Why is your face so smashed up?” a thin, befreckled, bespectacled and big-eared ten-year-old boy asked a gaunt, pale man, who looked to be in his mid-forties but was really only in his early thirties.
The man was slumped on the sofa. The boy was standing in front of him and staring.
“I was in the war against the Japanese and then against the Communist Chinese. I was a pilot in the Flying Tigers. Have you heard of them?”
“Sure. Everybody has. But you don’t look big enough to be a Flying Tiger pilot.”
“You’re sort of right. I’m the average-sized guy that they designed the P-40 plane around. I’m five-foot-eight and weighed a hundred-and-forty pounds when I was flying. The bigger pilots had trouble getting in and out of the cockpit and could never get comfortable in the seat or with the instruments and guns.”
“So Mr. Pilot, what’s your name?”
“Howie Hill. What’s yours?” “Jimmy Dade. ... Mr. Hill, what happened to you in the war that got your face so smashed up?” “Well, Jimmy, anybody who was a pilot in the Flying Tigers crashed a lot. I lost count of how many times. ... But my face isn’t really as smashed up as it looks.” He pointed at two big scars—one was straight and horizontal across his forehead; the other, jagged and vertical down the left side of his face.
While pointing, he explained, “These scars, plus the fact that I’ve lost considerable weight which gives me a skeleton-skull face ... all that makes me look worse than I am. ... Like I said, I crashed a lot.
“The worst time was when I went into a lake when I was trying out a P-40e. I wasn’t shot down by the Japs. The plane was a new model—different from what I had been flying. I lost control. When I crashed, I hit my face on the canopy—that’s when I got the scar across my forehead. I got knocked unconscious and almost drowned. Luckily the cold water woke me up and the lake was shallow. So I was able to pull myself out of the cockpit and swim to the surface. ... They left the plane in the lake. It was too hard to get out and restore to flying condition.”
“Where was that—in Japan?”
“No, in China—in Lake Dianchi by Kunming. That’s a big city in southwest China on the other side of the Hima- layas from Burma.”
“Did it happen a long time ago?” “Jimmy, what year were you born?” “I was born in 1940.” “This is 1950. It happened in 1942, so when you were two years old. ... I remember it well because my best friend, Johnny Blackburn, crashed into the same lake on April 28, two days before I did. And he really did drown. He was a big man. His big feet got stuck in the control pedals and he couldn’t get himself out.
“Jimmy, if you want to see what I looked like before I went to China and got my face smashed up, look at my photo on the wall over there.”
Jimmy walked over to where Howie was pointing.
The photo, which was a close, black-and-white portrait, showed Howie from his shoulders up. He was in uniform, but wore his air force khaki shirt with no tie and had his garrison flight cap at a jaunty angle. He was relaxed, with a closed-mouth friendly smile and his eyes squinting because the photo was shot in bright California sunshine. In 1941, at age twenty-three, the Scotch-Irish young man in the photograph was very handsome, in the prime of life, and his face showed no signs of stress or wounds of war.
In 1942, when the movie, Flying Tigers, came out, people in Mackenzie, Texas, where Howie was from, were taken aback by the resemblance between Howie and the actor John Carroll, who portrayed pilot Woody Jason. The only difference was that Howie never sported a moustache.
Jimmy turned around to face Howie again and changed the subject.
“Mr. Hill, my mom says you came home to die. She says you’re drinking yourself to death. But she didn’t tell me why. Why don’t you want to live?”
“Jimmy, I’ve got nothing to live for. My Chinese wife and my two kids—a boy and a girl—didn’t make it to the coast to the boats that were helping people escape to Taiwan. So the Communists killed them.”
“A big island a hundred miles off the coast of China. A lot of the Nationalist Chinese soldiers and their families escaped to it in December of last year—1949—when they lost the war to the Communists.
“But like I said, my own family didn’t make it to Taiwan. At that time, I was flying for the Nationalists in the Republic of China Air Force. I crash-landed my fighter on Taiwan and I waited for my family on the island’s west coast that’s across the straight from the mainland. But they never came. The Communists had killed them. The entire Nationalist army of western China and their families—mine included—were all killed.
“I already told you. Because the Nationalists lost the war. Like I said, I was a pilot in the Nationalist Air Force. After Pearl Harbor, when the Flying Tigers were made part of the American Air Force, I stayed in the Republic of China Air Force because of my Chinese wife, who was expecting our first child. We got married in Kunming.
“When the Chinese Communists won the war, they killed the soldiers of the Nationalists and their families. My wife’s father was a general in the Nationalist Army. He died with all his men and all their families, including mine, before they could escape to China’s coast and from there to Taiwan. ... Why do you ask so many questions?” Howie sighed, clearly annoyed.
“Because I want to know why you’re drinking yourself to death and why you don’t want to live.”
“Didn’t you understand what I was telling you about my Chinese wife and my two kids?”
“Yes, and I could tell you were sick when I saw you last week, when you first came home. ... I figured Mrs. Hill was your mother. You look like her—except that your face is all messed up. She babysits me a lot.
“Sir, I asked my own mother about you. She said she knew you when you were growing up here in Mackenzie and you went to school with my Uncle Dan—one of her brothers. She told me you left a dozen years ago—before the war—but she only told me that you had been in China fighting the Japanese. ... She didn’t tell me about your Chinese wife and kids and what happened to them. ... Mr. Hill—Mr. Flying Tiger Pilot—it’s real sad. ...
“Sir, I hope you find a reason to live and don’t drink yourself to death like you’re doing now. ... My mother says we should pray a lot for you.”