Tommy the Tiger (fiction)
My grandfather used to keep cases of rough yellow-tinged paper in his basement. The white-painted shelves at the foot of the stairway were filled with brown cardboard fifty-pound packing boxes.Each box announced in English that it contained three hundred yards of semi-premium paper in uncut sheets. On the other side, what appeared to be the same message appeared in Chinese. I would guess that my grandparents had several miles of paper in the basement. There were enough boxes that my female cousins built a playhouse out of them once when it was their turn to have to play in the basement and we boys then dismantled the playhouse into a castle wall when it was our turn. As was often the case, my grandfather had helped a fledgling importer of Chinese paper whose product ultimately didn’t meet US consumer standards. The great stack of boxes filled with rough yellow paper outlasted the venture by several years. My grandfather would remind us, “The Chinese invented paper, so this is this is the best paper in the world. See how heavy and thick it is?”
Heavy and thick, of course, wasn’t a good thing for paper. The paper itself wasn’t stiff enough to make good paper airplanes and yellow-brown was not really acceptable for schoolwork since it wasn’t lined or white. It seemed that the Chinese entrepreneur had not understood that the American market demanded that paper be bleached bright white. My grandfather would use it for keeping ledgers and making lists. My grandmother would use strips of the paper cut with a pearl-handled pair of scissors that we weren’t allowed to use to keep score in all night mah-jong games. In fact, the paper was quite good for the thicker splashier ink strokes of traditional Chinese calligraphy. We, however, would use it for drawing.
Without the internet or videotape, we had only one way to visualize our fantasies at will and that was with ballpoint pen, pencil, or crayon. Some evenings I would sit in the dining room underneath the crystal chandelier and draw whole factories worth of tanks, airplanes, and artillery. A fascination with all things military just seemed to be part of being a boy at the time, so much so that the green crayon, for olive drab was always in great demand along with silver for gun barrel metal, and gold for well just being gold.
I rarely drew dead bodies. The goal was always simple, if you drew any kind of military vehicle; it had to have as many possible forms of ordinance hanging off of it as one could manage. On the other side of the table, the girls would draw horses in endless iterations. In between, we would fight over volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica where find pictures of planes, tanks, horses, and sometimes breeds of dogs to use as inspiration. In my pictures, the Japanese and the Germans always seemed to win not because I sympathized with them. I just never mastered drawing a five-pointed star inside a circle to make American aircraft clearly American. Also Panzer tanks had squared edges, so they were easier to draw. If we got tired of our drawing, we would always end things by drawing a big mushroom cloud over the battle scene. Looking back, I’m a little surprised that none of us wound up as murderers or as featured mercenaries in Soldier of Fortune Magazine, although a couple of my cousins are the oldest active paintball warriors in California.
In fact, the whole time, I rather curiously maintained a division in my head. In real life, I admired the pacifists. I idolized Martin Luther King not George Patton or Douglas Macarthur. In play though, it never occurred to me to march around the living room supporting a boycott of lunch counters that didn’t serve everyone.
In general, the parents ignored us when we drew. We were, after all, busy and not demanding their attention if we happened to be drawing. My father was the exception. He would sit at the head of the table with a fountain pen and wait for our requests to draw favored objects. He drew horses rearing on their hind legs, galloping, and grazing for my female cousins. He drew three or four different kinds of dogs. He would draw soldiers with rifles and bazookas. In between, our requests, he would draw us. Dad’s style always used a minimum of lines and managed to convey an impression of three dimensions and motion. He could draw any object very quickly, it’s just that he had set ways of drawing things so his cars always seemed to come from the same manufacturer and his horses all had the same kind of mane. He would draw for us as long as we asked him and almost never refused requests except when it was to actually show someone being impaled by a bayonet or for any of his airplanes to be dropping bombs or torpedoes. I’m not sure which he liked more, being around kids or drawing.
When it came to airplanes, my father insisted on drawing only one kind of plane, the p-40, an early World War 2 propeller driven fighter made by Curtiss-Wright. He could draw P-40s from any angle and never needed to refer to any pictures as he would draw whole squadrons of them diving out of clouds or taking off into the sunset. Each p-40 had a set of what looked to be shark’s teeth drawn near the front of the fuselage, the insignia of the Flying Tigers. I would plead with him to draw jets, which he considered too simple. Sometimes, he would relent and draw a helicopter. I even brought him a picture of an ME-262, Hitler’s experimental jet built right at the end of the war, but my Dad would tell me that he was tired of drawing that evening or that I might want to draw that one myself. Once in a while, I even caught my father drawing Flying Tigers on his own time when there were no other kids around. These were always his best and most sophisticated drawings as if each P-40 deserved a special level of care.
