When it came to holidays, I preferred to get as far away from everyone as possible.
I saw my parents, and sister who lived with them, every week on Sunday, for lunch and cross-examination of why I was not married with children yet.
Explaining I was only 27 was not a reason because, “your brother married at 21 and he’s got three children, a great job, his own house..” and in and on it went.
And I saw my brother every other Saturday just to tell him that I was Ok. He was considerate in one sense, it was just the matchmaking wife always inviting what she considered suitable women for me.
That fortnight off work was an oasis in a desert full of well-meaning people.
I’d tried dating several girls at work, but they never got past the family inquisition. If I had been in their shoes I’d just say it was all too much too. The lesson I learned there was to never take a girlfriend home.
But, for now, I was footloose and fancy-free. The most recent girl I’d met had decided to return home, no it was nothing I’d done wrong, but I guess it was. Perhaps asking to go with me to Hawaii was a bit too forward too soon. Another lesson learned.
I think I’d probably get it right by the time I was fifty.
So here I was, a history buff, looking to further my knowledge of the events surrounding Pearl Harbour. I’d read a great many history books on the subject, and now, it was a matter of going there, and getting a feel for the place.
More than once I had lamented the fact I could not go back in time and live through the event. I had mentioned this once to a friend, and he asked if I was stark staring mad.
Of course, he was right. Who would want to be in the middle of such a violent attack, especially when it came largely by surprise?
Since my work required mt to fly a lot I had sufficient frequent flyer points to upgrade to first class. I was hoping after flying coach for so long, I’d notice the difference.
Certainly, the initial service after being shown my seat, and the champagne soon after as a welcome onboard, set the tone.
When the door closed, and everyone was on board, only half the seats in first class were taken. A glance at those who were fellow travelers showed an interesting cross-section. A husband and wife who definitely upgraded from coach like me, but were a little m less refined. An executive and his personal assistant, who, judging by the way she looked after him, there was more to that relationship, a woman in her sixties, definitely born to money, and casting somewhat distasteful stares at the upgrade couple, and a woman about my age, who looked very unhappy.
I managed to fit in another glass of champagne before the plane reached the runway.
Then, with a roar of the engines, we were off.
Halfway through the 13-hour flight, I found it impossible to sleep, even with the luxury first-class provided me. I just couldn’t sleep on planes. Instead, I sat up, found a book of crosswords, one of three or four I always had with me and usually got to solve one or two puzzles.
It was quiet and still except for the noise of the air rushing past outside the plane. In that almost soundless atmosphere, I thought I could detect any changes in engine speed or the gentle movement of a change of course. The ride was quite smooth, except for some turbulence and the pilot took us up another 2,000 feet to escape it. We’d been slowly coming back down over the last hour. I’d been monitoring it on the flight path screen. It might be a larger screen, but watching movies was, to me, boring, except in a cinema.
“Can’t sleep either?”
It was the soft voice of the girl from two seats across. She had several revolutions of the plane, exercising I heard her explain to the cabin crew because she couldn’t sit down for long periods.
“Not on planes, no. Trains, yes, ships yes.”
I saw her glance down towards the book. “Not really. This has been floating around for about 10 years, and I drag it out as a last resort.”
“I try reading. It doesn’t help. Where are you going, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Oahu. Doing the whole Pearl Harbor history experience. And just laze around for a few days before going back to work.”
“Yonkers, upstate. Are you from New York?”
“My family is. I work in San Francisco, come over once a year, but this year I got sick of them early, so I just jumped on the first plane out that had a first-class berth. It was this one. I’ll let you get back to your crossword.”
I was going to say it wasn’t a problem, but she had gone back to her seat. A moment later our cabin attendant, Lucy, came over to deliver a glass of champagne, then came over to me. I hadn’t seen the second glass on the tray. “Miranda thought you might like a glass too.”
I looked over to nod a thankyou, but she was looking out the window. There wasn’t much to see as it was dark and most of the passengers had the shades down.
