Mauve gloves & madmen, clutter & vine, and other stories, sketches, and essays /
Tom Wolfe ; illustrated by the author.̲̲
New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, [1976]
243 p. : ill.
0374204241 :
More Details
New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, [1976]
0374204241 :
contents note
Stories and sketches: Mauve gloves & madmen, clutter & vine.--The truest sport.--The commercial.--The man who always peaked too soon.--The spirit ofthe age (and what it longs for):The intelligent coed's guide to America.--The me decade and the third great awakening.--Sex and violence: The perfect crime.--Pornoviolence.--The boiler room and the computer.--Manners, decor, and decorum: Funky chic.--Honks and wonks.--The street fighters.
catalogue key
A Look Inside
First Chapter
Mauve Gloves and Madmen, Clutter and Vine
"He's a real Mr. Transistors." (PAGE 94)
Stories and Sketches
Mauve Gloves & Madmen, Clutter & Vine
THE well-known American writer ... but perhaps it's best not to say exactly which well-known American writer ... they're a sensitive breed! The most ordinary comments they take personally! And why would the gentleman we're about to surprise be any exception? He's in his apartment, a seven-room apartment on Riverside Drive, on the West Side of Manhattan, in his study, seated at his desk. As we approach from the rear, we notice a bald spot on the crown of his head. It's about the size of a Sunshine Chip-a-Roo cookie, this bald spot, freckled and toasty brown. Gloriously suntanned, in fact. Around this bald spot swirls a corona of dark-brown hair that becomes quite thick by the time it completes its mad Byronic rush down the back over his turtleneck and out to the side in great bushes over his ears. He knows the days of covered ears are numbered, because this particular look has become some-what Low Rent. When he was coming back from his father's funeral, half the salesmen lined up at O'Hare for the commuter flights, in their pajama-striped shirts and diamond-print double-knit suits, had groovy hair much like his. And to think that just six years ago such a hairdo seemed ... so defiant!
Meeting his sideburns at mid-jowl is the neck of histurtleneck sweater, an authentic Navy turtleneck, and the sweater tucks into his Levi's, which are the authentic Original XX Levi's, the original straight stovepipes made for wearing over boots. He got them in a bona fide cowhand's store in La Porte, Texas, during his trip to Houston to be the keynote speaker in a lecture series on "The American Dream: Myth and Reality." No small part of the latter was a fee of two thousand dollars plus expenses. This outfit, the Navy turtleneck and the double-X Levi's, means work & discipline. Discipline! as he says to himself every day. When he puts on these clothes, it means that he intends to write, and do nothing else, for at least four hours. Discipline , Mr. Wonderful!
But on the desk in front of him--that's not a manuscript or even the beginnings of one ... that's last month's bank statement, which just arrived in the mail. And those are his canceled checks in a pile on top of it. In that big ledgerstyle checkbook there (the old-fashioned kind, seriouslooking, with no crazy Peter Max designs on the checks) are his check stubs. And those slips of paper in the promiscuous heap are all unpaid bills, and he's taking the nylon cover off his Texas Instruments desk calculator, and he is about to measure the flow, the tide, the mad sluice, the crazy current of the money that pours through his fingers every month and which is now running against him in the most catastrophic manner, like an undertow, a riptide, pulling him under--
--him and this apartment, which cost him $75,000 in 1972; $20,000 cash, which came out of the $5,000 he got as a paperback advance for his fourth book, Under Uncle's Thumb, and $536.36 a month in bank-loan payments (on the $55,000 he borrowed) ever since, plus another $390a month in so-called maintenance, which has steadily increased until it is now à a month ... ad although healready knows the answer, the round number, he begins punching the figures into the calculator ... 536.36 plus ... 460 ... times 12 ... and the calculator keys go chuck chuck chuck chuck and the curious little orange numbers, broken up like stencil figures, go trucking across the black path of the display panel at the top of the machine, giving a little orange shudder every time he hits the plus button, until there it is, stretching out seven digits long--11956.32 --$12,000 a year! One thousand dollars a month--this is what he spends on his apartment alone!--and by May he will have to come up with another $6,000 so he can rent the house on Martha's Vineyard again chuck chuck chuck chuck and by September another$6,750--$3,750 to send his daughter, Amy, to Dalton and $3,000 to send his son, Jonathan, to Collegiate (on those marvelous frog-and-cricket evenings up on the Vineyard he and Bill and Julie and Scott and Henry and Herman and Leon and Shelly and the rest, all Media & Lit. people from New York, have discussed why they send their children to private schools, and they have pretty well decided that it is the educational turmoil in the New York public schools that is the problem --the kids just wouldn't be educated!--plus some considerations of their children's personal safety--but--needless to say!--it has nothing to do with the matter of ... well, race) and he punches that in ... 6750 ... chuck chuck chuck chuck ... and hits the plus button ... an orange shimmer ... and beautiful! there's the figure--the three items, the apartment in town, the summer place, and the children's schooling--$24,706.32!--almost $25,000 a year in fixed costs, just for a starter! for lodging and schooling! nothing else included! A grim nut!
It's appalling, and he's drowning, and this is only the beginning of it, just the basic grim nut--and yet in his secret heart he loves these little sessions with the calculatorand the checks and the stubs and the bills and the marching orange numbers that stretch on and on ... into such magnificently huge figures. It's like an electric diagram of his infinitely expanding life, a scoreboard showing the big league he's now in. Far from throwing him into a panic, as they well might, these tote sessions are one of the most satisfying habits he has. A regular vice! Like barbiturates! Calming the heart and slowing the respiration! Because it seems practical, going over expenses, his conscience sanctions it as a permissible way to avoid the only thing that can possibly keep him afloat: namely, more writing ... He's deep into his calculator trance now ... The orange has him enthralled. Think of it! He has now reached a stage in his life when not only a $1,000-a-month apartment but also a summer house on an island in the Atlantic is an absolute necessity--precisely that, absolute necessity ... It's appalling! --and yet it's the most inexplicable bliss!--nothing less.
As for the apartment, even at $1,000 a month it is not elegant. Elegance would cost at least twice that. No, his is an apartment of a sort known as West Side Married Intellectual. The rooms are big, the layout is good, but the moldings, cornices, covings, and chair rails seem to be corroding. Actually, they are merely lumpy from too many coats of paint over the decades, and the parquet sections in the floor have dried out and are sprung loose from one another. It has been a long time since this apartment has had an owner who could both meet the down-payment nut and have the woodwork stripped and the flooring replaced. The building has a doorman but no elevator man, and on Sundays the door is manned by a janitor in gray khaki work clothes. But what's he supposed to do? He needs seven rooms. His son and daughter now require separate bedrooms. He and his wife require a third one (a third andfourth if the truth be known, but he has had to settle for three). He now needs, not just likes, this study he's in, a workroom that is his exclusively. He now needs the dining room, which is a real dining room, not a dogleg off the living room. Even if he is giving only a cocktail party, it is ... necessary that they (one & all) note--however unconsciously--that he does have a dining room!
