Monday, October 10, 2011

Swimming in Arizona


Thirty metre pool,
Water pattern crinkled, blue.
Aussie Crawl.
Pure Zen.

Desert hills, shadows
changing colors, black and pink.
Sauvignion Blanc.
Pour!

Thursday, September 29, 2011

HUBRIS at Flight Level 350




Do we challenge the gods? Or should we?

I had just celebrated my thirty-fifth birthday and life was becoming very sweet. I was flying airplanes I loved – newly painted, McDonald Douglas DC 9 Dash 30s. Within the year I would probably be a captain again, but this time, a well-paid airline captain, not an Air Force one. The skills were the same, but the airline job was much easier – we had a strong union and no additional squadron duties! At the moment, my co-pilot’s pay was certainly enough to give us a comfortable life, but captain’s pay would increase my salary significantly enough for lots of overseas holiday travel with the passes provided by Air West.

We looked forward to several vacations a year; taking the girls on overseas jaunts, enrolling them in a private school, private ski and dance instruction and further on in life, their attending the nearby university with its many sorority houses for the darlings of well-to-do businessmen. Life was sweetening with each salary bump. As they say now, "Life is good."

Flying north over Idaho in the late winter afternoon, the Captain pointed out how the shadows on the ground showed the wagon tracks of the early settlers. When I compared my life to theirs, I couldn’t help but think I had it ‘made in the shade’. After leaving our ticky-tacky house in California, we had settled into a 1914 vintage home in the North End of Tacoma – the ‘better’ neighborhood of doctors, lawyers and assorted white Indian chiefs, far to the north of the blue collar house where Marlene had grown up. Our two-storey house had a bedroom for each of our daughters and they were attending an elementary school to which they could safely walk. They had a ready-made circle of friends nearby and we looked forward to summer parties surrounded by rhododendrons on the lawn that was tended by our Japanese gardener. Marlene’s mum was delighted that she could see her grandchildren, her daughter and her successful son-in-law, the airline pilot.

Looking to the north from our cruising altitude of 35,000 feet, I saw a flash of lightning. Funny, there were no cumulus clouds there. Were the gods angry at my hubris? Was Zeus playing tricks on me, or sending me a message? Well, I had a break coming – three days off and plenty to do around the house.

Medical exams are a large factor in a successful career for ship’s captains, truck drivers and pilots; if you are aware of any health problems, you take appropriate steps to ensure that they are taken care of prior to an official record. So following our first trip to Europe, I discussed with Marlene the wisdom of having a private medical exam from a non-Federal Aviation Agency approved doctor to establish a base line for any future official physical exams. Our Family Practice physician had recommended a colleague who was equipped with the latest diagnostic equipment including a treadmill – an item not yet in the cardiologist's common inventory who usually used a small stool to conduct the Captain’s Two-step - a stress test named many years ago for ship's captain's medical exams and now used occasionally for airline physicals.

My April 15th appointment was at the beginning of a three-day break in my schedule so I was well rested when, fully wired-up with sensors, I stepped on the treadmill. Today’s machines run smoothly and without much noise but Dr. Billingsley’s machine sounded like an empty flatcar being shunted over Tacoma’s tide-flats just below our house. After three-minute warm-up, the slowly moving walkway was raised and the speed increased. I began to feel the shortness of breath I had experienced earlier in the week when I went for my afternoon run.

The machine stopped suddenly and Billingsley took my arm and asked me to step down and lie on the examining table.

“Are you experiencing any discomfort?” he said.

“No, just out of breath,” I said. “I’m a bit out of condition and I haven’t been exercising much lately.”

He put a small white tablet under my tongue and told me to lie still while the lab assistant removed the electro sensors from my chest. After a few minutes, I put on my street clothes and joined him in his office.

“Bill, I understand you are an airline pilot,” he said. “Have you had this shortness of breath any other time?”

I thought about a night the previous week when I was making a landing at the Tri Cities Airport near Pasco in southern Washington. An approach to the south west runway would normally begin from the east of the airfield, but as we were headed south from Boeing Field in Seattle we were required to ‘circle’ the field so as to land to the west. At that time, there was no precision approach and new to the route, I had not made this type of procedure here before. With the low ceiling, we circled to the north of the runway at 600 feet above the ground before making our turn to a final approach. As this was my ‘leg’ and I was flying in the 1st Officer’s seat, I could see lots of flashing red lights off the end of the runway. I suspected there had been an accident and was concerned about making a missed approach. The captain, noticing my apparent anxiety, explained to me that this was a “hump yard”, a train switching area and to continue the approach. I suspect I was anxious and pumping a little more adrenaline than normal, and at that time I noticed this shortness of breath that quickly passed as we completed our landing.

