The sky, with a thick layer of light grey clouds its floor, stretched up infinitely into the vastness of space. Even in the airliner, surrounded by other passengers, there was an imposing loneliness and a suffocating sense of insignificance.
As the planes avionics made their soft whistle, the jet skipped its way along the atmosphere effortlessly. If it weren’t for the pale, grey-blue on the top half of the aircraft and its wings, and the blue circle with a red maple leaf at its center acting as a focal point for the image out the window, one may have forgotten the purpose of the aircraft and its passengers.
Jann liked to trick himself into believing he was some purposeful businessman on his way to some trade conference in some exotic location. But the military roundel always brought him back to reality. He looked across the cabin, at men and woman in clean, pressed dark blue uniforms, wedged caps, buttons and badges. For a brief moment, Jann felt terribly out of place surrounded by all of these men and woman of uniform, only to remember he was dressed the same. Then the reality of the situation sunk in with all of the grace and subtlety of a rock in the pond behind his fiancé’s parent’s farm.
If it weren’t for downing the bottle of water in front of him, he may have vomited at the sensation.
“Lieutenant?” he looked up to see Jean Carleton. He was a rather unpopular fellow from the Canadian Maritimes, something Jann would never understand with his ever earnest voice, funny laugh, and terrible jokes, topped in a newfoundland accent, all of which made him so endearing. Running a hand through his brown moustache, he removed his officer cap placed it in front of his stomach, and sat beside him. “You look greener than the seaweed on the beach off my house.”
“Here I was thinking I was doing such a good job hiding it.” He stared back out the window, it provided some relief. War seemed impossible when staring out at the vastness of the sky; it was unfathomable that there was so little space in the world that people needed to fight for it.
“Guys in my line of work don’t miss the little details.” He remarked, leaning to look out the window and take in the view.
Jann chuckled to himself, at Jean missing his sarcasm, but he decided to not mention this. The jet was beginning to descend now, the clouds going from a distant floor to a more imposing and ominous landscape, before finally enveloping the aircraft.
* * *
When imagining Japan, images of vast, endless interconnected city came to mind. A metropolis chained together by bullet trains and highways. Hokkaido was not that. When the plane landed at the air base, the only civilization was a small town that would have easily fit into the Midwest, surrounded by equally seemingly out of place fields that went on endlessly, save for the mountains at the edge of the horizon.
The plane landed as comfortably as a large, unstable, supersonic airliner could. From the ground, the energy of the airbase came to life, as transport trucks drove back and forth while ground crews tinkered away at anti aircraft guns and fighter jets. The planes tails were decorated in squadron logos; silver gauntlets, reaching into the air, glistened in the midday sun on the British planes. A cartoonish bird painted in gold and white flew in front of a cross on the Australian planes. the Canadian ones featured a faded out eagle staring confidently forward. A 21 with white wings and red tips marked the local Japanese aircraft.
“Tokachi-Obihiro is quite the place, eh?” Jean said, leaning over Jann’s shoulder.
He raised an eyebrow, “Feels more like home than I thought it would, I can say that much.”
The seatbelt light went dark and a soft ping reverberated throughout the airliner. The rest of the passengers stood up as if wired to do so and began to exit the aircraft at the command of an officer somewhere at the front of the aircraft. Jean did the same and motioned for Jann to follow. He did his best impression of a soldier, the manner of walking, the purposeful staring in no direction in particular. It all still felt alien.
Despite the warmth the sun promised from inside the aircraft, it was cold and Jann shivered. He wished for his jacket, still in luggage, as he followed the procession into the old terminal, one of the many reminders that Tkachi-Obihiro was supposed to be a small international airport, not an airbase. This only became more clear to Jann as she took in more of the landscape. In fact, the aa guns, the sandbags, the large radar arrays, they all seemed like foreign invaders trying to convert a more peaceful place.
Bouncing of Jean, Jann reeled. The procession had stopped. Someone near the front of the line yelled something, and, with machine like cohesion and precision, everyone spun to face a group of previously unnoticed officers standing before an armoured car. Jean made a funny face, Jann coughed, as if it would matter if he had an excuse for not paying attention.
“At ease pilots!” The youngest of the officers said with a thick Australian accent that waivered between a shout and perfect, skilled voice projection. “My fellow Aussies, welcome to Japan!” Jann felt the urge to raise his hand and inform the crowd that he was very much not Australian, but decided against it. “Hokkaido will be hour home for the coming months as we are hosted by the 5th division of the Japanese army. I hope…”
A powerful yank pulled Jann out of the crowd, and he struggled to maintain his footing. “Are you an Australian?” Jann stared dumbly at the man behind disconcerting attack. He was middle aged with greying brown hair, stern and tired blue eyes, all of it capped with a gruff Michigan accent. “Surely you know what goddamn country you are from.”
“Sorry, no, not Australian, sir.” The sir came out as more of a question that an assertion. Jean had promised him when he had signed up to be a pilot for the Canadian Air Force that the American volunteer units weren’t much for formalities. But what that meant for a long time military man and a flower shop owner from Ohio were separate concepts he feared.
The man stared at him for a few moments longer before cracking a sympathetic smile, “What the hell have you got yourself into son?” It was only then that he realized that Jean was standing beside the man, trying to hide some embarrassment, “Running so low on potential recruits that you are down to entrapping young boys and shipping them my way?”
