There was an ethic at the Michigan Cadet Academy. It was one Carter had come to learn on his very first day. If you wanted to become big, if you wanted to become a commander; basically, if you wanted to succeed, you had to breathe quietest. Nobody there liked a whiner. If you had signed up at the barracks to have everything spoon-fed to you, then you had chosen the wrong career.
Carter didn’t expect anything from the place. He signed on with an open mind, secure in the knowledge that he was doing the right thing, however much he might turn out to actually enjoy it. There was only so much to be gained from enjoyment anyway. Going to university in Scotland, dropping out of Harvard and high-school graduation; the latter of which he always considered the least significant academic step, all of them had been leading to this inevitable course of action. He hadn’t expected it to be easy. He had expected it to be hardcore, unrewarding and sometimes, in the darkest recesses of his mind, he suspected that it might lead to nothing, and it would just turn out to be a waste of time. Of course, once he had started to move up through the ranks, it had become clear that he was following the right path, and had chosen wisely, but every time he found himself reading poetry or a good novel, he always regretted not pursuing writing. It couldn’t be helped, so it had become his pastime, his hobby; something comfortable and safe that he could enjoy in private, while his bigger, bolder, brasher side wore the cadet uniform and, later, the medals.
The course that Carter had enlisted himself in at the Academy was the most popular one, it being the training, examinations and simulations for pilots. Like the other young men and boys around him, he wanted to be a fighter-pilot. Whoever took the engineer and medical courses that the Academy also offered, Carter didn’t know, but he wondered whose ambition stretched only to the point of becoming a builder, an administrator. Someone had to do it, he had supposed. He wondered how they felt, looking out of the window, and seeing the flight cadets, as they were known, being shown the aircraft and equipment out on the tarmac concourse. What would they have felt then?
It was his father’s last gift to him, and one that his mother had never forgiven him for, even when it became clear that Carter was not set to meet the same fate as his cousin had in Bosnia. For a start, he had joined a different air service. Carter had never flown a combat mission over Bosnia-Herzegovina, as much as he had wanted to, as he had not graduated quickly enough to engage in the end of the conflict. He was also being trained in a different ordnance, that specialised more in dog-fighting and F54 aircraft models, rather than the scouts and bombers Oliver had become acquainted with in the RAF. All of these arguments Eric Carter and his son had used to persuade Millie that what Carter was doing would not be the same as what Oliver had done, and that it was right for him to want to serve. They hadn’t worked. Perhaps because neither father nor son believed in them either. What he was doing was exactly the same as what Oliver had chosen to do, and for the same reasons at that. Nonetheless, Eric had agreed to pay for Carter’s flight course at the Michigan Academy; Michigan as it allowed Carter to return home to Greenbury Park and stay with his parents for a bit, to save him paying for accommodation somewhere else. After a few weeks, his mother had started talking to him again, and would frequently blubber into a handkerchief and hug Carter at random intervals. If a death in the eastern conflict zones was the subject of a news report, his mother would quickly and silently change the channel on the television, as if it were a reflex action. Eric and David would look at each other if they were in the room when this happened. It was quite disrespectful to just change the channel when someone died serving their country. But they knew that that wasn’t why Millie did it, that she was just scared, and that it didn’t really matter. They never mentioned it, even long after.
Besides, the Academy had become like a home to him after a few months. The place was located on a large campus near the university, only about ten miles from the suburb of Greenbury Park, and so large enough to house the cadets. There were adequate beds, spare sheets, washing and cooking facilities and sometimes there were even heaters for the dormitories in the winter. Carter had found that he preferred to stay on the site, bedding down in the bunks with some of the other cadets, enjoying a smoke and a conversation, usually about women. That had been the one thing that Carter vividly remembered about the dorms at the Academy. Many of them had had posters of naked women on the walls, and where there were no posters, there were calendars and other pin-ups in the same ball-park. Appealing though they were to the young David Carter, he felt a fluttering of embarrassment, especially when his parents had taken it upon themselves to snoop around one afternoon when waiting to pick him up to go out for dinner. He had found his dad with his fist in his mouth as he tried not to laugh, and his mother in front of him with a stern look on her face. She had rarely smiled since he had started at the Academy, but this look still made Carter cringe. He had assured his mother that he hadn’t put up any of the calendars, only for a passing cadet to burst out laughing, causing him to laugh, and his dad to start coughing uncontrollably, which made Millie Carter’s glare that bit more withering.