When former air force captain, Claire Chennault, approached FDR about letting the America Volunteer Group fly through a loophole in the Neutrality Act in 1941, my father was thirteen years old. If you look in wartime pictures of Chinese teenaged boys from that era, you’ll find they are invariably dressed in white t-shirts and leather flying jackets, emulating the first American fighting heroes of World War 2, the group that Chennault put together that became known as the Flying Tigers, American pilots who had jumped into the war with the Japanese early by flying as volunteers for China. None of the real Flying Tigers fought as members of the American or even Chinese armed forces. They were officially employees of an air cargo company that just happened to be in China. It also just happened that their contracts called for a five hundred dollar bonus each time they shot down a Japanese plane. In those days, arrangements of this kind were a measure of how clever America was rather than how sneaky.
The Flying Tigers may have been the single most successful unit of the Chinese armed forces in 1941 and 1942. There was no better expression of what it meant to be Chinese, male, and American all at once than to some day want to fly for the Flying Tigers. In truth, while there were a handful of Chinese males who served with the Flying Tigers, none of them were ever pilots.
For us though, the Flying Tigers were too Chinese and their planes were too clunky. Twenty years beyond the war, we refused to imagine ourselves flying for Chiang Kai Shek. One time, I even countered my dad’s elegant yet fierce Flying Tiger with an airplane with the face of dog. My father held out his left arm between me and the yellow paper,” Don’t do that, “ he told me, “It’s disrespectful.”
It was more than twenty-five years before I thought about the Flying Tigers again. My Uncle Tommy had died and Aunt Stella was sitting in her kitchen as they were preparing for the funeral. I hadn’t planned to attend, but had come to Aunt Stella’s Sacramento house to pay my respects two nights before when Aunt Ellen brought out a brown leather jacket in a plastic dry cleaner’s bag and placed it flat on the table. Aunt Stella started in tears that quickly became convulsions.
My Aunt Ellen said softly, “It’s what Tommy would have wanted to be buried in. It’s the way I remember him best.”
Within seconds, Aunt Stella was yelling in anger at Aunt Ellen. This was hardly the first time I’d seen an argument break out among my father’s brothers and sisters. Arguments happened with surprising regularity at funerals, weddings, birthday parties, and holiday gatherings. The rest of the family and I slipped off to other parts of the house as my aunts worked through their disagreement.
To be honest, I had almost no best memories of Uncle Tommy. He said little to any of the children even his own kids when we were at my grandparents. Much of the time, he sat in the TV room watching football or baseball games for which he always seemed to know the point spread. He also said little to the other adults. He would stay in the TV room, eat whatever was made though he never helped with the dishes, wait until my aunt Stella finished socializing with her siblings and parents, then would put on his overcoat and drive her home. Although he always worked, we never really knew what Uncle Tommy did for a living and beyond having to say hello and goodbye to him when we saw him his interest in us and ours in him was virtually non-existent.
As I got older and the family became more fractured, my father explained Uncle Tommy’s situation a little better. “Your Uncle Tommy has an MBA from Wharton, did you know that?”
“He was also a star basketball player once.”
Uncle Tommy was unusual among Cantonese men in that he was six feet two inches tall.
“Then why doesn’t Uncle Tommy ever say or do anything?”
“After the war, Uncle Tommy came back and never could find work that suited an MBA. He looked, but he was too proud to take any of the jobs they were willing to offer a Chinese veteran with an MBA.”
“So what did he do?”
“Your grandfather started a Chinese Take Out restaurant. He had your uncle manage it. When I came back after being in the army in 1953, I was supposed to help him. The business went broke.”
I knew that part of the story. Uncle Tommy didn’t want my dad to do anything that had to do with actually managing the business since that was Tommy’s job except that Uncle Tommy didn’t do much about managing the business either. More disastrous, no one in 1953 had figured out how to keep Chinese food from getting greasy after more than twenty minutes under a heat lamp. My dad went off alone to manage another one of my grandfather’s conventional restaurants which he wound up running in various forms for the next twenty years.
None of my Grandfather’s legitimate businesses ever made money. All of them seemed to serve mostly as a source of gainful employment and visa cover for the endless procession of cousins and village acquaintances, he “saved from the Communists” over a twenty-five year period. We never could remember or pronounce any of their names. For most of his working life, my father ran a business where he wasn’t allowed to fire any of his key employees and those same employees always went to my grandfather anyway when they had a problem with my dad.
