Spring 1985, Volume 2
Gerald R. Grove
Force of Gold
Gerald R. Grove is Professor and Head of the Department of English. He has written a novel and short stories, many of them about his experience as a fighter pilot in World War II.
The weather was forboding; the fist of fate seemed to clench the small area ever more tightly. The murky atmosphere over the Yellow Seas was heavy, and its depths were compact jaundiced haze which obscured all but a limited expanse of the mirror surface of steelgray water. Since dawn the position of the sun had beem impossible to discern; and, now, in late afternoon, the dense vaporous dome glowed with a peculiar unearthly radiance. The persistent dull glare suggested that its source was a mystical core lying deep within the mist-laden center. It appeared to radiate outward to the opaque inner surface of the imprisoning orb, Sea and sky blended imperceptibly - no horizon was evident to the human eye.
Flying several hundred feet above the smooth surface of the sea, Lt. Teal piloted his glistening Corsair cautiously along the outward leg of a triangular aped search pattern. He was a welldisciplined navy pilot. Fellow squadron members viewed him as pleasant and unassuming. In the evening he often sat pensively, relaxed with his head tipped back and his eyes closed or vacant. And his slow smile and friendly reluctance to enter a game of stud poker or a heated argument over politics or women had long ago earned him several epithets.
But, recently, an uneasy peace had settled over a fretful world. A few weeks earlier, Teal and several of his friends had joined in a jubilant toast to their vision of peace in a new era. Their joy was in response to the announcemnet of an awesome mushrooming pillar of heat and smoke which rose high over Nagasaki. Before the war he had been a youthful idealist, philosophical and benevolent in a carefree way. But, from his first day in the service, he had been trained to kill, even to the extent of lusting to kill. Recently, after what seemed countless days and nights of battle in which death was a constant companion, a new life of near physical boredom had become an intellectual stimulus; he found himself continuously evaluating life and the important part it plays in man's perspective of immortality.
Now, on this particular evening, his task was to spot, report and map floating mines on the surface of the ocean, reckoned to be in the thousands, scattered months earlier by a desperate enemy. At this moment, his huge aircraft carrier and its deadly task force lay miles behind him, plowing silently and deliberately through the surface of the mystical sea. Warship and plane were physically separated by the strange weather conditions; each seemed isolated from all other life forces. Alone, Teal, with confidence born of long practice, piloting his plane through the eery air, began to entertain a bizarre notion that the intangible umbilical cord that attached him to his ship was about to be severed. But the vexing thought was rudely disrupted by his sudden awareness that his left wing had dipped low and that his plane was in a gradual downward spiral toward the surface of the marginal span of ocean below him. "Damn!" he muttered sharply as his eyes quickly swept the plane's instruments. With the mechanical motions of a bored professional, he easily corrected the craft to straight-and-level flight. In the midst of the thick haze, there was no visual reference by which to reckon his plane's flight attitude. Therefore, a great deal of the attention normally required to scan the sea's expanse visually must now be directed to the fighter's instruments in order to prevent vertigo. However, despite constant concentration on his Corsair's flight attitude, he sensed that he was on the verge of experiencing something extraordinary.
After repeatedly sweeping his eyes across the complex maze of gauges on the instrument panel, Teal took a moment to tilt his head back and swing his gaze along the inner shell of the surrounding mist. The faint yellow haze outside his greenhouse was unbroken, immobile. The uniform mass gave the illusion of adhering to the exterior of the domed plexiglass of his cockpit canopy. But, upon glancing downward to the small area of ocean immediately below him, he felt a momentary chill. fie had the impression of being suspended in time and space, for his attachment to the real world was limited to the mile radius of glassy water. The surface of the sea, normally broken by waves and swells, was as polished as the face of a gigantic lens; and there was nothing reflected in it except the overhanging amber-hued vapor. Teal groped mentally for assurance that something familiar must still exist beyond the confining haze. But mild uneasiness again gripped him when he suddenly sensed that he was nearly isolated that he was virtually detached from reality, poised in a kind of psychical limbo. There was no apparent motion of his fighter, no obvious passing of time. In his situation, he was mentally projected half out of the realm of actuality. tie was teetering between the material world that he knew so well and the intrusion of some unknown existence. All the while, Teal was so thoroughly immersed in the strange phenomenon that he was unaware that the nearly total seclusion had almost stilled the throbbing rhythm of the Corsair's powerful engine. Abruptly, an idea that for months had surged and swelled from deep within his subconscious burst forth. Weeks before, as he stared transfixed at a river of tracers flowing from the hot muzzles of his guns into the flaming cockpit of a graceful Japanese Zero, he found himself focusing upon the perplexing topic of man's headlong rush in to death with the resultant heedless separation of flesh and spirit. tie often had felt, while watching men die in the blaze of warfare, that the wrenching apart of soul and body in death was caused by mortal man's conditioning; and, all the while, he had grown to hope that physical death was avoidable by some means.