“You know; I can’t think of a single context where that doesn’t sound horrible.” Jann remarked.
“He assured me he has been flying jets for years and that he comes from a family with history in the American air force.” The Newfoundlander replied, doing his best to not appear too much on the defensive.
“Flying Piper Cubs and having a daddy who worked as a ground crew in the First Republic’s air force isn’t exactly good material.” The man sighed and began to walk off.
“An F-16 Block 15.”
He paused, “What?”
“An F-16 Block 15. Viper, Fighting Falcon, whatever you want to call it.” Jann shook his head condescendingly, “And my grand mother flew F-24A’s in the First Republic’s air force.”
The man made a snorting sound, and Jean smiled with anticipation, “Fair enough. Well, follow me. You’re here anyways, might as well use you.”
* * *
The barracks for the American pilots danced the thin line between cramped and cozy. A few inches’ width in any direction could alter the perception. Making a decision on what to feel on the place came second to checking his bag, the single large one he had been allowed to bring. He fished his aviator jacket out; it had been his grandmothers, but it was good quality, warm and no one needed to know where it came from.
“A CWU-45/P flight jacket. Standard issue in the First Republic. I’m getting flashbacks.” The man coughed from behind the clipboard that was demanding the majority of his attention.
“What’s your name, anyways?” Jann opened the trunk at the foot of his bunk and dropped his bag inside. It took some effort to keep everything contained in such a tight space.
“Manny Bishop, captain Bishop if you will. Not that I care.” He pointed to the bunk beside Jann’s. A middle aged man with short red hair and a figure largely shrouded by her oversized fighter jacket, baggy g force suit and the latest issue of the times on his stomach slept there. “That’s Davis.” He then pointed to the bed in the corner, where two men played cards. The taller of the two, with short spiky black hair, a clean shaven square face, paused and waved. The shorter man he was playing with, a tan skinned man with long black hair and a moustache, was too focused on his move to notice. “Tall guys Kirk, short guy is Carlos.”
Jann was too caught up on the first name to fully register those that followed. Movies, books, video games, all of them rushed back to him in a single jumbled memory. “The Manny Bishop? The one from the Monster of Lake Eerie movie?”
“Doesn’t look like Gnole Fisher, but this guy, he’s the real deal.” Kirk chimed, a charming smile on his face.
“And I weigh more now than I did then!” Manny said, pulling his cheeks, “And they get some short 280 pounder to play me? Just insulting, and that’s ignoring the historical inn…”He shook himself out of his own rant, “Enough of that, follow me.”
The room was a quickly walled off section of an old terminal, its benches removed. The rest of the terminal was largely empty, but not quiet as jets outside took off for a combat air patrol. They exited into the brisk air and Jann was happy for his jacket, and reminded himself to buy a hat when he had the chance to go into town.
They walked past hurrying ground crews who worked tirelessly on every last detail of their assigned vehicle, all contained in small hangars topped with grass and leaves. “We have to be ready at any day here,” Manny sighed, “The Commonwealth Expeditionary only has land forces on the main southern islands. The PLA could easily land here if it weren't for us. And even we are a leaky dam.”
They turned the corner to the enclave of hardened hangars that contained the Canadian fighter jets, CF-205 "Thunder" 's. They were a dark blue-grey colour, darker on the top half of the jet than the bottom. In their hangars their large triangular intakes, sharp downwards offset nose and imposing tall cockpits made them both intimidating and attractive. Some of the fighters had their radomes open, revealing honey comb shaped blocks held erect to the aircraft by two interlocking bars.
A short, balding man with a clean shaven face and a weathered baseball cap in hand met them at the entrance to one of the hangars. “This is your crew chief, Marcel.”
Marcel flipped the cap on his head and then extended a hand, “A young one, eh?”
“Twenty five.” Jann offered a hand in return. Marcel’s were rough, damaged by something at some point in his life.
Marcel coughed, and then replied with his raspy, French voice, “I suppose a pilot is a pilot, even if they are a baby faced yank.” He then returned to the jet he was working on without so much as looking back.
Staring at Manny, fishing for a response, Jann felt a deep stab of worry at the first encounter with the man who would take care of his jet. Rolling his eyes, Manny began to walk into the hanger, and Jann stumbled after him. “He may have been injured by a first republic air raid during the war.”
Inside the hangar felt like an oversized shed. Lights hung from the ceiling, illuminating the fighter jet at its heart. A few tools lay on the shelves of the wall, tied together by a system of rails used by a ladder that could be rolled along the floor. Rubber marks proved the ladders use. A Second Republic flag hung from the wall on the back of the hangar.
It was only once he had inspected the room that Jann noticed Manny walking down the ramp. “Where ya going?” Manny stopped and turned. “So, that’s it?”
“You learned everything you could without being shot at when you did training in Cold Lake kid.” Manny shrugged. Seeing that wasn’t instilling any confidence in his new squadron member, he paused, looked at the bright, blue midday sky, sighed, and walked back into the hangar. Placing a hand on Jann’s shoulder, he smirked, “If you’re as good as Jean said you were son, you’ll do fine. I’ll get you through these first few weeks. After a few sorties, you’ll be right at home here.” Jann nodded reluctantly, and Manny retreated. “Welcome to Tactical Fighter Squadron 71. Eagle Squadron. You’re in amazing hands son.”