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Here is Chet Kinsman again. This is the last short story I wrote about him. Paradoxically enough, it depicts a key event at the very beginning of his adult life, when he was (is?) eighteen years old.


From the rear seat of the T-38 jet, San Francisco Bay was a sun-glittering mirror set among the brown California hills. Fog was still swirling around the stately towers of the Golden Gate Bridge, but the rest of the Bay was clear and brilliant, the late morning sky brazen, the city on the hills far enough below them so that it looked shining white and clean.

“Like it?” asked the pilot.

Chet Kinsman heard his voice as a disembodied crackle in his helmet earphones over the shrill whine of the turbojet engines.

“Love it!” he answered to the bulbous white helmet in the seat in front of him.

The cockpit was narrow and cramped; Kinsman could barely move in his seat without bumping his own helmet into the plexiglass canopy that covered them both. The straps of his safety harness cut into his shoulders. He had tugged the harness on too tightly. But he felt no discomfort.

This is flying! he said to himself. Five hundred knots at the touch of a throttle.

“How high can we go?” he asked into his helmet microphone.

A pause. Then, “Oh, she’ll do fifty thousand feet easy enough.”

Kinsman grinned. “A lot better than hang gliders.”

“I like hang gliding,” the pilot said.

“Yeah, but it doesn’t compare to this. This is power, man.”

“Right enough.”

It had been a disappointing week. Kinsman had flown to California on impulse. Life at the Air Force Academy was rigid, cold, and a first-year man was expected to obey everyone’s orders rather than make friends. So when the first week-long break in the semester came, he dashed to La Jolla with his roommate.

While his fellow cadet was engulfed by his family, Kinsman wandered alone through the beautiful but friendless La Jolla area. His own family was a continent away and would have no part of a son of theirs stooping to the military life, no matter what his reason. Finally Kinsman rented a car and drove north along the spectacular coast highway, up into the Bay area. Alone.

Then on Friday night, at a topless bar in North Beach, where he had to wear his uniform to avoid the hassle of I.D. checks, he bumped into a Navy flier in the midst of the naked dancers and their bouncing, jiggling breasts.

Now he was flying. And happy.

Suddenly the plane’s nose dropped, and Kinsman’s stomach disappeared somewhere over his right shoulder. The pilot rolled the plane, wingtips making full circles in the empty air, as they dived toward the water—which now looked hard as steel. Kinsman swallowed hard and felt his pulse racing in every part of his body.

“Try a low-level run. Get a real sensation of speed,” the pilot said.

Kinsman nodded, then realized he couldn’t be seen. “Okay. Great.”

In less than a minute they were skimming across the water, engines howling, going so fast that Kinsman could not see individual waves on the choppy Bay, only a blur of blue-gray whizzing just below them. The roar of the engines filled his helmet and the whole plane was shaking, bucking, as if eager to get back up into the thinner air where it was designed to fly.

He thought he saw the International Airport along the blur of hills and buildings off to his left. He knew the Bay Bridge was somewhere up ahead.

“Whoops! Freighter!”

The control stick between Kinsman’s knees yanked back toward his crotch. The plane stood on her tail, afterburners screaming, and a microsecond’s flicker of a ship’s masts zipped past the corner of his eye. He felt the weight of death pressing on his chest, flattening him into the contoured seat, turning it into an invalid’s couch. He couldn’t lift his arms from his lap or even cry out. It was enough to try to breathe.

They leveled off at last, and Kinsman sucked in a great sighing gulp of oxygen.

“Damned sun glare does that sometimes,” the pilot was saying, sounding half-annoyed and half-apologetic. “Damned water looks clear, but there’s a whole friggin’ fleet hidden by the glare off the water. That’s why I’d rather fly under a high overcast—over water, anyway.”

“That was a helluva ride,” Kinsman said at last.

The pilot chuckled. “I’ll bet there’s some damned pissed sailors down there. Probably on the horn now, trying to get our tail number.”

They headed back to Moffett Field. The pilot let Kinsman take the controls for a few minutes, directing him toward the Navy base where the airfield and the NASA research station were.

“You got a nice steady touch, kid. Make a good pilot.”

“Thanks. I used to fly my father’s plane. Even the business jet, once.”

“Got your license?”

“Not yet. I figure I’ll qualify at the Academy.”

The pilot said nothing.

