Sunday, January 29, 2012
Charlie Briggs, Chapter 4 by Roiserer
** 4 **
I'd joined the Empire Air Training Scheme. I remember the flying. I didn't get sick at all, unlike on the chip. Especially if I was the pilot. I loved every minute of the flying; it was everything else I couldn't stand.
Our instructors varied, but I spent most time with a Flt Lt Murray, who was Canadian. He was an affable sort, and unruffled. I daresay that I and the other pupils must have given him a few scares, but he never showed it. It was always a kindly, "what did you just do wrong?" I eventually realised that this was also part of the training.
"I want you all to pass - we need as many pilots as possible," he said, "and if you flunk out as a pilot, we can train you as a gunner or bomb aimer."
I don't think I'd ever heard of flunking out before, and resolved not to do it. He was the sort of man that you didn't want to disappoint, as he was always offering words of encouragement.
Down on the ground it was a different matter. There was always some sergeant yelling at us. Apart from the flying, there was maintenance, cleaning, parading and classes.
Maintenance? Well, that consisted of fetching, carrying, pushing and loading things. I almost never went near an engine. Gradually we were weeded out into two groups: the air crew and the ground crew.
Cleaning? This was the forces, and there was always something to be cleaned. Kit, boots and bunk was just the starter. We scrubbed the mess and class floors, and the toilets. I don't know how my Mum had managed. Then there was the food preparation, or in our case, spud bashing.
Parading? We did some of that, although not as much as I was expecting. I think that this was more to please the bigwigs. I learned how to salute, and to identify ranks.
Classes were sometimes interesting, sometimes boring. The first one included a mockup of the cockpit, and we all got in and learned our rudder control from our aerilons.
Then there were a few questions. "Why are there three runways here?" There was always some clever clogs with a ready answer. "So we can always land into the wind." I didn't want to be too clever by half, but I did want to learn. They tested us, and some didn't pass. There were diagrams, silhouettes, all manner of things to learn.
In the air I felt like a king. We learned on a Harvard, with the instructor sitting behind the pupil. I nearly fell over the first time I got in. The sergeant was there to yell if you stepped on the wrong part of the wing. Flt Lt Murray let me have the controls, and I felt wonderful.
He showed me a stall, then a circle. I racked up hours. The runway was concrete blocks and sounded like a train going over points when you landed or took off.
I learned those as well, eventually. Of course, like any young fellow I got to the point where I thought I knew it all, and then the instructor would tell me to do something different, and I would nearly come to earth. Then I had to wait sheepishly for the "What did you do wrong there?"
The mess was where we spent what free time we had. It was a jut a hut really, but us trainees had our own one. The instructors and officers had their own club, of course, and so did the NCOs. Anyway, I can remember sweeping the place. There was the wireless there, which could pick up American stations, and an old gramophone.
We got to hear all the latest sounds, from Frank Sinatra to Tommy Dorsey. I was amazed to think that I was actually listening to original American music, from America.
Sometimes they tuned the wireless to the world service. Here the news was more grim. One of the lads, Harry I think his name was, had relatives in Coventry. After that he changed a bit, and never cracked a joke after that. When I saw him get in the trainer, he had a look of grim determination. He wasn't first in the group, but he passed every test they set him.
So if I get asked where was I during the Battle of Britain, the answer was that I was in Canada getting trained. I was worried about Mum and Dad when I heard that they were bombing London, and especially about my sister. I knew that Joyce was working close to the centre, and hoped she would be all right.
Of course I wrote - there wasn't much else to do. I wrote to my parents and Joyce, then I wrote to Joe, but I sent it to Mum and Dad, as I didn't know where he was. And I wrote to Eve, every other day, even though the letters only went off once a week. We weren't supposed to say exactly where we were, other than Canada, but I had a lot of other things to say. It's strange to say, but I grew much more fond of her once we were apart. You don't appreciate what you've got until you don't have it. Every time Fats Waller came on the wireless with "When somebody thinks you're wonderful" I was thinking of her.
I got to fire a gun, but it was only a revolver. We were allowed to practice on the range. I started out like James Cagney in the gangster films, but the instructor soon showed me the error of my ways.
We had endless inspections: bunks, kit and guns. We were taught how to take a revolver apart and put it back together, how to clean it, and where to keep the ammo. Sometimes during the inspections they would take your gun apart and get you to put it back together in front of them. Woe betide you if you if your weapon was dirty or ammo unaccounted for at an inspection. That meant a fizzer.
One fizzer was not a big problem. It meant you got some nasty duty like scrubbing down the bog. Two fizzers was more serious, and might affect your advancement.
We didn't get out the entire time. The base was huge, but I'd have liked a chance to meet some of the locals. To me, Canada still means a large air base surrounded by forest. One chap was desperate to meet a local girl and went AWOL. They brought him back, kept him in solitary for a night, and then sent him packing. They made sure we all knew what had happened.
There were some casualties. One poor fellow dropped part of an engine and broke his foot. Another got spots in his eyes after flying at altitude, and was pulled out. He sat mournfully in the corner of the mess, for he was going to have to wait for the rest of us for his trip back.
We also had parachute training. Which consisted of learning to pack a parachute, getting out of the plane (which we did on the ground) and learning to land, which meant jumping off some wooden board about eight feet in the air and doing a shoulder roll. Actually jumping out of an aircraft? You must be joking.
There was no better feeling than the flying. Once Flt Lt Murray got me to pull back the canopy. My, but the air was cold! I couldn’t take more than a minute, even with the goggles – my face felt frozen. I didn’t want to do it again, but a couple of days later we tried it, and somehow I managed to get us almost to landing.
As August came to an end, a cold wind started to blow from the north. It got chilly when we flew at altitude. Then we started needing a coat to go outside in the evenings. The local Canadians didn’t seem to notice.
In the middle of September we held a ceremony. Those who had advanced sufficiently, which included me, officially became Officer Cadets. I got a little crown and wings attached to my collar. I was pleased as punch, and couldn’t wait to tell my parents.
"Congratulations," said the CO. Everyone was smiling. I’ll remember that day for the rest of my life.
The Hunter and the Hunted completed novel
A Slice of Life short story (horror)