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Major—De Coverley

   Moving the bomb line did not fool the Germans, but it did fool Major—de Coverley, who packed his musette bag, commandeered an airplane and, under the impression that Florence too had been captured by the Allies, had himself flown to that city to rent two apartments for the officers and the enlisted men in the squadron to use on rest leaves. He had still not returned by the time Yossarian jumped back outside Major Major’s office and wondered whom to appeal to next for help.

   Major—de Coverley was a splendid, awe-inspiring, grave old man with a massive leonine head and an angry shock of wild white hair that raged like a blizzard around his stern, patriarchal face. His duties as squadron executive officer did consist entirely, as both Doc Daneeka and Major Major had conjectured, of pitching horseshoes, kidnaping Italian laborers, and renting apartments for the enlisted men and officers to use on rest leaves, and he excelled at all three.

   Each time the fall of a city like Naples, Rome or Florence seemed imminent, Major—de Coverley would pack his musette bag, commandeer an airplane and a pilot, and have himself flown away, accomplishing all this without uttering a word, by the sheer force of his solemn, domineering visage and the peremptory gestures of his wrinkled finger. A day or two after the city fell, he would be back with leases on two large and luxurious apartments there, one for the officers and one for the enlisted men, both already staffed with competent, jolly cooks and maids. A few days after that, newspapers would appear throughout the world with photographs of the first American soldiers bludgeoning their way into the shattered city through rubble and smoke. Inevitably, Major—de Coverley was among them, seated straight as a ramrod in a jeep he had obtained from somewhere, glancing neither right nor left as the artillery fire burst about his invincible head and lithe young infantrymen with carbines went loping up along the sidewalks in the shelter of burning buildings or fell dead in doorways. He seemed eternally indestructible as he sat there surrounded by danger, his features molded firmly into that same fierce, regal, just and forbidding countenance which was recognized and revered by every man in the squadron.

   To German intelligence, Major—de Coverley was a vexatious enigma; not one of the hundreds of American prisoners would ever supply any concrete information about the elderly white-haired officer with the gnarled and menacing brow and blazing, powerful eyes who seemed to spearhead every important advance so fearlessly and successfully. To American authorities his identity was equally perplexing; a whole regiment of crack C.I.D. men had been thrown into the front lines to find out who he was, while a battalion of combat-hardened public-relations officers stood on red alert twenty-four hours a day with orders to begin publicizing him the moment he was located.

   In Rome, Major—de Coverley had outdone himself with the apartments. For the officers, who arrived in groups of four or five, there was an immense double room for each in a new white stone building, with three spacious bathrooms with walls of shimmering aquamarine tile and one skinny maid named Michaela who tittered at everything and kept the apartment in spotless order. On the landing below lived the obsequious owners. On the landing above lived the beautiful rich black-haired Countess and her beautiful, rich black-haired daughter-in-law, both of whom would put out only for Nately, who was too shy to want them, and for Aarfy, who was too stuffy to take them and tried to dissuade them from ever putting out for anyone but their husbands, who had chosen to remain in the north with the family’s business interests.

   ‘They’re really a couple of good kids,’ Aarfy confided earnestly to Yossarian, whose recurring dream it was to have the nude milk-white female bodies of both these beautiful rich black-haired good kids lying stretched out in bed erotically with him at the same time.

   The enlisted men descended upon Rome in gangs of twelve or more with Gargantuan appetites and heavy crates filled with canned food for the women to cook and serve to them in the dining room of their own apartment on the sixth floor of a red brick building with a clinking elevator. There was always more activity at the enlisted men’s place. There were always more enlisted men, to begin with, and more women to cook and serve and sweep and scrub, and then there were always the gay and silly sensual young girls that Yossarian had found and brought there and those that the sleepy enlisted men returning to Pianosa after their exhausting seven-day debauch had brought there on their own and were leaving behind for whoever wanted them next. The girls had shelter and food for as long as they wanted to stay. All they had to do in return was hump any of the men who asked them to, which seemed to make everything just about perfect for them.

   Every fourth day or so Hungry Joe came crashing in like a man in torment, hoarse, wild, and frenetic, if he had been unlucky enough to finish his missions again and was flying the courier ship. Most times he slept at the enlisted men’s apartment. Nobody was certain how many rooms Major—de Coverley had rented, not even the stout black-bodiced woman in corsets on the first floor from whom he had rented them. They covered the whole top floor, and Yossarian knew they extended down to the fifth floor as well, for it was in Snowden’s room on the fifth floor that he had finally found the maid in the lime-colored panties with a dust mop the day after Bologna, after Hungry Joe had discovered him in bed with Luciana at the officers’ apartment that same morning and had gone running like a fiend for his camera.

