For the Tuskegee Airmen
these proud black men:
our first to touch their fingers to the sky.
learned to call them
Die Schwarzen Vogelmenschen.
They called themselves The Spookwaffe.
And marching to class under officers whose thinlipped ambition
was to wash the niggers out.
attention for lectures about ailerons, airspeed, altimeters
from boring lieutenants who believed you monkeys aint meant
were parties, cadet-dances, guest appearances
by the Count and the lovely Lena.
adulation of Negro civilians. A woman approached my father in
a bar where he was drinking with his buddies. Hello, Airman. She
held out her palm. Will you tell me my future?
that, like a breath of pure oxygen. But first they had to earn
There was this one instructor
who was pretty nice. I mean, we just sat around and talked when
a flight had gone well.
But he was
and he made us sing the Minnesota Fight Song before we took off.
If you didnt
sing it, your days were numbered. "Minnesota, hats off to
" That bastard!
I had a check-flight
with an instructor from Louisiana.
As we were about to head for base,
he chopped the power.
nigger. There were trees everywhere I looked. Except on that little
I began my approach. The instructor said, Pull Up.
That was an excellent approach. Real surprised. But where would
you have taken off, wise guy?
I said, Sir,
I was ordered
to land the plane. Not take off.
grinned. Boy, if your ass is as hard as your head, youll
go far in this world.
For Melvin M. Nelson, Captain USAF (ret.)
his cramped desk under the astrodome, the navigator looks
thousands of light-years everywhere but down. He gets a celestial
measuring head-winds; checking the log; plotting wind-speed,
altitude, drift in a circle of protractors, slide-rules, and
He charts in his Howgozit the points of no alternate and of
He keeps his eyes on the compass,
the two altimeters, the map. He thinks, Do we have enough fuel?
What if my radio fails?
the only Negro in the crew.
The only black flyer on the whole base, for that matter. Not
that it does: his crew is a team. Bob and Al, Les, Smitty, Nelson.
who said once after a poker game, I love you, Nelson. I never
thought I could love a colored man.
When we get out of this mans Air Force, if you ever come
down to Tuscaloosa, look me up and come to dinner. You can come
in the front door, too; hell, you can stay overnight! Of course,
as soon as you leave, Ill have to burn down my house.
Because if I dont my neighbors will.
navigator knows where he is
because he knows where hes been
and where hes going. At night, since he cant fly
by dead-reckoning, he calculates his position by shooting a
octant tells him the angle of a fixed star over the artificial
His position in that angle is absolute and true: Where the hell
are we, Nelson? Alioth, in the Big Dipper.
Regulus. Antares, in Scorpio.
plots their lines of position on the chart, gets his radio bearing,
corrects for lost time.
Al, Les, and Smitty are counting on their navigator. If he sleeps,
they all sleep. If he fails
navigator keeps watch over the night and the instruments, going
hungry for five or six hours to give his flight-lunch to his
two little girls.
For Daniel "Chappie" James, General USAF and for the
332nd Fighter Group
Being black in America was the Original Catch, so no one was surprised
by 22: The segregated airstrips, separate camps. They did the
jobs theyd been trained to do.
kept them in the air; black flight-surgeons kept them alive; the
whole Group removed their headgear when another pilot died.
They were known by
"Ace" and "Lucky," "Sky-hawk Johnny,"
"Mr. Death." And by their positions and planes. Red
Leader to Yellow Wing-man, do you copy?
If you could find
a fresh egg
you bought it and hid it in your dopp-kit or your boot until you
could eat it alone. On the night before a mission you gave a buddy
your hiding-places as solemnly as a man dictating his will. Theres
a chocolate bar in my Bible; my whiskey bottle
is inside my bed-roll.
In beat-up Flying
Tigers that had seen action in Burma, they shot down three German
jets. They were the only outfit in the American Air Corps to sink
a destroyer with fighter planes. Fighter planes with names
like "By Request." Sometimes the radios didnt
They called themselves
"Hell from Heaven." This Spookwaffe. My fathers
It was always maximum
effort: A whole squadron of brother-men raced across the tarmac
and mounted their planes.
My tent-mate was a
guy named Starks. The funny thing about me and Starks was that
my air mattress leaked, and Starks didnt. Every time we
went up, I gave my mattress to Starks and put his on my cot.
One day we were strafing
Strafings bad news:
you have to fly so low and slow
youre a pretty clear target.
My other wing-man and I
exhausted our ammunition and got out. I recognized Starks by his
and his rudders trim-tabs. He couldnt pull up his
nose. He dived into the train and bought the farm.
I found his chocolate,
three eggs, and a full fifth of his hoarded-up whiskey. I used
for the rest of my tour.
It still bothers me,
sometimes: I was sleeping on his breath.