“When you’re a lieutenant, you’re allowed to do anything you want, short of raping the wing commander’s wife. She might not complain, but he’d probably get jealous.”
Review of Wings of Fire by Henry Zeybel, 1988
Reviewed by Everard Cunion in August, 2011
While the movie Dr. Strangelove features the hulking Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, this book, set in 1958 at the apex of the cold war, centres on that aircraft’s immediate predecessor, the sleek B-47 Stratojet. The two artistic productions share several things in common, including the way their respective narratives place you, figuratively, inside the aircraft. Among the differences between the two stories are that, in Wings of Fire, we are forewarned by the cover painting that someone is likely to be killed or injured. If the painting alone is insufficient as a clue to this, the narrative mentions early on that the navigator’s ejector seat in the B-47 enjoyed the distinction of firing downwards. However, we do not know for sure who will survive unscathed and who will not.
A third of the way through the story, just when I felt I knew who would meet an early death, Zeybel eliminates him from that possibility by including a brief flash forward glimpse of how in later years he came to view his experiences. (Such reverse flashbacks can appear clumsy if handled improperly, but Zeybel manages it subtly.)
Early in the story a co-pilot says that while you are a lieutenant, you’re allowed to do anything you want, short of raping the commander’s wife. The novel’s central character, a young navigator named Morris Archer, is accused of raping a colleague’s wife:
Crowley’s experience convinced him that Morris was recounting facts. Unless Morris was schizophrenic, his details were too bizarre to be false.
That statement also applies to Zeybel’s novels, in my view.
The narrative, punctuated by historical notes and excerpts from a newspaper local to the air base on which the story is set, is fast paced. Equally able to describe a warplane as the men who fly them, Zeybel uses words to create pictures.
Every inch as fit and trim as her husband, Jean Turner would have been as comfortable in a blue uniform decked with regalia as she was in her luncheon attire of full-skirted gray wool dress highlighted by a single strand of pearls, white gloves, gray felt cloche hat, and high-heel gray leather pumps.
Immediately following that description, he turns his hand to accounting for the military origin of 1950s-‘60s U.S. vintage fashion. Indeed, this book is as much about air force wives as it is about the strategic bomber force itself.
Let your fingers do the walking
The book’s author, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Zeybel, is a decorated US Air Force navigator and, in this story, he recounts the task of navigating a long-range jet bomber in the age before the digital computer.
…in the manner of an old-time accountant bent over aged ledgers, the solitary man painstakingly extracted numbers from the yellow pages of Air Almanac and HO249 sun and star tables, meticulously compared the figures to celestial sightings made by a co-pilot, manually plotted the differences on a chart, and predicted the bomber’s pinpoint position in space for a future time, mere minutes ahead.
It is comforting to know that the nuclear deterrent was in the hands of such rational and capable technocrats. Then Zeybel strikes. He stealthily lays the foundation of what is to come. The commander discusses the arms race between the west and the Soviets with his wife:
“I know we’re still ahead,” he said in a tone meant to convince himself more than anyone else. “God forgive me, but sometimes I think we should strike first while we have the power to wipe out the communist threat forever.” He rubbed his eyes with the backs of his hands, as a sleepy child might do.
With a masterful sense of humour, which reveals itself only on a second reading, the story has a staff major question one of the crews on the procedure for authorizing a nuclear strike. The focus of attention is a crewman who feels he should obey the orders of his superior officer, even at the expense of following procedure to the letter. “Sir, you’re my commander. I follow your orders.” The major, exasperated, eventually shouts, “Can’t you see? What if Turner’s insane?”
Zeybel is one among an elite few aviators with a gift for choosing the right words to create the required effect:
…he’d spent nearly two years isolated from Emily and the children: one year in Korea, the other on Shemya, a radar station at the end of the Aleutian Islands chain, a speck of land midway between nowhere and forever.
Zeybel’s novels are punctuated by factual passages that provide context and lend authority to his stories. Nuclear alert is serious stuff:
…the Duress Code, a two-digit number for use by a crewman who was being forced to board an airplane. Guards were instructed to kill anyone standing directly behind a man who spoke the duress number.
Zeybel also describes landscapes in this book, as he does in his Vietnam books, but he does it better in the latter stories, in my view.
There was beauty, however, in this apparently sterile land, a desert plain beauty wherein sunrise blasted startling reds at one end of a daily spectrum that shaded into sunset’s comforting shadows, that wide purple band of subtle shades that shifted tint by tint with each passing stroke of twilight.
Bang, bang, bang on the door, baby
The scene that eventually leads to the one that gives rise to the charge of rape is set in a ‘den’ (a love shack, if you will) in the home of one of the aircrew.
A green rage swept over him. Hadn’t she slept there? Where was she? He slammed open the door to Beverley’s room.
Seated in a straight-back kitchen chair, Beth was holding Beverley. The door’s banging against the wall frightened the child and she began to cry.
The cry was a siren that pierced Morris’s head. Whistle. Siren. Tone. Klaxon. Insane noises ruled his life, commanded that he respond instantly, regardless of what he wanted. “Shut her up,” he shouted. He hated the baby. He hated its mother. “I’m going to work,” he shouted and pulled the door closed with another bang.
