Andrew MacQuarrie is an Air Force veteran and a physician. A native of Maritime Canada, he now lives in Los Angeles. MacQuarrie has previously published in The Montreal Review, The Write Launch, Lit Rally, Pennsylvania English, and Military Experience & the Arts.
by Andrew MacQuarrie
The first flash arcs across the edge of Bunko’s peripheral. It’s about to happen again, and at the worst possible time. Except it could be worse. It could always be worse. Isn’t that what he’s always told himself? When his mom got sick and he had to delay pilot training a whole year. When he got orders to stay at Vance as an instructor pilot and spent his first assignment in the backseat of a T-38 on long, boring training sorties over Enid, Oklahoma. And now here, flying a refeuling track somewhere out over the Atlantic waiting his turn to approach the tanker as his vision goes to shit. Truth is, it could be worse. At least if something happens out here there isn’t anyone below. No innocent women or children or suburban development to pay the price for his refusal to accept what’s been so damn obvious for so damn long.
Another arc flashes, this one more jagged, a whole swath of the wild blue yonder outside his cockpit disappearing for a long, fraught second before snapping back, shaken and out of focus. It’s been happening more often—at least once a week the last few months. It was only a matter of time before it happened here. He should’ve known. He should’ve said something. He should’ve ripped the wings off his chest and never set foot inside a jet again. That’s what he should’ve done. But here he is, soaring through the air at 29,000 feet, his eyes filled with chaff and flare, and all Bunko can do is grip the stick and brace himself for the first airborne ocular migraine of his career.
“Boss-27, cleared to refuel.”
Bunko double-taps his comm to signal that he understands, that he’s ready. But he’s not. He tracks his wingman as the nimble Viper drifts down and out into the kaleidoscoped farrago of lights and waves that aren’t actually there. The flashes are worse than usual. His head usually doesn’t hurt until after, but this time it’s already pounding. He decides to hold his breath. That’s worked before. He can’t close both eyes, so he closes his left.
“Boss-27, cleared to refuel.”
Bunko double-taps his comm again. He forces a deep breath. He focuses on the tanker up ahead, its boom extended like some sort of loaded mechanical proboscis, then eases his jet forward through the obedient air at 300 knots.
Another flash. The biggest he’s ever seen. And now his whole left eye is fucked.
Bunko eases back on the throttle. He can feel the sweat dripping down his neck. His heart is racing. He waits for it to pass. It has to pass. It always passes.
But this time it’s not passing.
“Bunko?” The tilt in his wingman’s voice is more perturbed than worried.
“Yeah.” Bunko releases the comm and tries to think of something to say to buy some time. He’s never been one to slow things down, but right now that’s exactly what he needs. “My door’s jammed.”
It’s a shitty excuse. He knows it as soon as he says it, his right eye still clear enough to make out the manual override in front of him.
“Did you pull the handle?”
Bunko double-taps the comm. The question annoys him more than it should.
“DC-34, standby. Boss-27 is having some trouble getting his receptacle open.”
It’s a full-on rave in Bunko’s left eye now. He can’t see shit, and the icepick twisting into his temple is twice the size it was a minute ago. He’s going to have to write this up. A jammed receptacle door and a failed manual override? That’s a big deal. Potentially catastrophic. Of course the maintainers aren’t gonna find anything wrong. They’ll just assume he was confused or distracted, that he wouldn’t know the difference between a jammed door and a jammed toe. But at least they won’t know what really happened. He can handle everyone in the squadron thinking he’s a dumbass. It’s the alternative that scares the shit out of him.
“Bunko, I’m gonna fly over. If you can’t get it open, we’re gonna have to call BINGO and head home.”
Bunko clambers for an excuse to call him off as the Viper swings back into the last clear patch of blue he can see.
But then it breaks. Thank God, it finally breaks. Not completely—there are still squigglies in the lower corner of his left eye, but the rest is clear. His head hurts even more now, worse than he ever remembers it hurting before, but at least he can see. Thank God, he can see.
