Between Sleeping and Waking



THE instant between sleeping and waking was like nothing else. Waking, he was just another soldier in a bed, a pain surrounded by a body. The cold, wet stick of thermometer was pressed between his lips. He was now wide-awake. It was chilly in the ward. It was clear this morning, too. It was so clear that any minute now there ought to be that sky-filling drone of engines over the roof — though it didn’t necessarily follow that if the weather over England was good, it was also good over Hamburg or Kiel. He waited for the sound of engines. He had lots of time, lots of slow minutes of time, from morning to morning.

With the thermometer in his mouth, with the chill, with the planes at last roaring over his head, the design was all filled in — it was morning for him in an Army hospital in England. He could hear the sound of the planes and he could judge the sound, not thick and packed at one point, but loose as the planes were loose and not yet in formation. About three thousand feet, he guessed. The weather was probably perfect for Hamburg.

And now that they were gone, there was this matter of the pain in the leg to be considered. He almost had the pain timed now. It was almost under control, but not quite; it sometimes went off the deep end without regard to the schedule of the pain pills. But if he got the first pain pills about ten o’clock, then it would feel easy and the throbbing would go away and not come back until evening.

At breakfast he didn’t eat much.

The chaplain came around and said good morning to everybody. He was young and healthy-looking, with very broad shoulders. He said, “Good morning, Charlie. How are you this morning?”

“I’m all right, Chaplain.”

“Now, Charlie, you want to eat that food. Don’t you want to fly again some day?”

The throbbing of his leg seemed to increase, like the sound of a clock to a sleepless man. “I’m not hungry,” he said. He thought, “Why doesn’t he call me Sergeant instead of Charlie?”

“He’s not hungry,” said the chaplain merrily, looking around the ward. The soldiers leaning on their elbows or flat on their backs smiled faintly. “Now, listen to the boy. Don’t you know that the stomach digests food even if you don’t like it?”

“I’m not hungry, Captain,” he said, knowing that the chaplain liked to be called, above all, “Father.”

The chaplain’s smile remained, definite and yet not all there. “Now, you eat that food, Charlie,” he said again, and he turned down the aisle.

With a glance at his watch, the sergeant tried to do some figuring. It was a game like solitaire. About now the planes were at the rendezvous point somewhere on the coast. From any hatch in the plane a man could see other planes coming up over the horizon, wheeling and wheeling in big circles until wedded to the formation. Perhaps clouds in patches, in broken patches and breaking up in the early morning wind off the water. And on their left wing was Benton, and in front of them was the major’s ship. . . .

“How about that back rub this morning?” asked the day nurse. He considered her carefully. She had a full, pale face; she was heavy with that hopeless heavy straight fall of body to the ankles that was immune to diet.

“I’m very busy this morning,” he said.

“Heh — doing what, if you don’t mind?”

“I’m flying to Hamburg this morning.”

“No back rub?”

“No back rub.”

“Come, now, you’ve been this way for a week.”

He knew by the expression on her face that she had been plainly told that she wasn’t beautiful, and that this was unfair. But it didn’t matter to him if it was unfair. He wanted her to be beautiful, that was all. Fair or unfair, to hell with it. And he asked her for his pain pill and she said in a little while, but he knew it would be delayed. He had been brutal in a way that was the height of brutality to a woman, and the hell, of it was that the pain would rise and rise now in his leg.

On the other side of the aisle the soldier with the bad back who had snored most of the night was now moaning. After a while the needle went into the arm of the soldier with the bad back, who then fell asleep and snored all over again.

Looking at his watch again, he figured them over the North Sea now, and the formation tight, the clouds gone, the water ten thousand feet below, remote, a gray color on a map. At the left waist Bub was asleep and wrapped in his heavy jacket. And at the right waist was the guy who had replaced him. The new guy was waking Bub up. The order over interphone was to test-fire guns. They fired into the impersonal cold sky, the tracers curved through cloud masses, and all around were the puffs of smoke from the guns of other ships. Now the climb, with the cold sifting through the heated suit in places. Oxygen level. Here faces disappeared, replaced by the gray oxygen masks. The little red ball went up and down, proving at least that lungs inhaled and exhaled.