Right here on his desk are the canceled checks that have come in hung over from the cocktail party he gave six weeks ago. They're right in front of him now ... $209.60 to the florists, Clutter & Vine, for flowers for the hallway, the living room, the dining room, and the study, although part of that, $100, was for a bowl of tightly clustered silk poppies that will become a permanent part of the living-room decor ... $138.18 to the liquor store (quite a bit was left over however, meaning that the bar will be stocked for a while) ... $257.50 to Mauve Gloves & Madmen, the caterers, even though he had chosen some of the cheaper hors d'oeuvres. He also tipped the two butlers $10 each, which made him feel a little foolish later when he learned that one of them was co-owner of Mauve Gloves & Madmen ... $23.91 to the grocery store for he couldn't remember what ... $173.95 to the Russian Tea Room for dinner afterward with Henry and Mavis (the guests of honor) and six other stragglers ... $12.84 for a serving bowl from Bloomingdale's ... $20 extra to the maid for staying on late ... and he's chucking all these figures into the calculator chuck chuck chuck chuck blink blink blink blink truck truck truck truck the slanted orange numbers go trucking and winking across the panel ... 855.98 ... $855.98 for a cocktail party!--not even a dinner party!--appalling!--and how slyly sweet ...
Should he throw in the library stairs as a party expense, too? Perhaps, he thought, if he were honest, he would. Thechecks were right here: $420 to Lum B. Lee Ltd. for the stairs themselves, and another $95 to the customs broker to get the thing through customs and $45 to the trucker to deliver it, making a total of $560! In any event, they're terrific ... Mayfair heaven ... the classic English type, stairs to nowhere, going up in a spiral around a central column, carved in the ancient bamboo style, rising up almost seven feet, so he can reach books on his highest shelf ... He had had it made extra high by a cabinetmaking firm in Hong Kong, the aforementioned Lum B. Lee ... Now, if the truth be known, the stairs are the result of a habit he has: he goes around the apartment after giving a party and stands where he saw particular guests standing, people who stuck in his mind, and tries to see what they saw from that position; in other words, how the apartment looked in their eyes. About a year ago he had seen Lenny Johns of the Times standing in the doorway of his study and looking in, so afterward, after Lenny and everyone else had gone, he took up the same position and looked in ... and what he saw did not please him. In fact, it looked sad. Through Lenny John's eyes it must have looked like the basic writer's workroom out of Writer's Digest: a plain Danish-style desk (The Door Store) with dowel legs (dowel legs!), a modernistic (modernistic!) metal-and-upholstery office swivel chair, a low-slung (more Modernismus! ) couch, a bank of undistinguished-looking file cabinets, a bookcase covering one entire wall but made of plain white-painted boards and using the wall itself as its back. The solution, as he saw it--without going into huge costs--was the library stairs--the stairs to nowhere!--an object indisputably useful and yet with an air of elegant folly!
It was after that same party that his wife had said to him: "Who was that weepy-looking little man you were talking to so much?"
"I don't know who you're talking about."
"The one with the three strands of hair pulled up from the side and draped over his scalp."
He knew she was talking about Johns. And he knew she knew Johns's name. She had met him before, on the Vineyard.
Meeting Lenny Johns socially was one of the many dividends of Martha's Vineyard. They have been going there for three summers now, renting a house on a hill in Chilmark ... until it has become, well, a necessity! It's no longer possible to stay in New York over the summer. It's not fair to the children. They shouldn't have to grow up that way. As for himself, he's gotten to know Lenny and Bill and Scott and Julie and Bob and Dick and Jody and Gillian and Frank and Shelly and the rest in a way that wouldn't be possible in New York. But quite aside from all that ... just that clear sparkling late-August solitude, when you can smell the pine and the sea ... heading down the piney path from the house on the hill ... walking two hundred yards across the marshes on the pedestrian dock, just one plank wide, so that you have to keep staring down at it ... it's hypnotic ... the board, the marsh grass, your own tread, the sound of the frogs and the crickets ... and then getting into the rowboat and rowing across the inlet to ... the dune ... the great swelling dune, with the dune grass waving against the sky on top ... and then over the lip of it--to the beach! the most pristine white beach in the world! and the open sea ... all spread out before you--yours! Just that! the sand, the sea, the sky--and solitude! No gates, no lifeguard stands, no concessions, no sprawling multitudes of transistor radios and plaid plastic beach chairs ...
It is chiefly for these summers on the Vineyard that he has bought a car, a BMW sedan--$7,200--but very lively!It costs him $76 a month to keep it in a garage in the city for nine months of the year, another $684 in all, so that the hard nut for Martha's Vineyard is really $6,684--but it's a necessity, and one sacrifices for necessities. After three years on the Vineyard he feels very possessive about the place, even though he's a renter, and he immediately joined in with the move to publish a protest against "that little Albanian with a pickup truck," as he was (wrongly) called, some character named Zarno or something who had assembled a block of fifty acres on the Vineyard and was going to develop it into 150 building lots--one third of an acre each! (Only dimly did he recall that the house he grew up in, in Chicago, had been on about one fifth of an acre and hadn't seemed terribly hemmed in.) Bill T----wrote a terrific manifesto in which he talked about "these Snopes-like little men with their pickup trucks"--Snopeslike! --and all sorts of people signed it.
This campaign against the developers also brought the New York Media & Lit. people into contact for the first time with the Boston people. Until the Media & Lit. people began going there about ten years before, Martha's Vineyard had always been a Boston resort, "Boston" in the most proper social sense of the word. There wasn't much the Boston people could do about the New York people except not associate with them. When they said "New York people," they no doubt meant "Jews & Others," he figured. So when he was first invited to a Boston party, thanks to his interest in the anti-developers campaign, he went with some trepidation and with his resentment tucked into his waistband like a .38. His mood darkened still more when he arrived in white ducks and an embroidered white cotton shirt, yoke-shouldered and open to the sternum--a little eccentric (actually a harmless sort of shirt known in Arizona as Fruit Western) but perfectly in the mood ofstandard New York People Seaside Funk--and found that the Boston men, to a man, had on jackets and ties. Not only that, they had on their own tribal colors. The jackets were mostly navy blazers, and the ties were mostly striped ties or ties with little jacquard emblems on them, but the pants had a go-to-hell air: checks and plaids of the loudest possible sort, madras plaids, yellow-on-orange windowpane checks, crazy-quilt plaids, giant houndstooth checks, or else they were a solid airmail red or taxi yellow or some other implausible go-to-hell color. They finished that off with loafers and white crew socks or no socks at all. The pants were their note of Haitian abandon ... weekends by the sea. At the same time the jackets and ties showed they had not forgotten for a moment where the power came from. He felt desolate. He slipped the loaded resentment out of his waistband and cocked it. And then the most amazing thing happened--
His hostess came up and made a fuss over him! Exactly! She had read Under Uncle's Thumb! So had quite a few of the men, infernal pants and all! Lawyers and investment counselors! They were all interested in him! Quite a stream --he hardly had to move from the one spot all evening! And as the sun went down over the ocean, and the alcohol rose, and all of their basted teeth glistened--he could almost see something ... presque vu! ... a glimmer of the future ... something he could barely make out ... a vision in which America's best minds, her intellectuals, found a common ground, a natural unity, with the enlightened segments of her old aristocracy, her old money ... the two groups bound together by ... but by what? ... he could almost see it, but not quite ... it was presque vu ... it was somehow a matter of taste ... of sensibility ... of grace, natural grace ... just as he himself had a natural feel for the best British styles, which were after all the source of theBoston manners ... What were the library stairs, if they weren't that? What were the Lobb shoes?
