PLATFORM SHOES, A Steve Daniels Mystery
by Linda Watkins
“REST STOP! YOU all got twenty minutes!”
The sound of the bus driver’s voice startled me. Taking a deep breath, I opened my eyes and glanced out the window. We were parked at a typical truck stop — three gas pumps, a small office, and what looked to be a convenience store next door. I glanced at my watch. I’d gotten on this bus approximately twenty-four hours earlier and, by my reckoning, we were probably somewhere south of Atlanta, Georgia. It would take close to another twenty-four to get me to my final destination — the San Antonio Aviation Cadet Center — just outside of San Antonio, Texas. It was April 1943 and I was thirty-one years old, a Captain in the U.S. Army Air Corps, now en route to my new assignment.
Stretching, I got up, tried to straighten out my uniform, which was becoming seriously wrinkled, then followed the other passengers off the bus. I made a pit-stop at the men’s room, then sauntered over to the little store.
A woman who appeared to be in her late fifties was behind the counter taking care of the customers. By the look of the housedress she had on and the fact that I was pretty sure she hadn’t seen the inside of a beauty parlor since the start of the war, I surmised she was having a hard time making ends meet in this dreary place.
When the line of customers thinned, I walked up to the counter.
“How can I help you?” she asked, her eyes still trained on the cash register.
“Got any fresh coffee?” I asked.
She looked up, eyes widening when she saw my uniform.
“Yes, sir, Captain,” she replied, gifting me with a real, genuine smile.
I grinned back. “Name’s Daniels, ma’am. Steve Daniels.”
“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Captain Daniels. Have a cup on the house.”
As she poured, I saw her glance over at the cane I carried in my left hand.
“Wounded?” she asked, handing me the coffee.
“Yes, ma’am,” I replied. “Shot down over France. I’m on my way to SAACC now to teach. My active flight status is over.”
She took a deep breath. “My boy’s in Italy. I pray for him and all the rest of you soldiers every day.”
I nodded. “Think I could get one of those sandwiches to go with my coffee?”
She smiled. “I got tuna and turkey. Which you prefer?”
“I’ll take the tuna,” I said, “and a pack of Luckies.”
She grabbed one of the sandwiches, wrapped it in wax paper, then put it and a pack of cigarettes into a paper bag.
I took the bag from her and reached for my billfold.
She shook her head. “Your money’s no good here, son. It’s the least I can do for you.”
I nodded again and smiled. “Thank you, ma’am.”
“You take care, Captain,” she said. “And thanks for your service.”
“I will, ma’am, and I’ll be praying your boy comes home safe soon.”
She smiled and, closing the cash register, walked away from the counter and began unpacking a box of groceries, placing them on the store’s shelves.
I watched her for a moment, then pulled a couple bills from my billfold and placed them on the counter next to the register. Her generosity aside, I knew this woman couldn’t afford to be treating every flyboy who came into this place.
Leaving the store, I stood in the hot sun, unwrapped my sandwich and took a bite. I ate about half of it, then lit a cigarette and inhaled deeply. I’d been ordered to San Antonio to teach at the Cadet Academy there. I’d been a pilot, stationed in England, but a crash landing and subsequent injury took me off the active roster. I was grounded now and would most likely stay that way until the end of the war.
This didn’t set too well with me. I’d enlisted in the Army Air Corps right after the fall of Paris, knowing Uncle Sam wouldn’t be staying out of this war much longer. I’d always longed to fly and knew that this was my chance. But now, thanks to Hitler’s Messerschmitts and the wound in my leg that festered, my feet were glued once again to the terra firma.
I finished my coffee, then walked around a bit. Sitting for hours on end played havoc with my leg and I knew, despite the pain, I needed to exercise it.
The bus driver was yammering away with the gas station attendant while the other passengers ate their sandwiches and stretched their legs, too.
Finally, the driver opened the doors, got on the bus, and tooted the horn twice.
“All aboard!” he yelled.
Tossing my empty cup in the trash and flicking my cigarette butt into the coffee can that served as an ashtray, I followed the rest of the lemmings back onto the bus.
