“Is there room?”
“No bombs in the plane, no crew in the plane, sure, no sweat, some of a bitch, plenty of room.”
“And you could get us to Alaska?”
“No one could catch us?”
“This plane?” He laughed. “No plane in Russia catch this some of a bitch.”
He looked past me. “Hey, Joe, car coming this way. They after you maybe?”
“Then what we waiting for? Everybody inside. No sweat, some of a bitch, everybody inside!”
He threw the door open and led the way, and we scurried up the little ladder and into the plane. From the field a man in a jeep was shouting at us through a bullhorn. Igor Radek shouted, “Drop to dead, you some of a bitch!” And, the last of us inside the bomber, he shut the hatch.
The plane in which we were all huddled was an experimental fighter-bomber. Military experimentation, we have long been told, leads inevitably to progress in civilian living – peacetime uses of atomic power, as an example. Sooner or later, then, the great advances exemplified by our Russian fighter-bomber would bear fruit in comparable advances in commercial aircraft.
Such an interpretation seemed highly theoretical to me. Our aircraft struck me as several light-years away from adaptation to comfortable commercial flight. The operative word was comfortable; the plane simply wasn’t.
We were loaded into the bomb compartments. The bombs, had the plane been carrying them, would have been strapped carefully into place. Otherwise, subjected to the stresses and strains that faced the plane’s passengers, the bombs would have delivered their payload immediately upon takeoff.
Which is very nearly what happened to us.
At one moment we were perching precariously in the bomb compartments and trying to ignore the fact that the men on the ground were presently surrounding the airplane. And at the next moment, after Igor had increased engine speed and made a bevy of adjustments to the plane’s forbidding instrument panel, and after he had flipped one final lever, we were hurled abruptly into space. No gentle taxiing down the runway, no meticulous countdown to zero in a heavy German accent, no television cameras to increase the moment of drama. No warning at all, really. Just sudden, wild, wholly unanticipated movement.
The girls began to shriek. Milan, evidently convinced that what goes up must come down and that what goes up violently must come down violently, had wrapped his head inside his coat in the manner of a turtle, withdrawing into its shell. And Minna, small and soft in my arms, looked up at me and asked me calmly how long it would be before we reached America. She knew nothing about planes, and thus it had not occurred to her that they were something to be afraid of.
“I don’t know,” I told her. “Not too long.”
“And where will we go when we arrive, Evan?”
“A joke. I don’t know, Minna. We shall see what happens when the time comes.”
“Why are the Lettish girls screaming, Evan?”
“Perhaps they are excited to be going to America.”
“But why should they scream?”
“They don’t seem to be screaming much anymore.”
“No,” she agreed, “they have stopped.”
They had stopped because the acceleration wasn’t so pronounced anymore; we had broken the sound barrier and were evidently rather close to our cruising speed. I didn’t want to think about our probable cruising speed. I know how fast planes can go and how high they can fly and I find all of this very interesting, but when I am in one of them I prefer to think of other things until I am on the ground again.
“Evan? When you were talking with the man, I could not understand. Was that Russian?”
“At first we spoke Russian, but then we switched to English.”
“That was English?”
“A form of English, Minna.”
“Oh,” she said. “And I will learn to speak it?”
“Some of a bitch?”
I closed my eyes for a moment. When they were open again, I said, “Perhaps you should not pay too much attention to the way Igor speaks English. He is not that good at it.” I thought for a moment. “Some of a bitch – actually it should be son of a bitch – well, it isn’t a very good thing to say. Several of Igor’s expressions are not especially polite.”
“Did Milan -”
“I asked him what it meant, and he said it was not a polite word to say, but he says it all the time. There are some things I do not understand, Evan.”
Zirgs-prens, I thought. Some of a bitch. I said, “I think I ought to go up and have a talk with Igor. Find out how we’re doing. You wait right here, all right?”
I stopped first to check on the girls. Some of them seemed a little shaky still from the takeoff, which they had plainly not expected, but Zenta assured me that they were all quite all right. No bruises, no broken bones, just an occasional case of rattled nerves.
Sofija, meanwhile, was telling them about Karlis and his friends in the Latvian Army-In-Exile. “Tall men and strong,” she said, “and all of them hard workers, and with good jobs, and pension plans and insurance and Social Security and Medicare. And many of them without wives, and anxious to marry Lettish women, but where are they to find Lettish women in America? But when we arrive…”
Even the most anxious of them calmed down at the thought. Ears perked up, and eyes brightened. A woman will adjust to any peril at the thought of a husband at the end of the rainbow.