   The maid in the lime-colored panties was a cheerful, fat, obliging woman in her mid-thirties with squashy thighs and swaying hams in lime-colored panties that she was always rolling off for any man who wanted her. She had a plain broad face and was the most virtuous woman alive: she laid for everybody, regardless of race, creed, color or place of national origin, donating herself sociably as an act of hospitality, procrastinating not even for the moment it might take to discard the cloth or broom or dust mop she was clutching at the time she was grabbed. Her allure stemmed from her accessibility; like Mt. Everest, she was there, and the men climbed on top of her each time they felt the urge. Yossarian was in love with the maid in the lime-colored panties because she seemed to be the only woman left he could make love to without falling in love with. Even the bald-headed girl in Sicily still evoked in him strong sensations of pity, tenderness and regret.

   Despite the multiple perils to which Major—de Coverley exposed himself each time he rented apartments, his only injury had occurred, ironically enough, while he was leading the triumphal procession into the open city of Rome, where he was wounded in the eye by a flower fired at him from close range by a seedy, cackling, intoxicated old man, who, like Satan himself, had then bounded up on Major—de Coverley’s car with malicious glee, seized him roughly and contemptuously by his venerable white head and kissed him mockingly on each cheek with a mouth reeking with sour fumes of wine, cheese and garlic, before dropping back into the joyous celebrating throngs with a hollow, dry, excoriating laugh. Major—de Coverley, a Spartan in adversity, did not flinch once throughout the whole hideous ordeal. And not until he had returned to Pianosa, his business in Rome completed, did he seek medical attention for his wound.

   He resolved to remain binocular and specified to Doc Daneeka that his eye patch be transparent so that he could continue pitching horseshoes, kidnaping Italian laborers and renting apartments with unimpaired vision. To the men in the squadron, Major—de Coverley was a colossus, although they never dared tell him so. The only one who ever did dare address him was Milo Minderbinder, who approached the horseshoe-pitching pit with a hard-boiled egg his second week in the squadron and held it aloft for Major—de Coverley to see. Major—de Coverley straightened with astonishment at Milo’s effrontery and concentrated upon him the full fury of his storming countenance with its rugged overhang of gullied forehead and huge crag of a humpbacked nose that came charging out of his face wrathfully like a Big Ten fullback. Milo stood his ground, taking shelter behind the hard-boiled egg raised protectively before his face like a magic charm. In time the gale began to subside, and the danger passed.

   ‘What is that?’ Major—de Coverley demanded at last.

   ‘An egg,’ Milo answered ‘What kind of an egg?’ Major—de Coverley demanded.

   ‘A hard-boiled egg,’ Milo answered.

   ‘What kind of a hard-boiled egg?’ Major—de Coverley demanded.

   ‘A fresh hard-boiled egg,’ Milo answered.

   ‘Where did the fresh egg come from?’ Major—de Coverley demanded.

   ‘From a chicken,’ Milo answered.

   ‘Where is the chicken?’ Major—de Coverley demanded.

   ‘The chicken is in Malta,’ Milo answered.

   ‘How many chickens are there in Malta?’

   ‘Enough chickens to lay fresh eggs for every officer in the squadron at five cents apiece from the mess fund,’ Milo answered.

   ‘I have a weakness for fresh eggs,’ Major—de Coverley confessed.

   ‘If someone put a plane at my disposal, I could fly down there once a week in a squadron plane and bring back all the fresh eggs we need,’ Milo answered. ‘After all, Malta’s not so far away.’

   ‘Malta’s not so far away,’ Major—de Coverley observed. ‘You could probably fly down there once a week in a squadron plane and bring back all the fresh eggs we need.’

   ‘Yes,’ Milo agreed. ‘I suppose I could do that, if someone wanted me to and put a plane at my disposal.’

   ‘I like my fresh eggs fried,’ Major—de Coverley remembered. ‘In fresh butter.’

   ‘I can find all the fresh butter we need in Sicily for twenty-five cents a pound,’ Milo answered. ‘Twenty-five cents a pound for fresh butter is a good buy. There’s enough money in the mess fund for butter too, and we could probably sell some to the other squadrons at a profit and get back most of what we pay for our own.’

   ‘What’s your name, son?’ asked Major—de Coverley.

   ‘My name is Milo Minderbinder, sir. I am twenty-seven years old.’

   ‘You’re a good mess officer, Milo.’

   ‘I’m not the mess officer, sir.’