“Yes, Doctor,” I said. “I noticed it the other night on an approach to Pasco.”

Jim Billingsley was also a pilot and, as I later found out, a fairly good one who owned his own Beech Bonanza. He understood why I had been anxious, but he also knew why the shortness of breath had appeared.

“I’m sorry to tell you this,” he said, “but you have a serious heart problem. I saw it on the electrocardiogram tracing when you were on the treadmill. That’s why we terminated the test. If you had continued, you could have had a heart attack!”

I immediately thought about last week’s scenario in Pasco. If 1st Officer Critch had a heart attack, the airplane could have rolled right into the ground before the captain, distracted by a radio call, could take over. 

It was quiet for a minute. “Well doc,” I said, “I think I’d best ground myself until we get this sorted out.” He said quietly, “I don’t think it will get sorted out. It’s very serious and I suspect that your flying days are over, Bill. You have what I call a coronary insufficiency, which is to say that my preliminary diagnosis is advanced arteriosclerosis.”

I’m 35, look younger, I don’t smoke much, I drink booze like the rest of my contemporaries and I’m not overweight. What’s this arteriosclerosis? I’ve never heard of it! But I think of the consequences of not reporting this condition and continuing flying. Apart from a clear violation of Federal Aviation Regulations, a lot of people including myself could end up dead.

I came home much later than expected and Marlene and the girls were already having supper.

“How’d you like Dr Billingsley?” Marlene said.

“Not very well. I’m grounded!”

It became very quiet at the table. Sheila continued eating her fried chicken, but Tammy sensed Marlene’s reaction and she asked, “What’s wrong, Dad? Are you sick?”

Like most aviators’ wives, Marlene understood very well what ‘grounded’ meant. If it was permanent it meant a huge loss of income and a drastic change of lifestyle. Most of our pilot friends had big mortgages, several cars and very expensive tastes in travel and entertaining. Several were already on their 2nd marriage and were paying alimony and child support based on generous court settlements quickly agreed to. They had challenged the gods but no bolt of lightning warned them to back off. The gods were definitely not smiling on us! So much for the sweet life, ‘made in the shade’.

Of course, that’s not the end of the story.

That night with the kids asleep and ourselves wide awake, over a glass of plebian Pink Chablis, we discussed our resources and our future plans.

Did I challenge the gods? Should we?

Yes, I think we should. We challenge life by tossing the big, brown Australian pennies and shouting as they spin, “Sydney or the bush!” What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger. My high school motto was, “Dare to do as much as you are able” and if I have passed that on to my kids, I’ve succeeded in challenging the gods….and won.

(In retrospect, it worked out rather well: we both started college two months later, scraped by on the money we had saved and in three years I was employed by Boeing; in five years Marlene was hired as the assistant Director of Medical records in a large local hospital. Of course, my flying days were over, but I continued to train ‘real’ pilots in the simulators and never again did I consider that we might have it “made in the shade.”)










Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Night Fright

















After Bainbridge Air Base, which had been a 'country club' existence, Reese Air Force Base, Texas comes as a shock. We are in World War 2 style barracks, albeit three to a room with an adjacent small, common room with three metal desks and chairs. We have our own shower and toilet which when compared to the cadets' living quarters 10 years before, is luxury. But, as Under Class we are always ready for 'spot' inspections by the TAC Officers or our Upper Classmen. We keep everything in white glove condition - except on Friday nights when we are exempt and the beer is 'on' at the Cadet Club.

It is a mixed class - half the students are aviation cadets and the others are commissioned officers from ROTC (a college commissioning program at 'land grant' universities), a U.S. military academy, or perhaps Officer Candidate School or even some who have been navigators. They live in the Bachelor Officers' Quarters (BOQ) or with their spouses in off base in private rentals. We are all expected to attend the same classes and compete for class standing which, when it comes time to be given our assignments, will determine the order in which we chose them.

Reese is no 'country club'. It is strictly military - gate guards 24 hours a day, salutes for the incoming officers' cars which have special stickers, and inspections for the cars piled full of soon-to-graduate, sometimes inebriated, Upper Class Aviation Cadets. As Lubbock is a 'dry' Texas town with a church on almost every corner and no bars, we drive to the next county that allows us to imbibe of Texas hospitality.

