Sunday, 22 November 2015
OF AIRPLANES AND CATTAILS
To many who volunteered for service during the war, what they got wasn't exactly what they thought they were getting into. So many entered, expecting to be deployed overseas but instead got assigned to posts in this country, and sometimes even close to home. But most could at least be happy they were put to work here, even if it didn't seem as glamorous. And it was absolutely necessary to have personnel on this side of the pond to help train those who were headed across. Still it could get somewhat monotonous; military work could get that way. Just the same there were times when things could get interesting and the boredom didn't seem to be so bad.
Don enlisted in the air force as soon as he was old enough to volunteer. After training he was assigned to several different air fields in Alberta and Saskatchewan where training of new pilots and crews went on at a feverish pace, but the station that had him the longest was Calgary. And that seemed strange to Don because his home was Lethbridge, just a hop skip and a jump to the south.
To go off in a bit if a tangent here, Don could get the occasional weekend furlough home if a crew happened to be flying down to Kenyon Field at that time. The only requirement was to check out a parachute just in case everyone had to bail out.
It was interesting in that Don had to take the bus back to Calgary and he looked a little silly carrying a parachute onto the bus for the return trip. A few drivers even mentioned that.
Aircraft maintenance was the task Don was given. Being more or less the junior of the squad, he found himself doing nearly every aspect of maintenance that could be imagined. And most of them were jobs that either the more senior of the enlisted men didn't want or physically couldn't fit in the often cramped spaces. Don cleaned the Plexiglas canopies, wiped the grease off the fuselage, checked the air in the tires, and more often than not, was the one assigned to clean the vomit from inside the cockpit, after a new pilot trainee lost the stalls and spins contest.
Every morning at precisely five AM, rain or shine, or snow, or ice, the base was awakened by the lone trumpeter. This guy must have loved his job because he seemed to play continuously, well beyond the usual time it took to wake everyone up. Everyone on the base (even the roosters at the neighboring farms) developed an extreme dislike for this untalented musician and everyone tried to come up with a way to sabotage his morning regimen. Ideas like whizzing in his bugle, or filling it with something more solid were passed around but the man kept such close tabs on that horn that access was impossible; they were sure he showered with it.
A new instructor was assigned to the base. This guy was the real thing; he was a combat veteran who had been up close and personal with the enemy, close enough to see the whites of their eyes. He had spent countless hours in the air defending England from the invading Luftwaffe, and then several posts in France and in North Africa. Finally, after receiving his second or third Ace medal, the Brass decided that he'd had enough combat experience and it was time to pass that knowledge and experience onto others. Thus he got shipped home, and on to Calgary.
It turned out that this Flying Officer's quarters was uncomfortably close to the place where the trumpeter began every day. Consequently the officer wasn't receptive to that damned horn screeching at five in the morning. He complained lots but it didn't get him very far.
Now, the trumpeter had an interest in flying; at least he wanted to know what it was like, to be up in the sky, floating high above the clouds, free as a bird... Well, at least he indicated that to his friends, like another trumpeter, because he likely didn't have any friends. One day, after he had finished annoying the entire base, he was strolling around and happened to see Don, intently checking out a single engine trainer.
'Say, Fisher, do you think you could get me a ride on one of those?'
Don thought about it for a minute. He gave a shrug. 'Sure. Might cost you three cartons of cigarettes.' During the war, cigarettes were often hard to come by. Since the majority of soldiers smoked, cigarettes became better currency than actual money.
'Three cartons? Too much. How about one?'
'Never fly.' If the truth be known, a couple packs of cigarettes would have probably sufficed, but this was a business deal, with an enemy, or at least someone who was about as welcome on the base as a turd in a swimming pool. 'Make it two cartons and I'll see what I can do.'
The deal was made and Don headed into the pilots' corner. The veteran flying officer smiled like the cat that was about to eat the canary. For a carton of cigarettes, he'd give that trumpeter an airplane ride he'd never forget.
Notice that the pilot only got one carton of cigarettes? Well, Don was a businessman. Besides, there was a little pain and suffering on Don's behalf that had to be taken into consideration.
Well, the trumpeter checked out a parachute and met the flying officer at the plane that Don had just finished checking off. They boarded and got belted in then Don engaged the starter which brought the big radial engine to life. With the roar of the engine and the blast of sand in the wake of the propeller they were on their way.
The flight lasted less than an hour, more or less the orientation time of a new student pilot. The Harvard landed and taxied back to the maintenance hangar. The pilot shut the engine down and Don couldn't believe his eyes.
There were cattail shards stuck to the rudder; more shards around the pitot tube (the tiny tube that protrudes out from under a wing or along the forward part of the fuselage) and a couple of pieces of stalk on one wing. But Don couldn't believe the shards that were wedged in between the cylinders of the engine and wrapped around the roots of the propeller. How the pilot managed to get large chunks of cattails jammed in around the engine and prop without severely damaging the propeller or crashing the airplane would be a mystery that would never be solved.
The canopy was slid back, probably as soon as the plane touched down. Once parked, the flying officer didn't waste any time exiting the craft. The passenger was another story, as he required help to climb out. Once on the ground he dropped down to his hands and knees and hurled his insides out again. He eventually managed to get to his feet and stagger off to his quarters where he stayed for the remainder of the day.
'Fisher,' the pilot barked out, 'there's an engine vibration around 1700 revs and a little problem with the trim on the rudder. And, uh, wash the puke out of the cockpit!'
Remember the aforementioned pain and suffering?
The next morning at 5:00 sharp, the trumpeter blew his usual wake-up call. For some reason he didn't seem to get the message but at least he didn't ask for another airplane ride.