You’d spin the propeller around faster and faster until the rubber band twisted and tightened in torturous knots. Too much and the band would snap in classic childhood disappointment. If the band held, there was the careful shifting of fingers to pinch the balsa fuselage while keeping the propeller pinioned. If you weren’t deft, that red plastic propeller would put a stinging crease in your finger,
Plane held aloft, you’d turn to find the headwind and debate how to avoid a deflating stall. The urge to launch ultimately overcoming indecision.
You’d rear back and thrust with what you believed was the right might, releasing the propeller, watching it zip round, hoping a part of you would fly off with the little balsa plane that cost a quarter.
Trajectory unknown. Never a safe landing. But a moment in the heavens. Flight.
A blip on the screen. A flash unseen, unheard. Heads and limbs scattered a half a world away. Hausmann leaned back in his chair. Stimson slapped his console. “Got ‘em, Hoss! Boffed ‘em bad.”
“Do we have PID?” Hausmann asked into his mic, ignoring Stimson, the sensor operator.
Restless moments passed before the speakers crackled. “Positive identification. Target termination. No friendlies. Thanks for the help, Oasis.”
Stimson stood up and smiled broadly at Hausmann, “That’s what I’m talking about. Give us an IR signature and we’ll give you a bullseye. Dead on, my man.”
Hausmann nodded. That was all he ever did with a confirmed kill. A nod. He swiveled his chair away from Stimson who was already off slapping backs with the other officers on the so called flight deck. Because of the relay delay to the strike zone, Hausmann had plenty of time to consider his last kill as he followed up with the corpsman who’d called in the strike. It would all go into his report. A few pages that he’d submit to the base commander before he drove home—twenty minutes away.
Ray Hausmann loved flying. He didn’t exactly feel the same way about killing. Where he spent his days at Creech AFB in Indian Springs, it was hard to tell if he was really doing either.
Flying Predator and Reaper UAVs was like playing a video game, and so was killing the enemy. Unfortunately, the bad guys in the real world were a lot harder to discern. That was a problem. It was easy to site a laser-target marker on an unfriendly; the hard part was determining who actually deserved a guided missile down their throat.
Even if most targets in the call down were hostile, it was too often friendlies and collaterals who unexpectedly felt the long, unforgiving reach of America’s might descend upon them from on high. Hausmann knew the same thing happened in ground battles. Mistakes occurred in the heat of the fight. Innocents perished. War was messy.
The messier the better, Hausmann had begun to think. That’s what really began to get under his skin, like an unnoticed tick slowly gorging itself. His conscience became bloated by a hidden shame. The job of war had become too easy. Too convenient. Killing folks half a world away and then driving home to the suburbs to barbecue, have a beer and watch America’s Got Talent felt increasingly wrong.
He’d begun to feel like a thief. Stealing away unknown lives and, in the process, losing his identity.
Cameron greeted his dad in the driveway. “Get any bad guys today?” The ten-year-old looked expectant, cupping a soccer ball in one hand and a half chewed energy bar in the other.
Hausmann nodded. It was all he could ever do. To Cameron, his work was just like playing Call of Duty. In most ways, that’s how he preferred his son to think about it. Black and white. Heroic.
“You off to practice?” he asked. Cameron nodded. Hausmann smiled. “I’ll change and walk down to the field to watch for a bit.”
Cameron shot a toothy grin back. “Great. See you there, Dad.” He dropped the ball and started kicking it casually down the wide street past ever-so-green lawns towards the play fields a half mile away.
Hausmann opened the screen door and his daughter Mandy was at his side in a split second, her arms outstretched, waiting to be picked up. Hausmann obliged. Mandy pecked him on the cheek. “Hi Daddy. I just helped Mommy bake cookies. They’re in the kitchen.”
“Let’s go see, princess.” He carried his six-year-old daughter into the kitchen which looked more like a battlefield than anything he’d ever see on the “flight deck” back on the base. Bowls and cookie sheets were strewn across the counters. The mixer and its surroundings were coated in a fine layer of flour. Egg shell flak rimmed the sink, oozing gelatinously. The cookies, though, sat neatly in rows on a cooling rack. He bent to let Mandy pick one up for him. She chose a big one and held it up to his lips.
“You bet,” he said with a smile and took a bite. “Supercalifragi-delicious.”
Mandy giggled and took a bite too.
Down the hallway came the sound of a toilet flushing. A few moments later, Jean Hausmann appeared in the kitchen holding their nine-month old, Bridgette. “Hey, hon. I see you’re already sampling the fruits of our labor.”