As before, the flight schedule alternates between a five o'clock reveille for morning flying, with afternoon academics and physical training, and a six o'clock bugle if the schedule is reversed. We have begun our last phase in September 1957 and the Texas autumn weather is excellent to begin our training in the twin engine, Mitchell medium bomber.

The B-25 'Mitchell' had been the star of the 1st bombing raid on Tokyo in 1942 led by Jimmy Doolittle from the deck of the aircraft carrier 'Hornet'. (It was also the star of the Hollywood movie, "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo" which I saw as a nine year old at the Bondi Junction Regal Theater.) Our base commander at Reese, Colonel Travis Hoover, who is nearing retirement, had been on the Doolittle raid and while we see little of him, it gives us a warrior's link with an historic moment in U.S. history. On Saturday mornings, we pass in review under the watchful eye of our training officers, the Colonel and his staff. They stand; we march to the cadet Drum and Bugle Corps.

Each instructor has four students and I have been fortunate enough to pick my instructor before we were assigned. A close friend at Bainbridge told me to 'look up' one of his friends, Lt. Bob Applebaugh. “Archiebooch” is newly fledged and as luck would have it, I am in his flight. We bond from the beginning, and under his gentle hand, I transition into the 'Mitchell' with no problems. My barracks roommate Henry, No Middle Initial (MNI), Brown and I team together for our dual instruction and for our first day and night solo flights.

Just like most modern twins today, the B-25 has two pilot seats - one on the left designated for the captain and one on the right for the co-pilot. Why? Well, the left seat has the nose-wheel steering control and as the captain usually makes the landing; he can steer the airplane as it slows down. Besides, it's been the tradition for many years and the military is not one to break with tradition.

Solo night flying in Basic Flying School is a very controlled exercise. Think for a moment about 20 or 30 very low time pilots flying a bomber around a traffic pattern and exercising their own judgment based on a small amount of experience.

Scary!

We have seven or eight airplanes in layers at different altitudes with each layer vertically separated by 2,000 feet. The bottom layer lands first, and the two higher layers space themselves to avoid collisions - I had come close to a collision in Primary training and had no desire to repeat another near miss.

Henry No Middle Initial and I are in the middle layer and I am in the left seat 'playing' captain. It's my ship; I'm in command. You've seen the anti collision lights on modern aircraft - strobe lights on the tail and on the wing tips in addition to the standard red and green lights. The B-25 had no strobe lights, just the wing tips and a rotating anti-collision light under the belly. Planes follow the same rules as boats: green for the starboard (right) side and red for the port (left). Imagine 16 sets of red and green lights in the upper two layers, all flying in a clockwise direction, and four scared eyes in each cockpit hoping to avoid every other set of scared eyes.

We are both tired from physical training that afternoon and of course the usual 6 a.m. wake-up. Henry is looking out to the right side, I'm looking straight ahead and I think I see a bifurcating red and green light - the gap is growing wider and I assume someone's going the wrong way and heading straight for us. What I really see are two airplanes at our level but its fuselage obscures the green light, and the red light is other. I immediately roll into an almost vertical bank to avoid what I believe will be a mid air collision and Henry thinks I've lost it. Before he can decide what to do I realize my error and begin to right the airplane from what has developed into a most unusual attitude.

Recovery from 'unusual attitudes' is on the flight curriculum and we have practiced several already, but we are not yet proficient in that exercise. After this night solo, I am more than proficient in determining what the lights mean.
We make it to the bottom layer, I shoot three landings; we park with the engines running and swap seats. Henry has no trouble in telling me to watch for other aircraft and I sense he's glad he's driving.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Turn 'im Loose


Gunnedah 1949

Once upon a time, a rather confused, fifteen year old boy was cut loose from adult guidance to find his place in the world in a small bush town on the Northwest Slopes of New South Wales.

His only relative, a sister Mary, had left town to secure what she thought was a better future with an itinerant surveyor who promised her a better life than bookkeeping at the Boggabri Farmers’ Co-Operative.

Having failed the Third Year of high school and lost his scholarship at Riverview, Bill was forced to repeat the school year to secure the very basic Intermediate Certificate issued by the New South Wales Department of Education. Two weeks into the year, Bill rode the bus twenty-five miles to Gunnedah Intermediate High School and announced to the Principal, “Ook” Whitbread that he would be his new student. Graciously, Mr. Whitbread admitted him and placed him in 3B sitting in the front row next to the class nerd, whose face covered in teenage pimples.