“Belay my last. Door is open. Boss-27, ready to refuel.”
His wingman says nothing. The crisp double-tap of his comm is as loud and clear as any of the shit he’s going to get back at the squadron after they land. He’s not worried about the shit, though. At least he’ll be there to take it. At least he’ll fly another day.
The first time Bunko’s eyes went batshit was in college. Before he was Bunko. When he was still just Matt, the front-of-the-classroom aerospace engineering major who would’ve traded his arms for wings if he could. He was at a party with the other ROTC kids and a couple dozen civilian undergrads who’d been brave enough to take on student loans. It was the Friday after midterms, the fall semester of his junior year. He didn’t normally go to those parties. There was always too much work to do, and he wouldn’t dare risk showing up to his Saturday morning flight lessons cooked, not when a single sub-stellar eval could be the difference between his chances at a pilot slot or being diverted to navigator school.
That semester, though, had been particularly brutal. The work was getting harder, the intro courses from his first couple of years giving way to an onslaught of 300- and 400-level classes, most of which had dealt him only-slightly-above-average grades that wouldn’t do him any favors when it came time to stand out on the pilot selection board. His roommates—who were also cadets, who would’ve been perfectly content falling into some boring contracting or personnelist job and paying back their time en route to a six-figure career in the civilian sector—went out every night, partying with all the other kids who hadn’t signed their lives away, bringing back more girls to the apartment than he knew by name. That life had never appealed to him—those guys were running their engines on afterburner before they’d even taken off. But that semester, and that night in particular, he couldn’t help but wonder if he was the one stuck on the ground.
The party wasn’t fun. It was at some beat up split-level off campus with cheap Halloween decorations and old University flags hanging from the stairs. The place was buzzing—music thumping, cheap beer flowing, laughter bouncing off the walls—but it all seemed to float right through Bunko. It felt like forever since he’d had a good night’s sleep, the last few weeks having been perforated with cram sessions and all-nighters leading up to his final midterm earlier that afternoon. After an hour or two of pretending to enjoy himself, he decided to go home and sleep it off and rethink his life in the morning. But then he bumped into one of his roommates, who was with a girl, who was with a friend who was pretty and thought it was so “hot” that Bunko was going to be a pilot, her hand touching the inside of his arm as she said it.
So he decided to stay. He let loose. He flirted. He downplayed how hard he’d worked to get as far as he had and let her thank him for the service he was yet to fulfill. She made him her favorite drink. He gulped it down. He invited her back to his place with a confidence pumping through his veins like he’d never felt before. Then when she bit her lip and took him by the hand and whispered in his ear it started pumping elsewhere.
They never made it to the apartment. The flashes in his left eye started shortly after they stepped outside. He tried to ignore it at first, her warm breath on his neck enough to overpower just about anything. But then the flashing got bigger and brighter and his left temple started to throb.
“Are you okay?” she said. There was concern in her eyes, whether for him or for the night she’d wagered on him, he couldn’t say.
“I’m sorry,” he said, struggling to get the words out, his whole left eye a scintillating shit-show. And then he left her there. He stumbled home, his eye squeezed shut and still going nuts, then popped three Motrins and buried himself in bed and waited for it to end.
He skipped his flight lesson the next morning, then spent the rest of the weekend scouring the internet for answers. He went back to the house where the party had been, the weathered facade looking somehow even gloomier by the light of day. No one else had had any sort of reaction, and nobody knew the girl he’d tried to go home with. He couldn’t remember her name. Her touch, the warmth of her breath in his ear—he remembered those as clear as the sky above. But not her name. And where that warmth had filled him with desire only a few hours before, now the thought of it only made him angry. Everything about that night had been a distraction, a symptom of his weakness, and having come up with no better explanation for why his eye had short-circuited, he made up his mind that the girl he’d almost gone home with must have put something in his drink.
