ALOFT: Pre-War Summer, 1939

There is still the sea, it shall not be dried up.

                                     – Aeschylus

Bdev 86_0016_NEWPhotographs from that summer look like stills from a silent movie. My father appears to be suspended in space, a happy marionette, in watery reflections and soft, billowing clouds, either dangling from a spar or balanced precariously on a bowsprit. There are no backgrounds, no recognizable features of landscape, just water and the hazy skies of western Scotland, the islands of Jura, Coll, Islay, Mull, and the blurred outlines of distant hills. He turned twenty-three on May 31, 1939, poor as a church mouse, but free to do whatever he liked, go wherever he liked. He rented rooms on Gare Loch and was as happy as he’d ever been, sailing the Clyde and swimming, reading Aeschylus in the original Greek with English annotations by Gilbert Murray, sitting up in his garret with an oil lamp flickering while unseen forces were already at work, plotting and reshaping his future.Through a small side window he could see the ships of the Royal Navy moored at the Tail O’ the Bank, making the words of Aeschylus seem all the more prescient: “Deep in that shingle strand, moored the sloops of war, and men thronged the beach of Ilium…” as if it were lifted from the front page of the Glasgow Herald but filtered through an ancient, amber lens.

EG sailing, 1939

There’d been reports of a crisis in Danzig and Spanish refugees crossing into France, and Daladier mobilizing reserve troops. Germany invaded Czechoslovakia in March about when he’d been studying for finals at St. Andrews. He came down in early June, bringing only a few clothes and books (second-hand volumes on moral philosophy for Malcom Knox’s seminar on Hegel) to the temporary digs in Clynder. That same week, the Japanese imposed a naval blockade on the port of Tianjin and began their assault on southern China. While Ernest was aware of these events, they seemed far removed from his daily life and what he remembered was a pleasant bubble of peace, a dream-like respite between St. Andrews and Munich, between Spring Term and mobilization. “Skies were blue; winds were fair and warm,” he wrote twenty years later. “The Firth was saturated with beauty… I had no money, but I lived like a millionaire on what small skill I had as a yachtsman.”

EG Sailing #

Clynder was little more than a post office with a church and a few houses clustered along Rosneath Road but the hills gave it a kind of grandeur, gathering up to the north of the village as they did, veiled in mist. There was no proper kitchen but he could cook sausages and beans on a little propane stove and he toasted bread in the fireplace. Sometimes, on rainy afternoons, he would go to Bremer’s Tea Room near the ferry pier and buy a scotch egg and wash it down with a cup of strong tea. When heScreen Shot 2014-12-20 at 10.52.08 AM wasn’t sailing, he was swimming Rhu Narrows to Blairvadach and back to the shingle beach at Shandon, or walking from his tiny flat on Brookend Brae, past the Presbyterian manse,across fields of slate and heather, past a greenhouse, a mossy weir, up Garelochhead Wood and a high, rain-streaked trail to Knockderry House on Loch Long. From there he looked across to Greenock, but already felt a world removed from his childhood on that distant shore. (He only went to visit his parents twice that summer.) In June, he went to a movie in Helensburgh: Goodbye Mr. Chips starring Greer Garson and Robert Donat. He also read Aldous Huxley’s new novel, After Many a Summer, about a Hollywood millionaire who fears his own impending death.

EG sailingIf the photos from that summer had titles they would be something like “Becalmed Before the Storm”, or “Adrift”, but none of them have titles and there’s no further information so I can only guess their chronology from clues like the shape of his face or the length of his hair. In one, he’s standing at the helm of Janetta, a yawl from Lorimer’s, on a stormy day and he’s smoking a pipe, which I’d never seen him do before. This is probably early summer because his face is closer in shape to that final semester at St. Andrews when he was still boxing and playing rugby. In another, he’s smoking a cigar and posing in the stern of a boat. His chest is thrust out, his hips are cranked, and his hand is resting on the backstay, as if to steady himself. Was he making a joke? Was he drunk? (According to Aunt Grace, he arrived back at Toward Point one night that summer with a black eye and a bloody lip.) An attractive brunette sits in the cockpit with her arm draped over the tiller. She has a coyly bemused expression on her face, suppressing a laugh or possibly trying to ignore my father for behaving like such an ass. It must be late July or early August. The water is glassy smooth, almost obsidian and barely ruffled from the wake of the boat, ghosting along under sail, a mid-summer light washing everything in a luminous glow, my father’s sun-tanned face, his hands, the teak of the deck, block and tackle, transom and traveler, a life-ring with the name of the boat painted on its side. (I can make out an “o” and an “n,” but the brunette’s head blocks out the rest. Could it be Dionne, the mythical ketch of my parent’s first meeting?)