The ward boy, deftly balancing a bedpan on his shoulder like a waiter with a tray, asked, “What do you see up there— about eighteen thousand feet?”

“Not a hell of a lot. See if you can dig up those pain pills for me — or does that nurse first have to contact General Eisenhower?”

The ward boy came back with the pills and asked, “Is the flak worse or the twenty-millimeter?”

“It depends,” he said meaninglessly. He took the pills down in a glass of water. After a while his body relaxed. He dozed, wanting to stay awake, but it was never possible, because the nights were too hard — the nights were the worst of all.

The ward boy woke him at dinnertime — the time for them to be over the target at least, or maybe past it on the way back and the fighters coming over the horizon, far off in the sky like specks on a windowpane, but only seconds off in the time it took for them to come in with the edge of their wings blinking red eyes at you.

After dinner they wheeled him out on the stretcher to the operating room, to drain some more, scrape at a whittled-down bone, and replace the cast. The medical officer, Captain Henley, told him he would feel better with the new cast on. When he came to, he was in the ward, with the captain bending over him.

“How is it?”

“It’s O.K., Captain.”

“No pain?”

“None. Did you hear any planes, Captain — I mean a lot of them?”

“Not in the last couple of hours, no.”

If they were not back yet, it wasn’t Hamburg or Kiel, but something else deep into Germany, and those who’d got hit were going down low, with a prop feathered maybe — going down to low level just above the sea or the land where the FockeWulf wouldn’t dare to dive. Fighting for time now. And in other ships, at the guns, were the lucky ones, the safe ones, the ones who had run the gauntlet once more, as the ships came across the water, with the men watching for the friendly English landfall. From tail to nose they were smoking and watching the sky, Whitey on interphone wanting to know when they’d hit England and Lieutenant Walton from the nose answering. Just minutes to go. . . .

He timed it. He tried for the life of him to stay awake long enough to hear that returning drum of engines but fell asleep. And when he did open his eyes, the C.O. was there, at the foot of the bed.


MAJOR FLEMING looked very tired, but he grinned. Then the grin was gone. He looked like an Air Corps flying major, very young, around twentyfive, and his face round and fair and without quite the grim finish to be seen in veteran officers of ground warfare.

“Hello, Charlie,” said the major.

“Hello, Major. How did it go today?”

“Not bad, not bad — they got Benton.”

“How about my boys?”

“Nobody touched.” Fleming smoked, and his eyes wheeled distastefully down the aisle of beds. “We went deep this time, and they were on us all the way from Brussels. They were sharp, came right through the formation. Benton’s number two caught on fire and he sideslipped to the right trying to blow it out— and bang! . . . Probably flak first, and when we made the turn he couldn’t stay in and they jumped him. . . . I meant to drop over day after you got hit, Charlie —”

“That’s all right, Major. Just get me out of here in a hurry.”

“Aren’t they treating you right?”

“I could lie around the barracks, hang around armament, something like that.” He forced himself up a little, feeling the leg beginning to pulse again.

“What’s the matter?”

“I don’t like it here.”

“If they don’t treat you right —” said the major, looking down, his voice puzzled and waiting.

The sergeant was quiet. He could count the gentle, insistent throbbing in his leg. He said at last, “I’m getting scared here.”

“I’ll try,” said the major, turning his head around the ward, his eyes gloomy. “Besides the Purple Heart,” he said, “we’re putting you in for the Silver Star.” The major brought up a grin again. The sergeant lay flat on his back and blew smoke softly at the ceiling in continuous puffs.

