FNG meets Lady Hooker
As much tension, tragedy and mayhem as the war provided it gave a group of crude, vulgar young pilots a fair amount of fun, too. The officer’s club was the hub of our hormonally driven behavior. It was where we drank ourselves silly, releasing the tension and bravado endemic to twenty-year old males, in or out of a war zone. The club was our sanctuary, watering hole, mailroom, our hello and goodbye spot where, as the saying goes, everybody knew my name. But before I could fully partake of the blandishments the club offered I had to pass in front of my fellow pilots. I had to get the secret handshake, to undergo the inevitable ritual without which Kearsley would have been right: I’d always be a new guy. The protocol involved an encounter with a lady named Hooker. (It’s not what you think.)
As young men, we had an affinity for fire. Our affection for flaming things may have been second only to our affinity for alcohol. My initiation rite involved a combination of the two. The concoction was labeled a Flaming Hooker. Lady Hooker was rum in a shot glass, ignited. She sounds innocuous; she wasn’t. But, to be welcomed among the veterans, I had first to commune with the intoxicating, overheated lady. There were pilots who refused the opportunity. After doing so they were shunned, and never quite fit in. Peer pressure was more intense than fire, and more damaging it seemed. Zorba the Greek was right: the only real sin is if a woman invites a man into her bed and he will not go.
I stepped forward like a sacrificial lamb to offer myself up to the old guys for their blessing. Madam Hooker waited in the wings. With its requisite monastic vesting, flickering flames, and imbibed offertory, the ritual took on a religious aura. Veteran pilots set the altar and prepared the nave by dimming lights, and lighting candles. The raucous music of Led Zeppelin ceased, and blessed silence flowed through the club.
I was shriven of my new-guy top. A veteran pilot stripped off my fire-retardant shirt, which made no sense considering what was about to happen. I was cleansed. Like a priest performing ablutions, another veteran doused my chest and arms with beer. The door squeaked and slammed, men filing in for the ritual of initiation. Men chanted, and spirits filled crude chalices so all could partake.
The offertory commenced. From the shadows a shot glass appeared, and a disembodied hand tipped it full of holy rum. Another hand proffered a Zippo lighter. With a click and a scritch, an ardent tongue of fire leapt from the lighter’s wick. When the flame blessed the surface of the rum a blue fire burst upward. It danced atop the glass, glowing with an eerie sheen. This was Lady Hooker in her evening finery. Druidic and solemn, men intoned the company hymn.
The climax of the sacrifice arrived. Men stepped away.
I took the flaming glass, and caressed Ms Hooker’s warm figure. I held her at eye level, at arm’s length, the slow dance beginning as a growing warmth tingled my fingers. Despite my efforts, Ms Hooker led this dance, her feathery tendrils of fire, blue, yellow and red licking upward, riveting my attention. I brought her close to my face, and the broad’s alluring heat tickled my nose. To complete the rite, and to atone for my new-guy sins, I had to down the liquid, then set Ms Hooker on the altar with flame still alive in her bowl. No man tempts fate by putting out a lady’s fire.
Time stands still. The next few seconds will tell the veteran pilots who I am, and if I’m welcome among them, a fraternity of men who fly fragile machines at war, men who want no pilot among them who can’t stand the heat. Despite its femme fatale overtones, the rite is my baptism of fire among these men.Like the square meals of flight school, I bring the glass straight to my mouth, close enough that it sears my face.
Now or never. Without thinking I tip it into my mouth, and jerk my head back. Fierce heat gags me. I swallow. Searing fire singes my lips, and gibbets of flame dribble onto my beer-soaked chest. The acrid scent of burnt hair assaults my nose. I’m glad my mustache is gone; it would be now in any case. The taste of thick, viscous rum stains my tongue. My throat constricts. I almost eject the foul mix, but manage to hold back. Then slowly, deliberately, my hands shaking, eyes streaming tears I ease the glass onto the bar. A taper of flame burbles, dances. It almost goes out, but no… A fragment of fire rims the edge, and then snuffs out. Lady Hooker is happy. I’ve made her so.
Men erupt in cheers and drunken shouts. They slap my back so hard I forget about the scorch of my flaming throat. A hand comes forward holding a beer. I grab it, down it in record time, letting half of it spill onto my blackened chest hair. My new-guy sins forgiven, the club welcomes me with cheers.Then veteran pilots transition as smooth as burning rum into a raucous rendition of the company battle hymn. It is Camptown Races, with our very own morbid lyrics. “You’re goin’ home in a body bag, doo-dah, doo-dah, you’re goin’ home in a body bag, all the doo-dah day!”
My flight shirt sails at me out of the darkness. Another beer lands in my hand. Open palms come out of nowhere to slap me on the back, shake my hand and welcome me to the unit. I suck down the beer, relief flooding my body. Then another sensation takes over as the world swims, weaves, my vision shimmers in a kind of vertigo. My mouth fills with hot liquid, and my stomach clenches. I cover my lips, barge outside, and puke like a veteran.
From Chapter 11 The Sky Behind Me, a Memoir of Flying and Life ©2012 Byron Edgington, on Amazon, from Biblio Publishing and other sources.