EILEAN, 1938

In another photo he’s been hoisted aloft and is clinging to the mast of a gaff-rigged yawl, looking young and agile while he doffs his cap, mugging for the photographer below. His right foot rests on one of the mast rings while his left hand clings to the halyard. His body is soft and supple, slightly overweight, but well proportioned and you can see how women must have been attracted, but there’s also something uncouth and wooly about him. In another shot he’s wearing baggy black shorts and a velour shirt with a pattern of crowns and diamonds, Glasgow gangster style, and when I first came upon this photograph I thought it had to be someone else, certainly not my solemn Reverend Father. There was Rose in Colonsay and another–Maira?–when he crewed to the south of Ireland on Vagrant. The old Clyde Forty hit a nor’easter on the homeward leg and limped into Dublin for repairsDione? Below Decks. Later in July, he crewed on the 6-meter Circe, the Bermudan yawl Zigeneur and Dragon-class Primula. In early August, he earned ten pounds skippering a ketch up the west coast to Tobermory and out to the island of Muck, “seeking harbor by night in lochs protected by hills ancient with wisdom and offering a rare serenity to those ready to accept it,” he wrote, also mentioning a “beautiful redhead” who he’d met on the pier at Tobermory, but couldn’t remember her name–Ainsely? He wasn’t sure.

On August 20, Germany announced that they’d reached a trade agreement with the Soviet Union. Two days after that, Prime Minister Chamberlain renewed Britain’s pledge of support for Poland, while appealing to Hitler for truce. But the worst was yet to come and on August 23, while Ernest was sailing Dionne to Cowes, seven hundred miles away,chamberlainmunichGermany and the Soviet Union signed their non-aggression pact, paving the way for the invasion of Poland, and as the summer drew to an end, he sensed that his days of lofty indolence were over, and marked a passage with red pencil in his copy of Aeschylus: “What is this insistent fear which in my prophetic heart set and steady beats with evil omen, chanting unbidden a brooding, oracular music? Why can I not cast it out like a dream of dark import?” But he could not cast out that brooding, oracular music from his heart, and he had no doubts that war was imminent and he would be killed.

Robertson Yard 8

Alexander Robertson

My mother, Helen Macintosh Robertson, was on board Dionne for the first leg of the Cowes Race, from Hunter’s Quay to Arran. She was the daughter of Alec Robertson and granddaughter of Alexander, the barrel-chested patriarch of the Robertson family and founder of the self-named yacht business based on the Holy Loch. (Alexander reached prominence in 1902 when he made overnight repairs to Kaiser Whilhelm’s yacht, Meteor III, and was thereafter rewarded with a commission to build the Kaiser’s next boat.) According to my mother, she and Ernest barely exchanged a word the whole time, my father standing on the foredeck, raising another jib while glancing aft to the willowy figure in black oilskin. There were dozens of handsome young men that summer, and she pretended not to notice the tanned, shirtless man in the bow. He remembered the way she chain-smoked and chatted madly in the cockpit, flirting with Sandy Garvie whose father owned Dionne. Maybe he’d been trying too hard to impress her, showing off, she scoffed. Who did he think he was in those shabby shorts and rope belt? “Common” was the word she used forty years after the fact, but he was also darkly handsome and tall and her calculated method of gaining his attention was to ignore him all the way to Arran.

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Dionne placed third in her class and won a bronze plaque. The Garvies put on a festive luncheon for the crew (cold lamb, shepherd’s pie, pickled onions) at the Royal Marine Hotel, a granite pile in Hunter’s Quay with Neo-Tudor gables overlooking the Clyde. Toasts were made all around and my father stayed until the end when everyone stood up to sing God Save the King just before it was announced, almost as an afterthought, that Germany had invaded Poland. After that, everything seemed to unravel and the lofty, loving summer of 1939 came to a rather sudden and squalid end.