For here, now, surfacing to the top of the pile, is the check for $248 to John Lobb & Sons Ltd. Boot Makers--that was the way he wrote it out, Boot Makers, two words, the way it was on their bosky florid London letterhead--$248!--for one pair of shoes!--from England!--handmade! And now, all at once, even as chuck chuck chuck he punches it into the calculator, he is swept by a wave of sentiment, of sadness, sweet misery--guilt! Two hundred and forty-eight dollars for a pair of handmade shoes from England ... He thinks of his father. He wore his first pair of Lobb shoes to his father's funeral. Black cap toes they were, the most formal daytime shoes made, and it was pouring that day in Chicago and his incomparable new shoes from England were caked with mud when he got back to his father's house. He took the shoes off, but then he froze --he couldn't bring himself to remove the mud. His father had come to the United States from Russia as a young man in 1922. He had to go to work at once, and in no time, it seemed, came the Depression, and he struggled through it as a tailor, although in the forties he acquired a dry-cleaning establishment and, later, a second one, plus a diaperservice business and a hotel-linen service. But this brilliant man--oh, how many times had his mother assured him of that!--had had to spend all those years as a tailor. This cultivated man!--more assurances--oh, how many yards of Goethe and Dante had he heard him quote in an accent that gripped the English language like a full nelson! And now his son, the son of this brilliant, cultivated but uneducated and thwarted man--now his son, his son with his education and his literary career, his son who had never had to work with his hands more than half an hour at a stretch in his life --his son had turned up at his funeral in a pair of handmade shoes from England! ... Well, he let the mud dry on them.He didn't touch them for six months. He didn't even put the shoe trees (another $47) in. Perhaps the goddamned boots would curl up and die.
The number ... 248 ... is sitting right up there in slanted orange digits on the face of the calculator. That seems to end the reverie. He doesn't want to continue it just now. He doesn't want to see the 6684 for Martha's Vineyard up there again for a while. He doesn't want to see the seven digits of his debts (counting the ones after the decimal point) glowing in their full, magnificent, intoxicating length. It's time to get serious! Discipline! Only one thing will pull him out of all this: work ... writing ... and there's no way to put it off any longer. Discipline, Mr. Wonderful! This is the most difficult day of all, the day when it falls to his lot to put a piece of paper in the typewriter and start on page 1 of a new book, with that horrible arthritic siege--writing a book!--stretching out ahead of him (a tubercular blue glow, as his mind comprehends it) ... although it lifts his spirits a bit to know that both The Atlantic and Playboy have expressed an interest in running chapters as he goes along, and Penthouse would pay even more, although he doesn't want it to appear in a one-hand magazine, a household aid, as literary penicillin to help quell the spirochetes oozing from all the virulent vulvas ... Nevertheless! help is on the way! Hell!--there's not a magazine in America that wouldn't publish something from this book!
So he feeds a sheet of paper into his typewriter, and in the center, one third of the way down from the top, he takes care of the easy part first--the working title, in capital letters:
The Truest Sport: Jousting with Sam and Charlie
Down a perfectly green tunnel, as cool and quiet as you can possibly imagine--no, it's not a tunnel, it's more like a hall of mirrors--but they're not mirrors, those aren't reflections, they're openings, one after another, on and on --just a minute! it's very familiar!--out of this cool green memory comes a steward, a tiny man, in uniform, a white jacket, perfectly starched and folded and creased like an envelope over his crisp little bones. Who doesn't know him! Here comes Bye Borty-bibe--
"Bye borty-bibe!"
He's saying it!
Dowd wakes up and it's 5:45 on the button, as always, and he looks across the stateroom at the steward. The steward is a little Filipino in a white jacket who hesitates, so as to make sure Dowd actually wakes up at bye borty-bibe, as he always pronounces it, and then he disappears down the passageway.
There is something eccentric in the way the day begins. It's terribly genteel!--having a little servant in a white jacket come by and respectfully summon you into consciousness so you can go hang your hide out for human skeet and sweat horribly. More servants will come in after Dowd leaves and make up his bed and clean up the stateroomand dust off the TV and the safe and clean off the desk and take out the laundry. Only your laundryman knows for sure! That was the usual joke, but there were some men who came aboard for the first time, and after a couple of hops north they would actually wonder whether it could get so bad--whether a man could get so frightened that he would literally lose control--only your laundryman knows for sure!--and whether later, in the bowels of the ship, in the laundry room, there might actually be some little laundry humper, some sweatback, some bye-bye steward of the soul, who would, in fact, know.
In the first moments, when you wake up, it's as if you're furiously scanning, painting all the stray trash on the screen, although usually that begins to fade as soon as you're on your feet. In a moment Dowd would be out in the good green passageway. The passageway is a very cool and immaculate green, not luxurious, you understand--in fact, every twenty feet there is a hatchway with a kneeknocker you have to step over, and as you look on and on through these hatchways, one after the other, it's like a hall of mirrors--but it is green and generally pleasing to the nervous system. Actually ... that is not all there is to it. It is also good because, if the truth be known, being on this good green passageway means that you are traveling first-class, sleeping in a stateroom, with only one roommate, and you have the aforesaid servants standing by. It is not even a subject that one thinks about in so many words. And yet the ship is constructed in such an obvious fashion, in layers, that one can't help but know that down below ... they are living in quite another way, in compartments, with thirty to forty souls to a compartment, and they wake up to a loudspeaker and make up their own bunks and run along to a loudspeaker through gray-and-beige tunnels and eat in a gray-and-beige galley off trays with scullion gullies stamped into them, instead of in a wardroom.