But Bill was a bright lad despite his recent failure at the prestigious Jesuit college in the Big Smoke and soon was upgraded to the more elite, 3A. And better yet, he was recruited to sit in the back of the class with the ‘in’ crowd of local blokes: John Jones, Rossie Norman and the rest of the footy team. Bill was not a great sportsman, but had a quick wit and as the curriculum was very much below what he had in Sydney, he was able to be a smarty-pants and earn the respect of his peers, if not his teachers.

Luckily, John Jones’ parents took a shine to Bill and allowed him to stay with them. Mary was still sending 10/- a week for his board and this seemed fair to the Jones. He shared a twin bed with his mate John in the sleep-out at the back of their house by the single railroad track leading north to Moree and south to Sydney. Soon however, with John’s help, he got a job selling newspapers at two of the local pubs: The Royal and the Court House Hotels on Conadilly Street. Not a bad lurk! Bill borrowed Mr. Jones’ bike and John and he would rendezvous at the Gunnedah Railway Station at 5 PM, collect their 100 Daily Telegraph and 20 Sydney Morning Herald newspapers, secure them between the upturned handlebars, and head downtown to their pubs.

“Laaaaay-up, laaaaay-up,” he yelled as he entered the six-o’clock swill at the Bar. Quietly he would go from table to table in the Lounge asking, “Paper sir? Madam?” Papers were tuppence, and most of the drinkers who had their schooners lined up on the bar or window-sill, gave him a thrippenny bit and winked at the change. The Lounge offered better tips, but was not shoulder to shoulder like the Public Bar. Not a bad job for the fifteen year old.

Not content with the newspaper job, Bill introduced himself to the local photographer, Keith Riley, a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society who having avoided military service in World War 2, made a pile of money taking pictures of the ‘diggers’ prior to their leaving the nearby military camp enroute to the Middle East to defend the Empire. Keith and his attractive wife, Joyce, a relative of a local squatter family, the Heaths, offered Bill a job taking photographs at local dances – ‘candids’ as they were then called. This was great fun and allowed Bill enough pocket money to relieve his sister’s burden of supporting him. It also allowed him to upgrade his clothes that were now looking a bit worn. These new threads attracted the attention of the local girls who while they did not consider him future husband material, found him a bright spot in this rather quiet country town. And, he was a foreigner! Yes, Bill had never forgotten that his parents had not only left him their kind regards, but a birth certificate which showed he was an American!

Being a good Catholic boy, he did not join the Church of England Youth Fellowship with John Jones, but searched for a Catholic alternative. The local parish priest, Monsignor McDermott, had decided that the Young Christian Workers (YCW) was the choice of youth groups for catholic Gunnedah.

The YCW became a focus in Bill Critch’s life. Guided by his close friendship with its president, Bill Clegg, he could see the advantage of being associated with a fraternal group of young men and women: trips away from Gunnedah to visit other YCWs, dances at the Parish Hall, and an imprimatur from the priests which allowed him to associate socially with ‘cockeys’, business owners and professionals beyond the social contacts of the Jones’ family. And his new job as a photographer gave him entrĂ©e and some small standing in the community.

But the Saturday afternoon in the Jones house showed him another, very traditional side of Australian life.

On a hot, busy Saturday in Jones’ yellow frame house on Wentworth Street next to the railway tracks leading into town, the corrugated iron roof would crack and snap in anger at the Outback summer’s heat. The kitchen was a cream painted room with a black woodstove, a tiny sink with a simple, copper faucet leading out to the metal fresh water tank connected by downspouts from the iron roof. The ‘Fridge’ throbbed in the corner, its compressor competing with the heat from the open window.

Mrs. Violet Jones always cooked on Saturday. But why heat up the kitchen on an Australian summer day?

The woodstove had a dual task. Fired up early Saturday morning it was for cooking and security. Mrs. Jones baked on Saturday, but as she formed her scones and mixed the Sunday sponge cake, she knew that the real purpose of the blazing stove was not only to ensure a fully risen sponge, but to prevent the Sydney Police’s Flying Squad from finding the evidence of her husband, John’s Saturday business.

John Sr. had an illegal, Starting Price, horseracing ‘book’ and the betting slips were carefully stacked in the living room. If front door was opened on the Squad’s command, to “Open up, this is the police!” the slips would be thrown into the stove.