Earlier in the week I drove east across the narrow waist of Scotland, doubling back through industrial hinterlands, with black smoke rising over Royston and Wallacewell, through the flatlands of Castlecary to Queensferry, across the Firth of Forth Bridge and up the east coast to Fife. After his “mishap” in the RAF–the crumpled plane, the broken collar bone–my father returned to the comforts and relative safety of student life, this time at St. Andrews, Scotland’s oldest university where he studied from September 1937 to May ****College, St. Andrews 21939 at St. Salvador’s College on North Street with its high tower and courtyard shaded by the venerable thorn tree that Mary Queen of Scots is said to have planted. He took Introductory Hebrew with Sandy Honeyman, the youngest professor at St. Andrews. He sat in a drafty lecture hall and listened to T. Malcolm Knox, a prominent
Hegelian, who taught Moral Philosophy. “In nature everything which happens exemplifies a universal law,” wrote Ernest in his miniscule penmanship with a Burnham fountain pen–speckled orange Bakelite and gold nib–that his parents gave him for his 21st birthday. He drew diagrams of Kant’s Categorical Imperative with a list of sensations–taste, smell, touch–and traced three lines that converged near the middle of the page:

I: (Mechanism)—Thought or Consciousness

II: (Freedom)—Thought – Self-Consciousness

At one point he even considered making a career of moral philosophy. He wasn’t sure how that would work, but anything seemed possible during these idyllic pre-war days. He loved the Old Town, the students, the professors, the ancient golf course and the pristine strand of pale sand that stretched to the north. Again I don’t know much. He didn’t speak very often of these days, and if he did it was usually only a brief anecdote about rugby or drinking beer or saber fencing. He once mentioned his friend Bill McLean who had also signed up for Officer Training Corps (OTC) and how they trekked through the soggy glens of western Fife on weekends dressed in their OTC uniforms of gray kilt, green shirt, long woolen socks, and leather boots. There’s a photograph of them, bivouacked in a field somewhere, lying in the heather, their fresh faces pointed towards the sun.

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St. Andrews

I stroll down Largo Road to Nelson Street where Ernest leased student digs during that final semester before the war, and I follow the same path that he took every morning, past the lawn bowling club and up the well-trodden footpath that crosses Kinnes Burn and tunnels through Louden’s Close, a narrow wynd that passes between stone walls and beneath a low archway onto South Street, now bustling with students in medieval robes, laughing and going about their business. I try to imagine my father here in his crimson robes and thick curly hair, walking up Market Street to the eastern end of town, wandering through the 12th-Century ruins of the cathedral where the relics of Apostle Andrew–fisherman and brother of St. Peter–are said to be buried.  Some of the walls are sill standing but most have collapsed and there’s a mossy bed of grass in place of the floor. It’s a garden puzzle of granite and empty spaces where the sky pushes in and the cruciform plan is still evident in the stones that remain.

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EG at St. Andrews, 1938

 •

All of this was behind me, driving a rented car, passing the Ferguslie lawn-bowls club in Paisley, near the street where I was born, past gray housing and chimneys, and I’m thinking how I like to simplify everything, while my father liked to complicate and obfuscate, or so it seemed, and how my own son feels the same about me and sees excess in almost everything I do. I took M898 across Erskine Bridge and up Great Western Road (A82) toward Crianlarich, through a series of confusing roundabouts, around the far end of Gare Loch, via the old black-topped Haul Road to A814, south onto Rosneath, then all the way down the opposite side of the loch to Clynder. The village seems much the same today as it was during the summer of 1939. There are only a few streets, restaurants, Tam House, Straid-A-Cnoc, Kentroma House, and a more recent block of council flats off Braeside. The steamer ferry’s long gone, but I can see a row of rotting stumps where the old pier once stood. The rusted metal cutout of a kettle hangs in front of the GrDictance Swimmereen Kettle Inn, but it’s closed for business, so I walk the shingle shore, trying to imagine my father swimming the breadth of the loch, the opposite shore being quite distant, the water cold, but I always knew that swimming was like breathing for him. At ten, he’d been inspired by Gertrude Ederle, fabled “Queen of the Waves,” when she swam the English Channel to beat the previous man’s record by an astonishing two hours. My father learned the effortless Trudgen Method from Max Ferguson of the Gourock Lido, a seawater pool built on the rocks near the Caledonian ferry terminal. After months of training in the pool, he began to swim the wilder waters of the Clyde and won his first long-distance race in 1930. Two years later, at 16, he won the Royal Life Saving medal for a two-mile swim between Kilcreggan and Gourock, and by then he’d perfected his own version of the Australian Crawl. (I used to swim far out with him in Gardiner’s Bay, trying to keep apace, and even in his eighties he would push away from the beach and swim hard for a hundred yards before taking a rest.)

