A short story by Carl Dow
Editor and publisher
True North Perspective
As a child on the farm, he would cross the ten-acre hayfield to where the quarter-mile string of tall evergreens guarded the height that gently sloped awamy to north and south. There, shaded from the mid-afternoon sun, but with a clear view of the open sky, he'd lie on his back and watch the yellow Harvard Trainers dog fight several miles up hard against the deep blue. He was ten years old, and yearned to be up there with them.
He was keenly aware of the war. His father had joined the army within days after the declaration, and it was days because his father had to take time to convince his mother who had wanted no part of it since it meant being left alone with four young children. Each Saturday he would open The Star Weekly and go straight for the map. For most of the war there was virtually only one red line waggling from the north of Russia south to the Black Sea, for a time it went east, and then it started to move west faster and faster. Then a red line appeared in Italy, and then in France, to make three red lines moving toward each other. Of course, the war was more than three red lines. It was about Hitler and nazis and fascists and democracy. He read avidly, excited by the living war story. He came by his interest naturally, not only because his father was involved, but also because on his paternal side his forebears were warriors as far back as his family memory would go.
At fourteen he joined the air cadets. He had considered army cadets only long enough to dismiss what they did as incredibly dull. The sea cadets caused brief pause but their restriction to water made him shrug away that possibility. The Harvard pilots-in-training four years before, were his siren song, so he joined the air cadets when they resumed operations in September about six weeks after his fourteenth birthday.
By some standards he wasn't a good air cadet. He really didn't like to wear a uniform, was casual about polishing its brass buttons, and just as indifferent about the shine on his shoes. He took to the drilling easy because he found it an excellent class in human relations. Domination, submission, pride in submission when it produced a commonly aspired goal. He understood, and therefore never resented, the overbearing manner and the loud shouting of the drill sergeants.
Each Tuesday they took in lectures on aircraft construction and their engines, and flying. It all numbed his brain. He wanted to fly, not hear talk about it, nor to look at a dead engine on a block, or at diagrams and pictures. Each Thursday was less tedious. That was the evening when his squadron of about 40 boarded a bus and went to the RCAF base on the flat by the river. On the way, cadet old timers would lead in the singing for the half-hour it took them to reach the base.
Some of the songs stayed with him for the rest of his life, but only began to make sense later. One such included the verse:
If your name is Aby
Join the Jewish navy
Fight for Palestine.
He was only vaguely aware that Jews existed; like Bodnoffs who owned a corner store with that delicious halvah on the counter. But he didn't know the Jews had a navy; and he couldn't remember seeing a Palestine between the red lines on any map during or after the war.
Another song that intrigued him included the chorus:
All hail Methuselah!
All hail Methuselah! The daughter of the rabbi!
Methuselah? Methuselah the daughter of the rabbi? Now he had been well Sunday-schooled and churched and had enjoyed both the Old and New Testaments as colourful if inaccurate vehicles of history. The Ten Commandments were to serve as a lasting guide in spirit if not always to the letter. While he never had the intention of becoming a biblical scholar, he had paid enough attention to know that Methuselah was a patriarch who was supposed to have lived more than nine hundred years.
The daughter of the rabbi?
Anyway it was a catchy tune to a polka beat and fun to sing.
At the base things were more interesting. They paraded in a huge hanger in a far corner of which was parked an old twin-engined Anson that had lumbered through the skies in the 1920s and 30s. The cadets were able to inspect it from nose to tail inside and out and sit in the pilot and co-pilot seats with their half-moon steering gear. To him it was still not flying but it was getting closer.
First on Thursday night was the required drilling with unloaded 3.03s. Standing at attention, at ease, presenting arms, about turns, marching this way and that for a given period of time. Then there were alternatives such as floor hockey, (broom-stick handles and a felt ring), basketball, weight lifting, and boxing.
Though he wasn't big, he was good at floor hockey because he was fast and strong and fearless. His other favourite was boxing for the same reasons. In two years in the ring he was never once knocked down, but downed many an opponent. One night after a bout he was sitting on a bench in the dressing room as his coach unlaced his gloves. At the far end sat a young man flexing spasmodically. Don't worry about him, said the coach, he just got hit once too often. When the gloves came off he never put them back on.
The only time he was flattened was at air cadet camp the summer he turned fifteen when he got caught by a surprise bare-knuckled fist in a mêlée outside his barracks. That time he saw stars against black and fell face forward to the pavement.
The train took them to air cadet camp, which was located at the RCAF base near Aylmer. It was the first time he had been on a train. He didn't think much of it because the coal fired machine belched soot that penetrated the coaches even with all the windows shut. They arrived in the late afternoon in time to take their assigned bunks and head for the mess hall. Lights-out was ten o'clock.
The first day started well with the sergeant yelling, "Aw-right! Let go o' your cocks, and grab your socks, it's daylight in the swamp!" He always hated mornings, but couldn't help smiling at that call. After showering and dressing they headed for breakfast and then fell in for roll call, drilling, and then a tour of the camp.
The second day a flight of about a dozen of them were taken to a machine gun pit. As they grouped around the back of the gun, which was on its mount and pointed toward the sandbags at the opposite end about thirty metres away, the adult, active-service sergeant asked if there was anyone who would stand in front of the sandbags and hold a cigarette out while the sergeant shot it out of his fingers. One volunteer followed another until five lost their nerve, each within seconds.