Then the anger devolved into horror. Monday, in between classes, a call from his First Sergeant: Drug test. Routine. Random. Report no later than one hour. They happened all the time. He’d taken at least half a dozen whiz-quizzes since his freshman year. They were more of an annoyance than anything else. This time, though, it was so much more. This time it was the end of everything he’d ever wanted.
He waited as long as possible. He drank as much water as he could stomach, hoping that maybe it would dilute whatever miscreant was lurking in his piss. He double-timed over to the library and pounded out a desperate, typo-laden memo cataloguing in as much detail as he could the events of that Friday night. He printed it, signed it, then ran across campus to the post office and mailed it to himself, thinking that maybe a postmarked, sealed testament would prove it was all just some big mistake when he popped positive for LSD or mushrooms or whatever it was.
He couldn’t go. His bladder was beyond full. The tension on his lower abdomen, far past the point of discomfort, shot lightning-bolts of pain into his groin. He could smell the nervous sweat radiating from his scalp. But he still couldn’t go.
The reluctant observer assigned to stare over his shoulder tapped his foot impatiently.
“Sorry, do you mind?”
The observer shrugged and turned around.
The piss finally came, hot and clear and blighted with the substance that would clip his wings before they’d even started to form.
He nearly cried as he handed the warm, sealed and signed cup over to the poor contractor who spent her 9-5 cataloguing cadet piss. At that point he was in no shape to make it to his 1500 Aerodynamics Lab, not that an aerospace degree would mean anything if it couldn’t get him into pilot training. So, instead, he went home and took a shot of his roommate’s Jim Beam and tried to come to terms with life on the ground.
His urine never flagged. He never got that dreaded call from the First Sergeant, never had to report to the Commander to explain himself. He never opened that letter—the signed and sealed affidavit proclaiming his innocence. He didn’t touch it until the day he graduated and pinned those gleaming gold butter bars onto his shoulders as the Air Force’s newest 2nd Lieutenant.
He sat at his desk that night holding the letter in his hands, his graduation gown draped over his chair, his pilot training selection notice pinned proudly to the corkboard in front of him. That letter had gotten him to the finish line. It was a constant reminder to keep his head low, to focus on his dreams and avoid the distractions, to do whatever it took to fly. But, most of all, it reminded him how close he’d come to losing everything.
He held the letter in his hands, remembering the emptiness he’d felt as he’d typed those words. That feeling was a distant memory. So too were all the questions he’d had about that night his eye went batshit. The details weren’t important. All that mattered was that he’d gotten through.
He looked again at the pilot selection notice. He’d made it. Nothing could take that away from him now. With one final sigh, he held up the letter and lit a match. The envelope curled in the ash tray as it succumbed to the flames. He watched with satisfaction as the ribbons of smoke climbed lazily toward the ceiling. If he hadn’t felt so invincible in that moment, maybe he would have thought again about that glaring question he’d never been able to answer: if his drink wasn’t spiked, if it wasn’t a drug that made his eye go haywire, then what the hell was it?
But, instead, he leaned back in his chair and gazed longingly out the window into the vast blue sky he would soon call home.
Bunko hangs up the phone. He spins in his chair and updates the spreadsheet, the ache in his neck tightening every second he’s left staring at this god-awful monitor.
Mission planning. A necessary evil. As tedious a job as there is for a pilot, and if the tanker drops last minute or a warm front sweeps in and shits on your refuelling track, it’s damn near as stressful. Flying the desk. They all hate it. They’re flyboys at heart. Any time spent out of the cockpit, every single second wasted on the ground is just another reminder of how much better life is up there. But if the planning doesn’t get done, there won’t be anywhere to fly. There won’t be a tanker to give them gas. They’ll all be stuck on the ground. So they take turns. They suck it up and serve their time—service before self and all that.
Thing is, lately Bunko’s been carrying more than his usual weight at the mission planning desk. The others probably think he’s just aiming high, trying to pick up an extra bullet for his performance report, making his case for CGO of the Quarter or a below-the-zone promotion to Major. Truth is, Bunko is looking out for himself, just not in the way any of them are thinking.