After the take out business, my grandmother would set up Uncle Tommy in various commercial ventures. My grandparents would supply capital and Uncle Tommy would be given billing as a member of the board, development coordinator, or some other position that involved no actual responsibility but let Uncle Tommy stand up at openings and banquets to look tall and business-like. There was the first Chinese discount store which lasted less than seven months, there were two import-export businesses, some sort of Studebaker dealership, even a business selling green tea ice cream to Chinese restaurants. None lasted more than two years. In the midst of all those failures, Uncle Tommy started gambling.
On two occasions, my grandparents’ house turned somber as various members of the family wandered in and out of the closed doors of the breakfast room as they consulted with my grandfather and grandmother. To save the family name and their grandchildren’s home, my grandparents paid off a seventy four thousand dollar marker to Bill Harrah in 1961. In 1964, it was twenty three thousand dollars to the Golden Nugget. In Paperson, it was understood that Uncle Tommy was to go nowhere near the lunch counter that fronted my Grandfather’s own gambling house. Beyond that though, there was no other way to control Uncle Tommy’s compulsion, especially once Highway 80 made it possible to drive to Reno in one shot.
We grandchildren never talked about it, but I suspect we all knew. We especially never talked about it with any of Aunt Stella and Uncle Tommy’s three children. This was even though we’d heard the story of how my cousin Alvin had had his MG repossessed in the middle of the night one time when Uncle Tommy bet the pink slip to his youngest son’s car. Alvin had chased after the repo guys with a golf club only to have Aunt Stella coax him back into the house with the truth.
After that Alvin had slowly slipped into eccentricity. By the time of Uncle Tommy’s death, Alvin was living at age 49 in his mother’s house. He shaved his head, wore all white, and talked to whoever would listen about the spiritual significance of UFOs. Aunt Stella would tell others that Alvin was very philosophical and working on a new version of the Bible.
Up to seeing the brown leather jacket on Aunt Stella’s table, I had assumed that what I knew about my dead uncle up to that point explained everything I needed to know about Uncle Tommy. I still am not quite sure how it fell to me to dispose of Uncle Tommy’s jacket that night, but somehow it did. Possibly, it was because Paperson was on my way back home that night and that no one felt that Alvin was the right person to take care of the matter. Possibly it had something to do with my relative closeness with Aunt Ellen.
I was sitting on the yellow couch in Aunt Stella’s living room, the same place where we had once watched the Beatles on Ed Sullivan for the first time when my Aunt Ellen came out with the jacket still in its plastic wrapper.
“Lucky, I need to ask you to help with something.”
“I want you to take this jacket and bury it back behind the baseball field near Paperson tonight. There’s a shovel in the garage and a flashlight.”
I looked at her blankly as if I were waiting for her to tell me to make sure I wiped down the fingerprints.
“You know, I loved your Uncle Tommy too once,” she sobbed.
I sat on the couch as holding the jacket by the hanger in my index and middle fingers.
“Lucky, you need to go now. Don’t let Aunt Stella see you.”
I’d always liked my Aunt Ellen better than my Aunt Stella and they had never much liked one another though it was more love-hate than hate-hate. I didn’t have divided loyalties about Aunt Ellen’s instructions, it was just that the sudden appearance of the jacket as possible burial garb then its even more sudden unexplained banishment from Aunt Stella’s house were hard to process even for someone like me who’d grown up in the Tang family. I also knew that Aunt Ellen’s judgment of family hot buttons had never been the best.
“I should never have brought the thing here tonight,” she continued.
I had naturally assumed that Uncle Tommy had kept his own jacket in a closet somewhere. I had no idea why Aunt Ellen had been keeping my Uncle Tommy’s jacket for close to fifty years. Before I knew it, the shovel and flashlight were in the trunk of my car and the jacket rested in its plastic bag draped over the passenger seat. This was the only time I ever got in a car alone with any part of my Uncle Tommy.
I knew the spot. About a quarter mile from the town, there was a big clearing on which no one grew any crops. One side had been turned into a baseball field because it was the one big open space near the town and we played there from time to time in summers. The backstop was green painted wood and cyclone fence and home plate was made from a triangle of black rubber. I had driven by a few weeks earlier when I showed Luke Howard Paperson. You could still make out the baselines from the road. Something about baseball fields lingers after their time hosting games passes. It also helped that the baseball diamond wound up in the shadow of the KCLR television tower.