Behind the house where copies of the bets were stashed in a bottle ready for a long throw into the tall grass, John Junior and Bill watched and waited in relaxed anticipation for a ‘bust’ that never happened. Why? The Clerk of Petty Sessions and the local constabulary were all punters who laid their bets with big John. If they knew the Sydney cops were in town, a quick call to Jones would shut down the operation till the threat passed and headed north to Boggabri and Narrabri!

Bill and John were inseparable. Neither excluded the other from his life: Bill helped John with his homework, John ensured his mates were Bill’s mates. They rode their bikes everywhere: to sell their papers, to collect the small bets for Big John’s bookmaking business, out to Cushan’s swimming hole, and up onto the Porcupine, the hill overlooking Gunnedah. They ‘hung out’ down the lane with John’s future wife, Shirley Southorn and her brothers, and played under the street light until bedtime.

On his sixteenth birthday, Bill left high school and went to work full time as a photographer with Riley. He learned most of the tasks required of a small town photo studio: developing and printing, enlarging, lighting and portraiture, weddings, debutante balls, and when the boss was away, cuddling in the darkroom with compliant girlfriends. Even now, Bill’s libido is still stimulated by the smell of Kodak D-76 developer and fond memories of Carmel and Patricia.

The Jones were Bill’s anchor and for six months, his surrogate parents. However, the workload of two teenage boys became too much for Vi, a tiny woman with a huge heart and a true Aussie ‘mum’. She sorrowfully told Big John to ask Bill to look for another home. But the parental feeling remained for many years and John Jr. and Bill remained mates until John’s death.

Ozzie and Eileen Cross lived around the corner. They were younger, liberally minded couple that offered Bill their hospitality and provided room and board to this young, still confused, rudderless boy who had not yet set his sails. He had met their pubescent daughter, Beverly, at school and they were friends – not boyfriend/girlfriend, just friends. Beverly was a good swimmer and as there was no public (nor private) swimming pool, she and Bill enjoyed swimming at Cushan’s, the local swimming hole on the slow moving Namoi River. John and his steady girlfriend, Shirley Southorn, also swam at Cushan’s, but Shirley was never one to allow another girl to catch John’s eye. Shirley kept a tight rein on John and several years later, they married.

Now eighteen, Bill was eager to return to Sydney and enjoy what he envisioned as a more exciting social life. When Keith Riley decided to close the studio and take an extended vacation in Europe, Bill made plans to move to Sydney.

Late one night while visiting a YCW friend on duty at the Post office telephone exchange, he made a free long distance telephone call to an old friend, Bob Bower, who lived in Waverley, a Sydney suburb. Mr. and Mrs. Bower who had known Bill’s mother, agreed that he could live with them an find a job in Sydney.

He put his bicycle in Cross’s back shed, packed his suitcase and got a free lift to Sydney in the back of a friend’s ‘ute’, waved goodbye to Gunny and disappeared into the night.

Eight hours later, he began his Sydney adventure.

Something Cool


“Something cool.
I’d like to order something cool.
It’s so warm here in town,
And the heat gets me down,
Yes, I’d like something cool.”
.
Late Friday afternoon, mid March, 1957. “Something Cool” June Christy with Stan Kenton is playing on the jukebox in the Cadet Club at Bainbridge Air Base, Georgia.

Six weeks into primary flight training in the United States Air Force and I’ve just passed a Military Evaluation check from Captain Camp. My Southern Airways flight instructor, Mr. P. D. Bridges, had put me up for an Elimination ‘ride’ intent on limiting his student table to commissioned officers. He doesn’t want any cadets, and in particular an Australian cadet who doesn’t understand his southern accent.

Second flight with “PD”

“Let’s do some powah ohn stalls.”

“Some what, sir?”

“Goddammit, Mr. Key-ritch, y’all hurt me. How many times do I havetuh tel yuh.”

Something was very wrong with my flying aptitude, for after everyone else had soloed and turned their baseball caps so that the peak faced forward, here was Cadet Critch, still marching to the flightline looking like a dumbshit with his cap still on backwards. Was I really going to ‘wash out’? That was uncool and I was darned if I would give up until they threw me out of the program.

Well, the captain was no Santa Claus, but he recommended that I change instructors and be given another five hours of instruction. If I hadn’t soloed by then, my options were to be transferred to Navigator training, or reduced to enlisted status to either attend a technical school, or serve out the remainder of my contract for 18 months as an Airman Third Class at some cold, remote Air Force base refueling aircraft.

I’m back early from the flightline hanging out at the Cadet Club; the other cadets are still flying and I’ve got a quiet half hour.

“Yes bartender, I’d like something cool.”

At this hour, it means a lemonade.