Upon seeing her daddy, Bridgette reached her arms out to him. Hausmann shifted Mandy onto one hip and held out his free arm for the baby. Mandy held the cookie away from her sister whose attention quickly shifted from her father to the all-important sweet thing.
“No, Bee-Gee,” Mandy chided, as Bridgette’s chunky hands opened and closed expectantly in the direction of the cookie her older sister guarded.
“You can give her a little little piece, Mandykins,” her mom suggested.
Mandy broke off a small chunk and placed it in her sister’s grasp while Ray took a step towards his wife and gave her a kiss. “My peace keeper.”
Jean laughed as she motioned to the mess around them. “Not much of a housekeeper, though.”
“Actually,” his wife suggested, “if you can entertain the girls for a half hour or so, I can get this under control.”
“Sure. I’ll take them down to Cameron’s practice and barbecue when we get back.”
“Perfect,” she said as she guided them from the kitchen.
There was not a cloud in the sky as he pushed Bridgette in the stroller and Mandy rode beside him on her purple bike with silver streamers sprouting from the handlebar grips. Sprinklers whirred and clattered away on the neat lawns on either side of the wide street. Mandy hummed a tune, riding a dozen or so yards ahead and then circling back to the stroller. Bridgette looked up alertly at her father, her eyes darting to Mandy every time she rode close.
As they approached the playfields, Hausmann began to hear the chatter and whistles of various soccer practices. He guided the stroller onto the broad path that led to the playfields and skirted a large expanse of scrubland that was in the process of being bulldozed for imminent development. In the newly leveled distance, Hausmann could make out a group of kids huddled, their bikes strewn around them. They seemed very intent on whatever it was they were doing.
Hausmann was curious for a moment, but then the path steered them into the heart of the soccer fields where gaggles of parents stood watching practices. Hausmann parked the stroller. Mandy set her bike next to it. He picked up Bridgette and took Mandy’s hand.
With other parents standing around him, they watched Cameron practice as the sun dipped in the true-blue Nevada sky and the temperature cooled comfortably. Ray Hausmann. Family man. He could almost forget that he killed for a living.
The sound came on quickly. His nine-month-old on his shoulder, Hausmann turned instinctively. A dark object was hurtling through the evening air, its rotors whining ominously fast. Hausmann crouched low and cradled Bridgette with one arm. With the other he pulled Mandy down next to him.
“Incoming!” he hollered and braced himself.
The explosion was merciless.
Momentarily shaken, Hausmann stood up from his protective stance and checked on his girls. Mandy was looking at him questionly. Bridgette was smiling at what she thought was play.
A few of the adults nearby were chuckling. Some watched Hausmann cautiously, maybe nervously.
For a split second, Hausmann was furious and then he heard the high-pitched whining noise again. He grew embarrassed as he tracked the sound. It was a cheap quad-copter. The cluster of kids Hausmann had noticed earlier in the cleared construction area were doing loops with their toy drone nearby. They hadn’t buzzed him and his girls. He had just overreacted to the sight and sound of it flying near them.
Apologetically, he smiled at the adults around him. “Don’t mind me,” he joked. “I’ve been spending a little too much time on base.” They smiled back, some still cautiously, but the base they knew. These times could make anyone jumpy.
Hausmann patted Bridgette’s back and mussed Mandy’s hair. They smiled and quickly became themselves again. Hausmann wasn’t so lucky. He knew about unmanned aerial vehicles. The damage they could inflict. Now, he understood their real power. Fear. Out of a clear blue sky.
From the corner of his eye, he watched the kids in the construction site playing with their toy UAV. Harmless fun. Would they end up at the base on the “flight deck”? Would they begin to fear a clear blue sky?
What was his duty now?
As he walked back in the quiet, cool evening with his two daughters and son to their quiet suburban home, Hausmann was reminded of a saying he’d heard while in flight school: Show me a man with family and a mortgage, and I’ll show you a coward.
Was he a coward?
At the front door, he ushered his family into the house, kissed his wife and went out back to fire up the grill. For a few moments, he stood examining the deepening sky, stars and aircraft lights dotting the sky.
A coward? He had a mortgage and a family he loved. A family he was sworn to protect. And a country.
As the sky darkened around him, Hausmann knew his duty. He’d determine the right trajectory. The necessary target.
He held himself tall. Soldier. Pilot. Husband. Father. Citizen. A moral agent. One man—armed and autonomous.
His spirit took flight.