Bremer’s Tea Room is no longer there but the building where my father rented rooms is still in tact, a half-timbered boarding house called “Seasgair”, on Brookend Brae with white chickens out back, wire cages, straw and mud, a few plum trees, and a blackened stone wall with patches of moss and miniature ferns sprouting from its mortared seams. I park the car and try to follow the path that he used to take on his Sunday walks, past the manse, up through the woods and over the top of the hill to Loch Long. I go as far as a barbed-wire fence, and stop to look back across the village and the loch, trying to imagine him standing on this same hill, catching his breath, looking out on the same leaden light falling over the inlets of the Clyde that summer more than sixty years ago. His memories were fractured, disconnected, and I have to work with what I have, a few photographs, a few stories, something about the Loch Long Hotel and Sunday walks over Luss Ridge, the highest ridge. He would go for kedgeree with hard-boiled eggs and curried rice after church, on weekends, when there wasn’t a regatta.There used to be a small-gauge railway that stopped in Tarbert and sometimes, when tired from walking, he would ride it through Ardmay and Finnart, across the hills to Garelochhead, then get off in Rhu and take the ferry across Gare Loch to Rosneath and walk down Shore Road and back to his flat in Clynder.

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The Loch Long Hotel is still there, catering to bus tours, a cluster of white buildings running down to the sandy flats of Loin Water. I leave my car by the restaurant, and stand on a stone parapet. I can smell low tide wafting up from the muddy flats and kelp beds. A man is walking a Collie along the water’s edge. I head up the path through an orchard and along the edge of a pine forest with a stream that I could hear but couldn’t see–water gurgling, muffled by pine needles–until I was up to the weir where the hidden stream spilled into a small lake. Further up there was a keeper’s cottage with the Duke of Argyll’s crest emblazoned on the front gable. Straw had been laid out in bails beside a fence. I walk through an iron gate, careful to secure the latch after I’m through, and cross a small stone bridge. There are more trees at this altitude and I continue up an even steeper path that switches back and forth to the very highest part of the ridge where there’s a small pavilion with a bench and a glorious view to the west. It feels much wilder and remote than I expected, and the mountains appear to lift themselves up from their own reflections in the placid waters of the loch. Am I looking for my father’s past or is it something else, my own imprint in all of this? I’m not sure. At times it feels as if I’m chasing the flimsiest shadows through these lochs and glens: mysteries of seaweed, hake and haddock, plaited ferns along the shore, water lapping over gray shale, while across the way the clouds press down against the lower foothills. I suppose it’s the afternoon light and the wetness in the air, but the mood of the moment changes and there’s a downpour followed by a breeze that spreads fan-shaped ripples across the loch. A saturation of light hangs over the glen, and for a moment it feel as if the entire world were pulling back to the horizon–a general ebbing–as happens before a tsunami, the clouds hanging low and ribbed in dull streaks of purple like the cartilaginous underside of a skate’s wing. I think of the way my father would say, “Ochh...” in a weary, drawn out voice when something broke in his hands. Was this the bitter cry of his father or was it his own sense of disappointment?

