This is a story I started in 2018. The "frame" came first. About 40,000 words into the the "story telling" by a fictional Edgar Rice Burroughs (a two year period) came to a sudden "Palm, Meet Face!" realization. I was simply repeating my other "What If" pastiche set in the same time period (see The Sane King). After this epiphany I revised the internal part of the frame and finished the actual story I had wanted to write.
Note: I haven't tossed the 40,000+ word tale. I might actually finish it one day!
DINNER AT 8,000 FEET
David Bruce Bozarth
Sergeant Brant B. Byrd answered "Here!" when the clerk called his name. He approached the desk at the back of the room. He put his kit bag down and came to attention.
The lieutenant behind the desk shuffled a stack of papers. Without looking up he asked: "Finished debrief, Sergeant?"
"Yes, sir, in San Francisco after debarking the Lexington."
The man behind the desk shoved a stack of paper into an outbox and sketched a tired salute. "I see you made good time getting to Los Angeles."
Byrd stood "at ease" and replied:
"An Army supply truck brought me most of the way. A thumb and a little shoe leather accomplished the rest."
The lieutenant looked up then, appraising the young man returned stateside from eleven months of Occupation Forces Tokyo—and that was after near four years in combat. "Most fellows your age are wanting to get out of the Army. I see you have extended your enlistment for two more years. It's 1947, son. We're at peace."
"Yes, sir. We're supposed to be."
"You think different?"
"Just something in my guts, sir. I'll stay around for a while longer, just in case. So we aren't flat-footed and racing to fill the gaps."
"Admirable. Well, these are your orders. Here's your travel vouchers, good for either bus or train. Sorry, flight travel is rather hectic right now."
"Understood. If I may inquire, what will be my posting, sir?"
"Fort Sam Houston. They have a command staff school there as well as one of the finest medical facilities in the country."
"I see, thank you, sir."
"I go where I am sent, sir. My opinion is not pertinent."
The officer laughed. "Byrd, I like the way you talk. If you make a career out of the service, I predict you will go far."
"Texas is a far piece, sir."
"Compared to what? You've been all over the Pacific and that's a lot farther than Fort Sam."
The lieutenant stapled the papers in two parts, then handed the bundle to Sergeant Byrd. "There's a thirty day pass in there. You rate a year, but 30 days is all I can give you."
Byrd allowed a grin to crease his clean shaven face. "Thank you, sir! There's an old man I'd like to spend some time with before leaving California."
"No, sir. He's Edgar Rice Burroughs. The man who wrote all those Tarzan books. I met him at Pearl the day of the bombing. I was a private, 19 years old, and scared sh— beg pardon, sir. He became a war correspondent within days of the attack. I was gate guard outside Army HQ and he took a liking to me. So much so that he sent me a letter every week I was over seas, without fail. Meant a lot to me. I want to tell him that face to face."
"I've never met the man, but others have told me he was good to the military in both word and deed while on Hawaii. With the war and all that was going on back in Forty-One I knew about him, but never paid attention when he wasn't there any longer. Thought he had died..."
"Very much alive," Byrd chuckled. "From his letters he's hanging on by a thread due to some on-going health problems, but I suspect he will out live us all."
The lieutenant rose and extended his hand. "Take care of yourself, Brant—if I may have that privilege. I'm Clarence Harvey—soon to be a school teacher again."
"Thank you, Sir!" Sergeant Brant B. Byrd came to full attention and saluted. "Mr. Harvey!"
A smile, a salute in return, and a clap on the shoulder of the young man. "That does sound nice. Take care, son. And good luck!"
* * * * * * * *
Byrd had folding money in his pocket—crisp new bills just dispensed by the post paymaster—but he decided a bus token made more sense than a taxi. He had to change buses about halfway through Los Angeles to continue west towards Encino. About an hour later the bus driver called out:
"This is it, Joe!" The driver added, as Byrd and kit bag descended the steps to the curbside:
"That street, about a mile. At the big oak take a left for a half mile. That ought to put you dang near in his front yard."
"Thanks," Byrd sketched a salute and shouldered his kit bag.
