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Authors: Stephen P. Kiernan

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BOOK: The Hummingbird
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AT LAST WORD COMES
to the pilot’s berth: His aircraft is ready. He dispatches his navigator, Petty Officer Shoji Okuda, before taking a few moments to collect himself. Soga knows that he was chosen for this mission, and not merely due to prowess as a reconnaissance pilot.

Dispatched to the attack on Pearl Harbor on a carrier, his plane was damaged on the way by rough seas. Thus he spent that infamous day as a spectator, imagining: If only an aircraft could be delivered by submarine, sparing it the grueling surface passage, and avoiding the reliance upon a carrier group.

Soga presented this idea to the ship’s executive officer, Lieutenant Tsukodo, saying it would work for bombing the Panama Canal, aircraft factories, and naval bases. Tsukodo encouraged him to write a description for the Admiralty.

When Soga arrived in Yokosuka in July1942—eight months later—he received orders to report to his commander’s office. At that meeting, in walked none other than Prince Takamatsu, the emperor’s younger brother. An officer spread a map on the table, and the prince began to speak.

“The northwestern United States is full of forests. Once a blaze gets started in the deep woods, it is very difficult to stop. Sometimes whole towns are destroyed. If we were to bomb some of these forests, it would put the enemy to much trouble. It might even cause large-scale panic, once residents knew Japan could reach out and bomb their factories and homes from five thousand miles away.”

Soga was ordered to perform a submarine-based firebombing mission. He was forbidden from telling his wife or young son anything about it. He knew the plane was small and slow. His creativity had brought both distinction and danger.

Now, on that September morning off the coast of Oregon, Soga has one other high qualification for the mission: his ancestry. He reaches behind his bunk for the object that symbolizes that history and reveals it in the submarine’s dull interior light.

A sword. A samurai sword, which has been in his family for four hundred years. As the eldest son of the eldest son, Ichiro born of an Ichiro going back eighteen generations, he has a direct blood line to the warrior who bore that weapon in the fifteen hundreds. The handle is long enough to be wielded by two hands. The blade spans two and half feet, but Soga does not draw in the cramped space of his bunk. This weapon should remain sheathed unless it is to be used.

The sword will fly with him that day, as it does on every mission. He rests the weapon across his lap and contemplates his likelihood of success. Merely launching from a submarine, without the deck of an aircraft carrier or the length of an airstrip, requires consummate skill. The challenge will be intensified by the bombs’ weight—which will slow acceleration, diminish lift, and eliminate margin for error. The waves will reach for his pontoons, eager to pull him down, and with him the glory of his nation and lineage.

He has managed a similar takeoff once before, off the coast of Australia. Launching successfully at 7:30
A.M.
, Soga performed reconnaissance of Sydney Harbor and a military base, landed near the sub, and watched the crew disassemble the plane. By noon the next day the I-25 was 460 miles away.

This new mission is vastly more challenging. He must fly over American soil, which no enemy pilot has ever done. He must release the bombs individually, maintaining nose control during the unbalanced miles, over targets he has seen only on maps. There can be no evasions or detours because he carries as little fuel as possible. He must land near the sub, the crew dismantling his plane at once. The I-25 must be submerged before a single American plane can spot them.

It is, in other words, a suicide mission. Nonetheless, Soga has made all foreseeable preparations. If it is possible for a man to survive, he hopes to do so.

At last orders arrive for the pilot to report to the deck. There is no more preamble. All that remains is the mission.

Soga climbs down the conning tower, walking to the aircraft with care. He does not want to get wet. Moisture at sea level spells misery aloft. Reconnaissance cockpits are notoriously cold, especially at altitude, which is why pilots wear leather jackets with fleece linings: not for fashion, but for warmth.

Soga steps onto the E14’s pontoon, sword under one arm. Stretching his leg above the gunwale as if over a horse’s saddle, he drops into the cockpit. The seat, worn from prior missions, conforms to his shape. He tucks the sword beneath his thigh, then clips into the five-point harness.

There are final instructions, last words before commencing a radio silence that will be broken only when he returns. Soga starts the E14’s motor. It is like an animal under his seat, barking itself to life, then growling so roughly that the entire aircraft shudders. He runs down a checklist with navigator Okuda. Heat radiates back from the engine, warmth that will vanish upon takeoff. Soga reaches overhead, yanking the cockpit shield forward and locking it.