“I’m going in for astronaut training as soon as I qualify,” Kinsman went on.

“Astronaut, huh? Well, I’d rather fly a plane. Damned astronauts are like robots. Everything’s done by remote control for those rocket jockeys.”

“Not everything,” Kinsman said.

He could sense the pilot shaking his head in disagreement. “Hell, I’ll bet they have machines to do their screwing for them.”

They called it a coffee shop, but the bar served mainly liquor. Irish coffee is what they mean, Kinsman told himself as he hunched over a cold beer and listened to the girl with the guitar singing.

“Jack of diamonds, queen of spades,

Fingers tremble and the memory fades,

And it’s a foolish man who tries to bluff the dealer.”

Through the coffee shop’s big front window, Kinsman could see the evening shadows settling over the Berkeley streets. Students, loungers, street people eased along the sidewalks, most of them looking shabby in denims and faded Army fatigues. Kinsman felt out of place in his sky-blue uniform; he had worn it to the Navy base to help get past the security guards for his meeting with the pilot.

But now as he sat in the coffee shop and watched the night come across the clapboard buildings, and the lights on the Bay Bridge form a twinkling arch that led back to San Francisco, he was just as alone as he had been at the Academy, or back home, or all week long here in California, except for that one hour’s flight in the jet.

“You can’t win,

And you can’t break even,

You can’t get out of the game . . .”

She has a lovely voice, all right, he realized. Like a silver bell. Like water in the desert.

It was a haunting voice. And her face, framed by long midnight-black hair, had a fine-boned dark-eyed ascetic look to go with it. She sat on a high stool, under a lone spotlight, blue-jeaned legs crossed and guitar resting on one knee.

As Kinsman was trying to work up the nerve to introduce himself to her and tell her how much he enjoyed her singing, a dozen kids his own age shambled into the place. The singer, just finished her song, smiled and called to them. They bustled around her.

Kinsman turned his attention to his beer. By the time he had finished it, the students had pushed several tables together and were noisily ordering everything from Sacred Cows to Diet 7-Up. The singer had disappeared. It was full night outside now.

“You alone?”

He looked up, startled, and it was her. The singer.

“Uh…yeah.” Clumsily he pushed the chair back and got to his feet.

“Why don’t you come over and join us?” She gestured toward the crowd of students.

“Sure. Great. Love to.”

She was tall enough to be almost eye level with Kinsman, and as slim and supple as a young willow. She wore a black long-sleeved turtleneck pullover atop the faded denims.

“Hey, everybody, this is . . .” She turned to him with an expectant little smile. All the others stopped their conversation and looked up at him.

“Kinsman,” he said. “Chet Kinsman.”

Two chairs appeared out of the crowd, and Kinsman sat down between the singer and a chubby blonde girl who was intently rolling a joint for herself.

Kinsman felt out of place. They were all staring at him, except for the rapt blonde, without saying a word. Wrong uniform, he told himself. He might as well have been wearing a Chicago policeman’s riot suit.

“My name’s Diane,” the singer said to him, as the bar’s only waitress placed a fresh beer in front of him.

“That’s Shin, John, Carl, Eddie, Delores . . .” She made a circuit of the table and Kinsman forgot the names as soon as he heard them. Except for Diane’s.

They were still eying him suspiciously.

“You with the National Guard?”

“No,” Kinsman said. “Air Force Academy.”

“Going to be a flyboy?”

“A flying pig!” said the blonde on his left.

Kinsman stared at her. “I’m going in for astronaut training.”

“An orbiting pig,” she muttered.

“That’s a stupid thing to say.”

“She’s upset,” Diane told him. “We’re all on edge after what happened at Kent State today.”

“Kent State?”

“You haven’t heard?” It was an accusation.

“No. I was flying this afternoon and—”

“They gunned down a dozen students.”

“The National Fuckin’ Guard.”

“Killed them!”


“At Kent State. In Ohio.”

“The students were demonstrating against the Cambodian invasion and the National Guard marched onto the campus and shot them down.”

“Christ, don’t they let you see the newspapers?”

“Or TV, even?”

Kinsman shook his head weakly. It was like they were blaming him for it.

“We’ll show them, those friggin’ bastards!” said an intense, waspish little guy sitting a few chairs down from Kinsman. Eddie? he tried to remember. The guy was frail-looking, but his face was set in a smoldering angry mold, tight-lipped. The thick glasses he wore made his eyes look huge and fierce.