Meanwhile, he was pondering hard. There was no way, he concluded, that the air force would put in charge of a group of young cadets at a live firing range some kind of nut who would actually perform as the sergeant promised to do. The sergeant had to be bluffing, so he decided to call the bluff and volunteered. He took the cigarette from the latest loss-of-nerve and stood where the others had, holding the cigarette at arms length, upright between forefinger and thumb. He held steady. The sergeant put point of pistol to eye and slowly stretched his arm in aim. The flight was as silent as the sand they stood on, waiting for him to break. He held steady. Are you ready? called the sergeant. He replied in the affirmative. Are you sure? Sure. All held their breath and waited for the snap of the revolver. But it never came. The sergeant lowered the pistol, his face slightly blushing in admiration, then briskly said firing ranges were for serious training and that none of them should ever allow themselves to be used as targets.
He of course, who had not been looking for adulation, who was generally well-liked, was enhanced to hero status in the eyes of his peers. That was okay. But what he really enjoyed was his successful exercise of logic. The next time he became a major centre of attraction was about midway of their two-week stay when a hard-driven fist caught him off-guard and he hit the pavement face down outside the barracks.
These kinds of things happen without plan. It's like a tornado that stirs to violence out of a seemingly placid late afternoon. It was a hot late July dusk and someone somewhere in the two barracks that housed the squadron flicked a towel at someone else. The flicker was flicked by the flickee. And like a match thrown on dry straw both barracks were at it within minutes. Naturally, tribal instincts surfaced, and it became a battle between one barrack against the other.
Someone yelled that Billy Kent had wet his towel. That was against the rules. He had always gotten along well with Billy Kent who, although not a neighbour, lived in Mechanicsville just over the bridge and they shared the same school in grades seven and eight. On hearing that Billy had broken the rules, he, in full throttle, wet his. Within minutes the brawl had diminished to a duel between Billy and himself, on the pavement outside the barracks inside a circle of the completed contenders who now just stood and watched.
Billy snapped his towel but missed as he ducked and came up to burn Billy's arm with his. Several times in rapid succession the same thing happened. The final time as he came up to snap his towel he met Billy's fist full force. He saw black only for a split second but that was long enough for him to lose his balance because he was already bent over to duck under Billy's towel. The full force of Billy's punch caught him square on the nose.
Several pairs of hands immediately reached for him and he was guided to the first-aid station, nose bleeding profusely. Expert medics stopped the bleeding within minutes. All he wanted to know was if his nose was broken. He relaxed when told no. While still on the table Billy came in and apologized, explaining that being hit was okay because that was part of the duel but that he had lost it when he felt water on his arm each time he was struck. Still lying flat, icepack on his nose, he accepted the apology but argued that he had wet his towel only because he had been led to believe that Billy had wet his. Billy denied having wet his towel and handed it over as evidence. Sure enough, it was dry and he said it was his turn to apologize and did so. Everyone went to bed thoroughly sated and on good terms.
The next morning just out of the showers he couldn't believe his face in the mirror. His face had swollen so that the only way one could tell he had a nose at all was because of the two tiny nostril holes. After breakfast they were paraded on the tarmac in their winter woolens in a sun that baked at 120 degrees in the shade. They were made to stand at attention for longer than they had ever had to stand before. At one point the adult Commanding Officer walked by for inspection and, though he had been forewarned, he was visibly startled when his eyes caught the swollen face.
Eventually, standing at attention in the heat of the sun, cadets began to faint. He could see them drop in front of him, and sense them drop beside and behind him. He thought that fainters would simply fall forward flat on their faces but they didn't. Their knees just buckled slowly and they collapsed on top of themselves. Handy were sergeants and corporals who caught them and let them down gently. He was proud of the fact that he was among those who stood firmly until the exercise was called off and they were dismissed.
His apparent courage at the firing range, and the fact that he never complained to Mommy and Daddy about that experience, nor of his puffed face, stood him in good stead that September when it came to the two cadets who were chosen for fighter-pilot training. In order to qualify, cadets had to have at least the rank of Leading Air Craftsman, so he was given a propeller insignia to sow onto the upper arms of his uniform. Throughout that fiscal year, from September through June, each Saturday morning for two hours, he flew in Harvard Trainers with RCAF fighter pilot officers who were keeping up their time.
The Harvards came into being in 1934 and were used by the British, the Americans, and the Canadians to train fighter pilots during the Second World War. They were excellent for the assigned task because, as the pilots would say, you could turn them inside out.
Until that first two hours in the Harvard, he had sat at, and handled, the essential controls of the old Anson, the Expediter, and the Dakota also known as the DC-3, the latter being one of the most airworthy crafts ever built and were used as cargo planes and parachutist carriers during the war. When he took the half-moon wheels of any of these three, twin-engined planes, he could feel the resistance to his pressure. These planes needed time and some force to maneuver. When he was given permission to take the joystick in the Harvard he did so with the same strength and almost flipped the plane over, so sensitive was it to the touch. He felt embarrassed but the pilot said nothing.
Then the pilot resumed control and climbed to twenty thousand feet. He began to fly as if he was in battle with an enemy fighter. There were corkscrew dives, inside loops, outside loops, sideslips, rolls. He saw that in a straight dive the needle hit180 miles per hour. Even at maximum speed it wasn't the fastest plane. But there was little you couldn't do with it. When the pilot pulled out of the dive at the bottom of the U he could feel the thrill right down to his gonads and for ten thousand feet up.
After two hours of this the pilot looked back with a grin to see if his passenger was conscious and in good health. He grinned back because he felt as good as he looked. Throughout, he'd never had a flicker of fear. Then the back of his head, his neck, and his ears, went hot orgasmic as he heard the pilot say, "Okay take ‘er home."
His feet firm on the pedals, his hand gentle on the stick, he took control and scored big with the pilot because he proved he had not lost his bearings in the thick of battle. He turned the plane directly toward base and, keeping the nose on the horizon, brought ‘er home.
Though there were many thereafter, that flight would forever fly highest in his soul.
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