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One Chute Burned
by MacKinlay Kantor
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One Chute Burned
by MacKinlay Kantor

Up there on oxygen,
Up above everywhere,
Ten of you trained and projected for bombing,
Wrapped in your mission and in dural metal;
Eighth Air Force Bombers–the Heavy Command

Secret the numbers of wing and of squadron:
Busy with guns . . . Let us open the breeches
Of the big fifties, the hardy machine guns–
Let us go back to the Gunnery School.

First Position Stoppage:
Failure to feed,
Failure to fire,
(Did you burn up, Bailey?)

Broken the striker,
Broken the firing pin
Or broken the firing pin extension,
Or broken the belt-holding pawl arm.

Faulty ammunition,
Faulty this or that:
A broken sear;
Something jimmed or broken;
The good clean steel
That never before had broken, and now broke
And let that single Messerschmitt come in.

No one at fault. Not you.
Not another one of the gunners,
Nobody back at the base,
None of the ground crew,
No one who helped you vicarious–
No one who helped you victorious–
Nor the man nor the woman back in the States
Who constructed that piece for the gun.
(Did you burn, was it you,
The chute on fire?)

So this is the way: I shall tell how it happened.
As others hard-eyed of the squadron observed.
Now, wisely I will tell you, young Bailey, I tell you
You could never observe, you were busy as hell!
Still flying behind is such perfect formation,
Not far from the wing tips of others that flew–

The bombing run done, and the bomb bay wide open,
The black bursts puffing in patterns beneath–
Down into that mix-up, that mangled illusion
Where dozens of bursts had already appeared.

Then the swoop, and the fighter deflecting on in–
O swift like a fish, he is trout coming in,
Drawn taut by the line of his own tracer bullets–
An M E-One-Ten, with his two motors mooing–
And so he got in, and he put all his Twenties,
He put his death into the B-Seventeen.

So you turned, lazy-daisy, all ten of you people,
The living and dead, with four motors asleep,
And one of them stringing its wet wash of flame.
(Did you burn, and if not you, who was it that burned?)
Flame hanging across, torn behind you in laundry:
Slips of fire, skirts, scarfs and a kerchief of flame.
While everyone else went away, went away,
Still keeping invincible in their formation,
Conducting their way by immutable rule.
And you gentlemen turned, jumbled round; the ball turret.
Transformed to mid-upper. And endless you hung there
Before the B-Seventeen started down.

Did you burn, did you burn up, O Bailey the Kid?
One of you went with all haste to the ground.
Seven white parachutes, now morning-glories
(Lilies of France on the Fourth of July
Over Nantes, the poor city. O lilies of France,
O sorrowing prisoner, swallowing tears.)
The chutes they were magic and fair morning-glories.

But one was on fire–a little flame chewing,
Eating the glossiest silk of the chute.
Who was it had waited not near long enough?
Who let his hand tremble too eager and wild?
Who managed his handle too soon, so the cord
Tossed open the fabric to kiss the high fire?
Somebody's chute was a little red rose–
Somebody's chute and his life were a crumple,
Little black crumple, all the way down
Twenty-two thousand feet deep into Nantes.
Six of you wistful and six of you sailing,
Sailing and swinging,
All the way down, four full miles to the ground.
Bailey, who burned?

This is the way that I think of you always:
Cocky and walking untrammeled and quick.
This is the way I shall see you forever,
Tough face and monkey mouth wrinkled and pert.
Leather arms swaying, you walk at the base;
Dingy gold bars on the loops of your jacket;
Childish forever you swagger and sing.
Always your cot with its rumpled gray blanket.
Always your pin-ups with lingerie leer,
Always your silken-limbed blondes on the wall,
Always your tongue running loose, and some
Fellow hauling you off to bed on your fanny,
All the way down to the floor with a bump.

All the way down
To that checkerboard Nantes!
(Tell me, O Bailey, who burned?)
All the way down to the barbed wire fences–
You, who said, "Heil!" for a comical greeting–
Down to the Achtung! And Blitzspiel you gabbed.
Six of you drifting, three dead in the ship,
Or battered so badly they couldn't bail out,
And another, lone flower, aburning.

Somewhere forever among the cloud strata,
Somewhere aloft on the patterns and railroads,
Off there we bomb and go bombing persistent.
Off there, a Mystic, you look up and hear us–
Secret and shapeless, named Missing in Action . . .
Ask for the news and I will willingly tell you:
Driscoll has salted down twenty-two missions;
Webb has done his, he is through, he is home–
Drawling tall Webb, with his souvenir pistol,
He is alive and is gone back to Texas.
Springstun's still with us, and Bower, and Greene.
Whisky and Whiskers are living with Greene,
Barking and wagging back under his bed;
He gives them food in an old peanut can.
Otis is with you, and with you is Scott,
With you in blankness, with you in limbo,
Bailey–who burned?

So I will think, sitting silent in Briefing,
So I will wonder in looking at maps:
How did it happen, the thing that has happened?
Now I shall utter in whispers the failures:
How did that Messerschmitt do it to you?
Second Position: the broken ejector . . .
Incorrect oil buffer setting, or bolt track
Burred and distorted to stop the smooth cartridge,
Or–Third Position–the burred cantileer . . .
Still, he came up and he burst your hot motors.
All of his shells in the nose of the gas tanks,
All of his death in your B-Seventeen.

Hitler was shouting, ten years were forgotten:
Chancellor new of the Reichstag and Reich.
You in your limitless void of Kentucky,
Played with your bombs on the Fourth of July.
Hitler remote, just a name in the papers–
Papers you never would read at your age.
You were nine, you were ten,
And you liked to read funnies . . .

Fourth of July; and you yell in Kentucky,
Shoot off your crackers and frighten the cats;
Wait for the rockets in dusk, and the candles,
Sparklers and flowerpots. Then you would sleep.
(I did not know you from Adam, Child Bailey,
Ten years ago.)
Then you would sleep with your yellow hair mussy–
Dream of the finger you fried with torpedoes–
Dream of the cap pistol popping so proudly,
And the cherry bombs burst in the garden . . .
Old Mrs. Allen . . . you frightened her cat
Ten years ago.

Go to sleep in the past,
Bailey the Kid, on the Fourth of July.
But where sleep you now with the imps in your spirit?
And who was it died in the B-Seventeen?
And who was it dented the deck with his nostrils,
When his parachute blossomed with flame over Nantes?
Over Nantes, over France on the Fourth of July,
Bailey . . . who burned?