June 1947 was a little warmer than usual, but not unpleasantly so—compared to Oklahoma where Byrd grew up in a half dozen orphanages and nearly as many foster homes that merely needed unskilled grunt labor for their crops or tending farm animals. Those had been tough days, but not abusive. Rather, Byrd had toughened up while growing man size. All that came to stand him in good stead when he joined the military in 1940. After Basic he was sent to Hawaii and four months later the US was at war with Japan. He had initially joined the Army for the pay—there was a girl he wanted to marry—and there were few jobs available to keep one body and soul together, much less two. He would have immediately joined after the attack as so many others had after the outrage—he had just beat them to it. But that separation from home did take something away from him:
He got a Dear John just 60 days into his enlistment. After December 7th he no longer dwelt on that failed—silly now in hindsight—romance. Just one of those things.
* * * * * * * *
At the big oak Byrd dropped his bag in the shade and sat down on it. He undid one button on his shirt and reached inside to pull out the last letter he'd received and checked the return address, though he had it memorized. It was just an excuse to stop for a moment to catch his thoughts and mop his face with a handkerchief, which he returned to his hip pocket, neatly folded. Stowing the letter, Brant picked up his bag and stretched his legs for the last bit of road.
The bungalow was small and set well back from the unimproved side road. The stucco was white, the roof red-tiled. Native plants graced the grounds in a pleasantly unkempt sort of way. An arched porch shaded the dark wood door, which responded sturdily to his knock.
A muffled voice came from within:
"A minute! Give me—" the voice became stronger as the portal opened, "—a minute." For an instant the old man gaped. He was balding and in his mid-seventies with a slight paunch that was, nevertheless, on an otherwise fit body by all appearance.
"Birdy!" Edgar Rice Burroughs exclaimed. "What a damn pleasant surprise!"
"Not a bad time? You did say drop by any time..."
"Couldn't be more perfect!"
Ed swept the young soldier inside, taking the kit bag and handling it as if it weighed nothing. He placed it beside the small table near the entrance and began bellowing.
"Annie! Annie, where are you, girl?"
A fresh face looked in from a doorway, apparently leading to a kitchen to the left of the large center room that looked more like a jungle cave or a zoological exhibit. "Yes, Mr. Burroughs?"
"We have company, dear. Brant B. Byrd, though I haven't seen him since Pearl, and back then he was a snot nosed kid and a mere private." Ed gripped both of Byrd's arms and continued. "Look at you, son! You're all grown up!"
"My drill sergeant started the process and at least three lieutenants finished it. You're looking well, Ed. Pleased to meet you, Miss..."
"Annie Okaley, and no lip! It's not spelled the same way. Just in from over seas, sergeant?"
"Yes, ma'am. On the Lexington two days ago."
"Might be her last Magic Carpet voyage," Ed observed. Burroughs led the way to a comfortable over-stuffed couch, urging the soldier to take a seat. He then sat opposite in an equally hideous wing back which had seen a lot of use.
Annie Okaley stepped into the room, a trim figure in a starched white nurse's uniform. Ed had revealed in his letters that an on going urinary tract infection and other things required the services of a nurse from time to time. He had not mentioned how cute this nurse was for sore eyes.
She smiled at Byrd. "Have you had lunch yet, sergeant? You look like you could use a sandwich—or three."
"Two will be fine. Thank you."
"Ice tea, Annie. Quick march! We're dying of thirst!"
She laughed, and it was sweet music for Byrd who had been long away from the realms where women lived. Before he could put more thought to that revelation, she returned with a pitcher of iced tea and two large glass tumblers, neither of which matched.
Burroughs lifted his glass. "Tell me about yourself, Birdy! You did try to write. I can't fault you for your regularity. I suppose any time you sat down those early days the very act of doing that and you'd fall asleep, exhausted!"
Byrd shared the highlights of his service stations, but like most returning vets, he was disinclined toward divulging details of what had needed to be done those grim days. He continued the recount, between bites of ham sandwich and wiping his chin with a napkin. By the time the sandwiches were consumed, so was his recital.