At night the fog settles in around Paperson and it’s so thick that one would not be able to see the pitcher’s mound from second base. Had it been that thick, I don’t know that I would have been brave enough to stop and bury the jacket that same night. For some reason though, that night there was no fog or damp. It was dry, warm, and oddly hospitable. I spent a good half hour burying the brown leather jacket in the damp soil behind the backstop. I hung the lantern flashlight with the dry cell battery from a broken bit of cyclone fence in the backstop. Aunt Ellen had insisted that I bury the jacket at least three feet deep without its plastic bag. I dutifully followed her instructions. I had worn dress shoes to Aunt Stella’s and I wound up ruining both my shoes and pants for the sake of Uncle Tommy without exactly knowing why that night.
It was Uncle Leon who told me the story. We were at lunch and he was trying to get Luke Howard information out of me and I had to find a way to distract him so I asked him if he knew anything about Uncle Tommy’s leather jacket. One can never completely trust any of Uncle Leon’s versions of family stories, but for some reason I don’t think he had any reason to embellish this one in his favor since Uncle Leon was eleven years old at the time. I’ve filled in some of the gaps in Uncle Leon’s version with some research.
In 1941, my grandfather raised ninety five thousand dollars for the Chinese war effort, coincidentally almost the same total that my grandparents paid out to Harrah’s and the Golden Nugget in the early sixties on Uncle Tommy’s behalf. Inspired by the stories of the heroism of Chennault’s Flying Tigers, my grandfather and Paperson’s elders decided to go a step beyond just turning over the money to the Koumintang. They determined that they would pay for two p-40s, then twenty five thousand dollars each to the US governement, and train four volunteer crews of Chinese American pilots and send them to Rangoon to do their bit for the American Volunteer Group. At the time, the American Volunteer Group was flying a slightly obsolete version of the P-40 with bullseye gun sights, mounting stays on the wings, and with three less pounds of torque for ascents. As part of a deal with the British who held the order for the next 100 P-40’s, FDR had arranged for the British to get the newer models while the older models went to Chennault in China.
I wish I knew how my Grandfather who spoke limited English and knew nothing about military procurement arranged to get two state of the art aircraft from the Curtiss-Wright assembly in Buffalo, New York, in 1941 just as America was preparing to go to war even if the American people didn’t yet know it. Somehow though, through various connections he actually got title to two civilian versions of the newer models and had them shipped by railroad in parts in unmarked crates to Paperson and unloaded in the middle of the night. Even more remarkable, my grandfather got the planes outfitted with optical gun sights and the larger bore carburetors that made better performance possible.
Uncle Tommy, who was not yet married to my Aunt Stella, was going to be a member of one of the crews. While no one in the town was supposed to know about this contribution to the war effort, everyone knew exactly what was going on. Once the planes were assembled in the Pacific Steamer asparagus warehouse just above the river, the crews used the field that later became the baseball field and later yet the site of the TV tower to learn how to take off and land. At dawn, one of the p-40s would take off make a sixteen-minute flight, land back on the field, then return to the asparagus warehouse.
Uncle Tommy was not yet twenty one. He was the youngest member of the Paper Tigers and they even let him copilot the plane once although he was just expected to be part of the ground crew once the plane got to Asia. That made him the most glamorous male in Paperson at the time. Aunt Stella began inviting Tommy the Tiger to gatherings at the house. Aunt Ellen, who was a two years younger, took to following Stella and Tommy everywhere they went and bringing Tommy any story of the air war in south Asia that made either the American or Chinese newspapers.
A few weeks into the venture, TV Soong, the finance minister of China, arranged for a special meeting in Paperson to arrange for delivery of the planes and the crews. I’ve never figured out how they were going to ship two fighter aircraft privately from California to China in 1941, but apparently someone had a plan. My grandfather, as was his way, stayed in the shadows and did not participate in the meeting. It was a long heated meeting and Soong's representative laid out a dizzying array of concerns. Chennault wanted control of the planes and wasn’t sure he was ready for Chinese American pilots who hadn’t been battle trained. Joseph Stilwell, the American general assigned to the China, had gotten wind of the story and he wanted American planes in American hands even if America wasn’t in the war. The Chinese air service wanted to guarantee that they controlled the planes and crews and wanted to make absolutely certain that the Communists never got access to either the planes or their trained crews. That night, Soong’s representative left the Paperson locals bewildered by the complex politics of contributing to the defense of China from the Japanese. He left no clear instructions other than to wait to hear from his people.
Eleven days after that, the Asparagus warehouse burned to the ground. All evidence of the two planes disappeared though it was assumed that the planes had been destroyed in the fire. Given the situation, no one dared call in the police. While immigration concerns were less of a worry in Paperson than it had been before the war, it hardly seemed a good idea to reveal that anyone there had actually been supplying an air force for another country from the proceeds of an illegal gambling house.