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He often seemed unapproachable, disconnected from his own body, even when standing in a crowd of people, yet he was hyper-aware of immediate surroundings, aware of who was approaching, who was coming through the door, as if on the alert for a surprise attack. He would scold me for slurring my words and in the way of instruction would enunciate his own words slowly and distinctly like an old-fashioned radio announcer. In the summer he walked around the house naked, without the least bit of modesty. After swimming, he stood in the sun and sucked in his stomach while flexing his abdominal muscles in an undulating motion. He had black spots all over his neck and shoulders–moles, odd pigmentations and blotchy discolorations–from over-exposure to the tropical sun. He was good at grabbing moths in mid-flight and crushing them between his fingers. He preferred not to use toilet paper. He suffered dizzy spells, palpitations of the heart, black outs, fainting spells, and other after effects of malnutrition. He almost never fell into a deep, restful sleep, but would nod off in the living room with a hand draped on his face–his index finger crooked over one eyelid in a guarded way. Sometimes he woke with a start and lashed out, disoriented and confused. He was surprisingly clumsy, well beyond the average, big-man clumsiness. Whenever my father fell on the sidewalk, stumbled down a staircase, slipped on the ice, tripped over a carpet or cut his hand on the lid of a tin can or broke his thumb or accidentally put his hand through a window, it was always extreme, with blood, stitches, curses and ugly bruises that took weeks to heal. Sometimes my father would eat his food like a rapacious dog, stuffing meat or bread into his mouth, swallowing without chewing, jamming it down as if he was still afraid of starving. His favorite sandwich was ripened banana on whole wheat. When he ate an apple, he always ate the whole apple, including the core and seeds. After moving to America in the 1950s, he became even more Scottish in his actions and reactions. His West Highland accent grew stronger. He had his tweed jackets custom-tailored in Duddington Park and he polished his hand-stitched brogues with a special brush. He marched smartly along Prospect Street, nodding and saying “good afternoon” to every student who passed as if he were their commanding officer and they were his subalterns.

The rain passes quickly but leaves a heaviness that lingers for the rest of the afternoon, made all the more poignant by the wind whispering through pine needles. I drive over the hills from Arrochar, along the old Military Road to Tarbet and south through Stuckgowan and Culay, along the tourist-crowded banks of Loch Lomond, through Rhu Wood and Strone Wood and into the village of Luss with its pretty parish church. By now, my head is aching so I stop for a cup of sweet tea at the little Glendarroch Tea Room, overlooking the spot where Luss Stream spills into the loch and leaves a swathe of pebbles in the spreading shallows. I sip my tea and watch the evening light sweep across the water, highlighting one of the little islands–Inchfad, or is it Inchmurrin?–to the opposite bank and the rising slopes of Rowardennan Forest, mythical place of fairies and changelings, the light turning the surface of the water into a spectral entity, skimming the upper reaches of Ballinjour Hill, dipping and cupping the heathery shadows, making the clouds appear wanton and unruly above the higher peaks.

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It’s late summer and I’ve been searching for missing threads to my father’s pre-war life, but all of those threads seem to unravel here and I find myself wondering why I bother. I’ve learned almost nothing that I didn’t already know, other than a feeling for the landscape and the fickle Highland light that shaped his moods during that pre-war summer. He kept everything compartmentalized and discrete. He hardly ever spoke about his mother or father. He hardly ever spoke about the years just before the war and that’s what makes it so hard to link up the disparate parts of his life and create a single, comprehensive portrait of the man. Sometimes I feel as if I’m on the right path, following his footsteps, reaching a clearing of some sort, and then the path peters out and I feel hopelessly lost.

How many stone-bound fingers of sea cut into this broken coast? How many lochs? It’s hard to say but there are at least as many as the ancient inlets of the Aegean: Loch Long, Loch Goil, Lock Eck, Loch Striven, Loch Ridden, Loch Craignish, Loch Etive, Loch Spelve, Loch Sunart, Loch Shiel, Loch Arkaig, Loch Quoich… all the way up the coast from here to Durness, the sound of their names clashing together like claymores… Loch Slapin, Loch Cluanie, Loch Duich, Loch Shieldaig, Loch Assynt… Germany invades Poland on Friday, September 1, 1939. Two days later, Britain and France declare war on Germany. On Monday, September 4, Ernest packs up his little flat in Clynder and goes to his parents’ house in Toward. He remembers the feeling of being placeless, as if he’d fallen into the “ebb and flow of fate” that Aeschylus described in the Aeneid. The next morning he takes the bus to Dunoon and walks into the enlistment offices of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders on Moir Street.