At this very moment, when his mental powers were vastly amplified, the dense sphere in which he seemed suspended became a stimulus to the soaring of his mind. He had often contemplated that by some inner awareness he could perform an act while in the proper frame of mind that would impel him, body and spirit, into immortality. Thus, physical death, as man acknowledges it, would be overwhelmed.
Suddenly, as Teal dropped his eyes again to the far edge of the circle of water below, ahead of the long nose of his plane, slightly to the right, a black mass appeared to glide toward him through the thick haze. Upon reaching a position directly over the dark shape, which seemed rooted in the motionless sea, he dipped a wing, swung hard right, then dropped the nose of his MU and rolled sharply into a steep left bank. He rapidly lost attitude and circled low over the water. From his tight orbit, he was able to examine closely the floating object which he quickly identified as an ageless Chinese sampan, Although its varipatched sail was unfurled, it lay completely at rests in the eerie calm, sealed with Teal in the obscurity of the vexing opaque sphere.
Despite the fact that the small teakwood vessel seemed perfectly seaworthy, Teal was unable to detect any sign of life. Circling closely, he stared at the sun-and-saltbleached sides and deck which reflected, almost blended with, the glaring bronze of the imprisoning atmosphere.
While banking dangerously near the boat, Teal strained to penetrate the darkness of the black hatchway in the stern of the deck. From experience, he knew that sampan families frequently hid from menacing aircraft or warships by huddling together inside the hull.
As he gazed at the boat, into whose territory he had intruded, Teal was so engrossed that he almost forgot to report to his carrier the presence of the small vessel which lay directly in its course. Without further hesitation, he pressed his microphone button and sent a cryptic message to the ship. "Yankee Station, Eagle One; sampan directly in course of task force, fifty miles, over." A deathly silence followed his report, lasting for what seemed an infinitude of time; then a voice void of emotion snapped in his earphones, "Eagle One, Yankee Station. Buzz boat and observe for inhabitants, over."
In response to the order, Teal spiraled quickly to three thousand feet and slipped easily into a steep dive, pulling out directly over the lonely vessel, now glowing a faint amber tint in the shadowy, crystal-smooth sea. As he swooped upward out of his dive, climbing shallowly, he stared back over his left wing while banking low into a tight turn. He saw the leaden water crinkle in protest as the blast of his violent propwash struck its surface. The swirling patch of ocean emitted sharp flickering spangles of bronze. In the center of the ripples, the silent sampan tossed lightly as if in gentle disapproval; then quickly it lay still in a tranquil sea. However, no life emerged onto the boat deck. In response, Teal snapped his mike open and announced tersely, "Yankee Station, Eagle One; no one in sight, over."
Instantly, an indifferent reply sounded in his ears, "Eagle One, verify no inhabitants, then bomb vessel, out." Teal, shocked by the severity of the message, required that the order be repeated; without delay, a brusque command echoed through the leaden air, "Verify no one aboard, then bomb vessel immediately, out!"