With the brakes on full, he nudges the throttle and feels the competing powers under his hands. It resembles the conflict within himself, between valor and apprehension, pride and fear. Okuda has gone silent, alone with his thoughts.

At that moment, the sun rises. Its light crests the trees of the coastline only miles away, fills the seaplane’s cabin, indicates to Soga in which direction his target lies. East. His course is due east.

History, too, waits just over the horizon—but not only the history that will be made on this day. Today Soga is a warrior from a line of warriors, yet he will manifest something even greater in the years to come.

But not yet. September 9, 1942, has dawned. Soga releases the brake, then guns the throttle. The catapult flings the airplane forward, like a seal sliding on wet rocks to the sea. The E14 dips as it reaches the bow, quickly righting itself. Lift pulls the plane upward, gravity holds it back, sea splash yaws it to starboard. The engine strains. Water streaks up the windshield.

Then there is purchase, and momentum. The E14 skips across the tops of the waves. Soga pulls on the yoke, lifting the nose earlier than he would on an airstrip. But the speed proves sufficient. The aircraft clears the water. It rises free of the sub and all that held it back.

The E14 gains loft—fifty meters, one hundred, two hundred. As the nose levels, Soga permits himself a glance under the wings. On each side the fire bombs are tucked snugly beneath, as a man in a hurry would carry loaves of bread.

Okuda calls out coordinates and Soga pilots onto that heading. The ocean falls behind as he crosses the coastline, gaining ground, flying directly over American soil. Everyone below is asleep.

 

CHAPTER 7

WHEN I FINISHED READING,
my mouth was dry. Of course the only drinking water in the room sat lukewarming in Barclay Reed’s bedside jug. The straw, bent at its accordioned elbow, was not exactly tempting.

I closed the binder on my finger to mark the place and studied my patient. He had barely moved while I was reading, just the slow rise and fall of his chest. Generally the Professor was a quiet sleeper, so I wasn’t sure exactly when he had drifted off.

But I was full of questions. Was any of this true? Why had I never heard about Soga before? Above all, how did the story of this bomber from seventy-plus years ago, as the Professor had implied, connect to the struggles Michael was having here and now?

It would all have to keep for another day. Hospitals have rhythms of vital-sign checks, chart reviews, and medication deliveries, which sometimes seem designed to prevent people from getting more than forty minutes of uninterrupted sleep. Hospice works the opposite way. Sleep is too restorative, too comforting. Interventions and conversations and general clinical bother do not justify waking a patient. The only time I will stir a person out of his snooze is in the final days, if a family member has arrived after traveling great distances. Even then, I often argue for delay. Dying can be an exhausting task. People doing that hard work need all the rest we can give. That afternoon I knew: my curiosity would have to wait.

I checked my watch. Melissa would arrive any minute. Normally our agency doesn’t provide round-the-clock care because there are spouses or children standing by to perform nonmedical duties. Someone like me drops by once or twice a day, seeing if everything is as serene as possible, providing moral support, medicines, or a refilled oxygen tank before heading to the next household. On a good day with smart route planning, I can help a dozen or more patients in a single shift.

But when there is no familial support system, no network of concerned neighbors, we do what we can to fill the void. When this happens, usually because the patient has outlived all of her friends, and sometimes because the patient has a difficult personality or lives in a remote place or presents emotional challenges to caregivers, we revert to a basic premise: No one dies alone. If every life has value, so does every death.

That’s why one of the most important pieces of information in the Professor’s profile was his lack of family members. For a time, we would be his family.

The agency definitely lost money on patients like him, but it was not my concern. Problems like that were for the fund-raising department to solve.

I found a blank appointment card in my pocket and tucked it into the pages. Rising noiselessly from my seat, I tiptoed back to his desk, setting the binder in the same corner.

“Not everyone is asleep.”

I jumped. “You startled me, Professor.”

“Soga miscalculated.” Barclay Reed’s hands were folded on his belly. His eyes were wide open. “But predictably. He believes the propaganda about Americans being lazy and overconfident. He has no way of knowing that they are not complete fools.”

“How much of that story is true?”

“Precisely the question I intended to ask you, Nurse Birch.”

“I studied history, I told you. I never heard anything about this.”

