He Had Wings |
by J.D. Blair

Four days ago Eli Belcher’s toes began turning blue and he lost all feeling in his feet and couldn’t walk but he wasn’t in pain. Eli was in his pajamas sitting in an overstuffed chair with his legs resting on top of a card table covered by a blanket. He hadn't bathed or shaved since his blue toes took over his life. There was a half empty box of saltine crackers and a container of rancid tea on a TV tray next to the chair. A plastic pitcher half filled with urine was on the floor next to the chair. Window blinds were closed and the television was on and tuned to the shopping channel with the sound turned off.
It was Monday and Eli was in the semi-darkness waiting for Rose Pike to arrive for his regular 10:45 appointment. Rose was a home health nurse with the Veterans’ Health Institute. She was a small wiry woman with short graying hair, wore wire rim glasses and had a no nonsense quality about her.
The doorbell rang and Rose called through the screen door. “Mr. Belcher.”
“Back here, the door is unlocked, follow the hallway.”
Rose made her way to the back room.
“I couldn't get to the door,” said Eli.
“That's OK,” said Rose, “What’s going on with your legs?”
Rose opened the window blinds and threw back the blanket on Eli’s legs and she could see that his blue toes were now turning black and the discoloration was spreading toward his ankles.
“Are you having any pain?”
“No, no pain, but I can't feel my feet. Why do you think that is?”
Rose had some pretty good ideas but wouldn't speculate. She examined his feet, took his pulse and listened to his heart and began asking the usual questions about his medical history.

Over the years Eli faced many medical issues, most related to his time as a pilot in the Air Force during World War Two. He wasn’t one to complain but now since he couldn’t walk he was forced to acknowledge whatever was causing his toes to turn blue to black.

Rose suggested that Eli go to the hospital.

“I should call my daughter,” he said, “she may not like the idea. We don’t agree on much.”

Since Eli’s wife Emma died two years ago Eli and his daughter Sandra…he called her Sandy, didn’t talk much. “Sandy and I don’t see much of each other,” said Eli, “just one of those things.”

Rose offered to make the call and did speak to his daughter. Sandra said she would come to see for herself what Eli’s status was. Rose said she would wait for her and called the institute to let them know she may need an ambulance to transport Eli to the hospital.

While they waited Rose filled the tea pitcher with fresh water and emptied the urine container. She asked Eli if he wanted something to eat besides crackers.

“No, I don’t eat a whole lot,” said Eli, “I guess my stomach shrank from my time in the prison camps. They didn’t feed you a lot in those places and when they did it was rotten.”

When he was twenty-one Eli was piloting bombing sorties over Germany’s Saar Valley. On his eleventh mission flack battered his B-29. The plane took direct hits that knocked out an engine and blew a large hole in the fuselage just aft of the top gun turret. The plane shivered and banked and he and his crew were forced to bail out over Koblenz. Eli and three crewmen survived but were captured and held as war prisoners in a concentration camp.

“When my plane got knocked down we jumped out and were picked up by the Gestapo and sent to Austria.” Eli pointed to a picture on the wall. “Me and the three guys on the right survived the jump.”

Eli paused and took a long sip of the water. “Pneumonia almost got me on that trip from Germany to the camp. A hundred men packed into a railcar and me lying on the floor against a corner the whole way, everybody puking, coughing, shitting. I was coughing up blood by the time we got there.”

Rose took a long look at a row of pictures that graced one wall, grainy black and white photos of young men, boys really, wearing flying jackets and arranged around giant flying fortresses. She looked back at Eli trying to equate the young pilot in the photo with the frail eighty-nine year old with black toes.

“How do you figure all this,” Eli asked, “I jump from my airplane, end up in a German prison camp and survive. Now here I am with black toes and I can’t even move out of a chair.”

“I guess that’s the way life is,” said Rose.

Eli held up his hands and smiled, “Ever see thumbs like these?” His twisted nail-less thumbs were flattened. “Thumb screws. For seven days straight the Krauts put the thumb screws on.” He swiveled his hands in front of his face. “I didn’t tell them anything though. Eli Belcher, Captain U.S. Air Force, 548 73 69.”

After nine months in the camp, Eli and three others escaped.

“Me and three other guys made a run for it. It was dead winter, snow hip deep. We walked about fifteen miles then some underground people got us to Switzerland. My feet were pretty frozen. I couldn’t feel them that time either. Maybe that has something to do with my toes.”

As the war wound down Eli worked as a salvage officer stripping wrecked aircraft at an isolated airstrip south of Tangiers.

“There was a time when I was stationed in North Africa, I had this fever, malaria or something, but I never stopped working.” He got up on an elbow and looked at his toes. “I guess medicine is better today.”

“You’ve had a very full life,” said Rose, “you must have some interesting memories.”

