In 1971, Bill Mann, a pilot who sought to make aerial combat his guiding star, is already lost whether he knows it or not. Although he’s at the top of his Air Force class and married to a beautiful woman, his life is centered on drinking and partying—perhaps a way to escape a haunting memory. As a ten-year-old, Bill killed the two white men who beat his black mother to death.
In 1972, Mann is in Vietnam, flying his aircraft, The Cool Woman, in combat environs that have been called the most hazardous in air warfare history. He remains confident and considers himself “the envied of the envied” until the moment his beautiful wife says she wants a divorce, and the downward spiral of Mann’s life and his survival odds begins.
***Special thanks to Julie Gwinn, Trade Book Marketing, B&H Publishing Group for sending me a review copy.***
When I was eight years old, I saw Flying Tigerswith John Wayne and knew I wanted to be a pilot. After graduating from Mississippi State University, I joined the Air Force. My career in the cockpit was nothing less than a thirty-five-year answer to a young boy’s unspoken prayer. With three tours in Southeast Asia behind me, I left the Air Force to work for Delta Air Lines. I flew for Delta for twenty-eight years and retired from the cockpit in 1997.
When I retired, I was a man who would rather be digging post holes with a popsickle stick than be trapped in a house. Then, in January of 2002, my wife watched God transform me into a man who hungers to hide in a room in front a computer monitor, trying to shape words into pictures.
Abiding Darkness, Wedgewood Grey and And If I Die—The Black or White Chronicles—concerned themselves with spiritual warfare and fit well in the thriller/suspense genre. The Cool Womanis an action/adventure novel with a Viet Nam War setting; the protagonist is a cool and competent fighter pilot.
Visit the author’s website.
List Price: $14.99
Paperback: 352 pages
Publisher: Fidelis (July 1, 2010)
AND NOW…THE FIRST CHAPTER:
The rumor circulating in the snack bar Friday morning came straight from squadron operations.
Sixteen Air Force pilots, most of them in flightsuits, two or three in summer-weight tans, were clustered here and there around Orange Flight’s briefing room. They were all watching the door and V debating quietly about the accuracy of what they’d heard. The fact that their flight commander was ten minutes late for the morning briefing made the story more believable by the second.
Second Lieutenant Warren F. Masland sat alone at a table in the back of the room. Masland was the most junior instructor in the flight. If the rumor proved true, the new instructor’s career was going to end before it began.
When the commander, Captain Frank W. Steadman, finally showed up, the pilots watched him shuffle into the room and step onto the dais in much the same way a condemned man might mount the guillotine’s platform. He dropped a stack of paperwork on the lectern then flipped his notebook open and frowned at the first page while he pulled out a cigarette. The conversation groups broke up, and men drifted in Steadman’s direction and began taking seats. The two officers nearest him spoke to their leader . . . he didn’t respond. He got his cigarette going then tapped on the speaker’s stand with his lighter. “At ease, guys. Let’s get this over with.”
The two pilots Steadman snubbed kept their faces expressionless and cut their eyes at each other; the rumor was going to be true.
“Okay,” Steadman had yet to look at his troops, “we’ll divvy up the students first. After that, we’ll play catch-up on paperwork and take a long weekend.”
Orange Flight’s briefing room was one of four almost identical rooms in the nondescript, concrete block building that housed the 3525th Pilot Training Squadron. The speaker’s stand was backed by a large green chalkboard and an annotated map of the local flying area. A built-in bookcase on the chalkboard side would provide housing for the incoming trainees’ grade books. In keeping with the Air Force’s penchant for having its written directives weigh as much as its aircraft, an identical set of shelves on Steadman’s left was filled with an array of training manuals, binders full of obscure Air Force Regulations, and a small library of safety-related publications.
“We’ve only got one prior service troop,” Steadman spoke in a monotone, “a first lieutenant naviguesser. I’ll take him; the rest of you will start with two or three studs each.” He paused and let his gaze go to the back wall while he pursed his lips and massaged the back of his neck. “Okay.” He stepped to the side of the podium and took a few seconds to jab the unfinished cigarette out in an ashtray; his expression wasn’t a grimace, but it was close. He propped one foot on the base of the speaker’s stand and looked back at his notebook while smoothing a mustache he’d shaved off six weeks earlier. And finally, the rumor became an official fact. “We’ve got a black kid in the incoming bunch, gents.”
He let that soak in, then looked up to ask, “Any volunteers?”
There are several cardinal rules in the military; forever reigning in the number one slot is: Never volunteer for anything. Added to that, the pilots scattered around the room were well aware that an object in motion is easier for the human eye to detect, and they became military-garbed mannequins.
Except for the ceaseless sigh of air coming from the air-conditioning vents, the room was without sound.
In any group of sixteen men, some are almost certain to be racially biased, but that wasn’t the root cause behind the room’s pervading silence.