"And for the last six months I was in Tokyo—a staff driver for MacArthur's command." Then a dark shadow passed across his face. "Terrible what happened there ... most of the city is gone."
Ed firmed his lips. He leaned forward over the small folding table Annie had erected for his sandwich, large dill pickle and some sliced tomatoes. "Years from now I might feel the same, but damn it, son. They started it!"
There was silence in the room for a long moment—both men intent on their inner thoughts—and were immediately distracted by a flash of white gathering plates and napkins.
"Annie?" Ed asked. "Any cake left?"
"One piece. For Sergeant Byrd. You've had all the cake the doctor will allow."
"Damn the doctor! Well, don't be all day about it! Fetch that cake!"
"I—" Byrd started to protest, then grinned when Ed held a finger to his lips. He produced a pack of cigarettes, offered one—which was refused—and lit up. "Watches me like a hawk."
"You probably need watching!"
A voice from the kitchen echoed, "Indeed he does, the old curmudgeon!"
Annie returned with a clean napkin on which a substantial slice of chocolate cake was delivered to the soldier. In her other hand was a glass of cold buttermilk.
Byrd had been tempted to turn down the cake, but the sight of fresh buttermilk was too enticing. "Best chow in a month of Sundays, Miss Annie. Thanks!"
Without looking at Ed, Okaley reached up to the third bookshelf beside the large stone facade fireplace. A small dish was retrieved and firmly placed on the folding table. "You might as well pull it from behind the chair before you set the house on fire. Really, Mr. Burroughs! I'll be in the kitchen."
The swish of sheer nylon-encased legs against starched bleached-cotton cloth made Byrd smile, though he also smiled for the way the young woman put his friend in his place.
"Now, Ed. Tell me what's been going on in your life."
"Not much to say. After December 7th I was a war correspondent for about 60 seconds. As soon as new faces arrived from the mainland I was sidelined. It wouldn't look good to have the oldest war correspondent shot dead. I finished and published another Tarzan book—"
"—haven't read it yet," Byrd interjected, "Someone told me you let Tarzan fight the Japs."
"I did. Seemed like the thing to do at the time. By the way, junior... Did I ever tell you the story of how my Uncle Jack met Tarzan before the war and the little adventure they shared?"
Brant arched an eyebrow, not sure if Ed was pulling his leg or not. "No, I don't believe you did."
Ed used the butt of one cigarette to ignite the next. As he drew deeply, he extinguished the spent coffin nail then leaned back to exhale a large blue cloud. He crossed one leg over another and took a deep breath.
"It is time I corrected that error—"
* * * * * * * *
Burroughs commenced relating a tale that started in 1936 when his Uncle John Carter, then a Captain in the U.S. Army was introduced to Major John Clayton of the R.A.F., who were both jointly tasked by an American-British military conference to undertake a secret mission into newly Nazi Germany—and that commenced with "... a dinner at 8,000 feet on the Graf Zeppelin."
Fascinated, Brant leaned forward, elbows on knees, hanging onto every word the old man recited while chain-smoking Camel cigarettes, and later included a pack of Lucky Strikes that Brant produced from his kit bag after Ed's pack had been consumed.
What a fabulous tale of adventure and derring-do, complete with twisted plots both pro and con, and a glimpse into the new, and all-to-often dark machinations of the then emerging German politics—which the world tragically viewed with utter revulsion at war's end. Byrd kept that difference, "what we knew then and what we know now", in mind as Ed's pleasant drone, replete with colorful words and excited passages, eventually caused Nurse Okaley to pause her duties from time to time—to perch on the arm of the sofa where Byrd sat so enraptured. She was even impertinent enough to inject comments or ask questions—to the point that young Brant arched a sharp eyebrow and said: "Will you please hush up?"
Annie took that admonishment good naturedly, though she expertly punched the soldier in the shoulder with a grin and wink: "Well, you'd want to know that as well!"
Brant pretended great injury, rubbing his shoulder, "Aren't you feisty!"
Ed bellowed, somewhere between irritated and amused. "Be gone, girl! Men are speaking!"