“There’s a system coming in from the west,” Bunko says. “I’m thinking 636 again for tomorrow.”
Grits grunts and mumbles something to himself as he glares at his own monitor.
Bunko assumes the affirmative. He copies forward the coordinates from the previous day’s mission.
“This little speckle of birdshit?” Grits spins his monitor around. It’s bigger than Bunko’s, which only makes the little weather system lingering over Ohio seem even less formidable. “Did you happen to see the shitstorm brewing over the Atlantic?”
Bunko checks again. Sure enough there’s a system, this one at least double the size of the one he’s supposedly trying to avoid.
“Jesus, Bunko. 636 every damn time for you. If you love the ocean so much maybe you should’ve gone Navy.”
Someone in the office next-door laughs. Bunko does too. He wants to tell them the truth—that he hates 636, that flying over the ocean in a single-engine jet without an airfield in sight makes him as nervous as it should, that he keeps flying 636 not because he wants to, but because he’d be even more nervous flying over elementary schools and hospitals and unsuspecting subdivisions the way things have been going for him lately. But it’s easier to just shut up and laugh.
The Director of Operations walks past the office, coffee in hand, flight suit tied around his waist.
“Banzai,” shouts Grits. “636 or 219 tomorrow?”
“219,” Banzai says, already halfway down the hallway. “Bunko, you wanna swim so bad, join the Y.”
Grits turns to Bunko and mimes some sort of masturbatory gesture with his dominant hand.
Bunko laughs—the only thing he can do—then turns back to his monitor and updates the spreadsheet.
The alarm goes off at 0430. Bunko snoozes until 0500, but doesn’t sleep another second. Fly days used to be the easiest for him to wake up, the adrenaline from his dreams of pulling Gs high above an endless cloud deck lifting him back into consciousness. Back then he would’ve been up, showered, and sitting out on the porch finishing his breakfast before the alarm even realized what it’d missed. It was a powerful feeling, sipping his coffee and staring out at an empty sky that God had never intended for mankind to touch, a sky that he and a pack of his fellow Viper pilots would turn upside down just a few hours later.
These days, though, it’s been dread that Bunko feels every time he looks up. His sleep has been less restful, that endless cloud deck from his old dreams replaced with congested cityscapes and complex terrains over which he always seems to be flying just a bit too low. This morning in particular he feels especially groggy. It’s a big exercise, today’s sortie. There’ve been whispers of a deployment coming down the pipeline. Somewhere in the Middle East. Operation Inherent Resolve, or Noble Watch, or whatever they’ll decide to brand it by the time his squadron gets the nod.
Bunko should be excited. It’s the sort of thing he’s waited his entire career for. It’s what he signed up for. It’s what he was trained to do. But as he’s swiping through the day’s NOTAMS he feels a dull but familiar twinge in his left temple—the same spot where he felt it the other day. He tries to tamp it down—not now, definitely not today—but the ache only grows and the muted glow from his iPad only makes it worse.
Bunko sets aside the iPad, turns off the lights, and lies down. After a few minutes he starts to feel better, so he goes back into the kitchen to finish his breakfast. His eggs are tasteless. The coffee is bland. He dumps a couple spoons of sugar into his mug, but it still tastes like hot tap water.
He gets in his car and drives to work, hoping that it’s a false alarm. It has to be a false alarm. He’s never had two in the same week.
Bunko manages to convince himself that everything’s okay.
The first flash strikes just as he pulls into the squadron.
It’s a great day for flying. There’s not a cloud in the sky, at least as far as Bunko can see through the daisy-chained flash-bulbs igniting in his left eye and the variegated shrapnel cutting across to his right. He’s still in his car, parked outside the med group, sunglasses on and seat reclined. Sick call started 40 minutes ago. 20 more minutes and they’ll make him schedule an appointment. But he’s still not ready to go in.
“Can you fly?”