My seat was in the last row of the “Whites Only” section. I had the aisle, which suited me fine what with my bum leg and all. The middle seat was empty and the window was occupied by a blonde whom I guessed was somewhere in her late twenties. She’d said her name was Julie and she was going to San Antonio to take a job at the local library. She was a real chatterbox when we first boarded in New York, openly flirting with me. I’d enjoyed the banter for a while until she made a remark I felt was way off base.
“Don’t you just wish we were seated a few rows forward?” she’d asked.
I stared at her, not understanding what she was getting at, but then she tilted her head toward the back of the bus and wrinkled her nose.
Well, I may not be the brightest bulb in the chandelier, but I got the gist of what she was trying to tell me. Now, I don’t know about most folks, but I’ve spent a good deal of time while in the service working beside Negroes and, for the life of me, I can’t see any difference between them and me except for the color of their skin. I guess I just don’t cotton to people who think differently.
I didn’t respond to her remark, but I put the kibosh on any further conversation right away, telling her I had some reading to do. I think she knew I was giving her the bum’s rush by the scowl that suddenly blossomed on her face and, for the rest of our journey together, she kept her lips zipped and eyes staring out the window.
When I got to my seat, I noted she was already in hers, her nose deep into a paperback. Knowing she was studiously avoiding me, I took off my jacket and stowed it carefully in the bin above me, then pulled my satchel from under the seat in front of me. I rummaged around inside until I found a bottle of pills and a flask.
Pouring two aspirin into the palm of my hand, I tossed them back, then washed them down with a swig of good old Kentucky bourbon. I then took another swallow, just for good measure, and returned the pills and flask to my bag.
Settling into my seat, I leaned back and closed my eyes…
THREE MONTHS EARLIER…
I was flying a recon mission over the province of Normandy. My squad’s assignment was to photograph the beaches and surrounding areas. We assumed this surveillance was in anticipation of the invasion we all knew would be coming soon.
This was my tenth mission since arriving in Britain. I was a member of the Eighth U.S. Army Air Force, fondly known as the “Mighty Eighth.” We were on loan to the Brits and often flew these recon sorties.
My plane was a camera-equipped Spitfire that could literally hug the earth if necessary. I was positioned as the right wingman and thought I was getting some great photos. However, I was so intent on taking pictures, I wandered off — away from the other two planes in my squad.
When I realized I was alone, I started to turn around to rejoin the others, when two of the Luftwaffe’s Messerschmitt Me 262s came roaring out of the clouds intent on removing me from the sky.
I radioed the rest of the squad as I maneuvered my Spitfire away from the intruders. But it was no use. I took a shot to the engine and knew I was going down. Quickly, I surveyed the ground below me. There was a large field surrounded by what looked like dense woods. If I could bring her down there, I had a chance of escaping through the forest before the Jerries were on to me.
My landing gear was damaged on one side so as I set down, the plane tilted precariously. I slid through the field, one wing in the air and one on the ground. I thought I was going to make it without much damage, but I’d miscalculated the distance/speed equation. My Spitfire went head on into the trees, shearing off one wing, causing the aircraft to roll over onto its side.
I was tossed around pretty good, but retained consciousness. The plane was really torn up and a piece of metal had cut into my thigh. It was bleeding badly so I reached under the seat for the first aid kit stowed there. I managed to tie a makeshift tourniquet around my leg, then exited the plane, taking with me what was left of the roll of adhesive tape. Once outside and on the ground, I limped over to where the belly of the aircraft was exposed and removed the reel of film from the camera. It wasn’t easy, but I managed to secure the 8-1/2×11 reel under my left armpit, using the leftover tape to keep it in place. Once I was sure it was going to hold, I pulled my leather bomber jacket over it, zipping it up tightly.
My goal was to somehow get that film back to Britain and to Army Intelligence. However, I had no idea how I was going to accomplish that.
Knowing the Nazis would be on their way to arrest me, I hobbled as fast as I could into the woods. I don’t know how long I wandered until loss of blood and shock overcame me. I sat on the forest floor wondering what I was going to do next.