“Right on,” said the group’s one black member. “We gonna tear the campus apart.”

“How’s that going to help things in Cambodia?” Kinsman heard his own voice asking. “Or in Kent State?”

“How’s it gonna help?” They looked aghast at his blasphemy.

“Yeah,” Kinsman answered, wanting to bounce some of their hostility back at them. “You guys tear up the campus. Big deal, what do you accomplish? Maybe the National Guard shoots you. You think Nixon or anybody else in Washington will give a damn? They’ll just call you a bunch of Commies and tell everyone we’ve got to fight harder over in ‘Nam because the whole country’s full of subversives.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Eddie said.

“Neither does ripping up the campus.”

“But you don’t understand,” Diane said. “We’ve got to do something. We can’t let them kill students and draft us into a war we never declared. We’ve got to show them that we’ll fight against them!”

“I’d go after my Congressmen and Senators and tell them to get us out of Vietnam.”

They laughed at him. All but Eddie, who looked angrier still.

“You don’t understand anything about how the political process works, do you?” Eddie accused.

Now I’ve got you! “Well,” Kinsman answered, “an uncle of mine is a U.S. Senator. My grandfather was Governor of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. And a cousin is in the House of Representatives. I’ve been involved in political campaigns since I was old enough to hold a poster.”

Silence. As if a leper had entered their midst.

“Jesus Christ,” said one of the kids at last. “He’s with the Establishment.”

“Your kind of politics,” Diane said to him, “doesn’t work for us. The Establishment won’t listen to us.”

“We’ve got to fight for our rights.”


“Fight fire with fire!”


“Bullshit,” Kinsman snapped. “All you’re going to do is give the cops an excuse to bash your heads in—or worse.”

The night, and the argument, wore on. They swore at each other, drank, smoked, talked until they started to get hoarse. Diane had to get up and sing for the other customers every hour, but each time she finished she came back and sat beside Kinsman.

And still the battle raged. The bar finally closed and Kinsman found that his legs had turned rubbery. But he went with them along the dark Berkeley streets to someone’s one-room pad, four flights up the back stairs of a dark old house, yammering all the way, arguing with them all, one against ten. And Diane was beside him.

They started drifting away from the apartment. Kinsman found himself sitting on the bare wooden floor, halfway between the stained kitchen sink and the new-looking waterbed, telling them: “Look, I don’t like it any more than you do. But violence is their game. You  can’t win that way. Blow up the whole damned campus, and they’ll blow up the whole damned city to get even with you.”

One of the students, a burly shouldered kid with a big beefy face and tiny squinting eyes, was sitting on the floor in front of Kinsman.

“You know your trouble flyboy? You’re chicken.” Kinsman shrugged at him and looked around the floor for the can of beer he had been working on.

“You hear me? You’re all talk. But you’re scared to fight for your rights.”

Kinsman looked up and saw that Diane, the blonde girl, and two of the guys were the only ones left in the room.

“I’ll fight for my rights,” Kinsman said, very carefully because his tongue wasn’t always obeying his thoughts. “And I’ll fight for your rights, too. But not in any stupid-ass way.”

“You callin’ me stupid?” The guy got to his feet. A weight lifter, Kinsman told himself. And he’s going to show off his muscles on me.

“I don’t know you well enough to call you anything,” he said.

“Well I’m callin’ you chicken. A gutless motherfuckin’ coward.”

Slowly Kinsman got to his feet. It helped to have the wall behind him to lean against.

“I take that, sir, to be a challenge to my honor,” he said, letting himself sound drunk. It took very little effort.

“Goddam’ right it’s a challenge. You must be some goddam’ pig—secret police or something.”

“That’s why I’m wearing this inconspicuous uniform.”

“To throw us off guard.”

“Don’t be silly.”

“I’m gonna break your head, wise-ass.”

Kinsman raised one finger. “Now hold on. You challenged me. I get the choice of weapons. That’s the way it works in the good ol’ code duello.’’

“Choice of weapons?” The guy looked confused.

“You challenged me to a duel, didn’t you? You have impeached my honor. I have the right to choose the weapons.”

The guy made a fist the size of a football. “This is all the weapon I need.”