The Cadet Club at Bainbridge Air Base was not quite a tarpaper shack, but it had been hastily built at the beginning of the “50,000 Pilots Program” which started in the mid Fifties to provide the Air Force, some NATO and friendly South American countries with pilots to fight either the Cold War or their neighbors. The club allowed Aviation Cadets to have 3.0% beer and fraternize with the local girls imported from the outlying colleges, or those ‘properly introduced’ to the chaplain.

Later Friday night, the club will be filled with cadets and the beer turned on. We smoke – don’t all pilots? We drink – ditto; we plot to get into the pants of the local girls – some do, most don’t, but we are cadets! We fly!

“Do I fly? Why yes little girl, why do you ask?” is the standard response. We talk about flying in front of the girls and about girls when we should be studying our flying. But I did study. Too hard. My roommate, Clinton Dewitt, had been a Marine for several years, already had a multi-engine commercial pilot’s license and was a flight instructor after he left the Corps and long before Bainbridge. He would tell me, “Critchey, you’re trying too hard! Relax!”

The only difference between Clint and a fireplug was that nobody pissed on him. He was stubby, didn’t smile much except in the early morning when he’d roll over in bed, fart, and say in a sweet falsetto, “Good morning Critchey. The Queen’s a whore.” Clint was a real sweetie and a good room mate.

Yes, I was ‘trying too hard’ - my nature I guess, but this afternoon a quiet drink in the club was what I needed. A quiet drink and a chance to settle down. Would I make it? My academics and military grades were very good, and should I fail to solo in the next five flying hours, I’d be sure to be recommended for Navigation School which still produced wings and a commission. Navigator’s wings – a poor imitation of the pilot’s wings we all want.

“Hey Critch, how’d you do?” Gary Fisher has arrived – another mate. We had both held cadet Lieutenant Colonel’s rank in Pre-Flight in Texas.

“O.K. I guess, but I’ll be changing instructors.”

“You’ll make it. PD’s a little shit. You like that music?”

Fisher is a lady’s man. Handsome, suave, big shit-eating grin and probably hung like a stud mule. He’s picked up with an older lady who must be in her late twenties, not particularly good looking, but READY. Man, is she ready and Fish is into it – she thinks he’s serious because he met her at the local Methodist church. Last weekend he took an unauthorized ‘open post’ with Vaughn Wells, his roommate and they split for Panama City. Vaughn tells me Fisher was banging a babe in a trailer with her husband asleep not ten feet away. I suspect that if her old man woke up, Fisher would’ve applied some wrestling hold and put him to sleep. Oh yes, Fisher is also an expert wrestler. He grew up in Jerome, a tough Arizona mining town; he had to be tough.

The weekend over, I meet my new instructor, Earl Wederbrook.

Earl’s a quiet, balding guy and, as it turns out, a college graduate with six kids. He’s a patient man and I see a glimmer of hope. Perhaps the next five hours will do it.


Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Graduation


It’s February in North Texas and we are three weeks away from our bars and wings.

“Have they posted the results from out Nuclear and Special Weapons class, Brownie?” I ask.

Cadet Henry, No Middle Initial, Brown says, “Yes, and you didn’t pass. The re-take is to-morrow.” I notice he sounds smug and happy that his cadet Adjutant has flunked an easy test.

This is serious.

Our post graduation assignments have been based on our total average grade and I have been awarded my first choice, a Military Air Transport Service (MATS) co-pilot slot on the West Coast flying the USAF equivalent of the United plane I maintained just eighteen months ago – the C-118 or DC-6. But re-takes, no matter how good the score, do not alter the grade point. Am I going to lose my assignment? I take off at a brisk double-time to the Admin Sergeant to see what my future holds.

“Do you think I’m going to re-calculate the grade points just because you were dumb enough to miss two questions? Get outta here,” says the sergeant.

Phew! I scraped by that one; good thing too, as it was the last ground school class. I look back and think of the 50% of the guys who didn’t make it through the program. Were we more motivated or just stubborn? No, looking back, I think it was the challenge and kinda fun.

But, in the last weeks our brogans have been stuck to the ground with treacle; check rides are over and flying is all but finished – no more solo in the B-25 with our buddies. As Upper Classmen we can lord it over the lesser beings below us and even that has lost its fun. I have a new checking account, a new car, and my tailored officer’s uniforms. I am dating a Braniff stewardess and already feel like a ‘shavetail’ lieutenant. My interest in the cadet program has waned.