And not merely a husband-
“Washing machines,” Sofija was saying. “Automobiles, new large ones, a car for the husband and another car for the wife. Television sets, color television sets, and all sorts of different channels to watch. If you do not like one program, you switch the channel, and there is another!”
The American dream, I thought.
“And fur coats! And dresses from Paris and houses with more bedrooms than people and a bathroom for every bedroom and wall-to-wall carpeting…”
I checked Milan, who was still huddled inside his coat. I asked him if he was all right. He mumbled something unintelligible. I checked to make sure there was nothing wrong with him. He seemed healthy enough, just violently upset by the entire concept of air travel. I left him then and moved up out of hearing range of Sofija’s reverie of life in America. I hoped the girls would not be unduly disappointed when they were married to the men of their dreams and ensconced in little semidetached row houses in Flushing.
There was a co-pilot’s seat vacant next to Igor. I eased myself into it and strapped myself in place. He turned to me, eyes radiant.
“See, Joe? What I tell you? No sweat.”
“Do we have enough fuel?”
“Plenty fuel, Joe. Enough fuel to go to Washington and back, exactly.”
“ Washington and back,” I echoed.
“Takes less fuel to come back than to go there, Joe.”
“Lighter coming back. No bombs.”
“You say Alaska?”
“No shit, Joe. I mean, no sweat. We go right up north to the North Pole and then we keep going. I find us Alaska, Joe. Not to worry, no sweat.”
“By now they probably have pursuit planes after us,” I said.
“Not to worry, Joe.”
“But they must know we’re leaving, they won’t just let us zip up and leave.”
“Nobody can catch this some of a bitch, Joe.” He patted the dashboard lovingly. “No plane like it. Fastest fighter-bomber in the some of a bitch Air Force.”
One of the instruments was making a blipping noise. Radar, I thought, was supposed to make blipping noises. Probably just telling Igor that the ground was still where it was supposed to be. I remembered my first jet flight, when I saw flames leaping from one of the engines and was certain that this ought to be brought to the attention of the pilot. I did not bring it to his attention, and learned subsequently that that sort of thing always happened. Not to worry, no sweat.
“Everybody all right back there, Joe? All hunky-dory?”
“Everyone’s fine,” I said.
“Those girls aren’t Russian, are they? Don’t talk Russian, Joe. Or English either.”
“They are Lettish,” I said.
“Some bunch of broads,” he said. “No shit, Joe. Some tomatoes.”
Lettish tomatoes, I thought hysterically. A Baltic salad. What other ingredients could we have? Cole slaw? We had a fairly Cold Slav in Milan. Chickory? Chickory chick, cha-la, cha-la…
I told myself sternly to stop it. And I listened to the blipping noise on the dashboard. The blips appeared to be corning closer together now.
“You’re positive no one could catch us,” I said.
“No sweat, Joe.” He laughed. “You know what this plane is? This is the MIXK-One fighter-bomber. Only one of its kind in Russia.”
“And there’s no faster plane?”
“Just the MIXK-Two fighter. Same type of engine, Joe, but smaller. Just one of them in Russia.”
“Just one of them?”
“Just one some of a bitch. Alexei Bordunin flies it. Showoff some of a bitch. Yes sir, no sir, showoff Smart Alex.”
“And it’s faster than this plane?”
“Just a tiny faster, not to worry.”
“Well,” I said, “I think it’s chasing us now. Those blips” – I pointed to the radar screen, or whatever it was – “could that be, uh, Alexei?”
Igor’s eyes narrowed. He pursed his lips, studied the instrument panel, paid special attention to the blips. “Some of a bitch,” he said softly.
“Nobody else that fast. Show off cogstocker.”
“Will he catch us?”
“Try to capture us,” he said. “Still over Soviet territory. Try to force us down, make us do a landing.”
“But we can’t-”
“Showoff some of a bitch. See this? I flip this switch, Joe, it flaps the ailerons. Let him know we surrender.”
“No sweat, Joe. You tell everybody to sit tight. Tell the broads Igor says be cool. We go to turn around the plane.”
In Lettish I told everyone to hold on tight while we circled. Mercifully, no one asked why. Igor did something with a stick, and the plane swung round in a lazy half-circle.
“There he come! You see him, Joe?”
Through the cockpit shield I could see something small coming toward us, getting rapidly larger. We seemed to hover in the air while the object approached. It was difficult, at that range, to be certain that it was a plane, but as it came closer it was recognizable as such.
“Some of a bitch,” Igor was mumbling intensely. “Ho, boy, Alexei cogstocker. Boast about the fast plane, boast about all the girls, Alexei cogstocker. See who laughs the last time, you some of a bitch. Watch, Joe!”