In July of the previous summer, a black lieutenant assigned to the T-37 flight down the hall washed out of pilot training. When he busted his final elimination check ride, the trainee told everyone who would listen that he was “kicked out” because of racial prejudice. Actually, the student’s early ouster from the program had nothing to do with skin color; for the instructors who worked with him, the conclusion was unanimous from the beginning . . . the man was not cut out to be a pilot; he didn’t have the “hands,” the heart, or the SA—the situational awareness.
Within hours of the student being eliminated from the program, his congressman stepped in and, without availing himself of the facts, started twisting arms. The colonel in command of the 82nd Flying Training Wing knew he would never make general if he refused to yield, so he granted the student a special dispensation, giving him additional training.
It was a colossal error on the part of all involved.
In the world of aviation, conventional wisdom says: To keep an aircraft in the air, a pilot will always need at least one of three ingredients: airspeed, altitude, or ideas. If any one or two of those ingredients is absent or in short supply, the pilot must have a proportionate abundance of whatever remains.
On his first ride after being reinstated, the young man let the aircraft get “low and slow” while turning final for a landing, thus robbing himself of a significant measure of two of the components he needed to keep his plane flying.
The student immediately—and inexplicably—compounded his problem by pulling both throttles to idle, and the aircraft shuddered—warning of an impending stall. With the aircraft still flying, the instructor took control and initiated a standard stall recovery by pushing the throttles forward and moving to take pressure off the stick—no big deal. Even as the engines were spooling up, the student panicked and used both hands to jerk the stick full back. The abrupt maneuver cost the aircraft the last of its airspeed, and the T-37 stalled. At that altitude, with no airspeed, all the ideas in the world couldn’t prevent what was coming.
People on the ground watched helplessly as the aircraft pitched up and its forward movement stopped. The plane hung motionless for one sickening instant then dropped off on one wing and pointed its nose at the ground—falling, not flying.
The instructor took precious seconds to punch the student on the arm and yell “Eject! Eject!” but the kid’s hands were welded to the stick. The IP ejected too low and was seriously injured. The student was killed on impact.
The accommodating congressman, in an often-practiced scramble to fix the blame firmly on someone else, presided over the sacrifice of everyone from the training wing commander down to the instructor.
Steadman let his eyes move across the silent group and nodded his understanding. He spied Masland and was getting ready to pronounce his sentence when a captain with dark red hair lifted a hand and murmured, “Yo.”
“You’ll take him?” Steadman’s tone said, This is a joke, isn’t it?
The other instructors were so startled they glanced involuntarily at the man with the death wish.
The object of their attention shrugged. “Sure.”
Steadman continued to stare at the volunteer—he didn’t believe what he was hearing. No one in the room believed it. The other pilots retreated to their lifeless states because the issue might not be settled. The redhead, Rusty Mattingly, was the son of the youngest general in the Air Force. The officers in Mattingly’s chain of command tried not to go overboard in showing partiality, but they didn’t assign the junior captain too many “trash details” either.
“Okeydokey,” the flight commander took a deep breath and sighed, “you got ’im.”
Frank Steadman had five years of active duty remaining before he could retire. He pictured the stars on Mattingly’s father’s shoulders and prayed, Lord, please don’t let me get blamed for this.
Masland tried to hide his relief behind his coffee cup and spilled most of the contents in his lap. No one chided him for it.
Sunday afternoon brought that week’s measured interlude of heat-soaked silence. The skies over Williams Air Force Base were clear of clouds and airplanes. Acres of jet trainers—the short, squatty little T-37s and the white, stiletto-shaped T-38s—gleamed in the sun, fueled and ready for Monday. Mann stopped his car at the main gate, handed the young Air Policeman a sheet of his crisp new orders, and asked where he could get something to eat.
The guard barely glanced at the orders while he let his eyes take in the car. “Best burgers in Arizona, sir,” he pointed. “Straight down there at Base Operations.”
Mann stowed the orders back in their envelope while the guard snapped a salute. “Nice car, sir.”
Mann smiled as he returned the salute. “Thanks.” The car, Mann’s college graduation present to himself, was created for an Air Force jet jockey.
He drove onto the base—his first time on a military installation as a commissioned officer—and headed for the burgers. Food first—then a place to sleep.
Forty minutes later, the lieutenant with the crisp orders and cool car had Base Ops almost to himself. He leaned on the counter in the snack bar and licked his finger before passing it across a piece of greasy wax paper—the former resting place of two hamburgers and a double order of fries. He was washing down the last crumbs with a long pull on his milkshake—chocolate—when airplane noises drew his attention to the window. A blue pickup with a yellow FOLLOW ME sign in the back was leading a camouflaged F-4 to a parking place on the ramp outside the operations building. The hulking fighter looked big enough to take off with a T-38 under each wing.
Partner, that right there is a real live jet fighter, thought Mann.