A wardroom!--also genteel in its way. Like the rest of them, Dowd is usually doing well if he gets up in time to make it to breakfast with his guy-in-back, Garth Flint, in the smaller wardroom, where they eat cafeteria-style. More than once he hasn't even managed that and has departed with nothing in his gullet but a couple of cups of coffee, notwithstanding all the lectures about the evil consequences this has for your blood-sugar level. But when they come back, Dowd and Flint and the others can enjoy the offerings of a proper wardroom, the formal one. They can take off the reeking zoom-bags, get dressed, sit down at a table with a white tablecloth on it, write out their orders on club slips, after the fashion of a men's club in New York or London, and more little Filipino stewards in white jackets will pick up the orders and serve dinner on china plates. The china has a certain dignity: it's white with a band of blue about the rim and a blue crest in the center. The silverware--now, that's rather nice! It's ornamental and heavy, it has curlicues and a noble gravity, the sort of silverware one used to see in the dining room of the good hotel near the railroad station. So they have dinner on a field of white and silver, while little stewards in white jackets move about the edges. The bulkheads (as the walls are known here) are paneled with walnut rectangles framed with more walnut; not actual wood, which is forbidden because it is inflammable, but similar enough to fool the eye. Off to the side are clusters of lounge chairs upholstered in leather and some acey-deucey tables. Silver and heavy glass wink out of a manly backdrop, rich as burled wood and Manila cigars; for here in the wardrooms of the Coral Sea the Navy has done everything that interior decoration and white mess jackets can do to live up to the idea of Officers & Gentlemen, within the natural limits of going to war on the high seas.
The notion often crosses Dowd's mind: It's like jousting. Every day they touch the napkins to their mouths, depart this gently stewarded place, and go forth, observing a checklist of written and unwritten rules of good form, to test their mettle, to go forth to battle, to hang their hides out over the skeet shooters of Hanoi-Haiphong ... thence to return, after no more than two hours ... to this linenfold club and its crisp starched white servitors.
One thing it is not good to think about is the fact that it would be even thus on the day when, finally, as has already happened to 799 other American aviators, radar-intercept officers, and helicopter crewmen, your hide is blown out of the sky. That day, too, would begin within this same gentlemanly envelope.
Fliers with premonitions are not healthy people. They are known as accidents waiting to happen. Now, John Dowd and Garth Flint are not given to premonitions, which is fortunate and a good sign; except that it won't make a great deal of difference today, because this is that day.
To get up on the flight deck of the Coral Sea, Dowd and Flint usually went out through a hatch onto a catwalk. The catwalk hung out over the side of the ship just below the level of the deck. At about midships they climbed a few feet up a ladder and they would be on the deck itself. A simple, if slightly old-fashioned, procedure, and by now second nature--
--but what a marvelous low-volt amusement was available if you were on the Coral Sea and you saw another mortal, some visitor, some summer reservist, whoever, make his first excursion out onto that deck. He takes a step out onto the catwalk, and right away the burglar alarm sounds in his central nervous system. Listen, Skipper!--the integrityof the circuit has been violated somewhere! He looks out over the railing of the catwalk, and it might as well be the railing of the goddamned Golden Gate Bridge. It's a sixty-foot drop to the sea below, which is water--but what conceivable difference does that make? From this height the water looks like steel where it picks up reflections of the hull of the carrier, except that it ripples and breaks up into queasy facets--and in fact the horizon itself is pitching up and down ... The whole freaking Golden Gate Bridge is pitching up and down ... the big wallowing monster can't hold still ... Christ, let's get up on the deck, away from the edge--but it's only when he reaches the deck itself and stands with both feet planted flat that the full red alert takes over.
This flight deck--in the movie or the training film the flight deck is a grand piece of gray geometry, perilous, to be sure, but an amazing abstract shape dominating the middle of the ocean as we look down upon it on the screen --and yet, once the newcomer's two feet are on it--geometry--my God, man, this is a ... skillet! It heaves, it moves up and down underneath his feet, it pitches up, it pitches down, as the ship moves into the wind and, therefore, into the waves, and the wind keeps sweeping across, sixty feet up in the air out in the open sea, and there are no railings whatsoever--and no way whatsoever to cry out to another living soul for a helping hand, because on top of everything else the newcomer realizes that his sense of hearing has been amputated entirely and his voice is useless. This is a skillet!--a frying pan!--a short-order grill!--not gray but black, smeared with skid marks from one end to the other and glistening with pools of hydraulic fluid and the occasional jet-fuel slick, all of it still hot, sticky, greasy, runny, virulent from God knows what traumas--still ablaze!--consumed in detonations, explosions, flames, combustion,roars, shrieks, whines, blasts, cyclones, dust storms, horrible shudders, fracturing impacts, all of it taking place out on the very edge of control, if in fact it can be contained at all, which seems extremely doubtful, because the whole scorched skillet is still heaving up and down the horizon and little men in screaming red and yellow and purple and green shirts with black Mickey Mouse helmets over their ears are skittering about on the surface as if for their very lives (you've said it now!), clustering about twin-engine F-4 fighter planes like little bees about the queen, rolling them up a stripe toward the catapult slot, which runs through the deck like the slot in the back of a piggy bank, hooking their bellies on to the shuttle that comes up through the slot and then running for cover as the two jet engines go into their shriek and a huge deflection plate rises up behind the plane because it is about to go into its explosion and quite enough gets blown--quite enough!--quite enough gets blown off this heaving grill as it is, and then they explode--both engines explode into full afterburn, 37,000 pounds of force, and a very storm of flame, heat, crazed winds, and a billion blown steely particles--a very storm engulfs the deck, followed by an unbelievable shudder--kaboom!--that pounds through the skillet and destroys whatever may be left of the neophyte's vestibular system, and the howling monster is flung up the deck like something out of a red-mad slingshot, and the F-4 is launched, dropping off the lip of the deck tail down with black smoke pouring out of both engines in its furious struggle to gain altitude--and already another plane is ready on the second catapult and the screams and explosions have started again and the little screaming-yellow men with their Mouseketeer ears are running once more--
--and yet this flaming bazooka assembly line will, in the newcomer's memory, seem orderly, sublimely well controlled,compared to the procedure he will witness as the F-4's, F-8's, A-4's, A-6's return to the ship for what in the engineering stoicisms of the military is known as recovery and arrest. To say that an F-4 is coming back onto this heaving barbecue from out of the sky at a speed of 135 knots ... that may be the truth on paper, but it doesn't begin to get across the idea of what a man sees from the deck itself, because it perhaps creates the notion that the plane is gliding in. On the deck one knows different! As the aircraft comes closer and the carrier heaves on into the waves and the plane's speed does not diminish--one experiences a neural alarm he has never in his wildest fears imagined before: This is not an airplane coming toward me, it's a brick, and it is not gliding, it's falling, a fifty-thousand-pound brick, headed not for a stripe on the deck, but for me--and with a horrible smash! it hits the skillet, and with a blur of momentum as big as a freight train's it hurtles toward the far end of the deck--another blinding storm!--another roar as the pilot pushes the throttle up to full military power and another smear of rubber screams out over the skillet--and this is normal!--quite okay!--a wire stretched across the deck has grabbed the hook on the end of the plane as it hit the deck tail down, and the smash was the rest of the twenty-five-ton brute slamming onto the deck, as if tripped up, so that it is now straining against the wire at full throttle, in case it hadn't held and the plane had "boltered" off the end of the deck and had to struggle up into the air again. And already the Mickey Mouse helmets are running toward their fiery monster ...