   ‘You’re a good mess officer, Milo.’

   ‘Thank you, sir. I’ll do everything in my power to be a good mess officer.’

   ‘Bless you, my boy. Have a horseshoe.’

   ‘Thank you, sir. What should I do with it?’

   ‘Throw it.’


   ‘At the peg there. Then pick it up and throw it at this peg. It’s a game, see? You get the horseshoe back.’

   ‘Yes, sir. I see. How much are horseshoes selling for?’ The smell of a fresh egg snapping exotically in a pool of fresh butter carried a long way on the Mediterranean trade winds and brought General Dreedle racing back with a voracious appetite, accompanied by his nurse, who accompanied him everywhere, and his son-in-law, Colonel Moodus. In the beginning General Dreedle devoured all his meals in Milo’s mess hall. Then the other three squadrons in Colonel Cathcart’s group turned their mess halls over to Milo and gave him an airplane and a pilot each so that he could buy fresh eggs and fresh butter for them too. Milo’s planes shuttled back and forth seven days a week as every officer in the four squadrons began devouring fresh eggs in an insatiable orgy of fresh-egg eating. General Dreedle devoured fresh eggs for breakfast, lunch and dinner—between meals he devoured more fresh eggs—until Milo located abundant sources of fresh veal, beef, duck, baby lamb chops, mushroom caps, broccoli, South African rock lobster tails, shrimp, hams, puddings, grapes, ice cream, strawberries and artichokes. There were three other bomb groups in General Dreedle’s combat wing, and they each jealously dispatched their own planes to Malta for fresh eggs, but discovered that fresh eggs were selling there for seven cents apiece. Since they could buy them from Milo for five cents apiece, it made more sense to turn over their mess halls to his syndicate, too, and give him the planes and pilots needed to ferry in all the other good food he promised to supply as well.

   Everyone was elated with this turn of events, most of all Colonel Cathcart, who was convinced he had won a feather in his cap. He greeted Milo jovially each time they met and, in an excess of contrite generosity, impulsively recommended Major Major for promotion. The recommendation was rejected at once at Twenty-seventh Air Force Headquarters by ex-P.F.C. Wintergreen, who scribbled a brusque, unsigned reminder that the Army had only one Major Major Major Major and did not intend to lose him by promotion just to please Colonel Cathcart. Colonel Cathcart was stung by the blunt rebuke and skulked guiltily about his room in smarting repudiation. He blamed Major Major for this black eye and decided to bust him down to lieutenant that very same day.

   ‘They probably won’t let you,’ Colonel Korn remarked with a condescending smile, savoring the situation. ‘For precisely the same reasons that they wouldn’t let you promote him. Besides, you’d certainly look foolish trying to bust him down to lieutenant right after you tried to promote him to my rank.’ Colonel Cathcart felt hemmed in on every side. He had been much more successful in obtaining a medal for Yossarian after the debacle of Ferrara, when the bridge spanning the Po was still standing undamaged seven days after Colonel Cathcart had volunteered to destroy it. Nine missions his men had flown there in six days, and the bridge was not demolished until the tenth mission on the seventh day, when Yossarian killed Kraft and his crew by taking his flight of six planes in over the target a second time. Yossarian came in carefully on his second bomb run because he was brave then. He buried his head in his bombsight until his bombs were away; when he looked up, everything inside the ship was suffused in a weird orange glow. At first he thought that his own plane was on fire. Then he spied the plane with the burning engine directly above him and screamed to McWatt through the intercom to turn left hard. A second later, the wing of Kraft’s plane blew off. The flaming wreck dropped, first the fuselage, then the spinning wing, while a shower of tiny metal fragments began tap dancing on the roof of Yossarian’s own plane and the incessant cachung! cachung! cachung! of the flak was still thumping all around him.

   Back on the ground, every eye watched grimly as he walked in dull dejection up to Captain Black outside the green clapboard briefing room to make his intelligence report and learned that Colonel Cathcart and Colonel Korn were waiting to speak to him inside. Major Danby stood barring the door, waving everyone else away in ashen silence. Yossarian was leaden with fatigue and longed to remove his sticky clothing. He stepped into the briefing room with mixed emotions, uncertain how he was supposed to feel about Kraft and the others, for they had all died in the distance of a mute and secluded agony at a moment when he was up to his own ass in the same vile, excruciating dilemma of duty and damnation.

   Colonel Cathcart, on the other hand, was all broken up by the event. ‘Twice?’ he asked.

   ‘I would have missed it the first time,’ Yossarian replied softly, his face lowered.

   Their voices echoed slightly in the long, narrow bungalow.

