All the Things Never Done
Somewhere far off the unseen coast of North Africa, far to the east of Gibraltar, upon the open sea, David Rouleau was seeing his world in unbearable clarity. Everything he looked at held such sharpness and detail, that he felt as though he looked at them for the first time—the coil of leather tape wrapping the spade grip of his Spitfire’s control column, the lazy floating of the compass, the salt specks on his windshield, the green-grey hue of zinc chromate paint. He stared, perhaps for only three seconds, but it seemed forever, at the blue wool of his battle dress trousers. Outside his cockpit, the white shirt and shoulder boards of a Royal Navy lieutenant stood sharp and hard against the light grey side of HMS Eagle’s island superstructure as the officer leaned out as if to signal something to Flying Officer Johnny Plagis in the lead Spitfire.
Everything he smelled was sharp and potent. With his oxygen mask swaying as it hung to one side, he took short, sharp breaths from a colorless cloud of air, high-octane fuel, glycol and oil. Behind this stench of combustible vapors he detected notes of Bakelite, wool, shoe polish, salt air, metal warming in the sun, leather and Eagle’s foul smoke. The whiff of sweat rose from his helmet and mask. He marveled at all this, while running through all the checks and actions needed to get his Spitfire ready to do something he and it had never done before.
His throat was dry and he longed for water. Everything he tasted was sharp and biting. He could taste the metal in the air around him, his breakfast of hot tea, eggs and rashers, the salt of the Mediterranean, the cigarette he had just crushed out on the round down behind his Spitfire. He could taste his own fear rising up in his throat. It was difficult to swallow.
Everything he heard was muffled and distant. All sound seemed to come to him as if through the dark depths of the Mediterranean that ran in deadly shadow beneath him, four decks down. The runaway tumult of the Rolls-Royce Merlin was felt as much as heard. The vibration shook his eyeballs, made the needles quiver in all the dials before him, masked his own shaking and yet made him feel powerful that all this was set in motion by his own hand. The crazed harmonies of the Spitfire did not mask all other vibrations. Two other rhythms found their way into his consciousness despite the howl around him. Up through the tires, the oleos, the wing spar, his seat, his chute and his spine came the heavy steel thrum of Eagle’s screws coupled with a gentle rise and fall of the ship’s grey bulk. Perhaps he was just imagining the vibrations, but the slow yo-yo of the horizon combined with the smell of fuel was starting to make him nauseous. And then there was his heart. It pounded out doubt and fear and excitement and glory. He felt it rushing in his ears, felt his heart push his blood beneath the tightness of his shoulder straps. The blood he would soon shed.
David had not slept the night before, at least not very well. He’d lain in his cot on the hangar deck chain smoking Senior Service cigarettes, butting them out in a coffee can filled with sand. He had only smoked a few cigs before the war, but now he needed them to calm his hands. Everyone needed them. Around him Royal Air Force “erks” and Royal Navy ratings labored together beneath harsh light all through the night to uncrate and ready the rest of the 31 Spitfires for the morning’s launch. The pilots and Spitfires had sailed from
HMS Eagle showing her unique high foremast with gun spotting platform (two of her six inch guns can be seen in turrets beneath the flight deck) and long round down at her stern where the Navy ensign waves proudly. Built on a hull originally destined to float a battle cruiser for the Chilean navy, Eagle was, in many respects, a one-off.