Teal's reluctance to take such harsh action was apparent in the way he began a slow ascent into the thickening haze; wavering momentarily, he banked, and dived dangerously near the stern of the inscrutable sampan, pivoting his right wing up and over the slender mast. Pulling away, he rolled sharply to examine the boat over his shoulder; it was swaying placidly in the glimmering patch of water which was once again convulsed by the hurricane blast of his propeller. Still, as before, there was no indication of life. Another pass, executed even more desperately, proved equally fruitless. As he circled low over the small craft, Teal recalled that the impatient voice on his radio had sounded as impartial as a disinterested god, ready to impart life or to destroy at the merest whim. As he pondered, he was struck by the image of himself as a lesser deity, circling without mercy while climbing out, attempting almost capriciously to determine whether to preserve or to annihilate. Yet under the circumstances, his apparent divinity was stringently limited, for he could neither communicate with nor thoroughly investigate his perplexing prey. Assuredly, odds greatly favored the presence of a Chinese family cringing together, deathly frightened, in the darkness beneath the deck of the tiny boat. While 'he puzzled over his plight, the hollow voice from beyond the clinging haze broke the fateful silence, "Eagle One, have you delayed?" Before answering, for a moment, Teal continued to stall and reflect, Even under the terrible pressure of discipline, accustomed to obeying without question, aware that disobedience could bring sure penalty, the secret of man's true immortality flashed upon his mind. The human is a deliberating being, often impelled to probe deeply within his own soul. In these moments, the individual must deliberate precisely and decide without question whether or not he himself will assume full responsibility for the fate of his fellow man. Suddenly, at that instant, Teal became certain that if he followed his inner promptings, if he valued human existence above cold disciplined control, he could experience the event which would surpass all understanding.
He pressed the mike button and replied calmly, "Eagle One, preparing to attack, out." He leveled off at four thousand feet while charging his guns as he had done so often before a battle. The soft yellow luster which permeated the haze so strangely had been increasing in intensity. The surface of the ocean, glistening tranquilly a moment before, now blended with the glare. The mist-swathed sampan lay serene, oblivious, far below, at the center of the base of the radiant amber glow. Teal rolled smoothly into his dive; the small boat began swiftly to loom, then to grow more distinct as it commenced to emit a warm luminous sheen which steadily intensified.
Teal centered his gunsight on the sampan - its presence abstruse, recondite. The confining sphere appeared more and more translucent, yet the amber mist itself was a thick, nearly impenetrable wall of light. He continued his swift plunge toward the target, his finger caressing the trigger of his six guns. then, slowly, almost without thought, he eased back on the control stick. The illuminated sight drifted beyond the threatened target and blended with the brilliance of the glowing water. His finger closed tightly on the trigger; six long strands of scarlet tracers raced through the mist above the glistening sail of the golden sampan, striking the sea a safe distance on the far side. A double row of heaving fountains, flashing bronze, spouted high to blend mystically with the surrounding splendor.
Pulling the control stick into his stomach, Teal hurtled low over the towering mast of the gleaming boat. Golden streamers spun in silky whorls from the tips of his wings. The yellow radiance of the swiftly shrinking orb now issued from the mystical depths of the vessel. The surface and cockpit of the Corsair absorbed the lighted and began to gleam a dazzling golden hue. He activated his radio and declared cryptically, "Yankee Station, my mission accomplished." His message was the last earthly sound to strike his ears.
Teal advanced the throttle to its stop and trimmed the blazing F4U for a steep climb. He then placed his hands on the armrests and pressed his head back against the padded rest. The plane soared in an ascending arc at an accelerating rate. Suddenly, inaudibly, yet clearly perceptible to Teal's mind, the rythmical tones of the numberless forces of the universe began to swell in infinite harmony. Simultaneously, the golden glow of the enveloping haze grew exceedingly bright; but Teal's eyes remained open wide - unblinking in the flood of light. Slowly, the aircraft entered a wide roll to the right, the sensation was comforting, satiating. As it rocketed straight upward, the plane's structure gradually dissolved around the pilot in blinding, scintillating waves of white sparks. However, Teal was motionless; his eyes were fixed calmly ahead. His spiritual faculties swiftly coalesced with the celestial harmony of the vast sea of cosmic forces he was now transversing.
Teal soarded ever upward at a speed so beyond comprehension that he appeared to be motionless in space. Flaring momentarily, the surrounding radiance flashed to a brilliant white; the wide roll of his upward movement ceased. Teal streaked onward. Now, merged harmoniously into an inseparable unit of force, body and mind mingled with the infinite white. Then, amid a sudden burst of effulgent light and the thundrous pulsating of concordant sound, he penetrated the surface of the globe and entered into a resplendent plain - a realm defying description or comprehension.