The locals insisted to all investigators that the fire was an accident and never mentioned the existence of the planes, though a story in the Sacramento Union did mention sightings of the plane and speculated about their connection to the fire along the river. It would be at least six months before new planes could be bought and the crew could finish its training. On December 7th, two and a half months later, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States entered the war. Uncle Tommy was drafted weeks later and eventually served as a mechanic in a tank unit in Italy that never saw action. After he learned that there would be no Flying Tigers from Paperson, Uncle Tommy took off his brown leather flight jacket for the last time and for whatever reason gave it to my Aunt Ellen.
Uncle Leon tells me that he was the only one who knew because he had seen Aunt Ellen with the jacket in the hallway that day.
“Please, don’t tell Stella,” she had warned him. “If you do, I won’t speak to you again.”
As it turned out, they stopped speaking to one another for a variety of other reasons over the decades.
According to Uncle Leon, after the disappearance of the p-40’s, Uncle Tommy still wanted to go to China on his own and volunteer for service. Aunt Stella had lobbied against the idea. “You’ve been drafted here. Our future is here,” she had told him as had every other member of both families.
“You’ll still be fighting the same enemies. After we win the war, you can go back to China and help rebuild it.”
Only one person agreed with Uncle Tommy. I didn’t dare ask Uncle Leon if there was any romantic interest between Aunt Ellen and Uncle Tommy at the time. I knew that she would never have expressed it directly even if there had been. After the war Aunt Stella and Uncle Tommy never spoke about the Paper Tigers again even to one another.
According to my Uncle Leon, one of the crew mechanics from the Paper Tigers swore that he had gone to an air show and seen both of the P-40s in the Dominican Republic in the 1950’s serving as part of Trujillo’s air national guard. He could even make out the spot where they had painted over the tiger’s teeth and the eccentric optical sight mounting was still in the same spot on the right side of the cockpit. Whether it was true or not, everyone in Paperson believed that version of the story. No one knows for sure.
The old man Paperson locals were, however, absolutely certain that T.V. Soong had something to do with the disappearance of the planes. Years later, they claimed he was heard joking about how he had wound up with fifty thousand dollars by selling airplanes that never really belonged to China and had used it to help his sister in law buy land in Long Island. Why someone that important would ever tell a story like that doesn’t really make much sense. It was more that over time Soong had developed a reputation as a greedy man. Actually true or not, the story about Soong's joking fit a pattern that made it true in Chinatowns across America.
Money that went to China from Chinese farm workers and laborers often didn’t go to the war effort against the Japanese, it went into various Soong family members bank accounts.“The Soongs cared little about the outcome of the war or China itself”, the old men of Paperson would say “Except for Madame Sun Yat Sen, who was the one who loved China.” The legend of the airplanes just gave their anger at the Soongs local form.
It never seems to occur to anyone that it might have been my grandfather who arranged for the abduction of the airplanes after he heard about the meeting with TV Soong. He may well have contributed the proceeds to the Chinese war effort, but he had also likely figured out that the planes never would have made it to China and the Paper Sons would never really have become Flying Tigers. My Grandafther had built his own success on seeing a step ahead. Even if he had a blind spot for the Koumintang, the party of Sun Yat Sen who had come from his Distirct, he may well have glimpsed the vastly more complex political world beyond Papersons and measured the effect of what would happen againt the morale of the town that he had built. As the owner of a gambling house, Grandfather always knew when to cut his losses. It also occurs to me that Uncle Tommy might have been the only person in Paperson, who suspected this alternate version of what happened to the airplanes.
My Aunt Ellen kept that leather flight jacket all those years in a closet while she watched Uncle Tommy return from the war, marry my Aunt Stella, and then deteriorate in reverse Dorian Gray fashion from romantic international adventurer to failed businessman to compulsive gambler (all of which might have been forms of the same impulse). All the while, she kept the jacket as fresh as the Tommy Owyang who stood on the wing of a p-40 in the middle of an open field at dawn next to the Sacramento River in 1941.
Had we known him in 1941, would we have liked him better? I didn’t know what to do with the shovel or the flashlight that night so I tossed them both in the river as if they were evidence in some long overdue police investigation. The plastic bag, I tried to drop in a dumpster along Highway 80 that same night. By then though the wind had picked up and the bag flew off into the empty field behind like some haunted wind sock.
I’ve never seen or spoken to Aunt Stella or my cousin Alvin since. I don’t even know if Alvin knows that his father was Tommy the Tiger.
link to history of the real Flying Tigers