
after concluding his sixty missions, after writing about the war and then writing about it again (including an account of a day in which a B-25 nicknamed the “Schnapps Yo-Yo” disappeared inside a heavy cloud, in the space of only forty-five seconds, never to be seen or heard from again—no flare, no radio message or wreckage), he would be chastised by some literary critics for not writing realistically about individuals in his fiction or plumbing his characters' personalities. “His self-insight comes and goes,” one book reviewer would complain. “One might say that [early trauma], never fully faced, led to a certain hollowness, which became part of [his literary] style … an unbearable lightness ballasted by melancholy.”

Apropos of this charge—that his characters, and perhaps the author, lack a sense of self—he would tell a radio interviewer in 1998, a year before his death, “I … don't understand what's meant by … time as a dimension. [And] the very words I'm using now to say this are not words I'm choosing to use, my brain is choosing to use them and I can't control my brain.… [It's possible] we have no control over what we say or what we do, over what our personalities are like. We can't bring ourselves to believe that. But just because we can't believe it does not mean that it isn't so.”

*   *   *

“I'M THE BOMBARDIER,”
he insisted.

“Then go back and help him, help the gunner,” a voice told him through his intercom. “He's hurt.”

He crawled back through the narrow passageway toward the rear of the plane and emerged from the tunnel like a baby being born. The side gunner, a young man named Frankel, lay bleeding on the vibrating floor. A hole gaped in the aluminum wall of the plane. An oval wound tore across the gunner's thigh. The bombardier fought a tide of nausea. He barely knew this kid. His squadron had about 100 officers and 350 enlisted men; different crews flew different bombers every mission.

“I'm cold,” Frankel said.

In fact, at this altitude—over 49,000 feet, above the flak—temperatures could reach minus twenty degrees Fahrenheit. Gunners were told that their bare hands would stick to the metal surfaces of their machine guns if they were not careful. Exposed liquids, including blood, would freeze instantly.

“We'll be home soon. You'll be all right,” the bombardier told the writhing boy. He was chilled, too, and still fighting nausea, from the sight of the gash in the gunner's leg and the smell of his own uniform (most of the men rarely cleaned their flight suits—why wash off your luck?). He held his nose away from his fleece and reached for some sulfa powder. As he poured the powder into Frankel's wound, as he prepared a shot of morphine—all the while, the kid chattering about the cold—2nd Lt. Joseph Heller convinced himself (what self there was) he would not get out of this alive.

PART ONE
Good Fellows

 

1.
Domestic Engagements

SAN ANGELO, TEXAS
, in April 1945 was home to over five million sheep, and considered itself the inland wool capital of the United States. It was among the nation's largest mohair producers, served by the Santa Fe Railroad, which hauled the city's wool products across the country and brought in over one million dollars in annual revenue. Though automobiles were still a luxury for most people, traffic snarled San Angelo's streets. The downtown area—in a city of just under fifty thousand folks—was booming. Men came to buy Prince Albert tobacco—at sixty-seven cents a can, an easy path to personal style and sophistication. Women shopped for Lydia E. Pinkham's Vegetable Compound, whose newspaper ads in the
San Angelo Standard
promised to “help women who on occasion feel nervous, fidgety, irritable, tired, and a bit blue.”

If they felt nervous and tired, it may have been because more young men than ever, just back from fighting in Europe, thronged San Angelo's eateries, alleyways, and movie theaters—along with the wool trade, the cause of the city's boom. “There was a ‘Western Craze' … after the war that was sweeping the nation. We were making decorative spurs and buckles and even had traveling salesmen who went all over Texas wholesaling our goods,” Chase Holland III, owner of Holland's downtown, told a local reporter in 2007 when asked about the “good old days.” The store was one of eleven jewelry shops that opened to serve returning soldiers eager to surprise their sweethearts with engagement rings, put the war behind them, and move ahead with careers. In their stiff uniforms and spit-shined shoes, the young men would mill around the glass counters, shyly, standing aside when slammed by the smell of wool. Now and then, a “pretty grubby” fellow, someone who looked “like he had just finished shearing a thousand sheep,” in Holland's description, would push forward, determined to examine necklaces, earrings, and bracelets. Unlike the soldiers, most of whom were starting from scratch, the ranchers were doing just dandy. They knew what they wanted, and they could afford the best baubles.

Many of the servicemen were biding their time in Texas, assigned here while waiting to be discharged under the military's impending point system, whereupon they would join their families or fiancées in other parts of the country. Goodfellow Field, occupying over a thousand acres four miles southeast of downtown, and consisting of a pilot-training school with three paved runways, seven auxiliary landing fields, extensive housing facilities, and a circular concrete swimming pool, was their home. The field had been named for a local pilot who had died in turbulent skies over France in World War I.

For those who had never previously visited West Texas, the dry, flat landscape came as a shock. Often in the late afternoon, mournful thunder rolled south across the plains, accompanied by heavy winds. Without warning, sand could kick up, whip about the treeless terrain, and make the day go dark. Flying particles swelled the air. (Within a few years, a sudden swift tornado would kill thousands of sheep and severely damage several planes at Goodfellow.) Still, most of the boys were happy to stroll at leisure across the solid ground, stretch their arms, and breathe, even if occasionally it meant filling their mouths with grit.

