The bombing run was going poorly for Lieutenant Pluck Packard.
His B-17 bomber was on a critical mission to destroy a Japanese munitions factory on an island near Korea, but nothing was going right.
He hadn’t realized that the navigation system had failed. “Bearing 5, bearing 5, bearing 5,” another bomber in the squadron had communicated, using the coded signal that told him he was leading the group badly off course. Breaking radio silence was a terrible risk, but he was glad they had done so; otherwise he wouldn’t have realized that anything was wrong. Whether the compass had malfunctioned, or atmospheric conditions were interfering with his navigation, he couldn’t tell. But he was lost, uncertain of what direction he needed to lead his squadron.
Lieutenant Packard sat and fretted indecisively, nervously running his fingers around the collar of his leather bomber jacket; then a series of events began that he had no power to explain. To his astonishment, he found a piece of paper pinned beneath his collar. He pulled it out and found a handwritten note. It said: “Look under your seat, and put what you find on the panel.”
Pluck took his eyes off the horizon and read the note again, unable to believe it. It was in his own handwriting! It was written on personalized stationery that his wife had given him for his letters home. He kept that paper locked in his personal strongbox. No one else had access to it, and he doubted that anyone could forge his handwriting so flawlessly — but he hadn’t written the note!
Certain that he was the victim of a prank, and feeling foolish and gullible, Pluck Packard felt beneath his captain’s seat with both hands. Sure enough — something was there.
It was a garden gnome. Pluck had no idea what the point of the exercise was, but he put the gnome on the console as the note directed — and immediately the compass shifted. He removed the gnome from the console, and the compass spun away to point in a seemingly random direction.
Pluck lifted the metal hood that covered the console, and discovered the explanation: the bearings underlying the compass had been damaged, and its bed was tilted. This was why the compass had been giving incorrect readings! He put the gnome back into place on the console, and the compass righted itself again. The material of the unexpected garden gnome was magnetized and was compensating for the error of his compass!
Nothing about it made sense, but there wasn’t time to question it. The target was approaching. Packard requested a final equipment check from his bombardier.
“It’s no good, Captain!” Corporal Bell responded. “The payload bay is stuck shut! I can’t get the doors to open!”
Packard rushed back to the bombardier and found him struggling with the payload bay doors. He joined Corporal Bell in his fight to move the lever that opened the doors; but it wouldn’t budge, no matter how hard they pushed.
Precious moments were slipping away. Soon the squadron would be detected by enemy air defenses. Something had to be done at once. Trying to think, Lt. Packard leaned against a nearby bulkhead — and attached to it, he found the second surprise of the flight. It was another note, again written in his own hand. Amazed, Packard unfolded the note and read it. It said: “The counterweight is disconnected. Jam it back into place, using what you find where your flotation vest is supposed to be.”
Pluck rushed back to the cockpit and snatched open the compartment that held his emergency equipment. Sure enough, his personal flotation vest was missing. In its place, there was a wooden shoe.
It was an incredibly stupid thing to find there. Nothing about it made the slightest sense — but it was too late to question it. He grabbed the wooden shoe and ran to the bomb bay door. Just as the note said, the counterweight was disconnected, and the out of place connector was too sharp and jagged to force back into place by hand. But the wooden shoe was sufficient to absorb the sharp metal, and it allowed him, struggling very awkwardly, to force the mechanism back together. The moment the counterweight latch snapped into place, Corporal Bell easily rammed the lever open.
Stealing a sigh of relief from the thin, cold air, Pluck Packard returned to the cockpit. The target was approaching; but now the enemy defenses were upon them. He heard the spitting of heavy metal as his gunners began their deadly battle with a host of enemy planes; but it was too late for them to stop his squadron. They unleashed their payloads on the munitions factory, then changed their bearing to return to base. It was a lucky day; the squadron had sustained only minimal damage, and the crew had escaped without injury.
But even minimal damage can prove deadly. As Packard led his squadron homeward, the controls became more and more sluggish. A main hydraulic line on the port side had been severed by AA shrapnel. Next the two starboard engines sputtered to a halt; the fuel lines had been damaged, and not enough precious lifeblood could reach them to keep them running.
The enemy was not pursuing them; but Lt. Packard and his crew would be forced to ditch their plane in the open ocean, and float there until a rescue crew could be dispatched to recover them.
Then Packard’s stomach clenched, as he realized with a start that his personal flotation vest was gone — it had been replaced with a wooden shoe! And while that might float, it would never be buoyant enough to keep him and his gear from sinking. Was he doomed to a lonely death at sea?
But there was no choice. Packard shed as much speed as possible, then reached for his goggles and prepared to force the cockpit door open.
That’s when he found a third note written to himself. It was tied to his goggles, and once again, it was written in his own hand, on his own stationery. This one said: “Your flotation device is in your breast pocket. Inflate it and survive.”