“Thus may you rightly ask yourself: Why would a nation that prizes free speech and reveres its military prowess dismiss a tale so historic?”

“I don’t know.” I crossed the room to adjust his blankets. “Because Americans don’t like stories that imply we might be weak?”

“A fair surmise. Indeed, in New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia held a patriotic parade that included a skit with giant yellow rats being driven from the city.”

“Oh, lovely.”

“Yes. Some rats had the word ‘Jap’ painted on them. But as you’ll see in later pages, there is more than bravado in question here, Nurse Birch. This pilot’s conduct will challenge the American warrior ethos in ways our nation has historically shown itself reluctant to contemplate.”

“What do you mean?”

He pointed at the binder. “It commences in only a few pages. Please don’t say I won’t live long enough for you to reach that far.”

“I’m willing to keep reading to you, if that’s what you mean.”

The Professor sniffed. “Fine. Please note that you have evaded the central question, of whether or not you believe this narrative. Nonetheless, I find your answer temporarily satisfactory.”

He reached for his water jug, glommed onto the straw, and took a long noisy draw. He half-closed his eyes at the pleasure of it, as if somehow he knew I was parched. I heard the straw slurp on the empty bottom, then he held the container toward me, rattling it side to side. “Refill, please. Also, in a few minutes I will need a bathroom trip.”

I brought his jug into the kitchen but filled a glass for myself first. While I was drinking, I heard the front door open.

“Hiya, Deb.” Melissa bounded in with her customary athletic glow. “How’s everyone doing today?”

“Pretty good, actually,” I said. “I read to him most of the afternoon.”

“Read to him? Holy cow.” Melissa dug plastic containers from her backpack. “You have the knack with this guy.”

“Hardly. We’re still getting acquainted.”

“Ask Cheryl.” Melissa arranged her dinner tubs inside the fridge. “She and I are lucky to get ten words out of him per shift. And those ten won’t be exactly coated with honey. You, though, you get him.”

“All right, Melissa.” I leaned against the sink and crossed my arms. “What are you up to?”

She closed the fridge door. “He doesn’t have an advance directive.”

“What? How did that happen? The agency isn’t supposed to start services without one.”

“Timmy somehow missed it during intake.” She placed her palms on the counter, angling one leg back to stretch her calf. “And if we are honest, out of his current care team, you are definitely the one to bring it up now.”

“Probably.” I put down my water glass. “Damn. I don’t think this will be an easy one. Who knows what he wants?”

“Nurse Birch,” the Professor bellowed from down the hall. “Where is my water? And I need to go to the john.”

Melissa smiled. “I’d say he wants you.”

“YOUR EVENING STAFFER JUST ARRIVED,”
I said, hurrying to his bedside. “I was catching her up on the day.”

His face was furrowed like a walnut. “Thus our heroine makes her noble escape.”

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” I said, handing him the jug. “You and I have some planning to do. Preparation.”

“Of what kind?”

“Medical. I don’t want us to encounter any surprises. So we’ll be developing a plan for your treatment.”

“What sort of a plan?”

“That’s for us both to find out.”

He interrupted his slurping on the straw. “You are being evasive.”

“Not at all. I’m just being—”

“Evasive.”

No question, the man was a prize. “We’re just done for the day, that’s all.”

He set the water jug on his rolling table. “Thus have you instructed me to plan for some planning.”

A terrier with a rag in his teeth. “None of this is urgent, Professor. And anyway, with Melissa here—”

“You will tell her nothing.”

“Excuse me?”

“The Sword.”
He wagged a finger as though he were scolding me. “Strictly between us. No one else. And definitely not that sports-crazed girl. I hear her doing push-ups when I’m trying to sleep.”

“I doubt that.” I bent to arrange his pillows. And bless that curmudgeon, he leaned forward to make it easier. “But if you insist. Just us.”

“I do. Especially in view of the fact that you haven’t told me whether you believe my book thus far or not.”

I straightened. “Didn’t I?”

“Nurse Birch.” He scowled at me as if I were a used-car salesman, trying to sell him a jalopy.

“Didn’t you say you needed to go to the bathroom?”

“It passed. Now answer me.”

“All right,” I said. “I admit it. I’m not sure. Parts seem true.”

“Such as?”

“The details. Size of the sub, the range of the folded-up plane, that sort of thing. But I can’t sort out if you’re just piling on those facts because it will make the other stuff more believable.”