Carter found that he had enjoyed the Academy course, possibly even more than the course in Edinburgh. This confused him, as it had been far less comfortable, the welcome had been far colder, the rules more strict, the teachers more hard-assed and the assessments more serious. Perhaps it had been the enforcement of discipline; the solid course outline, that was sufficient in that it allowed cadets the freedom to be intuitive while still following that set of strict guidelines. Or perhaps it had been the familiar environment, back in Michigan, back in the States. The Academy was, like Greenbury Park, situated in suburbanised town-country; districts of affluent, clean-living people, as well as the UOM students, who got on with their lives quietly, were law-abiding and existed without such complications as overcrowding or pollution to worry about. It was a nice area.
He remembered feeling the cool breeze; never a particularly cold one at that time of year, one spring, when he had been participating in an outdoor exercise at the sports track. He and several other guys were running the 1500 metre weekly exercise, and he was halfway around, making good time by his watch, and trying to keep his focus on the heels of the leader three steps ahead, and to keep his feet on the inside line. The blood had been pounding in his skull, the oxygen in the back of his mouth metallic and viscous, sweat creeping out of his scalp and down the side of his face. He liked exercise. Exercise and discipline had gone hand in hand at the Academy, with a lack of one often leading to the other. He had liked being told to run laps, and had once spilt a jug of water in the mess hall on purpose to get just that from the drill sergeant. Over time, his inner-ear had become accustomed to the baying of instructions into his head. It wasn’t that he was an athlete, and that the running was another hobby like writing. It was more the freedom that it gave him; the freedom to be in control of his body and its muscles, the freedom to be moving where he wanted at a pace that he wanted, the freedom to test his own endurance until it maxed out.
One night, when Carter was a year into the Academy course, a group of guys from a different unit got drunk one evening, and upon returning from the nearby town, started joyriding a car around the running tracks and the sports fields. They had been screaming and whooping loudly, and this, along with the ceaseless revving of the engine, awoke Carter where he lay in his dorm. He had pulled a jacket on and slipped outside to watch, along with several others. The car had been an MPV, and there were several of the cadets in the front, and what seemed like four young women in the back seats. As the driver skidded across the nearest field to where the watchers were standing, kicking up clods of dirt, a previously unseen sergeant fired a rifle into the air, the crack of the bullet splitting the night. As the driver and his companions stalled so did the engine, which cut out, and the deceleration threw one of the cadets through the windshield, and caused the car to topple over onto its side in a cloud of steam. When the ticking from the ruined engine ceased, the sergeant called over the watching cadets, Carter among them, and they went over to see if they could help. As they approached, two girls crawled from the back of the car, one of them cradling her arm, which was hanging at a strange angle, the other clutching her bleeding forehead. Both of them were shell-shocked, and were escorted off of the premises, while the other unconscious passengers were extracted and heaved onto stretchers. It later emerged that one of the cadets who had got drunk and participated in the mayhem had a heart condition, and the crash had knocked the silly fool into a coma. The others had simply passed out from drunkenness and concussion. Why this memory always flooded back when he thought of the Academy, Carter was unsure. Perhaps it had been the sight of that guy in the coma lying on the grass after they pulled him out. They had watched him as he lay, pale and motionless, and were certain that he was dead. As it was, the kid had woken up from the coma a week later, decided he didn’t want to be a pilot, and had got a job at a local supermarket. On the other hand, one of the other guys in the car had been Alan Johnson, a man who would later become Carter’s squadron leader. It just went to show.