“I guess where I am now they don’t mean too much do they?” Eli pointed to the canister next to the chair, “Can you hand me that please?”

Rose gave him the urine pitcher and busied herself with paperwork while Eli pissed.

On low altitude bombing missions Eli’s B-29 rattled and shook as flack exploded around the plane. He felt every jolt and wondered if the plane would come apart. When the bombs were dropped, the plane, rid of its seven ton load would leap up.

Eli handed the pitcher to Rose, “You know, I used to be able to fly a plane by just using my feet, just my feet and my knees. I guess I couldn’t do that now.” Eli shifted his legs on the table, “You have to feel the airplane. I can’t feel a damn thing now. You had to have a soft touch to fly the big guys. No computer help back then.”

Rose emptied the urine pitcher and returned it next to the chair. “Did you ever fly again after the war?”

“When the war ended they needed B-29 pilots to fly stuff into East Berlin during the airlift so I did that. That’s strange don’t you think?”


“Two years before I was dropping 500-pounders on them, burning down whole cities, then I’m flying in coal, coffee and dried potatoes.”

“I guess wars make some strange demands,” said Rose.

“I suppose.”

For a long time Eli stared out the window and watched as construction workers stripped siding from a house across the street.

“Ben and Helen Nichols bought that house ten years ago,” said Eli. “Nice young couple. He was a pilot, flew jets in Viet Nam. He lost his job and the bank took it. No privileges I guess for serving your country.”

He saw Sandra’s car pull into the driveway and Eli repositioned his legs on the card table. “The daughter’s here.”

Sandra made her way to the back room. she was thin and had sharp features that were framed in a long mane of red hair. Rose figured she favored her mother because she couldn’t see any resemblance to Eli. Rose introduced herself and Sandra lifted the blanket covering Eli’s legs. “What have you done now Pop?”

“I haven’t done anything, my toes turned black and blue and I can’t walk.”

“How long have you been like this?”

Eli rose up on his elbows, “A few days.”

Sandra shook her head, “Why didn’t you call me?”

“I couldn’t get to the phone. Besides, what could you do? I knew Rose would be here today. She’s a nurse, she’d know what to do.”

Sandra turned to Rose, “Does he really need the hospital? Can’t you give him something?”

Rose stepped forward, “He can’t walk and if he waits any longer his feet could be amputated. It may be too late already.” She looked at Eli, “It doesn’t look good for sure.”

“I can’t feel my feet Sandy.”

Sandra raised the blanket again, “You see what happens when you don’t take care Pop?”

“I take care OK,” said Eli, “I had worse than this during the war.”

Sandra’s voice took on an edge, “This isn’t the war Pop and you’re not twenty-one anymore. What difference does it make what you did in the war. Why do you always want to live in the past?”

Almost in a whisper Eli said, “The past is all I got left.”

An uneasy silence settled over the room. Sandra moved to a small couch across from Eli and Rose nervously shuffled her papers. The three of them stared at Eli’s feet for a while then Rose said, “You need to make a decision. I won’t take him if you don’t give the OK. Like I said, he could lose his feet.”

Sandra got up, stood by Eli’s chair and stared at her father. “I guess you better take him then. He can relive the war just as easy in the hospital as he can here.”

While Rose placed the call for an ambulance Sandra put the cover back over Eli’s feet and kissed her father on the forehead. “I’ll come by the hospital later Pop.”

Sandra left and Rose gathered up her paperwork and got a change of clothes for Eli to take to the hospital. When the ambulance arrived and the emergency techs came in they saw Eli’s feet and explained what they were going to do to move him. They noticed the pictures on the wall of Eli’s bomber crew and the B-29 Super-Fortress. One of them said, “Oh boy, is this you?”

“Yes,” said Eli grinning, “That’s me in the middle, taken just before a bomb run in ’43.”

“Wow”, said the tech, “I flew choppers in Afghanistan but I’m sure it wasn’t nothin’ like handling that big mother.”

“Yeah,” said Eli grinning broader, “It was like flying a boxcar with wings.”

Eli beamed as they put him into the ambulance, reveling in the opportunity to share his exploits with a fellow pilot. He told the tech about the time he made it back to base with a tail rudder shot off and a landing gear frozen shut. “On a wing and a prayer”, said Eli, “a wing and a prayer."

J.D. Blair writes short fiction, poetry and plays. His work has appeared in several literary magazines including, Pearl, Writer's Journal, Carve Magazine, Third Wednesday, Fog City Review, Hear Us Roar, Calliope and California Quarterly. His One-Act comedy “Vincent” was produced as a staged reading by the Ross Valley Players, Marin County in 2009. Blair is an active member of the California Writer’s Club, Mt. Diablo Branch.