Thoughts on Remembrance Day

Remembrance DayI’m watching the people in the line with my Dad.

We’re at the bank and he’s hunched over his walker, struggling a bit to make it through the line. Nobody notices him. He’s invisible. Just another old man with a poppy on his coat, fumbling through his day.

His back is curved like a bend in a winding path through tall grass. Bits of mottled scalp show through the errant wisps of silver hair and he hasn’t shaved for a couple of days. His golf shirt has a stain. His lips are locked in a perpetual frown and the pain from his prostate cancer reflects in his eyes. He shuffles ahead when it’s his turn and fishes his bank book out of his pocket.

No debit card. Just a bank book.

He’s old school, and as I watch him crack a smile at the young teller, I’m okay with his reluctance to embrace change. He lived in a world that moved so much slower. A world that valued the simpler things because there was nothing else. But it was a world that descended into some of the darkest days our race has ever seen. A time when war settled in and threatened our very existence.

World War II.

My Dad was born in 1922 and that made him twenty years old in 1942. It was an unfortunate time to be that age. He knew there was no escaping the services, so he looked at his options. When he thought of the Army, visions of dying in a muddy trench floated through his mind. The Navy was equally as dismal – torpedoed in the North Atlantic and dumped in the freezing water to drown alongside hundreds of other unfortunates. That left the Air Force.

This wasn’t so bad. He could fly over the battlefields – above the mud, the trenches and the death – over the harsh and unforgiving seas. That appealed to him. He pushed the thought of dropping out the sky engulfed in flames from his mind and enlisted. He has lots of stories from what happened in the ensuing three years, and I want to share four of them with you. I’ll be quick – I know you’re busy.

Trenton

 

Soldiers go through basic training and enlistees to the Air Force had to suffer with the rest of them. While Dad was at Trenton, he had a chance to take a flight in a Harvard with one of the pilots on the base. Dad went to his superior officer and asked permission, telling him that this was the pilot’s first time flying that type of aircraft.

“Too many things for you to do on the ground,” the senior officer said. “Permission denied.”

Dad watched the Harvard take off and climb, diminishing in size until it was a speck against the deep blue of the summer sky. Then he watched the unthinkable. The plane’s nose dipped, then spiraled down, gaining speed as it fell. It crashed not far from the airstrip, and erupted into a massive fireball. The pilot was killed.

The Junior Navigator

Dad was shipped to a bomber squadron in Scotland after basic training and inside the first couple of weeks he was in the air as a junior navigator. One of his first flights was memorable.

Once in the air and at cruising altitude, he and the senior navigator independently calculated their position and azimuth. Midway into the flight, Dad mentioned to the other man that they had better turn around and head back or they wouldn’t have enough fuel to make it.

“We’re heading for the base now,” the senior man replied.

Dad checked his calculations. “No,” he said. “We’re heading out to sea. Your calculations are out by 180 degrees.”

Their conversation quickly deteriorated into an argument, with the other navigator refusing to budge. Dad called up to the pilot and told him to turn around immediately or they would crash at sea and be lost. The other navigator told him to keep flying.

The captain left the cockpit and came back to speak with his navigators face-to-face.

“Are you sure you’re calculations are correct?” he asked.

The senior man nodded. “I’m pretty sure I’m right.”

The pilot looked at Dad.

“I’m damn sure I’m right,” he said.

The pilot turned the plane around and they landed with nothing more than fumes in the fuel tank.

The Fog

Scotland gets foggy. Really foggy. Like pea soup as the cliché goes.

Couple that with a wartime blackout and you have a recipe for disaster for the bomber and fighter squadrons based out of Scotland. Dad flew in the fog a lot, but one night was far more terrifying than most.

They were given a target at the extreme edge of their plane’s fuel capacity. The pilot, who Dad had been flying with for some time now, chose a spot in the center of the pack for takeoff. His reasoning, and it proved correct, was that the first plane or two would not have enough time to warm up their engines, and with a full fuel tank and load of bombs, the chances of crashing on takeoff were high.

The first plane nosedived into the English Channel and the crew were killed.

The last planes to leave had to open their throttles to climb fast and catch the rest of the formation. That depleted fuel and lessened their chances of having enough to make it home. That night, eight planes disappeared on the return flight. No explanation of what happened, but running out of gas was the most likely culprit.

They were returning from their mission and running low on fuel. The base was completely fogged in and there were no landing lights. They were flying blind in a thick cloud and slowly nosing down toward land’s edge, which was a steep cliff with the runway starting right at the drop off. The pilot knew the altitude he needed to come in at and held the plane steady as they came closer and closer to the shoreline.

One mistake in Dad’s calculations could put them fifty or a hundred feet to the left or right of the runway. Twenty feet vertically would see them crash into the cliff or overshoot the runway. They were out of fuel and had one attempt to land.

The gunner started yelling. “The runway. It’s right under us. Get down now.”

The pilot set the plane down and slammed on the brakes, hoping they had enough runway left to stop. They came to a stop and got the plane off the runway, aware that another plane coming in behind them could hit them.

Blackpool

Dad only gave up on making it through the war alive once. It was at night over the English city of Blackpool.

They were coming back from patrolling the coastline, looking for U-boats, when they lost their engines. Some glitch in the system took out both of them at exactly the same time. The pilot steered toward land with a dead stick. They came in over Blackpool and dropped the landing gear. The bottom of the plane was scraping the tree tops and Dad leaned back against the fuselage and closed his eyes.

They were dead. He had absolutely no doubt about it. Six more casualties in a brutal war.

Then the pilot yelled. “Hold on, we’re going to land.”

Dad felt the wheels touch down on smooth pavement and the bomber glided to a halt. When he looked out, they were sitting on amidst a group of British fighter planes. They had cleared the last of the trees with inches to spare and directly ahead was a runway.

Sometimes you just have to wonder.

My father left his home in Canada and a woman who was waiting for him and eventually became his wife of sixty-four years. He abandoned a peaceful place and traded it for the horror of a world at war. He did so voluntarily. And four times during WWII my Dad cheated imminent death.

I watch as my Dad finishes at the teller, and we leave the bank together. He motors along, clutching his walker and dragging his feet. He’s puffing by the time we reach the car. I help him in and buckle his seatbelt.

“Thanks for driving me to the bank,” he says.

“Of course, Dad.”

“You’re so busy. I hate to ask you.” He lapses into silence, then adds, “I’m so useless now.”

I touch him on the knee and smile. “No, Dad, you’re just a bit slower than you used to be. You’re still the man you’ve always been.”

And as I back out of the parking spot and head back to his retirement home, I know in my heart that this man is my hero. Always was. Always will be.

How special is that?

Written on Remembrance Day, 2010, for my Dad. And for every other veteran who gave so much so we could live in freedom.

The picture accompanying this blog is of Ron Buick sitting next to his dress uniform. The picture on the table with the cap resting on it is Ron's RCAF photo, taken when he was twenty years old.


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