His commander couldn’t possibly have grasped the gravity of that question. In many ways it was the exact same question Bunko had been asking himself for the past few days.
“Can? Or should?” Bunko faked a cough and forced a sniffle, his commander’s glare distorted in the miasma of his left eye. It was the best he could come up with, or at least the most he was willing to give.
“Goddamn it, Bunko. Ya look like shit,” the commander snarled, not even trying to hide his disgust. “Get over to medical. You ain’t flying today.”
Bunko closes his eyes, which doesn’t help but seems like it should. If only it was just for today. One day on the ground means nothing, but Bunko knows it’s going to be more. From everything he’s read online, there’s a good chance the migraines are only going to keep getting worse. The right thing to do—the integrity-first thing to do—would be to walk into medical and tell them exactly what’s wrong with him, what’s always been wrong with him. To get disqualified. To have his wings clipped. To retrain or get out or get court-martialled for hiding the truth for so long. Either way, Bunko knows he can’t fly. Not today. Not tomorrow. Not ever again.
He gets out of his car. There’s a tightness in the center of his chest, the kind he’s learned not to bring up with the doc. He’s not going to bring it up this time either. There’s no point. Not because he’s afraid he’ll get DNIF’d or disqualified or compelled to do a ton of tests and labs and scans to prove that he’s healthy before they’ll let him fly again. He’s not going to bring it up because he knows exactly what it is: it’s the end of Bunko, the reincarnation of Matt—a wingless thirty-two year-old with a bachelor’s degree and no marketable life skills suited for a career on the ground. It’s the weight of his childhood dreams sitting on his chest, begging him to hide the truth for just one more flight. The weight of all those innocent people he’s sworn to serve, who he puts in harm’s way every time he leaves the ground. There’s nothing in the world Bunko wants to do less, but he knows it’s the only thing he can do.
It isn’t until he reaches the overhang of the clinic that he hears the first engine, that sweet buttery roar of the omnipotent Pratt & Whitney engine that’s held his life in its hands so many times. The first of his wingmen taking off for 219. The mission he planned.
And then there’s a flash in his heart even stronger than the one in his eye. He can’t do it. He knows he has to, but he can’t.
The blood pressure cuff squeezes like a noose around his bared left arm.
“What brings you in?” asks the tech, whose face Bunko can’t even see his eyes are so fucked.
His heart pounds. His head throbs. That tightness in his chest deepens. “It’s just this cough, man. I think I’ve got pneumonia.”
“Thank you for your service.”
For Bunko, becoming a pilot wasn’t about serving. It wasn’t about prestige or grandeur or honor either, at least not initially. Bunko just wanted to fly. For as long as he could remember, before he’d ever set foot on a plane, probably since the first time he saw a bird do it and realized it could be done, all Bunko wanted was to fly.
“Thank you for your service.”
Three weeks after his 26th birthday Bunko completed RTU training in the F-16 and officially became a Viper driver. He reported to his first base not quite sure he was ready to be a fighter pilot and at least a little wistful for those easier, more predictable days back in Enid. Pretty soon, though, he started to notice the idolizing gazes of the young airmen around base, the way the guards at the gate saluted him a bit more crisply than they had before. He was a hero, a defender of the sky, the pride of the Air Force. It didn’t take him long to start believing it. He wore his flight suit around town after work. He grew a mustache. He learned to love the taste of Jeremiah Weed. He proudly nodded any time a kid or senior citizen or pretty clerk asked if he was a fighter pilot. Eventually, Bunko started to believe that he was serving, that these were the people he was doing it for.
“Thank you for your service.”
That first year flying the Viper, it happened again. His eyes had gone batshit a few times back at Enid, but only after a bender or if he went a couple days sleeping five hours or less. This was the first time it happened on a normal day, during normal hours, without any obvious cause. It scared the shit out of Bunko. He faked a cold and got himself DNIF’d and went home to find answers. He scoured Google, his left eye sealed shut, the pyrotechnics still flashing behind his closed lid. Soon enough he had his answer: Ocular Migraine. Reassuring in some sense. Non-fatal, relatively common, no need for surgery or anything like that. That reassurance quickly came crashing down, though, as soon as he Googled his next question: “Can I fly with ocular migraines?”