The night before we are awarded our wings, I pick up the Braniff ‘stew’ in my new, metallic blue Chevy Impala and we gather in the Officers’ Club where we will be commissioned Second Lieutenants in the United States Air Force Reserve. Winter demands that we wear our new, blue gabardine uniforms and that the gold bars be pinned by a special person. As cadets are not permitted wives, family members are the designated pinners. But I have a stewardess. What was her name? We are now officers; we drink hard booze and eat steaks. Our instructors bring their wives, with whom we ‘bop’ or jitterbug. To our surprise we are almost the same age and they smell just like the girls we know at home. And they are happy to be momentarily non-wives relieved of their homemaking to flirt with the young, newly commissioned officers who are no longer cadet and off-limits.

Next day, in the Base Theatre, we are awarded our wings. Colonel Dross Ellis, a pilot from Jimmy Doolittle’s 1942 raid on Tokyo, gives a quiet speech. He looks older than his years and sports only two rows of ribbons below his Distinguished Service Cross awarded after the raid. We ascend to the platform and he pins on our pilot’s wings. A handshake and I’m out. Outside the Theatre a line of enlisted men wait to salute us. Are they happy that we have made it? No, they follow the tradition that states that the first enlisted man to salute a newly commissioned officer will receive one dollar. I look for our Escape and Evasion instructor, Master Sergeant “Snakes” Bohl, return his salute and fork over the dollar bill.

I just want my gold bars and wings and O-U-T into the real flying world.

But what will that be? None of my previous life experience is military. Yes, we’ve been surrounded by Tactical Training Officers who watched our every move, flown with our officer pilot instructors, and shared flights with student officers who were commissioned in the Reserve Officer Training Program (ROTC) in college, but we know nothing about the real world of Air Force flying.

Some of my classmates will go to the Strategic Air Command and fly the B-47 bomber; some will become helicopter pilots after they complete helicopter transition, some will fly Boeing Strato-Tankers to refuel our fighters and bombers, but only four of us have earned the coveted MATS assignment. None of us will be assigned to fighters. We are multi-engine pilots but most of our classmates from our previous base are in fighter training and consider themselves the cream of the crop. We know they are wrong, but I suspect most of us are a little envious of the ‘go-fast’ machines into which they will transition after graduation: the Super Saber – F-100, The One Oh Wonder – F-101 a twin-engine reconnaissance fighter, the F-86 Saber of Korean war fame, the F-102 Delta Dagger interceptor. Dangerous and daring, off they go into the wild blue yonder. I will fly low and slow carrying servicemen and their dependents to Hawaii and Japan and later on, to Europe and Greenland.

What became of my classmates?

As the years have passed, I’ve sought them out through mutual friends, airline and business connections, Facebook, Google and the occasional class reunion lists.

In spite of our steely-eyed gaze, short haircuts and super confident demeanor we were all very human. Some went on to fly with airlines, many stayed their twenty plus years with the Air Force retired and went on to other jobs, some were killed in aircraft accidents or in combat, one took his own life, too many have already succumbed to illness and death at an early age, and some write about that glorious time when we were young fledglings, eager to show our stuff not realizing that the wings and bars were merely a license to learn about flying and about ourselves.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Polly


“You’ll have to call them back,” my sister said.

I had applied for a job as a junior clerk with the Insurance Company of North America, an old line Philadelphia company who were establishing themselves in Australia following the Second World War. It had been a week since I had called and there was no reply.

Still a country boy of nineteen, I had no idea of the routine of applying for a job in the Big City. My sister, twelve years my senior, was already making her way up the secretarial ladder and was the assistant to the Chief of Staff of Sydney’s ‘second’ paper, the Daily Telegraph.

“I don’t want to annoy them,” I said. But she was right; the only way ahead was to assert myself and let them know I wanted the job – a job in the Big Smoke.

After a couple of calls, the Manager for New South Wales, Bill Dixon, interviewed me. Just like him, I was dressed in my best blue double-breasted suit, Riverview school-tie and my shoes were brightly polished. So was my smile.

Always the first question, “Where did you go to school?”

My best Public School diction had given me away; yes, I was a Riverview boy and no, I had not completed my Leaving Certificate - the Aussie equivalent of matriculation for university. When I explained why, he seemed to understand – he was a grammar school boy and had served as a fitter in the ‘other ranks’ of the Royal Australian Air Force during the War.

An hour later with several years of U.S. printed, Company Annual Reports to read, I sipped my coffee at Reppins on George Street. I had been hired and could start next week. My sister who had been paying my rent at the boarding house would be delighted.