   ‘But twice?’ Colonel Cathcart repeated, in vivid disbelief.

   ‘I would have missed it the first time,’ Yossarian repeated.

   ‘But Kraft would be alive.’

   ‘And the bridge would still be up.’

   ‘A trained bombardier is supposed to drop his bombs the first time,’ Colonel Cathcart reminded him. ‘The other five bombardiers dropped their bombs the first time.’

   ‘And missed the target,’ Yossarian said. ‘We’d have had to go back there again.’

   ‘And maybe you would have gotten it the first time then.’

   ‘And maybe I wouldn’t have gotten it at all.’

   ‘But maybe there wouldn’t have been any losses.’

   ‘And maybe there would have been more losses, with the bridge still left standing. I thought you wanted the bridge destroyed.’

   ‘Don’t contradict me,’ Colonel Cathcart said. ‘We’re all in enough trouble.’

   ‘I’m not contradicting you, sir.’

   ‘Yes you are. Even that’s a contradiction.’

   ‘Yes, sir. I’m sorry.’ Colonel Cathcart cracked his knuckles violently. Colonel Korn, a stocky, dark, flaccid man with a shapeless paunch, sat completely relaxed on one of the benches in the front row, his hands clasped comfortably over the top of his bald and swarthy head. His eyes were amused behind his glinting rimless spectacles.

   ‘We’re trying to be perfectly objective about this,’ he prompted Colonel Cathcart.

   ‘We’re trying to be perfectly objective about this,’ Colonel Cathcart said to Yossarian with the zeal of sudden inspiration. ‘It’s not that I’m being sentimental or anything. I don’t give a damn about the men or the airplane. It’s just that it looks so lousy on the report. How am I going to cover up something like this in the report?’

   ‘Why don’t you give me a medal?’ Yossarian suggested timidly.

   ‘For going around twice?’

   ‘You gave one to Hungry Joe when he cracked up that airplane by mistake.’ Colonel Cathcart snickered ruefully. ‘You’ll be lucky if we don’t give you a court-martial.’

   ‘But I got the bridge the second time around,’ Yossarian protested. ‘I thought you wanted the bridge destroyed.’

   ‘Oh, I don’t know what I wanted,’ Colonel Cathcart cried out in exasperation. ‘Look, of course I wanted the bridge destroyed. That bridge has been a source of trouble to me ever since I decided to send you men out to get it. But why couldn’t you do it the first time?’

   ‘I didn’t have enough time. My navigator wasn’t sure we had the right city.’

   ‘The right city?’ Colonel Cathcart was baffled. ‘Are you trying to blame it all on Aarfy now?’

   ‘No, sir. It was my mistake for letting him distract me. All I’m trying to say is that I’m not infallible.’

   ‘Nobody is infallible,’ Colonel Cathcart said sharply, and then continued vaguely, with an afterthought: ‘Nobody is indispensable, either.’ There was no rebuttal. Colonel Korn stretched sluggishly. ‘We’ve got to reach a decision,’ he observed casually to Colonel Cathcart.

   ‘We’ve got to reach a decision,’ Colonel Cathcart said to Yossarian. ‘And it’s all your fault. Why did you have to go around twice? Why couldn’t you drop your bombs the first time like all the others?’

   ‘I would have missed the first time.’

   ‘It seems to me that we’re going around twice,’ Colonel Korn interrupted with a chuckle.

   ‘But what are we going to do?’ Colonel Cathcart exclaimed with distress. ‘The others are all waiting outside.’

   ‘Why don’t we give him a medal?’ Colonel Korn proposed.

   ‘For going around twice? What can we give him a medal for?’

   ‘For going around twice,’ Colonel Korn answered with a reflective, self-satisfied smile. ‘After all, I suppose it did take a lot of courage to go over that target a second time with no other planes around to divert the antiaircraft fire. And he did hit the bridge. You know, that might be the answer—to act boastfully about something we ought to be ashamed of. That’s a trick that never seems to fail.’

   ‘Do you think it will work?’

   ‘I’m sure it will. And let’s promote him to captain, too, just to make certain.’

   ‘Don’t you think that’s going a bit farther than we have to?’

   ‘No, I don’t think so. It’s best to play safe. And a captain’s not much difference.’

   ‘All right,’ Colonel Cathcart decided. ‘We’ll give him a medal for being brave enough to go around over the target twice. And we’ll make him a captain, too.’ Colonel Korn reached for his hat.

   ‘Exit smiling,’ he joked, and put his arm around Yossarian’s shoulders as they stepped outside the door.

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