Privilegemobile 4: Ball Tourette Gunner

As usual, the fan was on in the bedroom last night. However, I was not thinking about warp drive or interstellar travel. The metaphor had ceased to hold up even though I was just trying to get to sleep.

It was still a song to relax to, but it held no promise of long-term serenity. Instead, it was respite from some impending event that would require what I am most stingy with: my undivided attention.

So naturally, I imagined the sound came from a B-17 bomber and I was on my way to some target city in Europe.

I thought about this quite a bit on this morning’s bus ride to work while sitting in my usual spot way in the back and feeling the mild bumping and jostling as we rolled south from SF on the 101. I think this is one of the older buses in the fleet and the years of wear plus the odd hopped curb have taken their toll on the shocks. It’s not an unpleasant ride as long as I do nothing but relax and stare out the window. If I try to do anything productive, motion sickness is soon to follow.

With time on my hands, my thoughts turned to the B-17. I’ve been exposed to some fun things about the plane over the years. There’s Randall Jarrell’s unflinching short poem “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner,” which I’ve always loved. There was also Jimmy Stewart, who flew a B-17 on something like 20 missions on his hiatus from Hollywood, and the otherwise ho-hum Harrison Ford flick Hanover Street that had a nifty scene where just about everybody in a B-17 Ford was flying got killed.

Strangely, I knew close to nothing about the plane itself until started playing this old game my friend Ralph had, “B-17” or “Flying Fortress” or something like that. It was a board game of sorts where the board was a map of Europe with concentric semicircles expanding outward from England. The semicircles were the borders of zones that the different target cities fell within. Inside of each zone, a roll of the dice determined if you had to fend off German fighters. When you reached your target, fighters were pretty much a given.

The object of the game was to complete 25 missions and not die. I always died.

What I found perversely appealing about this game was that other than requiring a human hand to roll the dice, the game played itself. The missions selected, the outcome of air combat, and the accuracy of the bombing were all decided by what was rolled. There was no being good or bad at this game. There was just lucky and unlucky.

I learned that the B-17 had a 10-man crew and what their jobs were. There was the pilot, the co-pilot, the bombadier, the navigator, the flight engineer, the radio operator, two waist gunners, the tail gunner, and the hapless ball-turret gunner. Because putting any mental effort into winning the game was pointless, my mind was free to think about which crew member I would like to be most.

At first I wanted to be the co-pilot because he doesn’t have to do jack shit unless the pilot dies, but I gave up on that when I realized that I was not officer material. I also decided against being a ball-turret gunner despite there being a neat poem about him. My death wish, while it exists on some level, is mostly played up for effect. Ultimately, I went with the radio operator because I could be the CW McCall of the sky.

I made that decision in 1987 and have never found a reason to go back on it.  I closed my eyes as the bus continued south. The rattling of the bus was air turbulence. No reports of fighters. The skies were clear and the German countryside laid out before us, too pristine and rural to pockmark with craters.

Suddenly, the plane is gone and I’m sitting up in my seat looking around. Four accidents on the southbound 101 in the vicinity of Palo Alto have brought traffic to a near standstill. The Luftwaffe has won this round, at least by proxy.

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