There was no time to question the note. Packard’s bomber would hit the water in moments, and as he shouldered his door open and braced himself against the biting cold, he forced his hand into the pocket of his bomber jacket. Pulling out the limp, wet object that he felt inside, he discovered something that he didn’t even have time to feel horrified by: it was a used condom.
Setting aside his revulsion, Lt. Packard put the slimy bit of rubber to his lips and inflated it, then tied it shut. It held a surprising amount of air, and it would suffice to keep him afloat until help arrived.
After a rescue craft finally arrived to pull him from the water, Pluck Packard found the time to question it all. How could he make sense of any of it? Where had the notes come from? How could they be in his handwriting when he didn’t write them? Why had such a bizarre set of items appeared when he needed it? And why those specific items?
Packard wrestled against the questions as he flailed restlessly on a cot, on a wave-tossed pontoon boat that was ferrying him back to his Pacific island barracks. He could find no stability anywhere. As he pondered fruitlessly, a man he had never seen before walked from the aft portion of the deck.
The man was wearing a uniform, but it wasn’t from any armed service that Packard knew of. It was dark gray, and lacking in insignia, but it was plainly military. The man stood tall, and had an air of command that caused Packard to salute him. The man did not return Packard’s salute.
The man spoke. “You aren’t authorized to know my name. I’m from a top secret experimental agency whose existence can never be publicly acknowledged. We have discovered the secret of time travel. I’m from many years in the future.
“Our analysis showed us that the success of your mission would be a key factor in hastening Allied victory over Imperial Japan. Destroying that munitions factory will end the war a full year sooner than it would otherwise go on, and will save countless lives. Unfortunately, you were exceedingly careless, and your incompetence in maintaining your equipment caused your mission to fail, and your entire squadron was lost at sea.
“However, through our powers, we have been able to rescue you from your own negligence. We had the luxury of visiting another incarnation of you, from an alternate timeline. We were able to offer you a rare opportunity to correct your own mistakes. We informed this alternate you of your impending equipment failures. We then allowed the other you to go back in time and plant notes to you, and seed your plane and your jacket with certain items that would save you. Because of our intervention, you were able to ensure the success of your mission, save your life, and mend your own timeline. You are a very lucky man, Lieutenant Packard.”
Packard’s head buzzed, then it spun, then it swam. He finally asked the only question he could think of: “But why those things?”
“What do you mean?” the mysterious figure asked him.
“Why make it so ridiculous? A garden gnome? A wooden shoe? A used condom? Why not just fix the compass housing? Why not put in a hammer, or better yet, why not just fix the damned counterweight? And why the fuck would you make me blow up a used condom? Why not just leave my flotation device where it was supposed to be? Why would you tell me to do it that way?”
“You don’t understand,” the man said. “We made none of those decisions. It isn’t in our power. All we could do is give you the information we possessed about what was going to happen, and allow you the opportunity to do something about it yourself.
“You may not realize this about yourself, Lieutenant Packard, but you’re a very lazy and stupid man. You only came to be a squadron commander because your uncle, who is as stupid and lazy as you, holds a key position in army intelligence.
“When we told you what was going to happen, you looked in the first place you happened to see: a box left outside your barracks by some of the natives on your island. Your commander hires them as gardeners. Inside the box you found a garden gnome that happened to be magnetized, and a wooden shoe that happened to be suitable for forcing the counterweight latch back into place.”
“But what about the used condom?” Packard asked, feeling insulted, and still unconvinced. “Wait. Was it mine? Does this mean I’m going to get laid after I get back to base?”
“Ha ha. You? No way,” the mysterious agent laughed. “No. You had no idea whose condom it was. You found it lying on top of the box. There’s really no telling, but my guess is that one of the native gardeners left it. You couldn’t be bothered to care, even when you knew it was your own mouth that was going to have to inflate the damn thing.”
Lieutenant Packard boggled in horror, then he desperately began wiping his mouth and spitting, even though he’d already been doing that for six solid hours since inflating the used condom.
“Congratulations, Lieutenant Packard. You’re a horrible, negligent, useless waste of military training. But now you get to be a hero. Oh, and here’s a bit of information that we’ve already learned about your future. All that wiping you’ve done has abraded your skin enough to let you contract syphilis from that condom. You’re going to wait too long to get it treated, it’s going to render you impotent, and your wife will leave you for that next door neighbor of yours who always dumps his leaves in your yard.”
“But I can make choices! Can’t I still change my future?” Pluck Packard looked downward at his trousers, which were still damp with seawater.
“Yes, but you won’t,” the man replied.
“Wait! No! But what about …”
But the time traveling agent was no longer paying attention. He walked out of sight onto the aft deck of the pontoon boat, and by the time the boat arrived in port, he had vanished, never to be seen again.
[Note: This story was written to satisfy two writing prompts from two different people. The first prompt was “What’s in the box?” The second was a challenge to use three very specific items in a story. You know by now what the items were.
Also: I am aware that this is nowhere close to historically accurate. I hope you’re aware that it’s comedy.]