“But that’s not the weapon I choose,” Kinsman countered. “I believe that I’ll choose sabers. I won a few medals back East with my saber fencing. Now where can we find a pair of sabers at this hour of the morning . . .”

The guy grabbed Kinsman’s shirt. “I’m gonna knock that fuckin’ grin off your face.”

“You probably will. But not before I kick your kneecaps off. You’ll never see the inside of a gym again, muscleman.”

“That’s enough, both of you,” Diane snapped.

She stepped between the two of them, forcing the big student to let go of Kinsman.

“You’d better get back to your place, Ray,” she said, her voice iron hard. “You’re not going to break up my pad and get me thrown out on the street.”

Ray pointed a thick, blunt finger at Kinsman. “He’s a narc. Or something. Don’t trust him.”

“Go home, Ray. It’s late.”

“I’ll get you, blue-suit,” Ray said.

“I’ll get you.” Kinsman said, “When you find the sabers, let me know.”

“Shut up!” Diane hissed at him. But she was grinning. She half pushed the lumbering Ray out of the door.

The others left right after him, and suddenly Kinsman was alone with Diane.

“I guess I ought to get back to my hotel,” Kinsman said, his insides shaking now that the danger had passed.

“Where’s that?”

“The Stanhope…in the city.”

“God, you are Establishment!”

“Born with a silver spoon in my ear. To the manner born. Rich or poor, it pays to have money. Let ’em eat cake. Or was it coke?”

“You’re drunk!”

“How can you tell?”

“Well, for one thing, your feet are standing in one place, but the rest of you is swaying like a tree in the breeze.”

“I am drunk with your beauty…and a ton and a half of beer.”

Diane laughed. “I can believe the second one.”

Looking around for a phone, Kinsman asked, “How do you get a cab around here?”

“You won’t. Not at this hour. No trains, either.”

“I’m stuck here?”

She nodded.

“A fate worse than death.” Kinsman saw that the room’s furnishings consisted of a bookshelf crammed with sheet music, the waterbed, a Formica-topped table and two battered wooden chairs that didn’t match, the waterbed, a pile of books in one corner of the floor, a few pillows strewn around here and there, and the waterbed.

“You can share the bed with me,” Diane said.

He felt his face turning red. “Are your intentions honorable?”

She grinned at him. “The condition you’re in, we’ll both be safe enough.”

“Don’t be too sure.”

But he fell asleep as soon as he sank into the soft warmth of the bed.

It was sometime during the misty, dreaming light of earliest dawn that he half awoke and felt her body cupped next to his. Still half in sleep, they moved together, slowly, gently, unhurried, alone in a pearly gray fog, feeling without thinking, caressing, making love.

Kinsman lay on his back, smiling dazedly at the cracked ceiling.

“Was that your first time?” Diane asked. Her head was resting on his chest.

He suddenly felt embarrassed. “Well, uh, yeah…it was.”

She stroked the flat of his abdomen.

Awkwardly, he said, “I guess I was pretty clumsy, wasn’t I?”

“Oh no. You were fine”

“You don’t have to humor me.”

“I’m not. It was marvelous. Terrific.”

It wasn’t your first time, he knew. But he said nothing.

“Go to sleep,” Diane said. “Get some rest and we can do it again.”

It was almost noon by the time Kinsman had showered in the cracked tub and gotten back into his wrinkled uniform. He was looking into the still-steamy bathroom mirror, wondering what to do about his stubby chin, when Diane called through the half-open door: “Tea or coffee?”


Kinsman came out of the tiny bathroom and saw that she had set up toast and a jar of Smuckers grape jelly on the table by the window. A teakettle was on the two-burner stove, with a pair of chipped mugs and a jar of instant coffee alongside.

They sat facing each other, washing down the crunchy toast with the hot, strong coffee. Diane watched the people moving along the street below them. Kinsman stared at the clean sky.

“How long can you stay?” she asked.

“I’ve got a date with this guy to go flying this afternoon. Then I leave tonight.”


“Got to report back to the Academy tomorrow morning.”

“You have to.”

He nodded. “Wish I didn’t.”

She gave him a so do I look. “But you’re free this afternoon?”

“I’m supposed to meet this Navy guy; he’s going to take me up with him.”

“Come down to the campus with me instead,” Diane said, brightening. “The demonstration will be starting around two and you can help us.”