She rose, smoothed her starched whites, and brushed an errant lock of hair from her eyes. "Silly men—speaking. Meds in 15," she added, tapping her sensible wrist watch.
Byrd watched her go, again fascinated with figure, form, and, for the first time it seemed to him, something to really watch: A Woman With Game!
Burroughs also watched, though more paternally, and said:
"Oh—let her be, Birdy!" Ed dropped an ash into the near over-flowing dish. "Damn girl is smarter than both of us! Now, where was I?"
Brant, his attention—now suddenly divided between girl and story—barked an agreeable laugh. "Zeppelin Industries, I believe..."
Burroughs took up the tale once again with hardly a pause.
* * * * * * * *
After meds—and much later a steak dinner the efficient girl cooked and served—the extraordinary tale Ed told came to an end.
Brant popped a cigarette from the pack and lit up. "I ate too much."
"Is that all you have to say?" Ed chuckled, attempting to sound peeved.
Byrd smiled in return as dishes were collected and nearly instantly bashed about in the kitchen as Nurse Okaley washed and made things ship-shape. Brant leaned back on the sofa, pleasantly comfortable with the noise of domesticity, human companionship, a relief from the constant edge of full alert life-and-death which had been his for ...
Brant considered all these things: the cottage, the man, the nurse, the end of war, the... Suddenly real life intruded, but in a most pleasant way:
"Ed, I'd call you an old fraud—if that wasn't insulting one the best campfire stories I ever heard!"
Burroughs grinned, slapping a knee, seemingly aware of what Byrd was trying to say. With a wink he added:
"Every word of it is true, junior," the old author replied. "Cross my heart."
"If you had one!" Byrd chuckled.
Burroughs reached for another cigarette, but found the pack empty. "Annie! Come here, girl!"
She arrived momentarily, with a pretty scowl on her face. "Mr. Burroughs, you are such a pain in the a—, Oh, sorry, Sergeant Byrd!"
"He's all of that," Byrd agreed with a hearty laugh.
"Bah!" Ed exclaimed. "Any more cigarettes, Annie?"
She looked at the crumpled pack on the table between the two men. "No. And you shouldn't be smoking. You know what the doctor said."
"Damn the doctor! I want cigarettes. Birdy, be a pal and run down to the grocer... my legs aren't as fit as they used to be. And take this gal with you. She's getting fat and lazy. Do her some good to stretch her legs. Mighty pretty legs, too."
Byrd flushed, because he had noticed what Ed mentioned—and was fully gentleman enough to not comment. "You're an old bastard, Ed. I'll fetch the cigarettes, but Miss Annie does not have to go."
Annie grabbed her purse from a shelf near the front door. "I'll show you the way." She then stuck out her tongue to Ed Burroughs.
Brant shook his head and rose. "You are an old fraud, Ed!"
As the young folks started out the front door, Ed called out. "Stay the night, son. Can use the company. Annie, meds at midnight— Welcome to hang around here instead of busting in with a key that late at night..."
"I might think about it, Cupid." She linked an arm through Byrd's and said, as she and the Sergeant exited the bungalow:
"He's doing his best to get me married off. That way Mr. Burroughs can do what he likes—which is kill himself by inches and not taking care of himself."
"Well," Byrd played the game—and at the same time abruptly realized he wasn't playing! "If you marry me, you'll be shut of Ed Burroughs—because I'm headed for Texas in 30 days."
Annie paused, thoughtful. "Really? That is something to think about." The smile on her face startled Byrd—and was something for him to seriously ponder as they departed the bungalow.
Ed smiled to himself as he got up from the wingback. He dug behind a stack of books on the second shelf and produced a fresh pack of cigarettes. He lit up. The old man went to the front door—which had been forgotten and left open by the young couple. He watched as the tall fellow and sparkly girl walked down the lane, arm in arm, in the evening shadows as the sun sank into the Pacific—which was once again a truly peaceful ocean.
* * * * * * * *
"Dad! Are you ready?"
The shout came from downstairs, uttered from an 18 year old throat probably dressed mod-fashion that truly irritated the parental unit of the summons.
