World War III
When the plane landed in France instead of England, I knew we were in trouble. When the pilot of the plane said we would be relocated to the terminal for a short while, I thought we were dead.
Some officer came through out cabin mumbling something about “trouble,” and in these troubled times, I thought the worst.
“It’s nothing,” he assured me when he saw the expression on my face. “We’ll be back in the air within two hours.”
His words did nothing to make up for his more desperate tone, and when they told us to remain on the bus rather than go into the terminal as instructed, the dread grew in me.
Dawn broke over us but could not relieve the intense cold.
“Where are we?” I asked the gray-haired man in the seat beside mine.
He looked over and smiled, but his expression showed the same concern mine must have shown.
“Outside of Breast,” he said with a heavy French accent, startling me for a moment since I had presumed all the plane’s passengers were Americans heading back to the relative safety of America.
“How far are we from the fighting?” I asked.
The man laughed, his face half hidden by the contrast of the blue flood lights illuminating the airfield, half of him in shadow, the other half bleached so blue he ceased looking human.
“Miles away,” he said, his thin moustache wiggling like a worm on his upper lip. “The Americans have pushed the enemy back again – passed Paris or so the reports say.”
The shadow hid my shudder.
I hated taking blame for this war, and though I was American by birth, I was ashamed to admit as much, even among passengers bound eventually for the States.
I was flying back from Lisbon – the last uncontested port in Mainland Europe – to eventually meet my wife, Helga, who hid out in New York, waiting desperately for the papers I carried to keep her from being deported.
America wasn’t America any more, especially when it came to “Foreigners,” even ones married to solid American citizens like myself – so uncertainly solid that I was actually smuggling in documents so we could stay in the United States together, weaving through unstable safe zones from Lisbon to Paris to Berlin and back, each step wrought with potential danger I dared not dwell on, danger I thought long passed until the plane made its emergency landing here.
I always thought World War III would be nuclear, an instant inclination that I didn’t have to worry about once it happened. I never imagined race riots and American troops storming through Europe to “stabilize” its allies in an effort to make sure the terrorists didn’t make war in the same way on our soil – even though in some ways, the war had already reached our shores, neighbor watching neighbor, reporting any sign of deviance, police stopping people on the street to determine it we really are American, deporting any who cannot prove who they are and where they came from. Since Helga had left Europe without birth certificate or any documentation, she would be deported if discovered, so I came to collect the paperwork to prove she was not a terrorist or part of some clandestine cell brought to our shores as a child to explode later in a terrorist plot.
But Europe today was not the Europe of yesterday, even if American troops marched over it reliving the glory days of the Second World War. We had check points everywhere and suspicious guards on both sides, eyeing even Americans like me for signs of betrayal. Scores had been executed for less than I was doing now, and I had no wish to join those ranks.
Where are you going and why? To tell the truth would have given up Helga and sent Homeland Security to kicking her door down before I could get there to stop them so I lied, making up some tale about business – and since I had enough corporate contacts among those corporations doing business with the war effort, they let me pass.
The Frenchman beside me mistook my shiver for reaction to the cold.
“There is a chill in the air today,” he said, glancing out the window at the field and the flood lights, and the crisscross of search lights that guarded the sky against low-flying aircraft RADAR won’t pick up.
I stared passed him, too, thinking not of the weather, but how easy a target we seemed sitting in a bus out in the open, half way between the disabled plane we came in and the terminal now too dangerous for us to occupy.
“What do you think of the war?” I asked, feeling immediately stupid for having asked. How would I feel if America was overrun by French troops the way his nation was by ours, all in the name of some remote idea that we wanted to contain terrorism/
“War is war,” he said. “My father knew the other war and used to whisper about its horrors, Nazis storming through his door searching out Jews, threatening to shoot him if he hid any or raised any objection when they shot those they found. This war seems more remote to me,” he said.
“But it’s only miles away.”
“You mistake me, monsieur” he said. “Death is never far away. You will find many bodies near enough, but the war, that is another matter. After all, the politicians and generals who run it are very far away from here, are they not?”
I nodded and studied the field, as if I expected one of the lights to reveal some of the bodies he spoke of.
“Still,” I said, “the war is here.”
“Part of the war, perhaps,” he said. “But this is not the answer. This war won’t be won or lost in Europe, but it could destroy us all. They will kill all of the French, all of the Germans, all of the Dutch, and in the end, they will find that they are still chasing ghosts, and will have to return home to fight there where the real war is. You are American, are you not?”
I wanted to lie. I wanted to tell him I was Canada, but considering what the non-French parts of that nation had done to the French, it seemed no better a choice, so I nodded.
“And you come so close as this to the fighting?” he said. “Did you come out of North Africa?”
“No, Lisbon. I had some business there.”
“So even in war, there is business,” he laughed.
I felt cheap. Even my excuse dripped death for his people. I glanced the other way, passed the silhouetted heads of the other passengers on the bus towards the silver shape of our plane – an American bird destined to carry us back to America, then I turned back to him.
“You’re coming to America?” I asked, feeling a sudden surge of suspicion for this foreigner.
“I, too, am a business man, Mousier,” he said. “And business takes a man to many distant points in the world.”
I wanted to ask him what business, and to demand that he show me his papers – and painted him as a terrorists who was coming to invade us, bringing his evil into our ports, our homes, our bedrooms. But then I realized how American I really was, and wondered if he feared me as much as I did him, and if he was tempted to ask about my business when I dared not admit it to anyone.
The plane pilot boarded the bus.
“Good news, folks,” he said, his southern accent stirring up nostalgia and pride in me I hated. “We’ll be heading back to the plane any moment not.”
