Cassada

(This column was first published in the July 19, 2001 ArtVoice of Buffalo.)

I found James Salter's novel, Cassada (Counterpoint, 2000), despite its tragic content, not only a good read but of interest on several levels. It is a story about fighter pilots during peacetime and Salter knows his subject well. He is a West Point graduate who flew in combat during the Korean War. And my own service experience suggests that his ear is perfect. In this book he captures the excitement, the boredom, the fellowship and in particular the meanness of servicemen better than any novelist I have read.

Remarkably, this novel is a complete rewrite of Salter's second book, The Arm of Flesh, published forty years ago. In an interview by Elizabeth Farnsworth on the Lehrer News Hour recently, Salter told how he came to do this. His publisher wanted to reissue his earlier book but Salter felt that he was no longer the neophyte he was when he wrote that story. He felt that he had gained too many writing skills since that book was first issued to have it represent him now. For that reason he recast and rewrote the entire story.

The result is a cautionary tale. Robert Cassada is an outsider who tries to earn a place in the tight-knit group of aviators who make up a fighter squadron. Unfortunately he is like those talentless students who earn high marks for effort but who nevertheless fail the course.

Here is an example of how perfectly Salter displays the treatment of the newcomer.

"Cassada came along then, alone, wearing a flight jacket that was too large for him. The sleeves nearly touched his knuckles. He saw Dunning gesture and sat down. How was he making out? Dunning wanted to know. Fine, Cassada said.

"'Has Captain Isbell assigned you to anybody for your checkout yet?'

"'Yes, sir. Lieutenant Grace.'

"'Good. You'll be in good hands. How about a cup of coffee?'

"'No, thank you.'

"'What's wrong? Don't you drink coffee?'

"'No, sir.'

"'I never heard of a fighter pilot who wouldn't drink coffee. What is it, part of your religion or something?'

"'It's the caffeine, Major. I seem to be sensitive to the caffeine.'

"'What do you drink?'

"'Well, tea sometimes, sir.

"'Tea?'

"Ferguson drank coffee. In fact his need for it was pressing. He had landed a few minutes before and had flown with a hangover. The lines imprinted from the oxygen mask were still on his face.

"'Feeling all right there?' Dunning asked.

"Ferguson was holding the cup in both, almost trembling, hands.

"'You look a little pale,' Dunning went on.

"'No, sir, Major. I feel fine.'

"'Town last night?'

"'No, sir, it's just a little sinus up here,' he touched the bridge of his nose, 'that's all.'

"'Maybe you need some tea.'

"'Sir?'

"'Tea,' the major said.

"Ferguson, large and somewhat aimless, was puzzled. Something he had missed. 'I don't think so,' he said glancing around. There was something going on.

"When Dunning had gone, Ferguson said, 'What was all that about?'

"'Ask Cassada.'

"'I just said I didn't drink coffee. The caffeine,' Cassada said.

"'He never met a fighter pilot who didn't drink coffee,' Phipps said.

"'I hope you like beer,' Godchaux said.

As I read scenes like that, I can feel the pain of the misfit. It reminds me of the ending of Bang the Drum Slowly when the narrator promises himself never to rag anyone ever again.

And here is Salter's description of men racing to a crash site. I find it harrowing but letter-perfect:

"'Let's go,' Cadin says. 'We'll take my car.'

"At the bottom of the steps his foot slips on the wet grass and he goes down on one knee, stands again and makes it to the car.

"Godchaux and Harlan follow in the Volksbus, bouncing over the turf. They turn onto the taxiway and head for the squadron gate. The window of Dunning's office is still open and the lights on as they pass. Below, on the road past the airmen's barracks, the fire trucks, alarmingly lit, are speeding.

 

"The year before, at Landstuhl, they had one where half the base was out searching and they didn't find the pilot for two days. Of course, that was in thick fog, you couldn't see ten feet.

"Both of them, Dunning thinks as they drive. Jesus Christ. They slow down at the gate. The guard steps out of the shack, bending over to see.

"'Emergency. Plane crash,' Cadin says, rolling down the window.

"'Yes, sir.' He waves them through.

"On the way, thinking of the one at Landstuhl, 'We might have to organize search parties,' Dunning says.

"'Let's see what we've got, first,' the colonel says.