In response to the ground crewman’s gesture that the wheels were chocked, the man in the plane’s front cockpit signaled he was shutting down the left engine. The guy in the back cockpit unstrapped and clambered over the side. The passenger stopped on the ladder to fasten some loose straps in the backseat then dropped to the ground and took a hang-up bag and a well-stuffed B-4 bag from behind a panel somewhere on the plane’s belly. The passenger hefted his bags and walked past the shark’s mouth painted on the nose of the airplane, heading for Base Ops. The man in the F-4 twirled one finger to tell the crew chief he was restarting the left engine and gave a thumbs-out motion for the chocks to be pulled. The fighter was on its way back to the runway before the backseater got to the door of the building.
Mann was watching the fighter taxi out when the passenger from the F-4 stepped into the foyer by the snack bar. Mann turned as the guy stopped to drop his bags and pull off a white helmet with a bright crimson visor cover. The F-4’s passenger rubbed his hand through his hair to stir circulation back into his scalp then put the helmet in its bag. When he looked up to see Mann watching him, he left his bags in the middle of the marble tile floor and started for the snack bar while pulling off his flying gloves. From the insignia and stenciled name strip on the guy’s flightsuit, Mann identified him as a first lieutenant, last name Chance. The patch on the right side of his chest marked him as part of the Tactical Air Command—that, and the airplane he stepped out of, meant he was a member of a fighter outfit. The wings sewn above his name tag told the world he was a navigator—his face said he was tired. Not a long-day kind of tired, more of the weeks-and-weeks kind.
Lieutenant Chance was looking at a slender black guy wearing a tan, summer-weight uniform with second lieutenant insignia on the collar. The veteran airman stuck out a small hand and winked. “I’m Fat Chance. Is this Tucson?” The grip was firm.
“I reckon that’s close enough for government work, sir,” said Mann. “I’m Bill Mann.”
Both men stood relaxed while the new arrival looked over his fellow comedian. New uniform. New brown bars. New flight cap stowed correctly behind a brand-new blue belt. New plastic name tag, precisely fixed on his right pocket—white letters on a black background. MANN.
“Lemme guess.” Chance pulled his own war-weary flight cap out of a calf pocket on his G-suit and settled it over sandy red hair while he continued to run a calculating eye over the welcome committee. “You’re in the class that starts Tuesday.”
Mann’s face went blank with surprise. Good gosh, does it show that much?
“Yeah, it shows.” The navigator spoke before Mann could answer. “You ain’t got a speck of dust anywhere on you. The shoes look like you worked on ’em all morning with a fresh biscuit, the bars just came out of the box, an’ that haircut is short enough to shame a Marine.” He was grinning. “Like my granny used to say, ‘You look like you just stepped out of a bandbox.’”
Mann had to laugh. Here he was in uniform, joking around with a guy who had just climbed out of an F-4. He was definitely in the Air Force. “Guilty,” he said. “Just drove on the base. Left the bandbox in a phone booth.”
“You checked in at the Q yet?”
“No, sir. I figured I’d eat first in case they don’t give us any food for a few days.”
“Smart move . . . an’ don’t call me ‘sir.’” The drawl was straight out of lower Alabama by way of a year in Southeast Asia. “I’m gonna be in that class with you, and we’re gonna be up to our elbows in alligators for the next twelve months, so we don’t have time to play military; we’ll leave that to the Training Command weenies.” He looked at Mann to see if he understood.
“Sounds good to me.” Mann was nodding. “Do people really call you ‘Fat’?”
“Yup—that’s my call sign.” He handed Mann the helmet bag, gathered up the rest of his baggage, and headed for the door. “You got wheels?”
“Right outside the door.”
The June sun in Phoenix is expected to be harsh; it was brutal. They walked the few steps to the Vette, and Mann pointed at the chrome luggage rack. “Trunk’s full.”
“Nice wheels. ’58?”
Most pilots have a thing for speed and the Vette would be one of twenty-two sports cars in Willie’s UPT Class 72-01.
Chance rested the bags gently on the rack and took the helmet bag from Mann. He pulled a huge cigar out of it, ran it under his nose, grinned, and waved it at Mann. “Gen-u-wine Cuban.” He fired up the cigar, took off his G-suit, and slid into the passenger seat of the Vette. “Let’s go find the Q first. I’ll grab a shower and some civvies, then we’ll hunt us up a beerysoda.”
Mann got behind the wheel.
The navigator waved his cigar to take in the car. “I even like the color.”
Mann was backing out of the parking spot. “They told me red increases the horsepower by 15 percent.”
The redhead ran a hand through his hair. “Closer to twenty-five.”
Today’s post is a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review. If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. As an Assistant Director to FIRST, I can tell you that I have personally enjoyed our tours for years. I am always excited to see what authors will be offered up next. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old…or for somewhere in between!
I hope you enjoyed your free peek into the book!