The obvious dangers of the flight deck were the setting, the backdrop, the mental decor, the emotional scenery against which all that happened on the carrier was played out, and the aviator was he who lived in the very eye of the firestorm. This grill was his scenery. Its terrors rose outof his great moments: the launch and recovery. For that reason some crewmen liked to check out the demeanor of the aviators during these events, just as they might have in the heyday of the chivalric code.
When John Dowd and Garth Flint came out on deck in their green flight suits, carrying their helmets and their knee-boards, they were an unmistakable pair. Dowd was the tallest pilot on the ship, almost six feet five. Six years ago he was captain of the Yale basketball team. He was so tall, he had to slump his way through the physicals in order to get into flight training, where six four was the upper limit. He looked like a basketball player. His face, his Adam's apple, his shoulders, his elbows--he was a tower of sharp angles. Flint was Dowd's radar-intercept officer. He was five eight and rather solidly built. He was not small, but next to Dowd he looked like a little jockey.
Today they were to go out on a two-ship formation, with Dowd's roommate, Dick Brent, flying a second F-4B. Dowd's would be the lead ship; Brent's the wing. The usual monsoon overcast was down within about five hundred feet of the deck. It was another day inside the gray pearl: the ship, a tight circle of the waters of the Gulf of Tonkin around it, a dome of clouds, fog, mist, which was God's great gift to the North Vietnamese.
They climb aboard and Dowd eases the power on to taxi the ship toward the catapult, while the aircraft directors nurse it onto the slot. The catapult officer is out there on the deck with his Mousketeer ear baffles on and his yellow jersey flapping in the wind. Assuming the preliminary stages have been completed correctly, the catapult officer is supposed to hold up five fingers to show the pilot that all looks good for launch. If the gauges look okay, the pilot then shows that he is ready for his little slide-for-life ... by saluting. At this point three things are supposed to happenin a very rapid sequence: the catapult officer drops to one knee (to avoid having his head removed by the wing) and throws his hand forward like a cheerleader doing the "locomotive"; the pilot cuts on full afterburn; and a seaman on a catwalk across the deck presses a black rubber button and throws both hands up in the air. This somewhat hopeless-looking gesture says: "It's done! We've fired the catapult! You're on your way! There's no stopping it!"
To Dowd this is another eccentric note. This man who fires the slingshot--or who seems to--actually he's signaling the steam-catapult crew below deck--this man, who appears to flick you into the sky or the sea with his finger, according to how things work out, is some little swabbo making seventy-eight dollars a month or whatever it is. Somehow this fact puts just that much more edge on the demeanor of the pilot's salute, because what that salute says is: "I hereby commit my hide to your miserable care, sir, to you and your sailor with the button and your motherless catapult. I'm a human cannonball, and it's your cannon."
So it is that today, just before he cuts on full afterburn and sets off the full 37,000-pound explosion and consumes the skillet in the firestorm and braces the stick so he won't lose control in the bad lurch of the slingshot, just before the big ride, in the key moment of knightly correctness, Dowd rolls his salute off his helmet with a languid swivel of his wrist, like Adolphe Menjou doffing his hat ... a raffish gesture, you might say, with a roll to it that borders on irony ... but a friendly note all the same ... For this is a good day! They are flying again! There is no bomb load--therefore less weight, therefore an easy launch! ... a good day--otherwise he might have, or would have been entitled to, according to the unwritten and unspoken rules (especially since he has more than one hundred missions behind him)--he might have ended that cool rolling salute byleaving his middle finger sticking up in the air, in an accepted fashion that tells one and all: "You're only giving me the grand goose. Why should I salute? (Here's one for you.)"
But this is a good day!--and Dowd surrenders to the catapult without even an ironic protest, and he feels a tremendous compression, so great that the surface of his eyeballs flattens and his vision blurs, and the F-4B shrieks, and he and Flint hurtle down the stripe and off the bow of the ship, half blind and riding a shrieking beast, into the gray pearl. It couldn't have been a smoother launch; it was absolutely nominal.
Dowd heads on through the pearl, through the overcast, with Brent's plane about five hundred yards back. The ride to the coast of North Vietnam will take them about twenty minutes. Just how high the cloud cover will be up around Haiphong is impossible to say, which means that the game of high-low may be a trifle too interesting. The weather has been so bad, nobody has been up there. Well ... now somebody's going up there. Already, without any doubt, the Russian trawlers in the gulf have painted the two aircraft on their radar screens. Painted! Such a nice word for it! The phosphorescent images come sliding onto the screen, as if a brush were doing it. And with those two delicate little strokes on a Russian radar screen somewhere out there in the muck, the game is on again.
American pilots in Vietnam often ran through their side of the action ahead of time as if it were a movie in the mind ... trying to picture every landmark on the way to the Red River delta, every razorback green ridge, all that tropical hardscrabble down below, every jut in the coast, every wretched misty snake bend in the Red River, every bridge around Haiphong harbor, every change of course,the angle of every bomb run from the assigned altitude ... But just try to imagine the enemy's side of it. Try to imagine your own aircraft (encasing your own hide) sliding onto their screens like a ghost stroke (observed by what Russian?) and the trawler signaling the coast and the cannon crews and SAM battalions cranking up in the delta and devising (saying what exactly?) their black trash for the day, which could be inexplicably varied.
One day flying over Haiphong would be "a walk in Haiphong Park," as Dowd would put it. The next day the place would erupt with the wildest storms of ground fire since the bombing of Berlin, Merseburg, and Magdeburg in the Second World War, absolute sheets of 37-millimeter, 57-millimeter, and 85-millimeter cannon fire, plus the SAM's. The antiaircraft cannons now had sights that computed the leads instantly and automatically, and they were more accurate than anything ever dreamed of in the Second World War or the Korean war. But it was the SAM's that were the great equalizer. It was SAM's that made aerial combat in Vietnam something different from what the aces of wars gone by--admirable innocent fellows!--had ever known.