Just a few months before, the boys had had more reason to appreciate Goodfellow Field: Its Instrument School and Post Operations arm employed seventeen Women Airforce Service Pilots. They served as flight trainers and inspected aircraft that had been repaired after being red-lined for serious malfunctions, to see if they were fit once more for students. Some of the male pilots “were quite dubious whether or not we were capable of flying anything larger than a kite,” said Jimmie Parker, one of the WASPs. But Maj. John Hardy, the base's director of flying, said the girls always compared favorably to the boys. The WASP program was disbanded at Goodfellow in December 1944 because the attrition rate among combat pilots had proven to be lower than expected, leading to a surplus of male pilots. Nevertheless, under the command of Col. Harold A. Gunn, Goodfellow maintained an easygoing, cordial atmosphere; on the base, the worst behavior was likely to come from the weather.

Joseph Heller arrived in San Angelo in early March. The base no longer has a file on him, but his personal flight records clarify the chronology. His last combat mission was on October 15, 1944, a bombing raid on railroad bridges at Ronco Scrivia, Italy, amid “scant, inacc[urate]” flak, according to the military report. Heller left Corsica for Naples on January 3, 1945. From there, he was shipped to the States, arriving in Atlantic City on January 28. From October to January, he'd had a lot of time to fill in a wet, muddy tent. Transportation home could be delayed for many reasons, including incomplete paperwork, bad weather, difficulties arranging passage back to the States, and the military's insistence that men in line for awards, including the Air Medal for number of missions flown, with clusters for additional missions, hang around to receive them.

“I pretty much enjoyed [Texas],” Heller recalled. Those spring months were far better than the “deeply depressing, incapacitating winter … into which I was harshly plunged on my furlough after I'd returned by steamship to the States from Corsica in January and found myself back in Coney Island,” where he'd grown up, he said.

Nearly twenty-two, he was a slender, big-boned man just under six feet tall, with a dimpled chin and dark hair, whose short military cut could not hide its tendency to curl. Years later, a journalist, describing a photograph of him taken at about this time, said “his large nose and his eyes sit uneasily on a dark, skinny face. He looks scared and underfed … the eyes seem to stare directly outward and directly inward at the same time.” Easy in his body, self-contained yet friendly, he was well liked in spite of feeling, later on, that he did not make much of an impression on anyone with whom he served in the military (his speech alone, swift and plentiful, peppered with personal tics and a Brooklyn accent, would have left its impress on boys from other parts of the country, with hard
t
's at the ends of words,
r
's slipping almost into
w
's, and swallowed final phrases). His perception that few people noticed him says more about the intensity of his inner life, and his focus, than it does about his capacity to socialize and accommodate himself to just about any situation.

He had “almost nothing to do” at Goodfellow, he wrote in his memoir
Now and Then,
but that was okay because “I am generally not a hard person to please.” It would have been just fine with him if Jimmie Parker and her fellow WASPs returned to oversee flight training and airplane inspections on base. After completing sixty missions in Europe, and especially after believing he was doomed on his thirty-seventh mission, he wanted nothing more to do with flying craft. Hence, the steamship home from Italy. “I was so terrified on my last few missions, I made a vow that if I ever got out of [the] war alive, I would never go up in an airplane again,” he said.

His base pay at Goodfellow would have been half again as high if he had agreed to the required four hours of flight time a month, but upon first returning to the States and undergoing a medical exam in Atlantic City, he told the military doctor that the memory of gasoline fumes inside a plane was sickening to him. At the time, Heller believed he was merely lying to the doctor, just looking for a way to dillydally until he had earned enough points for a discharge, but the more he talked to the medic, he said, the more he realized the lie “turned out to be true.”

His nerves weren't helped by the number of training accidents that occurred at Goodfellow while he was stationed there—as many as twenty-two per month, owing to “wing tip[s] [being] dragged; faulty technique; hard landings; [and] collision with parked aircraft,” according to reports. (BT-13s, known as Valiants, were used in training; they had a ceiling of 16,500 feet, and were called, by wary pilots, “Vibrators.”)

None of the accidents was fatal, but they were all noisy and frightening. Heller kept his head down, writing PR for the base in a low-slung wooden room clacking with typewriters. He was a pretty fair typist. One of his tent mates, during his last weeks on Corsica, freshly arrived to replace a man who had finished his tour of duty, had brought with him a portable typewriter. The kid harbored literary ambitions, but he was too busy getting in his flight time to do any work; meanwhile, in the afternoons, Heller, who had completed his missions and was waiting to leave, hunkered down alone in the tent and made use of the kid's machine. Heller, who had been keeping a diary of his missions, typed up a chronology of his experiences. He toyed with the idea of writing short stories about war in the bare-bones, dialogue-heavy manner of Hemingway. He had also been reading William Saroyan and John O'Hara, writers who, like Papa, appealed to him because of their colloquial dialogue and lean descriptive passages. The U.S. government published a series of books for servicemen, the Armed Forces Editions, paperbound collections, which made available to Heller, among other classics, Stephen Crane's “The Open Boat,” a story of shipwrecked sailors, written with a powerful, hypnotic rhythm and lulling, repetitive dialogue. Impressed by the story's rocking, wavelike style, he imagined a similar tale, updated to the present time: a terse back-and-forth conversation between a bomber crew in trouble and a Corsican air base. He thought of calling the story “Hello, Genoa, Hello, Genoa,” after the title of a one-act play by Saroyan,
Hello Out There.
Finally, instead of attempting this story, so close to his undigested experiences, and therefore hard to articulate, he began to draft a piece about a married ex-serviceman adjusting poorly to life at home—a projection, perhaps, of his fears about settling down once he returned to the States. Emotionally, he distanced himself from the subject by using a spare, slick-magazine style reminiscent of O'Hara, who, like similar writers (Saroyan, Irwin Shaw), expressed what Heller later admitted were “hard-nosed, sexist attitudes … embodying … implicit assessments of materialism, wealth, Babbitry, and ideals of masculinity and male decency that I … accepted as irreducibly pure.”

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