“What was the trouble?” someone from the front asked.
The captain squirmed a little, and then mumbled something about “an engine problem.”
My lies made me think the pilot was lying, too: something about the way he turned his head, and the way he gave us all a nervous grin, his gaze studying ours to see how we reacted to his statement.
The bus started and the others began to laugh, suggesting that everybody had felt as uneasy about this stop over as I had.
But I could not get over the grin and the feeling the pilot had lied. I glance at the Frenchman and asked how the pilot had seemed to him.
“He looked frightened,” the Frenchman said. “He looked like a young child telling his parents a fib.”
This shocked me. So it wasn’t my imagination after all, and I jumped slightly when the giant anti-aircraft guns near the edge of the airport went off.
This was not the first time since our coming, but it seemed ill-timed, bringing the war closer and closer just as we were poised to escape.
“Why would he lie?” I asked.
“To protect us, Mousier,” he said. “There has been a prevalence of bomb scares lately. Terrorist who cannot reach Americans to kill them, spread fear instead. After all, this is an American plane. An easy target.”
And I felt that fear chill me even deeper than the cold air, reminding me of just how different this war was from previous wars, where there were no fronts, no armies in uniform, only fear and sudden death, both of which struck unexpectedly, despite all the armies sent to root them out, all the alarms set to protect us.
“Are we safe?” I asked in a hushed voice only the Frenchman could hear.
The man only laughed.
The bus stopped in front of the stair to the plane and the pilot slipped out first and hurried up into the plane, leaving the rest of us to follow.
We stepped into the cold air and I eyed the metal skin of the plane as we climbed up into it, searching the sides for some odd protrusion, as if expecting to find something akin to those World War II magnetic mines that would attach to the hull of a ship then explode.
I saw nothing, but the dread hung over me even after we settled into our seats inside. I feared I would never see Helga again.
The Frenchman sat in the previously vacant seat beside me.
“Do you mind if I sit beside you, Mousier?” he asked.
For the first time, I could see him clearly, the deep lines in his face, the hard, gray eyes, the wealthy cut of his business suit, and I became convinced he was a spy.
“Not at all,” I said and lifted my cheaper jacket from the arm of the chair between us.
“What kind of business did you say you were you in, Mousier?” he suddenly asked.
I replied stiffly, “I didn’t say.”
“Meaning you would rather not say?”
“I’m a consultant for a legal firm in New York,” I said.
The truth sounded like a lie even in my ears, but the Frenchman only nodded
“And you?” I asked. “You said you were a business man as well?”
“After a fashion, I consult the Government of France,” he said.
I stiffened. He smiled and went on.
“I advise the government on how to best divide the limited resources of our war-torn nation,” he said. “I fly to New York to meet with the consulate there, before going to your capital on the matter of aid. Things are extremely difficult for our county now, as you might imagine – and to tell you the truth, your nation has become less generous than it once was, and while your soldiers fight their imaginary war, I must fight the real war that keeps our people from starvation.”
“Things aren’t good in America either,” I said, stupidly realizing after the fact that we were talking about two entirely different things. He spoke of reality, I, of ideology.
“I know,” he said. “America has the same sickness we once had. There is no cure for it. No medical men can give us a pill so that we might get over it. Even when things go well in the world, we have little tolerance for people who are not exactly like ourselves. But when things go bad, we turn to hate as an answer, and like most other innovations, America moved on to perfect its hatred of those other than themselves.”
I rested this, not because it was untrue, but because it was true.
I simply had to think of Helga to realize just how unbearable America’s intolerance had become, and to envision how much worse it would get the more desperate we became. I tried to change the subject.
“Do you really think there is a bomb aboard our plane?” I asked.
“I never said there was, only the possibility of a scare,” he said harshly. “Although in truth, the threat is worse than the act. Violence has beginning and an end, the bomb goes off, people die, and others get on with their life. But the threat lingers with future possibilities, it hovers over us, forcing us to anticipate pain we have not yet felt – and in that manner, making us feel fear perpetually.”
I stared at the man, trying to sort through the complicated logic, trying to make sense of why anyone would want to create such a cloud of fear. But I knew. America had prepared for a big war and was always willing to destroy the world in order to save it. We never expected small cracks in our foundation or the flood of change seeping into our psyche, alternating us gradually, changing what we always saw as what America meant. We built armies to guard against an invasion from Germany, Japan or the Soviet Union, little realizing until too late that the invasion came not in armed troop carriers, but in passenger ships and air planes such as ours – and when we realized, we reacted with hateful laws in an effort to fill the cracks and keep out anyone who threatened to change what we were.
I glanced around the plane and saw the faces of other businessmen, all of whom had lived previously with the arrogance of ruling over other nations, doing business that benefited America but hurt other countries, businessmen who unwittingly polluted whole oceans so as to turn fishermen into pirates, made elite foreign leaders rich while their poor starved, supported dictators who protected our oil wells and other raw materials so that America got richer and fatter and more arrogant.
But now as the tide turned, these businessmen lost their arrogance, and seemed more like pathetic refugees fleeing for the safety of a homeland that was no longer the homeland they thought it was, and no longer a safe place despite millions poured into homeland security.
I knew right then that the cracks would not get sealed and that the war we started here in Europe and Asia and Africa and elsewhere would come home sooner or later, and the starving the Frenchman saw in his country would become the starving in our country, too.
I was about to say as much to the Frenchman when the bomb contained in his brief case went off, throwing me across the plane and the plane into a fiery chaos, and as the blackness fell over me, as the screaming rose in pain and fear, I thought of New York and Helga and the storm troopers that would kick down her door because I was unable to prove she was legitimate.