Colonel "BB" Byrd stood before the door mirror, putting final tugs on his Windsor knotted tie. "In a minute, Ed!", he roared. In a much softer voice he turned to the woman seated before the bedroom vanity table, who blotted her lipstick. "Are you ready, Annie?"
She looked up, then took his hand and raised it to her cheek. "I was ready the first time I saw you come into Mr. Burroughs' place..."
Brant gently lifted the woman, and just as gently drew her close for a hug and a scent of her shampooed hair, enjoying the electric thrill that still excited since 1947!
"Aces!" he said. More softly he added:
"Pulp fiction, world famous, just a guy who wrote letters in a dire time—in your aspect a fellow with a urinary problem. We are the luckiest people, my dear. We have two anniversaries! The day we married—and the day we met. Both are a treasure!"
He lifted her chin most gently, knowing the conversation she wanted to bring up. "Shush, dearest. I'm going for the Thirty. Ed slipped me some of those crazy immortal pills," he laughed, "and I will be back home before you know it."
Annie tried a small smile, that actually became one as her husband tucked her hand inside his elbow and led her downstairs. At the front door young Ed was on one knee tying his little sister's shoe, and looking a bit embarrassed for the good deed as his parents descended.
"Brat's a handful," Ed said, then regretted the words when Jenny hugged his leg and said:
"Thank you, Eddie!"
Ed Byrd said, "Oh, mush! Come on kiddo!" To his parents he said over his shoulder, tugging the eight year old along, "We'll be in the car."
Annie waited as her husband locked the front door of their home, the longest in residence since they married in 1948. "Where are you going this time?" she asked. "And I know you will have to kill me if you tell me..."
Byrd simply replied:
"We both know where I am going. I couldn't kill you even under orders. You saved my life and gave me back a life with a glass of buttermilk and a slice of cake."
Annie's hand suddenly rose to her eyes. "Stop that! Don't make me cry!"
Byrd escorted her to the car, saw she was seated, then took his place at the driver's position. He turned the ignition key and let the motor warm up a minute or so. The boy in the back seat asked:
"This June Holiday thing we do makes me crazy. Never figured it out. Where are we going this time?
Byrd turned his head and stared at his son. "It is a day for your mom and dad, and we are kind enough to tote the pair of you along. There is always a meal and a good story. Do we need more than that?
"Well, if you put it that way, I guess not. Just seems strange."
Annie surpised Brant by saying:
"We celebrate this date, and you should, too. Else you wouldn't be here."
The junior male looked a bit startled and, a bit miffed when his follow up questions were, quietly amused, ignored by his parents.
The destination was a drive-in movie. Billing: four Cartoons from dusk to twilight. Features were "My Fair Lady" followed by "Tarzan's Magic Fountain", and all the hot dogs and greasy hamburgers and fries one could eat before the consession stand closed at 11 pm.
Annie raised her head from Brant's shoulder to look over the front seats. Ed was still awake, but tenderly held his little sister asleep with her head on his lap. "What?" the boy muttered. "She flaked out. Goofy film, Dad. Can we go home now?"
Byrd briefly glanced back. "Treasure the goofs, son. The world is changing and goofs from here on out will be..."
Annie's quick slap to his shoulder brought the Colonel to a halt. He continued:
"The goofs will get more dangerous. At the same time, we all have control of where we go. What we do. What you want to do.
"Can't explain it better than that," Byrd concluded as he replaced the window speaker on the pole and turned the car ignition. He eased into the traffic flow of cars exiting the drive-in.
In the headlights of cars manuevering down the lanes to the exit Annie's eyes glistened just a bit. "Eddie," she said, "we both hope that you will find that moment, that time of clairity. That time you know what your future might be. Your dad is going overseas, so let us treasure this time."
Colonel Brant B. Byrd retired after 32 years service, his last duty being Viet Nam. At his retirement Dinner at Fort Hood, Texas, his closing remarks were addressed to Edgar Rice Burroughs, the oldest War Correspondent in World War Two. "Thanks, Ed, for the way forward!"