Rubbing his face, the Professor said nothing.

“Are you smiling at me, behind your hand there?”

He yanked it down and scowled. “Nothing of the kind. I was merely appreciating your skepticism. You mistrust my rhetoric.”

“I’m not sure what you mean. But the writing reminds me of some doctors.”

“In what manner? And would you please close those blasted blinds? Before the sun incapacitates me permanently?”

“Well, it’s like this. Sometimes a baby doesn’t start out right, won’t latch on, doesn’t nurse.” I leaned to the window, taking the blinds’ string in one hand. “The doctors perform all sorts of tests, and sometimes that works and they get the baby well. But there are cases when it doesn’t. The infant worsens, so they double the testing, seeking trend lines, hoping to bend the curves. But all the data can’t hide that they don’t really know what’s going on. And if the infant dies, which is one of the saddest things that happens in a hospital, the diagnosis on the chart will be ‘failure to thrive.’ As if it was the baby’s fault.”

I lowered the blinds. The room felt smaller, but not bleak. More private, protected. “Anyway, that’s what your details do. They’re supposed to convince me, but they might be camouflaging the part that’s made up.”

“Excellent syllogism, Nurse Birch. I can explain one thing, however, before you leave for the day—why those details matter very much.”

I placed the string along the headboard so the Professor could open the blinds later if he chose. “I’m listening.”

“Because they pertain to your husband. They demonstrate that, in order to understand a warrior, first you must understand his weapons.”

“I don’t know what that means.”

“Whether the warrior is Ichiro Soga or your husband, regardless.” The Professor shrugged. “First you must understand his weapons.”

Then, peering into the little basket where I’d collected his remotes, he selected one, pointed it at the television, and turned away from me.

ONCE I CARED FOR AN ALCOHOLIC WOMAN
with children in their early thirties, and in my view every person in that family needed a decade of counseling.

Mona lived in a railroad-style apartment, in a near-shanty, beside a road with constant traffic, and every time I arrived, her yard was full of cars. Sons, daughters, their girlfriends and boyfriends, plus the occasional drinking buddy. She had the deep voice and deeper wrinkles of a lifelong smoker. Mona also had inoperable bone cancer in her sacrum, and the tumor was causing constant pain.

With those situations, the options are lousy: sever the spinal cord, which causes paralysis for the patient’s remaining life, or crank up the morphine, which puts the patient so soundly asleep she never eats again and dies of malnourishment. But Mona’s enterprising doctor had devised an innovative treatment, using a local analgesic method originally designed for short-term recovery from surgeries like hernia repairs and C-sections. It was a sterile pouch, really, nothing more sophisticated than that, with a thin drip line inserted directly into the wound—or in her case, the tumor site. As the medicine oh-so-slowly oozed through, it muted the nerves locally, and Mona remained awake and alert. This little trick had probably bought her three months of life, pain-free.

The problem was the drip line. It was an invitation to infection. Any moisture, even an innocent drop of sweat, was perilous. My job was to make a house call at the beginning and end of each shift to sterilize the line and refill the pouch.

Medically, it was nothing. Ten minutes. Yet after four or five days I found myself dreading the stops at Mona’s house. In the evening, there were always people out on the porch, drinking, often straight from the bottle. They would stop talking the moment I closed my car door. Although the men didn’t bother to hide checking me out, no one greeted me, even if I said hello. Instead they made a cloud of cigarette smoke so thick I had to hold my breath as I passed through. I felt the heat of their stares and sometimes heard a muttered wisecrack and snickering after I had gone inside.

Morning visits weren’t much better. There would be fresh trash on the lawn, cigarette butts in the sink, someone snoring on the couch under a threadbare blanket.

It wasn’t the poverty. I have cared for plenty of people with no money. Some have been my favorite clients, in fact, because they showed appreciation and dignity despite severe material want—and it was humbling. I remember watching a woman eat cereal from a chipped and dirty bowl, for instance, and arriving home that night feeling pretty meek about the breakfast dishes I’d left in the sink.

And of course there was Ryan. On my first visit to his apartment, the man did not have a bed. Just blankets on the floor, a flattened pillow at one end. I arranged for the agency to provide a hospital bed and linens, then cut loose some cash so he could afford to heat his place to a reasonable temperature.

BOOK: The Hummingbird
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