A very special Thank You! to Ms. Marilyn Nelson

Reprinted by permission of Louisiana State University Press from The
Homeplace, by Ms. Marilyn Nelson Waniek. Copyright © 1990 by Ms. Marilyn Nelson Waniek.

Tuskegee Airfield
For the Tuskegee Airmen

These men, these proud black men:
our first to touch their fingers to the sky.

The Germans learned to call them
Die Schwarzen Vogelmenschen.
They called themselves The Spookwaffe.

Laughing. And marching to class under officers whose thin–lipped ambition was to wash the niggers out.

Sitting at attention for lectures about ailerons, airspeed, altimeters
from boring lieutenants who believed you monkeys ain’t meant to fly.

Oh, there were parties, cadet-dances, guest appearances
by the Count and the lovely Lena.

There was the embarrassing
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?

There was that, like a breath of pure oxygen. But first they had to earn wings.

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 from Minnesota,
and he made us sing the Minnesota Fight Song before we took off.

If you didn’t sing it, your days were numbered. "Minnesota, hats off to thee…" That bastard!

One time I had a check-flight
with an instructor from Louisiana.
As we were about to head for base,
he chopped the power.

Force-landing, nigger. There were trees everywhere I looked. Except on that little island… 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.

The instructor grinned. Boy, if your ass is as hard as your head, you’ll go far in this world.

For Melvin M. Nelson, Captain USAF (ret.)

At his cramped desk under the astrodome, the navigator looks
thousands of light-years everywhere but down. He gets a celestial fix,
measuring head-winds; checking the log; plotting wind-speed,
altitude, drift in a circle of protractors, slide-rules, and pencils.

He charts in his Howgozit the points of no alternate and of no return.
He keeps his eyes on the compass,
the two altimeters, the map. He thinks, Do we have enough fuel?
What if my radio fails?

He’s 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.

Smitty, 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 man’s 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, I’ll have to burn down my house. Because if I don’t my neighbors will.

The navigator knows where he is
because he knows where he’s been
and where he’s going. At night, since he can’t fly by dead-reckoning, he calculates his position by shooting a star.

The octant tells him the angle of a fixed star over the artificial horizon.
His position in that angle is absolute and true: Where the hell are we, Nelson? Alioth, in the Big Dipper.
Regulus. Antares, in Scorpio.

He plots their lines of position on the chart, gets his radio bearing,
corrects for lost time.

Bob, Al, Les, and Smitty are counting on their navigator. If he sleeps, they all sleep. If he fails
they fall.

The 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.

Lonely Eagles
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 they’d been trained to do.

Black ground-crews 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 their names:
"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. There’s 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 didn’t even work.

They called themselves "Hell from Heaven." This Spookwaffe. My father’s old friends.

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 didn’t. Every time we went up, I gave my mattress to Starks and put his on my cot.

One day we were strafing a train.
Strafing’s bad news:
you have to fly so low and slow
you’re a pretty clear target.
My other wing-man and I
exhausted our ammunition and got out. I recognized Starks by his red tail
and his rudder’s trim-tabs. He couldn’t 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 his mattress
for the rest of my tour.

It still bothers me, sometimes: I was sleeping on his breath.

Ms. Marilyn Nelson Web site

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