“Sure! You’re not going to let them get away with it, are you? They’ll be sending you to Cambodia or someplace to get killed.”

“Yeah, maybe, but—”

She reached across the table and took his free hand in both of hers. “Chet…please. Not for me. Do it for yourself. I don’t want to think of you being sent out there to fight a war we shouldn’t be fighting. Don’t let them turn you into a robot.”

“But I’m going into astronaut training.”

“You don’t believe they’ll give you what you want, do you? They’ll use you for cannon fodder, just like all the others.”

“You don’t understand.”

“No, you don’t understand!” she said earnestly. Kinsman saw the intensity in her eyes, the devotion. Is she really worried that much about me?

“We’ve got to stop them, Chet. We’ve got to use every ounce of courage we can muster to stop this war and stop the killing.”

“Tearing up the campus isn’t going to do it.”

“I know that. This is going to be a peaceful demonstration. It’s the pigs that start the violence.”

He shook his head.

“Come and see, if you don’t believe me! Come with me.”

“In my uniform? Your friends would trash me.”

“No they won’t. It’d make a terrific impact for somebody in uniform to show up with us. We’ve been trying to get some of the Vietnam veterans to show themselves in uniform.”

“I can’t,” Kinsman said. “I’ve got a date with a guy to go flying this afternoon.”

“That’s more important than freedom? More important than justice?”

He had no answer.

“Chet…please. For me. If you don’t want to do it for yourself, or for the people, then do it for me. Please.”

He looked away from her and glanced around the shabby, unkempt room. At the stained, cracked sink. The faded wooden floor. The unframed posters scotch-taped to the walls. The waterbed, with its soiled sheet trailing onto the floor.

He thought of the Academy. The cold gray mountains and ranks of uniforms marching mechanically across the frozen parade ground. The starkly functional classrooms, the remorsely efficient architecture devoid of all individual expression.

And then he turned back, looked past the woman across the table from him, and saw the sky once again.

“I can’t go with you,” he said quietly, finally. “Somebody’s got to make sure you don’t get bombed while you’re out there demonstrating for your rights.”

For a moment Diane said nothing. Then, “You’re trying to make a joke out of something that’s deadly serious.”

“I’m being serious,” he said. “You’ll have plenty of demonstrators out there. Somebody’s got to protect and defend you while you’re exercising your freedoms.”

“It’s our own government we need protection from!”

“You’ve got it. You just have to exercise it a little better. I’d rather be flying. There aren’t so many of us up there.”

Diane shook her head. “You’re hopeless.”

He shrugged.

“I was going to offer to let you stay here…if you wanted to quit the Air Force.”


“If you needed a place to hide…or you just wanted to stay here, with me.”

He started to answer, but his mouth was dry. He swallowed, then in a voice that almost cracked, “I can’t. I…I’m sorry, Diane, but I just can’t.” He pushed his chair back and got to his feet.

At the door, he turned back toward her. She was at the table still. “Sorry I disappointed you. And, well, thanks…for everything.”

She got up, walked swiftly across the tiny room to him, and kissed him lightly on the lips.

“It was my pleasure, General.”

“Lieutenant,” he quickly corrected. “I’ll be a lieutenant when I graduate.”

“You’ll be a general someday.”

“I don’t think so.”

“You could have been a hero today,” she said.

“I’m not very heroic.”

“Yes you are.” She was smiling at him now. “You just don’t know it yet.”

That afternoon, forty thousand feet over the Sacramento Valley, feeling clean and free and swift, Kinsman wondered briefly if he had made the right choice.

“Sir?” he asked into his helmet microphone. “Do you really think astronaut training turns men into robots?”

The man’s chuckle told him the answer. “Son, any kind of training is aimed at turning you into a robot. Just don’t let ’em get away with it. The main thing is to get up and fly. Up here they can’t really touch us. Up here we’re free.”

“They’re pretty strict over at the Academy,” Kinsman said. “They like things done their way.”

“Tell me about it. I’m an Annapolis man, myself. You can still hold onto your own soul, boy. You have to do things their way on the outside, but you be your own man inside. Isn’t easy, but it can be done.”

Nodding to himself, Kinsman looked up and through the plane’s clear plastic canopy. He caught sight of a pale ghost of the Moon, riding high in the afternoon sky.

I can do it, he said to himself. I can do it.

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