“All right,” said the major. “Don’t I know it? Anyway, they give the medals out and we take ‘em. Then you can send ‘em home or stuff ‘em in your barracks bag—”

He said, “Major, just get me out of here in a hurry, that’s all.”

“I’ll try,” said the major gloomily.

The afternoon was very quiet. Even the man with the bad back only moaned for a little while and then, for a change, fell asleep without snoring. And outside, the branches of trees bent in the wind.

“Soft,” said a voice over his shoulder, “very soft.”

It was the pilot, Lieutenant McClellan. The lieutenant was handsome, with heavy brown hair brushed back on his head and cheeks very pink — the face of a choirboy; and the voice, deep and musical, was the voice of the choirboy grown older.

“No flak, no fighters, just bedsores — greetings, Commander,” said the sergeant. “Commander, I am informed by Intelligence that you were in London last week—and the pickings, Commander?”

Lieutenant McClellan sat down in the bedside chair, picked an old envelope and pencil out of a pocket, and began to sketch something before he answered. “You know how I do it, Charlie,” he said.

“Just some quiet heavy drinking.” The sergeant seemed to grin with his mouth turned down. They were talking in low, confined voices, and familiarly, because there were things between them, including crash landings and conversations kept private in the noisiest barrooms.

“ You still play it the same pure-hearted way

— Salt Lake, San Francisco, now London. No change. Still looking for something out of this world

— which might come along any fine morning.”

The pilot had finished his sketch. Now he was

looking at it with the air of a man trying to be objective about his own handiwork.

McClellan said patiently, “We have been over this before.” He handed the sketch over, and the sergeant said, “I can see myself pretty good. It looks like me right down to my turned-down mouth.” He flopped down flat in the bed. “I give up,” he said. “Listen. Even if it’s Piccadilly, you can forget it with a good shower the next morning.”

McClellan sat there without answering. He seemed to be weighing something on an extremely delicate scale against something else. “I’ve got nothing to say about what anybody else does,” he said patiently. “ If Bub needs to tomcat down every alley in London, that’s all right with me — provided he can climb into the waist next morning without breaking his neck.” He added with the mildest reproval, “We’ve been over this before. . . . The longer I’m in this thing, the more I seem to want something first-rate — and if I don’t get it, that’s all right too,” said McClellan in his soft, unemphatic voice. “Does that mean anything at all?”

“No,” said the sergeant sullenly. He could feel the pain rising in his leg. He was, suddenly, no longer interested in talk; he wished he could sleep now. He asked, “Did you see Benton go down?”

“No,” said the pilot, getting up and dusting his pinks off carefully. “Benton flew this job as if he were selling insurance, as if there were a future in it. There was a man you could feel sorry for.”

He took an orange out of one pocket and a letter out of the other. “I forgot these — the orange is with the compliments of the mess sergeant. By the way,” said the pilot casually, as if he had just thought of it, “if you can get out soon, I’d like you on the crew again.” The sergeant was silent, feeling a flush rise up from his throat.


WHEN the sergeant awoke again it was near evening. There was an occupant now in the one bed across the aisle which had been empty. He guessed that this was someone off today’s raid. The new man across the aisle came to, asked for water, and, in the objective manner of hospitals, received instead another jab of morphine in the arm and went to sleep again.

Because of the new addition the ward was quiet. The blackout curtains were drawn. The radio played low. Across the Channel in Calais the energetic Germans kept to the air, serving up jazz, German waltzes. By this time the sergeant thought he knew one voice from Calais, a very melodious tenor. He had also figured out something about this tenor — he was big, with curly hair and a paunch.

“A little on the fruity side,” thought the sergeant.

The letter from home that McClellan had brought lay on the bedside table, waiting to be read again. He had read it once and had fallen asleep. And now it waited to be read again, as if there were something in it that he hadn’t perhaps quite understood. Yet it was clear enough — his uncle had died, and his sister had had a baby. He crumpled the letter and threw it into the basket below. “Love,” said the letter, like all letters in the end.