The five others in the office were a mixed but pleasant lot: Max Riddington, already a household name in surfing Iron Man circles, was a sandy-haired, six footer and soft spoken person; Norm Horwood was our accountant, another tall, single bloke who loved ballroom dancing; Kath Sherlock a strange girl and probably a closet lesbian who took care of all the re-insurance paperwork and a wizard on the primitive calculator; Bill Dixon our New South Wales manager and a very handsome, well dressed gentleman, and Polly. Yes, Polly was our receptionist and Bill Dixon’s secret love for many years even after she returned to her first love – finding a rich husband.

Our associations shape our lives, and Polly surely shaped mine. And her shape was built for heavy duty cuddling. Firm, rounded in the proper places for the times, and an Irish Australian charm that would bring the birds out of the trees. But she wasn’t after those kinds of birds. This girl knew what she wanted.

Prior to joining the Company, Polly had been a stewardess for Trans Oceanic Airways, a small three-plane airline flying large seaplanes to Lord Howe Island and Tasmania. The airline, founded by Captain Brian Monkton, flew the Short Sunderland Hythe, a predecessor to the well-equipped and maintained Ansett Solents. Her flying career was short lived – the airline folded after a year.

A convent-educated, Catholic girl from a North Shore middle class family, Polly found a niche in the City and traveled by electric train to Wahroonga where she and her two sisters lived with their mum and dad, the Postmaster. After we became friends, I would join her for the Friday noon Confessions at St Patrick’s Church just up the hill from the office. I think Polly had a few sins I didn’t quite understand perhaps a result of her many closed-door conferences in Bill Dixon’s office. But Norm, the accountant had very sharp ears and his thin wall adjoined the manager’s office. And, she did not like Norm. Had he heard too much? One evening after a beer at Royal Exchange Hotel, Norm let it slip that Polly and Bill’s relationship was more than just boss and receptionist. Was it just a kiss and a squeeze or more? Did he need a confidant or a lover? I never found out.

But Polly and I did go out together - one or two formal events at the Sydney Trocadero; I in my grey dinner jacket, Polly dressed in a ball gown – I still have the picture, a double date with sister Bernice and her partner of the moment. But like Polly, Bernie loved aviation. Her real fella was learning to fly. How I envied him. My ambition was to be doing anything connected with airplanes; wash ‘em, smell ‘em, fix ‘em and beyond my wildest dreams, to fly them.

I guess I fell in love with Polly at the Annual Office Christmas Party held in the home of the Australia Manager, Mr. E.W.H Cowper. I never did learn his first name, but he had a beautiful home on the harbour in Mosman. The salesmen were there, the Sydney Office, the Head of the Brisbane Office, Dave Stanwix and all the wives and girlfriends. Polly did not bring anyone. Why? She danced with me all night to Cowper’s collection of Big Band records. With sweaty armpits, she oozed a promise I would love to keep and we drank many beers. We danced close and I could feel her body movements like a second skin. Yes, I was definitely aroused and she liked it. But, was I just a ‘cover’ to allay any suspicion that Bill Dixon’s wife may have had?

I longed to take her home but unlike today’s twenty year old, I had no car or motorbike. At two o’clock, the salesmen offered to take the carless home.

Polly left the Company a few weeks later hired as a stewardess by Trans Australian Airlines. She left Sydney and moved to Brisbane.

Did I see her again?

A few months later, I hitchhiked to Brisbane, camping out along the way. Was she gracious when I showed up? Yes, and to the annoyance of her two stewardess roommates, she allowed me to pitch my sleeping bag in the living room. But I was quickly learning that Polly had other interests. She had collared a young business owner who had inherited a cabinet works and was destined to provide a better future for her than the soon-to-be QANTAS blue collar, mechanic. We parted good friends and went on with other lives.

POSTSCRIPT

I left Sydney a year later and began my life in America and a career in aviation. I sent her and Bill Dixon my Graduation Card from the USAF just to show them I was on my way to something better. Showing off? No, they were friends who had helped me along the way: Bill who encouraged me complete three undergraduate insurance courses, Polly who opened my eyes to what women really want.

Just last year, I got in touch with Max Riddington who was long retired and was proud of his son Max, also an Iron Man. Big Max told me that Polly’s relationship with Bill lasted long into his later life. Exactly what that relationship was, I’ll never know. Polly died several years ago. And she had stayed with her cabinet-maker entrepreneur. I guess it pays to shop around.