Zeybel has his characters reinforce some time-worn clichés:
Why did he put up with SAC? He could resign his commission, get an airline job tomorrow, work a third as hard and earn three times as much money. He’d once heard a senior airline pilot brag: “It ain’t only the bucks. With all the horny stews walking around, this job is better than owning a cathouse.”
The book shines a rare light on the military justice system. In the following snippet, Robby is the accuser, Crowley is the investigator, and Barnes is Crowley’s assistant.
Robby stood tall. “Can’t we drop it?” His words were a prayer.
Barnes shifted to speak and Crowley showed him a fist.
The characters in the story illustrate the schizophrenic nature of the cold war U.S. military; dedicated to defeating communism and all forms of socialism, yet equally set against the corruption inherent in capitalism. Like the British (then and now, it seems to me) they believed in the meritocracy that socialism promises but fails to deliver, and that capitalism denies (except in the tailor-made sense of advocating ‘hard work’).
Morris couldn’t name a single civilian job that would satisfy him. He’d rather die than sell cars or insurance or real estate.
In a capitalistic society of expanding affluence, was constant material renewal becoming the expectation that bonded husband and wife?
The latter theme is repeated in his Vietnam War books too.
Zeybel gets too deeply into the minds of other characters, particularly women, and it seems to me too speculative.
A related criticism is that the viewpoint changes radically. In my experience, a single viewpoint is the strongest mechanism by which to cause the reader to ‘suspend disbelief’ in a written story. (In contrast, in a movie, a god’s eye view camera that flits between locations, cutting to the enemy headquarters thousands of miles away to show what the central character cannot know, is not disruptive in the same way.)
Zeybel tries to analyze the civilians too deeply. The fact is that many people, civilian and military, have large chunks missing from their minds, and there is no conflict there to resolve; no complexity to analyze.
In support of my argument, let me quote again from the book, where he describes rather than analyzes:
Archer heard none of the enticements. Instead, he was offended by the implication that his promotion was anything less than a deserved military honour. His promotion had nothing to do with big business. He didn’t want to believe SAC was merely big business. The scotch inside him spoke: “I earned what I have. I didn’t buy it.”
MacDuff stared through steel-rim spectacles, locked tired, experienced eyes on Archer.
Archer stared back, read nothing in the aged man’s face. Was he angry? Insulted? Patronizing? He looked indifferent.
Exactly so; indifferent. Archer’s words (OK, the scotch’s words) offered nothing of material advantage to MacDuff, so they meant nothing to him.
Another fault, again related to the first, is the back-story that purports to account for the behaviour of the main female protagonist.
When she returned home, she was only twelve but she had developed the body of a young woman. Her father (but he really wasn’t her father, she knew) studied her and then moved her into the house, gave her an upstairs bedroom. The first night he came to her, she expected him to kill her. She was prepared to do anything to save her life. To her, the little he asked and the enormous pleasure he derived from it seemed out of proportion.
That account of why people turn out the way they do belongs in popular women’s magazines, not in a serious novel. By 1988, when this book was first published, the evidence that we turn out the way we do because of our genes, not our past experience, was already unequivocal. (However, recent findings indicate that even apparently minor head injury can produce noticeable changes in a person’s character.) Despite the pervasiveness of such pseudo-Freudian ideas, they are as out of place today as typewriters aboard star ships in early 1960s sci-fi.
A last criticism of this great book is that it takes Zeybel’s insightful wackiness beyond humour and into the weird – in an analogous way to the pop group the B-52s and particularly their hit song, Love Shack.
For example, referring to a pilot wearing the olive green standard issue flight suit with fourteen zippers and his nervous habit while being questioned by Crowley and Barnes:
His fingers worked the zippers. Or did the zippers work his fingers?
Comparisons with the Stanley Kubrick film are inevitable, particularly so because of the similar plot lines. However, film and text are different media, so even if the stories were identical, the novel would be worth reading because of its greater depth. And the two stories are far from identical. Furthermore, Zeybel’s first hand experience as a US Air Force navigator enables him to provide insights that an outsider could never attain, no matter how well researched.
The story contains great insight into human nature:
Like Morris, Jim was city; she was country. City people wanted to overturn the earth and control nature; country people were satisfied to live with the land, to follow nature’s dictates. The two groups came from different civilizations.
Clearly, Archer and Beth are destined to part. Zeybel, a master of surprise, lets the reader know who Beth later marries. (He is mentioned in this review.) I think of myself as hardened to the value-free way women evaluate the worth of men, but I was shocked nevertheless, even if it is fiction.
Wings of Fire captures a tiny piece of aviation and cold war history:
The last SAC B47 wing, the “Bloody Hundredth” of World War II fame, had been fully equipped in February 1957. In October 1957 the first RB47 had been flown to the aircraft graveyard at Davis-Monthan.
I rate his two Vietnam War novels, The First Ace and Gunship, Spectre of Death, more highly than Wings of Fire, but the latter is nevertheless an outrageously entertaining read.
Gunship, Spectre of Death, my Italeri 1/72nd scale Lockheed AC-130, illuminated by some snippets from Zeybel’s book (Gunship, Spectre of Death) including about evading two SA-2s when Ed Coogan was aboard on his first mission as a sensor operator in an AC-130. For a contribution by Ed Coogan, see the comments/responses section of this page.