Dowd used to say to himself: "The SAM's come up, and the boys go down." One way or the other! The SAM's, the Russian surface-to-air missiles, were aimed and guided by radar. They climbed at about Mach 3, which was likely to be at least three times as fast as your own ship was going when you heard the warning over your radio ("I have a valid launch!"). The SAM's were not fired at random--each had a radar lock on your aircraft or somebody else's. The only way to evade a SAM was to dive for the deck, i.e., the ground. The SAM's own G-forces were so great they couldn't make the loop and come back down. "The SAM's come up, and the boys go down." And the merriment has just begun. The dive brings you down so low,you are now down into the skeet range of that insidiously well-aimed flak! This, as they say, put you between a rock and a hard place. Sometimes the North Vietnamese also sent up the Mig-21's. But they were canny about it. The Migs went up mainly to harass the bombers, the F-105's, A-4's, and A-6's, to force them to jettison their bomb loads (in order to gain speed to evade the Migs) before they reached the target. But occasionally the F-4's got a chance to tangle with them. What a luxury! How sporting! How nice to have a mere Mig to deal with instead of the accursed SAM's! Of course, you just might have both to contend with at the same time. The North Vietnamese were so SAM-crazy, once in a while they'd fire them up in the middle of a hassle and hit their own planes.
Dowd saw his first SAM last year when he was on a flak-suppression run. Other aviators had always told him they looked like "flying telephone poles," but the only thing he saw at first was a shower of sparks, like the sparks from a Roman candle. That was the rocket tail. And then he could make out the shaft--all of this happening in an instant--and it was, in fact, like a pale-gray telephone pole, moving sideways through the sky as if skidding on its tail, which meant the ship it was after had already dived for the deck and the SAM was trying to overcome its own momentum and make the loop. You were always reassured with the statement, "If you can see it"--meaning a SAM--"you can evade it"--but there were some pilots who were so egotistical they believed that the one they saw was the one that had their name on it. A fatal delusion in many cases!--for the SAM's came up in fans of six or eight, fired from different sites and different angles. "The SAM's come up, and the boys go down"--and Dowd and his whole formation hit the deck and got out of there. Not long after that, Dowd and Flint were hit by ground fire for the first time--it was to happen four more times--in the same sortof situation. They had just come down out of the dive when they took hits in the port ramp and intake duct. Fortunately it was 14.5-millimeter fire, instead of one of the big cannons, and they made it on back to the ship.
High-low! In what?--ten minutes?--Dowd will have to start playing the same game again this morning. Soon he will have to decide whether to go above the overcast or right on the deck. Above the overcast they will be safe from the gunners, who need visual sightings in order to use their automatic lead mechanisms. But right above the overcast is where SAM rules like a snake. More aviators have been wiped out by SAM's popping out of the clouds they're sitting on than any other way. Rather than contend with that automated blind beast, some pilots prefer to come in low over the terrain in the eternal attempt to get in "under the radar." But what is it really, a strategic defense or a psychological defense?
Such was the nature of the game that Dowd and every other pilot here had to play. Many of the pilots who flew over Vietnam had been trained by instructors who had flown in the Korean war. What tigers those old Korea jocks were! What glorious memories they had! What visions those aces could fill your skull with! What a tangy taste they gave to the idea of aerial combat over Southeast Asia! The Korean war brought on the first air-to-air combat between jet fighters, but it turned out to be dogfighting of the conventional sort nonetheless, American F-86's versus Soviet-built Mig-15's mainly--and it was a picnic ... a field day ... a duck shoot ... American pilots, flying F-86's in all but a few dozen cases, shot down 839 Korean and Chinese Mig-15's. Only fifty-six F-86's were lost. Quite a carnival it was. Morale among American ground troops in Korea slid like the mud, but the pilots were in Fighter Jock Heaven. The Air Force was producing aces--fighter pilotswho had shot down five planes or more--as fast as the Communists could get the Migs up in the air. By the time the war stopped, there were thirty-eight Air Force aces, and between them they had accounted for a total of 299.5 kills. High spirits these lads had. They chronicled their adventures with a good creamy romanticism such as nobody in flying had dared treat himself to since the days of Lufbery, Frank Luke, and Von Richthofen in the First World War. Why hold back! Jousting is jousting, and a knight's a knight. Colonel Harrison R. Thyng, who shot down five Migs in Korea (and eight German and Japanese planes in the Second World War), glowed like Excalibur when he described his Fourth Fighter-Interceptor Wing: "Like olden knights the F-86 pilots ride up over North Korea to the Yalu River, the sun glinting off silver aircraft, contrails streaming behind, as they challenge the numerically superior enemy to come on up and fight." Lances and plumes! Come on up and fight! Now there was a man having a wonderful time!
In Vietnam, however, the jousting was of a kind the good colonel and his knights never dreamed of. The fighter plane that the Air Force and the Navy were now using instead of the F-86--namely, the F-4--was competing with the new generation of Migs and was winning by a ratio of two to one, according to the air-to-air combat scoreboards, regular league standings, that were kept in various military publications. That was nothing like the fifteento-one ratio in Korea, of course--but more than that, it was not even the main event any longer. Not even the heroic word "ace" carried the old wallop. The studs-of-all-thestuds in Vietnam were not the pilots in air-to-air combat but the men who operated in that evil space between the rock and the hard place, between the SAM's and the automatic cannon fire.
In the past three years--1965, 1966, and the year just ending for John Dowd, 1967--the losses had been more brutal than the Air Force or the Navy had ever admitted. Jack Broughton, an Air Force colonel and commander of a wing of F-105's flying over Hanoi-Haiphong from out of Thailand, described the losses as "astronomical and unacceptable," and they were increasing sharply each year. What made the North Vietnamese game of high-low--SAM's and ground fire--so effective was a set of restrictions such as no combat pilots had ever had to contend with before.
Flying out over Hanoi and Haiphong was like playing on some small and sharply defined court. These two cities were by far the major targets in North Vietnam, and so there was very little element of surprise along the lines of switching targets. They could only be approached down a ridge of mountains ("Thud Ridge") from the west, out of Thailand, which would be the Air Force attacking with F-105 fighter-bombers, or across a wide-open delta (perfect for radar defenses) from the east, which would be the Navy attacking from carriers in the gulf. The North Vietnamese and the Russians packed so much artillery in around these two cities that pilots would come back saying, "It was like trying to fly through a rainstorm without hitting a drop."
God knows how many planes and pilots were lost just trying to knock out the North Vietnamese ground fire. The Air Force had Wild Weasel or Iron Hand units made up of pilots in F-105's who offered themselves as living SAM bait. They would deliberately try to provoke launches by the SAM battalions so that other ships could get a radar lock on the SAM sites and hit them with cluster-bomb strikes. This became the ultimate game of radar chess. If the SAM battalions beamed up at the Wild Weasels and committed too early, they stood to get obliterated,which would also allow the main strike force to get through to its target. On the other hand, if they refused to go for the bait, recognizing it for what it was, and shut down their beams--that might give the strike force just enough time to slip through unchallenged. So they'd keep shutting on and off, as in some lethal game of "one finger, two fingers." Their risk was nothing, however, compared to that of the Wild Weasel pilots, who were the first in and the last out, who hung around in the evil space far too long and stood to get snuffed any way the game went.
