Saturday, April 11, 2009

Sooner or Later We're All Higher or Lower

Of course you know the story of the great flying ace, Hans-Joachim Marseilles' death? The man who shot down seventeen allied aircraft over North Africa, you do know how he died, yes? He died falling out of his aircraft, he wasn't even flying over enemy lines. Apparently his last words over the radio were "I've got to get out now, I can't stand it any longer", then he turned his plane over, opened the canopy and jumped.

What you won't read in any text book or radio transcript is why this decorated Nazi pilot decided to leave his perfectly fine aircraft. His aircraft was marvelously decorated, the whole nose of the plane was covered in the small icons pilots once used to denote kills. There were bands of french flags, artistically arranged in a spiraling pattern branching out from the nose. In between the these were streaks of Union Jacks and Old Glories. What would drive a man to abandon his seat in the sky? Oh sure his squadron says that his aeroplane was on fire, and that he was referring to the smoke. Well, really, they're just lying nazi bastards.

The truth is that the pilot known as Hans-Joachim had just had eaten some bad shellfish earlier that day, striped muscles I believe. Anyway, the poor blighter suffered a case of Diarrheal Shellfish Poisoning, the symptoms include as you might expect, a large amount of diarrhea, over which you have less control than normal diarrhea. When the search party found the "Star of Africa's" body, the smell was too much for most of the men. What you might not realize is that these men regularly picked up putrid, desert-cooked, corpses. When a man who picks up rotten bodies for a living can't stand the smell, well, then you know it's bad.

Now, here comes the real shocker. Hans-Joachim Marseille did not die in the air over the desert that day. The thing you won't believe, the thing nobody believes, is that he switched places with a now anonymous corpse just before take off. Of course he took all the precautions and taught the dead man everything he knew about flying an aircraft, which let's be honest is quite a bit. The corpse certainly did not object to the switch. In fact, once in the cockpit, the dead man seemed as if he was trying to smile through the rigor mortis that held his face in a painful grimace. Can you blame him? Who wouldn't want to trade the dark certainty of the grave for the bright blazing uncertainty of the sky?

The night before the mission Hans, as usual was seen in the bohemian cafe that sprang up in Sidi Abdel Rahman. After downing quantities of liquor worth several hundreds of Deutschmarks, the flying ace stood upon his table and gave a speech about compassion for our fellow humans. His peers all toasted and cheered. They congratulated themselves on the excellent capacity they, as the aryan race, had for tolerance and compassion. On the way back to their lodgings that evening a group of combat pilots raped a young woman, all the while they thought about how truly compassionate they were for their fellow man.

So it came to pass that Hans-Joachim placed a corpse of a young german soldier in his cockpit. It had taken very little effort to find a suitable sample in the shallow graves of the northern Sahara, and the young dead soldier took very little convincing to walk back to the German base with Herr Marseille. After treating the man to an unusual breakfast at the only place in Sidi Abdel Rahman that served shellfish, Hans-Joachim took the corpse to the airfield. There he spent a few short hours guiding the dead hands of the anonymous corpse through the pre-flight checklist. After quickly explaining some theories about combat and marksmanship, the young flying ace closed the cockpit, wrapped his scarf around his head, and quietly made his way out of the German base. The dead man took off beautifully and joined Herr Marseille's squadron with supernatural ease. Their formation held tightly until the shellfish poisoning, or the fire, whichever version you prefer, forced the corpse to exit the aircraft and return dramatically to a shallow grave on the desert floor.

Meanwhile, Herr Marseille had arranged for passage to Morocco, and then perhaps to Paris. To be authentic the decorated officer had decided to make the journey by camel and in full beduin garb, turban and all. He imagined that he could pass the long hours in the dessert observing the sublime vastness of the landscape, and somehow come to a fuller understanding of his existence. After four days his guides turned their guns on the pilot. They took his bags, his forged documents, and his food. The bandits left him with only a half a canteen of water and the clothes on his back. The young man eager for a bohemian existence allowed all of this to happen with a pleasant smile on his face. It would only be seven hours before that smile faded into an unending stream of curses and oaths, only interrupted by desperate pants for breath.

If things had gone the way they were going Hans-Joachim would have made it to a small dessert oasis, and then perhaps on to Morocco, and then given some small luck on to Paris. However, fate has a way of landing squarely on our shoulders, and no matter which way we turn, what vast nameless dessert we choose to wander in, it will find us.

Hans-Joachim's last moments were spent trudging up the face of a great dune. He noticed that a shadow had begun to grow over his position. Then as he stood looking upward for the source a familiar sound reached his ears. If he could have seen the fuselage before it crushed him, perhaps that same smile and eagerness for a sublime understanding of the mad world around us would have returned to Herr Marseille. For the fuselage of the ruined flying machine was decorated with a spiral of French flags, in between the spiral arms were patterns of British and American flags, all delicately painted and artfully arranged.

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