I think I must have passed out. Next thing I knew, I was being half carried or dragged through the forest. There was a man on either side of me, holding me up. I started to speak, but the one on my left put his finger to his lips, indicating I should keep my big yap shut.
Finally, we emerged from the woods. A small farmhouse stood in the distance, smoke curling up from the chimney. The two men began yammering away in French and I assumed that they must be members or sympathizers with the local resistance.
They took me into the house and lay me on a small bed. An old woman brought me a cup of water. “Drink,” she said in heavily accented English.
I took the cup from her and drained it. She smiled and nodded. I started to ask where I was and who they were, but she shook her head.
“Rest,” she said, then left the room.
I lay my head back on the pillow. I think I must have passed out again and only woke when I heard the sound of voices.
I opened my eyes. Two men were arguing beside the bed. They were speaking French so rapidly I couldn’t make out any of the words. One noticed that I was awake and turned to me.
“Yankee,” he said in English. “I am Paul. You are safe. But we must hurry. This man is a docteur. He will dress your wound, then you must go.”
“Sure,” I replied, wondering where the hell I was supposed to go to.
The doctor nodded to me, then pulled a pair of scissors from his pocket and began cutting off my bandage and the fabric from my pant leg that covered the wound.
There was a deep slice in my thigh and I grit my teeth as the doctor probed and examined it. After a minute or two, he turned to Paul. “Cognac,” he said.
Paul nodded, then left the room. He came back a few minutes later with a dark bottle. The two men spoke, then Paul turned to me.
“Le docteur does not speak English,” he explained. “He will need to clean your wound, but we don’t have any disinfectant. He will use the alcohol. It will burn, but you must not cry out.”
I nodded. “How about giving me a swig of that alcohol first?”
Paul smiled and handed me the bottle.
I sniffed it and then took a swallow. It was strong and burned my throat on the way down.
Paul reclaimed the bottle and handed it to the doctor. He then stood over me, his hands holding my shoulders down. “Quiet,” he said.
The doctor placed a clean, white towel under my leg, then, without warning, poured some of the cognac onto my wound.
My body rebelled involuntarily, but Paul was strong. I hissed through my teeth as a burning pain shot through my leg.
Again, the doctor poured liquor into the open wound. I felt light-headed as the pain threatened to cause me to faint.
“Oui,” said the doctor, nodding, as he pulled a small sewing kit from his jacket pocket and began to stitch up my leg.
* * *
Finally, it was over and the old woman brought me a bowl of soup, which I downed with relish. After, they left me alone and I slept.
Sometime later, I was awakened by the old woman. “Time to go,” she said, helping me to my feet. “Paul will take you.”
“Can you thank the doctor for me?” I asked.
She laughed. “Docteur, non. Francois is what I think you anglaise call a veterinarian. He takes care of the pigs and cows. Now, come with me.”
Digesting the fact that I had just been operated on by a dog doctor, I followed her, limping, outside where the one named Paul sat behind the wheel of an ancient pick-up truck.
The old woman helped me into the passenger seat and, without preamble, Paul put the truck in gear and headed down the driveway.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
He inhaled. “You must leave the country. Nazis are everywhere looking for you. We have a boat, a sailboat. You sail across to England. The weather is good tonight. You should be there by sometime mid-morning tomorrow, if all goes well.”
I glanced at my watch. It was eleven p.m. That meant, I would have to sail a little boat for approximately twenty-four hours across the English Channel before I got back to Britain. Could I do it? I didn’t know. I’d never been in a sailboat before.
When we arrived at the shore, Paul helped me down to the boat. On the way, I told him I was new to sailing and he gave me a rudimentary lesson. I settled in what appeared to be a dingy with a makeshift sail and went over in my head the instructions he had detailed for me, trying to commit them to memory. In the meantime, he returned to the truck, then came back a few minutes later with a jug of water, a compass, some sandwiches, and a blanket.
“This is the best we can do,” he said, wrapping the blanket around me. “Head due north.”
I nodded, then shook his hand, thanking him.
He grinned. “Give my regards to Churchill,” he said, then pushed the sailboat into the black waters…
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