Navy pilots, Dowd among them, were sent out day after day for "flak suppression." The North Vietnamese could move their flak sites around overnight, so that the only way to find them was by leading with your head, as it were, flying over the target area until you saw them fire the cannons. This you could detect by the rather pretty peach-pink sparkles, which were the muzzle explosions. The cannons made no sound at all (way up here) and seemed tiny and merely decorative ... with their little delicate peach-pink sparkles amid the bitter green of the scrabble. Dowd and his comrades could not unload on these flak sites just anywhere they found them, however. As if to make the game a little more hazardous, the Pentagon had declared certain areas bomb-free zones. A pilot could hit only "military targets," which meant he couldn't hit villages, hospitals, churches, or Haiphong harbor if there was a "third-party" ship there. So, naturally, being no fools, the North Vietnamese loaded the villages up with flak sites, loaded the churches up with munitions, put SAM sites behind the hospitals, and "welded a third-party ship to the dock" in Haiphong harbor, as Garth Flint put it. There always seemed to be some neutral flag in port there, with one of North Vietnam's best customers being our friends the British. One day one of Dowd's Coral Sea comrades came in for a run on a railroad freight depot, pickled hisbombs too soon, went long, and hit a church--whereupon the bitter-green landscape rocked with secondary and tertiary explosions and a succession of fireballs. The place had gone up like an arsenal, which of course it was. Every now and then Dowd would be involved in a strike aimed at "cutting off" Haiphong harbor. This was not to be done, however, by mining the harbor or blowing the docking facilities out of the water or in any other obvious and easy manner. No, this had to be accomplished by surgically severing the bridges that connected the port with the mainland. This required bomb runs through the eye of a needle, and even if the bridges were knocked out, the North Vietnamese simply moved everything across by barge until the bridges were back.
If you were a pilot being flung out every day between the rock and the hard place, these complicated proscriptions took on an eerie diffidence, finally. They were like an unaccountable display of delicate manners. In fact, it was the Johnson Administration's attempt to fight a "humane" war and look good in the eyes of the world. There was something out-to-lunch about it, however. The eyes of the world did not flutter for a second. Stories of American atrocities were believed by whoever wanted to believe them, no matter what actually occurred, and the lacy patterns that American bombing missions had to follow across Hanoi-Haiphong never impressed a soul, except for the pilots and radar-intercept officers who knew what a difficult and dangerous game it was.
If the United States was seriously trying to win the battle of world opinion--well, then, here you had a real bush-league operation. The North Vietnamese were the uncontested aces, once you got into this arena. One of the most galling things a pilot had to endure in Vietnam was seeing the North Vietnamese pull propaganda coup afterpropaganda coup, often with the help, unwitting or otherwise, of Americans. There was not merely a sense of humiliation about it. The North Vietnamese talent in this direction often had direct strategic results.
For example, the missions over N----D----. Now, here was one time, in Dowd's estimation, when they had gotten the go-ahead to do the job right. N----D----was an important transportation center in the Iron Triangle area. For two days they softened the place up, working on the flak sites and SAM sites in the most methodical way. On the third day they massed the bomb strike itself. They tore the place apart. They ripped open its gullet. They put it out of the transport business. It had been a model operation. But the North Vietnamese now are blessed with a weapon that no military device known to America could ever get a lock on. As if by magic ... in Hanoi ... appears ... Harrison Salisbury! Harrison Salisbury--writing in The New York Times about the atrocious American bombing of the hardscrabble folk of North Vietnam in the Iron Triangle! If you had real sporting blood in you, you had to hand it to the North Vietnamese. They were champions at this sort of thing. It was beautiful to watch. To Americans who knew the air war in the north firsthand, it seemed as if the North Vietnamese were playing Mr. Harrison Salisbury of The New York Times like an ocarina, as if they were blowing smoke up his pipe and the finger work was just right and the song was coming forth better than they could have played it themselves.
Before you knew it, massive operations like the one at N----D----were no longer being carried out. It was back to threading needles. And yet it couldn't simply be blamed on Salisbury. No series of articles by anyone, no matter what the publication, could have had such an immediate strategic effect if there weren't some sort of strangecollapse of will power taking place back in the States. One night, after a couple of hops, Dowd sank back into an easy chair in the wardroom of the Coral Sea and picked up a copy of some newspaper that was lying around. There on the first page was William Sloane Coffin, the Yale University chaplain, leading a student antiwar protest. Not only that, there was Kingman Brewster, the president of Yale, standing by, offering tacit support ... or at least not demurring in any way. It gave Dowd a very strange feeling. Out in the Gulf of Tonkin, on a carrier, one was not engulfed in news from stateside. A report like this came like a remote slice of something--but a slice of something how big? Coffin, who had been at Yale when Dowd was there--Comn was one thing. But the president of Yale? There was Kingman Brewster with his square-cut face--but looked at another way, it was a strong face gone flaccid, plump as a piece of chicken Kiev. Six years before, when Dowd was a senior at Yale and had his picture taken on the Yale Fence as captain of the basketball team ... any such Yale scene as was now in this newspaper would have been impossible to contemplate.
The collapse of morale, or weakening of resolve, or whatever it should be called--this was all taking place in the States at the very moment when the losses were beginning to mount in both the Navy and the Air Force. Aviators were getting shot down by the hundreds. Sometimes, at night, after dinner, after the little stewards in white had cleared away the last of the silver from off the white line, after playing a few rounds of acey-deucey in the lounge or just sinking into the leather billows of the easy chairs, after a movie in the wardroom, after a couple of unauthorized but unofficially tolerated whiskeys in somebody's stateroom--after the usual, in short, when he was back in his own quarters, Dowd would take out his mimeographedflight schedule for the day just completed and turn it over to the blank side and use it to keep a journal. In 1966 and 1967 more and more of these entries would make terse note of the toll of friends: "We lost Paul Schultz & Sully--presumably captured immediately on landing in parachute. Direct hit from SAM coming out of clouds--site near Kien An." Or: "Bill C. got it over Ha Tinh today--body seen bloody on ground."
Or they were about how John Dowd hadn't gotten his: "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. I think today was a give day. 8 SAM's or so fired from multiple sites and it looked like a few had my no. on them. However they missed their mark & so this entry is made ... Doc H. presented those who participated in the 'A' strike with a little vial of J. W. Dant cough medicine."
In light of all that, it may be of interest to note one fact concerning the mission to Haiphong and points north that Dowd has just headed off on: he did not merely volunteer for it--he thought it up!