"About a mile down the road are the fire trucks, blocking it. There's also an ambulance with headlights on. The rain, now white, floats through the beams shining like bits of tinfoil.

"'Which way is it?' Cadin asks a figure standing there. A flashlight is swung and shines in his face. 'Turn that goddamn thing off,' he says.

"The beam flicks to his shoulder for a second and then goes out.

"'Sorry, sir.' It's one of the firemen. There are voices out in the darkness shouting to one another.

"'Have they found the pilot?'

"'Sir, I don't know. It's straight ahead, about a quarter of a mile. I've been here with the truck.'

"'Let me borrow your flashlight,' Cadin says, taking it from him. He and Dunning get out and begin to walk, first along the road and then off, in the direction of some handheld lights. The ground is soft and gives underfoot. The rain sweeps down. From time to time, moving in silence, they break into a trot. Godchaux and Harlan come behind.

"Ahead is a small pond and beyond it blackness. There are wandering lights and soon the first pieces on the ground.

"'Here's something,' Godchaux calls.

"He picks it up. Cadin's flashlight plays on it. Impossible to say what it is. A metal shard. Perhaps part of a hydraulic cylinder -- it has a sticky sheen.

"A trail of debris begins. There is ammunition scattered on the ground, some of it linked together, the rest strewn like teeth. Then a large piece, one of the gun bay panels. The drop tanks. Cadin stands, moving the beam back and forth over a large section of wing. Harlan kicks at something, stoops and picks it up gingerly.

"'Shine it this way, Colonel.'

"The first ominous chord. It's a shoe. Harlan holds it slightly away from himself and turns it so he can see inside.

"'It's empty.'

"He places it alongside his own foot. It's smaller.

"Twenty feet farther on there is something pale floating in a small puddle. Godchaux reaches down. The water is deeper than it looks. He pulls up a map, soggy and dripping, a course drawn on it in grease pencil. There are other scraps of paper around, pages from the maintenance forms. At the edge of some woods they come to the end of it. The emblem of disaster, the engine, huge, with dirt packed into it, is at the base of a tree, the trunk marked with a great, white gouge.

"They stand, looking over the scene.

"'I don't see the seat anywhere,' Dunning says.

"'No.'

"It may be elsewhere, part of an ejection.

"'We ought to work back.'

"'Yes,' the colonel agrees. 'Spread out more.'

"Feet soaked, they walk through the rain, moving slowly. Ahead are two or three lights jerking from spot to spot on the ground. The sky is invisible, absolutely black. It's like being in a mine or a deep, underground cave. They stumble over rocks. Then Harlan calls,

"'Over here!'

"The flashlight glides to something, hard to make out.

"'Here's the cockpit,' Harlan says.

"The flashlight stays on it, then other lights as searchers converge. The seat is lying on its side, ripped free. It's empty. Cadin's light moves to a section of the instrument panel and picks out the black gauges. Harlan is bending over something a few feet away.

"'What is it?'

"'Canopy frame,' he says.

"They look at the seat again. The safety belt is unbuckled. Dunning tries to calculate what that might mean. The ejection handle hasn't been raised. The seat wasn't fired.

"'That's where we found him,' somebody says.

"Cadin's light comes up and holds there. It's a corpsman, white uniform visible beneath a raincoat. He wears a pair of rubber boots.

"'Dead?' Cadin says.

"The corpsman nods. 'Yes, sir.'

"The cold is making them shiver. Rain runs down their faces. Dunning has borrowed a flashlight and goes off by himself, poking his way from piece to piece, making small, slow circles at his feet with the light. He stops and then goes on, aimlessly it seems. He is gathering the catastrophe, wandering in it like a sleepwalker. The wreckage is total. Nothing can recombine it.

"'Do you suppose he blacked out or something, Lieutenant?' the corpsman asks Godchaux who lingers behind.

"'Do I suppose what?'

"'Blacked out. You know.'

"'No. He ran out of fuel.'

"'Oh,' the corpsman says, nodding. He turns half away. 'It really broke up, didn't it?' He turns back to Godchaux, the beads of water shining on his raincoat and running off. 'It doesn't look like they'll be putting this one back together again, does it?'

"'Sure,' Godchaux says. 'They'll have it flying again inside of a week.'

"He walks towards the major, shaking his head."

Cassada is an exceptionally tough story, but it is told by a poet.