“Thank you for your service.”
There are lots of ways Bunko has responded to that pervasive, sometimes-sincere turn of phrase over the years:
“You’re worth it.”
A nod and a smile.
More recently, though, he’s spent a lot of time thinking about the weight of those words—what they mean, who they’re for, how much he’s going to miss hearing them when he’s done. Now anytime someone tells him “Thank you for your service,” his reply is simple: “Thanks for letting me.”
“Good to have you back, Bunk.”
Bunko nods at his wingman as they split off to pre-flight their jets. He was cleared by medical this morning after a heroic recovery from the brutal “bronchitis” that had grounded him just a few days before. Fit to Fight. Returned to Flying Status. DNIF removed.
DNIF—Duties Not Including Flight.
Bunko ducks underneath the left wing and thinks about what that means. What other duties could there possibly be that don’t include flying? The only thing redeemable about mission planning is that it eventually leads to a take-off and a landing. There’s Stan/Eval. There’s safety. There’s fitness monitor, deployment monitor, health monitor. All of them important, all of them duties that need to be done. But none of them mean a thing if they don’t include flying.
He walks to the rear of the jet and stares into the gaping engine nozzle. Soon it will be spewing hot air, catapulting him skyward out toward 219 at 300 KIAS. He thinks about the heat, the noise, the thrust. Nothing in his life has ever wielded as much power as this engine. Nothing on the ground ever will.
Bunko looks over at his wingman. There’s a flash of light behind him, the scintillating waves in his left eye revving up for action. It’s happening. He could feel it as soon as he woke up this morning. He could feel it as he smiled and took his deep breaths and convinced the doc he was safe to fly. He’s not safe to fly, though. Not like this. But he’s pressing anyway. He’s missed too many flights. If he has any hope of making this deployment, of proving to himself and everyone else who matters that he can still fly, he has to do it. So he ignores the flashes and focuses on the parts of his vision that are still clear and carries on.
Bunko’s entire body lurches backward as he pushes up on the throttle. The thrust twists the icepick into his temple even deeper, so he opens up the afterburner and powers through. His head is searing, but he’s determined to fly this goddamn plane and go on this goddamn deployment and there’s nothing on this goddamn planet that can keep him, Matthew “Bunko” Stevens, on the ground.
It happens as soon as he hits V1 and rotates: the biggest flash of light he’s ever seen, his entire left eye gone dark as the world falls away beneath him.
For the second time that day, and the third time that week, Bunko sits in the waiting room of the med group, clipboard in his lap.
Reason for Visit?
It’s a simple question. It’s a simple answer, too, however complicated the consequences will be. He clicks the pen for the hundredth time and stares at those simple, earth-shattering words.
That last mission was the deal breaker. It was the most scared he’s ever been in his life. His vision came back a few minutes into the flight, well before they started the exercise. Things were a bit blurry and his head still hurt like hell, but he finished the sortie, landed safely, and debriefed as if it wasn’t the last time he would ever debrief as a pilot. But he was shaken. What if next time his eye didn’t turn back on? What if the right one went out too?
The thought sits heavy on Bunko as he stares at the form, still clicking his pen, still unable or unwilling to write it down and make it official.
“Captain Stevens?” the tech says, completely unaware of the cataclysmic role she’s destined to play in Bunko’s life story.
Bunko looks once more at the question. He knows he’ll have to answer it soon enough, but he’d rather say it out loud than hide behind a piece of paper. He’s been hiding for long enough as it is. He stands up and follows the tech into the exam room, ready to sacrifice his career, ready to sacrifice his dreams, finally understanding for the first time what it really means to serve.
Copyright 2019 by Andrew MacQuarrie