For four days, which is to say, ever since Christmas Day, the coastal ports of Haiphong, Cam Pha, and Hon Gay have been socked in with bad weather. Dowd suggested and volunteered for a weather-reconnaissance hop to find out how bad it actually was, to see if the soup was moving at all, to see if the harbors were by any chance clear of third-party ships and therefore eligible for bombing, and so on. If anyone had asked, Dowd would have merely said that anything was better than sitting around the ship for days on end, doing make-work.
But anything--even playing high-low with SAM over the North?
The answer to that question perhaps leads to the answer to a broader one: How was it that despite their own fearsomelosses in 1965, 1966 and 1967, despite hobbling restrictions and dubious strategies set by the Pentagon, despite the spectacle of the antiwar movement building back home--how was it that, in the face of all this, American fliers in Vietnam persisted in virtuoso performances and amazing displays of esprit throughout the war? Somehow it got down to something that is encoded in the phrase "a great hop."
The last time Dowd and Garth Flint were out was four days ago, Christmas Day, during the American Christmas cease-fire; and what a little tourist excursion that was. They flew a photo run over Route 1A in North Vietnam, came in under the cloud cover, right down on top of the "Drive-In," as it was called, fifty feet from the ground, with Garth taking pictures, and the Charlies were down there using Christmas Day and the cease-fire for all it was worth. The traffic jam at the Phun Cat ferry, going south to the Ho Chi Minh Trail, was so enormous that they couldn't have budged even if they thought Dowd was going to open up on them. They craned their heads back and stared up at him. He was down so low, it was as if he could have chucked them under their chins. Several old geezers, in the inevitable pantaloons, looked up without even taking their hands off the drafts of the wagons they were pulling. It was as if they were harnessed to them. The wagons were so full of artillery shells, it was hard to see how one man, particularly so spindly a creature, could possibly pull one, but there they were in the middle of the general jam-up, in with the trucks, bicycles, motorcycles, old cars, rigs of every sort, anything that would roll.
Now, that was a good hop--and Dowd so recorded it in his journal--an interesting hop, a nice slice of the war, something to talk about, but merely a photo hop ... and not a great hop. There was such a thing as a great hop, and it was quite something else.
Sometimes, at night, when Dowd would write on the back of his flight schedule, he'd make such entries as:
"Great hop! Went to Nam Dinh and hosed down the flak sites around that city. Migs joined in the caper, but no one got a tally. Think I lucked out in a last-minute bomb run & racked up a flak site pretty well."
The atmosphere of the great hop had something about it that was warlike only in the sense that it was, literally, a part of combat. A word that comes closer is sporting. Throughout his tour of duty on the Coral Sea, no matter how bearish the missions became, Dowd seemed to maintain an almost athletic regard for form. Even on days he spent diving from SAM's and running the flak gauntlets, even on days when he was hit by flak, he would wind up his journal entries with a note about how well (or how poorly) he drove his F-4 back down onto the carrier, and often with a playful tone: "2nd pass was a beauty but only received an OK--which was an unfortunate misjudgment on the part of the LSO [landing signal officer]." Or: "Went to Haiphong Barracks. 3 SAM's launched--one appeared to be directed at yours truly--however with skill & cunning we managed to avoid it, although it cost us our first bombing run, which was in question due to lack of a target--no flak tc suppress. After whifferdilling around we rolled in on a preplanned secondary target. What deleterious havoc this bombing caused the enemy is questionable. However the overall mission was quite successful ... RTB good approach except for last ¼ mile. Received cut-1 for my efforts."
A great hop! With skill & cunning we managed to avoid ... death, to call it by its right name. But pilots never mentioned death in the abstract. In fact, the word itself was taboo in conversation. So were the words "bravery" and "fear" and their synonyms. Which is to say, pilots never mentioned the three questions that were uppermost in theminds of all of them: Will I live or die? Will I be brave, whatever happens? Will I show my fear? By now, 1967, with more than a hundred combat missions behind him, Dowd existed in a mental atmosphere that was very nearly mystical. Pilots who had survived that many games of high-low over North Vietnam were like the preacher in Moby Dick who ascends to the pulpit on a rope ladder and then pulls the ladder up behind him.
Friends, near ones and dear ones, the loved ones back home, often wondered just what was on the minds of the fliers as the casualties began to increase at a fearsome rate in 1966 and 1967. Does a flier lie on his back in bed at night with his eyes wide open, staring holes through the ceiling and the flight deck and into outer space, thinking of the little ones, Jeffrey and Jennifer, or of his wife, Sandy, and of the soft lost look she has when she first wakes in the morning or of Mom and Dad and Christmas and of little things like how he used to click the toggles on his rubber boots into place before he went out into the snow when he was eight? No, my dear ones back home--I'm afraid not! The lads did not lie in their staterooms on the Coral Sea thinking of these things--not even on Christmas Eve, a few days ago!
Well ... what was on their minds?
(Hmmmm ... How to put it into words ... Should it be called the "inner room"?)
Dowd, for one, had entered the Navy in 1961 without the slightest thought of flying or of going to war. The Navy had no such designs for him, either. Quite the contrary. All they asked was that he keep playing basketball! At Yale, Dowd had been an aggressive player, the sort who was matched up against other college stars, such as Dave De Busschere of the University of Detroit (later of the New York Knicks). At the end of his last season, 1961,Dowd was drafted by the Cleveland entry in the new American Basketball Association. He had his naval R.O
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"No one is as good as Wolfe on the contradictions between cushy class and angry consciousness . . . There essays . . . offer a lively picture of the surface of our society' one wishes life were this interesting." -Jack Beatty, The Nation "This book serves as a reminder of how often Wolfe's refusal to be respectful toward any subject has produced both illumination and laughter." - Time "Mr. Wolfe tackles all sorts of subjects ranging from life on an aircraft carrier (brilliantly described) to the goings-on at a convention of National Enquirer freelance writers . . . The master of trivia also offers an underlying theme in his essays and stories: the enormous gap (as he perceives it) between the intellectuals' negative view of America and the positive reality." -Roger Ricklefs, The Wall Street Journal "It's all right here! Again! The wicked maestro has done it again!" -Tom Nolan, The Los Angeles Times Book Review
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Main Description
"When are the 1970s going to begin?" ran the joke during the Presidential campaign of 1976. With his own patented combination of serious journalism and dazzling comedy, Tom Wolfe met the question head-on in these rollicking essays -- and even provided the 1970s with its name: "The Me Decade."
Main Description
"When are the 1970s going to begin?" ran the joke during the Presidential campaign of 1976. With his own patented combination of serious journalism and dazzling comedy, Tom Wolfe met the question head-on in these rollicking essays - and even provided the 1970s with its name: "The Me Decade."

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