Someone had turned to BBC news and the score for last night was given by the announcer: “Seven of our aircraft are missing.” He turned on his back a little to ease the one spot that was always so painful. Somebody was now talking over the air about post-war automobiles that would run on less petrol. From down the ward a voice called desperately to the ward boy, “How about some goddam music?” “O.K.,” said the ward boy, glaring down the aisle. “How about you taking care of the ducks then?” He held up the urine bottles, and he said, “You guys sure gang up on me. Why don’t you give it out to the day man?” He kept going down the aisle.

“They ought to give the guy one stripe at least,” said somebody.

The sergeant puffed on a cigarette. He tried to read but the lights were dim and his eyes hurt. Bub came in after supper.

“I haven’t got much.” said the sergeant. “How much do you want?”

“Five pounds’ll do,” said Bub briskly. He was dressed for town, with the wings and the decorations. Also he was extremely young, beardless, and the skin red along his jaw where he had searched for faint hairs with a razor. “Promoting something big in town tonight,” he said, his eyes following the night nurse down the aisle. “I run into her in a bar in town yesterday — just like that, five minutes after I get off the bus.”

“I thought you could make connections in two minutes.”

“I hadda go to the can once,” explained Bub. “If them mild and bitters don’t do nothing else, they sure flush the kidneys. Five minutes, that’s all. She ain’t no baby, you know what I mean — about twenty-three — you don’t have to teach her a thing. She thinks I’m twenty-four. You gotta give ‘em the impression you’re older. The wary I manage it

“I know how you manage it.”

“I get them to tell me their age first,” finished Bub complacently. “How you feeling, Charlie?” “O.K.”

Bub said restlessly, “Well, so long, Charlie.” He turned down the aisle and from behind his back looked very frail and slim and young.

“Bub,” he called.

Bub turned around, impatient, swinging back and forth on his legs.

“Just be careful, Bub,” he said.

“What’s that?” said Bub, puzzled. “Careful? Careful about what?”

“Just careful, that’s all,” he said.

“Careful — if you mean this English stuff,” said Bub contemptuously. He turned and kept going down the aisle, swinging his shoulders.

After a while the lights went out. In the darkness there was a droning of many engines overhead. The RAF had spread its wings again, and the thunder remained for a long while in the air. He fell asleep, and sleeping he again dragged himself to the escape hatch, with young Bub checking his chute at the very last instant, giving him the last push out into the cold, the wind blasting back over the wing, to fall through the racing white clouds, yelling, into nowhere. He turned, blacking out, and somewhere pulling the ring. At last the swinging, his back hurting, the other chutes blossoming, and off in the distance one more, the last one, which was McClellan’s, showing small and above and ahead. . . .

Awake, he groped for a cigarette. In the night chill the sweat was cold on his forehead. When he lit the cigarette he could see the night nurse standing near-by. In the puffs her face showed, quiet, and she whispered, “You were yelling again.” He was silent. “Is there anything you want?” He could smile openly and unseen and in a straight leer in the darkness. “A glass of waiter,” he said.

When she went for the water he bent over the side of the bed, fishing in the basket for the letter from home. His leg hurt, but he kept at it until he had the letter. It was very quiet in the ward, except for the man across the aisle who was snoring, but it was a low, gentle snore now. He smoothed the letter out. Maybe what the letter said was real, and what a man in an Army hospital three thousand miles from home thought about was not real. Possibly there was even a future in spite of the guys who talked about it, and his newborn nephew would in that future be someone to reckon with.

He smoothed the letter out and put the glass on top of it. You could write a letter back expressing sympathy on the one hand and pleasure on the other, even if you weren’t sure that you meant it. His leg was throbbing full tide now. Even though he’d ask for another pain pill in a minute, the leg would go on throbbing anyway, his purple heart would go on throbbing slowly and steadily in the dark till morning.