Then, just as Lucy turned to leave, the plane hit more turbulence. A second, maybe two, later the seatbelt sign went on, just as the co-pilot came on the speaker system to advise all cabin crew to sit down and belt up.
A minute later what sounded like a large bang, one I would have said was an engine exploding, made everyone jump in their seats, to be quickly followed by a sudden jerk to the right that was almost instantly corrected, but that was not the worst of it, equally suddenly the plane started to descend. Very quickly.
At the same moment, the masks dropped down from overhead, I grabbed it and fumbled putting it on, realizing that panic was setting in. It took a minute, but then it didn’t seem like there was any air flowing through it.
Not that any of that mattered. Starved of oxygen, I could feel myself losing consciousness. A minute or so later, I think the plane had started to level off, and a look at the flight path showed we were down to 10,000 feet, in the middle of the ocean. My last thought, how long we would survive if we ditched.
I felt a hand on my shoulder shaking me.
“Sir, sir, are you alright?”
I opened my eyes and blinked several times. I had to be in the middle of a nightmare.
The first thing I noticed was the engine noise, it was very loud, the loudness that came from propeller engines. The second, I was no longer on an Airbus A330. This was more like a Boeing 314, a flying boat. The third, the man shaking me awake was a steward in a white coat, with PanAm on it.
Where the hell was I. No, when the hell was I. What the hell had happened?
“Sir, there’s a message for you.” He handed me a folded sheet of paper. “The captain asked me to tell you we’ll be landing in an hour, and that you, we all, should be prepared. It’s a mess.”
“Pearl Harbour. It was attacked yesterday morning by the Japs. Bastards came in and practically blew everything up.”
All of a sudden there was a roaring sound outside the plane, followed by what had to be the chatter of a machine gun, followed by the sound of bullets hitting the fuselage. One minute the steward was standing next to me, the next he was a bloody heap on the floor. Above my head was a line of bullet holes. More machine gun chatter, then an explosion, followed by a cry behind me of, “got the zero.”
I got out of the seat and went to the steward, staring at me with lifeless eyes. A quick check for a pulse told me he was dead. When I looked behind me there were a dozen or so military men, army, and navy. Two sailors came up and gently maneuvered the steward towards the rear of the aircraft. He had been the only casualty. Turning back towards my seat I caught a reflection of myself in the window, that of a Lieutenant in the Navy. How, and why was I here, now?
I remembered the note the steward had given me, sat down, and unfolded it.
The receipt date was 3:00 pm on 8th December 1941. It was addressed to me, that is, a man with my exact name. Orders to report to an Admiral who would reassign me, the ship I was being sent to had been sunk, and likely not to see service again.
We’d been in the air at the time of the attack, and I guessed news would have been sent to the plane, just in case it was not safe to land. Perhaps they hadn’t counted on try Japanese Zero fighters hanging around for just such a flight as ours.
Whatever the reason I was here, however it had happened, I would have to make the most of it.
Only then did I remember what I had once said, ‘if only I could go back’.
Once again I felt a hand on my shoulder, and a voice, this time of a woman, gently shaking me awake.
“We’re arriving in Honolulu in about 40 minutes. You need to prepare for landing.”
At the same time, I heard a change in the engines as we began to descend. I looked around. More familiar surroundings, back on the A330, the quiet hum of jet engines, and the sight of familiar faces.
“Did something happen to the plane or was I imagining it?”
“Just a lightning strike. We had to go down for a bit, but these planes are designed to handle just about anything. You slept through it, the best thing to do in situations like that.”
OK. It had to be a dream. That’s all I could put it down to. Except for one small detail. My grandfather’s name was the same as mine, he was in the Navy during World War 2, and he had been sent out to Pearl Harbour and was en-route when it happened. But there was only one slight difference. He had been killed when the lone zero had struck, not the steward.
© Charles Heath 2020-2021