EG, Army Training, 1939_0001

EG, at center: Argyll & Sultherland Highlander’s training exercise, near Stirling, Scotland, October 1939.

 • • •

This is the fourth in a series of “discoveries” about

my father: Rev. Ernest Gordon (1916-2002).

See also:

#1: Reconstructing my Father’s Plane Crash, 1936

#2: Comrades of Night: River Kwai, 1943

#3: Landscape and Trauma: Glen Coe, 1945

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RECONSTRUCTING MY FATHER’S PLANE CRASH: 1936

                   FINAL APPROACH: “The beast flies up in them.”

I remember him saying in the most offhand way that he’d crashed an airplane into the House of Lords. I laughed, thinking he was making a joke, but it turned out to be true, almost true. His plane stalled and lost altitude over Parliament Bridge but swung away, just missing Big Ben and the Palace of Westminster on a foggy evening in November, 1936. He managed to follow the wavering line of the Thames towards an RAF base in Heston, but the engine sputtered and conked out completely as it glided over Borehamwood, quiet as a sparrow. An elderly resident of Broughinge Road contacted the police after she heard loud splintering followed by an earth-trembling thud behind her cottage in the wooded end of Meadow Park, seventeen miles north of London. She hurried outside but felt too frightened to look up. “Surely, no one will have survived,” she said to the constable who arrived ten minutes later. The fuselage was crumpled vertically among the saplings, sticking straight up, aileron and elevator sheared off, propeller and engine scrunched into the cockpit.

I missed the sign on A63 but took Welton Road and circled back past housing estates, a fish-and-chip shop called Medici, past Barclay’s and Morrison’s, to the intersection with Skillings Road and turned left across the railway tracks to the old RAF aerodrome. God knows, it’s not a place you’d ever think to go on your own, in rainy Yorkshire weather, driving a rented Vauxhall Astra up slippery M1 to M18, east on M62, through Goole towards Hull, but it’s a part of history, his story, a missing part that I wanted to see for myself.

The original 1930s Aero Club is still in tact with white stucco walls, recently restored as a commercial complex. The airfield’s a pleasant pasture with wild flowers growing in clumps here and there among red boundary markers. A paved runway looks much the same as my father’s day, lengthened considerably but still branching off the river at a 30-degree angle. The old clay pits have been turned into a bird sanctuary and a concrete pillbox stands guard at one end of the property, last vestige of war, painted in a red-and-white checkerboard pattern. A collie races up the footpath that separates the river from the airfield. “The drums of war were beating and someone had to respond. I did. Not with enthusiasm but with a grim sense of duty,” wrote my father fifty years after the fact. He’d seen a notice in the Student Union calling for young men to train as pilots in the Royal Air Force.  The Hawker Hurricane was just off the assembly line and the Spitfire made its maiden flight at Eastleigh. But while drums may have been beating, they were distant drums. Actual war was another three years off so it wasn’t so much a grim sense of duty that drove him to the recruitment office on Dumbarton Road that day, as a humiliating lack of funds to continue his studies at the University of Glasgow. His father didn’t have the 24 pound to pay the next semester’s tuition, thereby interrupting his plan to become a missionary doctor in China, as inspired by Eric (“the Flying Scot”) Lydell, the great track and rugby star who’d won Olympic Gold but renounced a life of athletic glory to work among the peasants of Tientsin, China. If my father couldn’t be a missionary doctor in China he’d be a dashing pilot in the RAF. He signed up in the Fall of 1936 and went for training in Hatfield, Hertfordshire at the De Haviland School of Flying. (The RAF was still farming out its training to private flying schools.) They felt his pulse, drew blood, peered down his throat, poked something up his ass, told him to blow into a rubber tube and  hold his breath for sixty seconds. They tested him for balance and color blindness. They tested his night vision by making him sit in a darkened booth with a restraining collar around his neck naming various shapes that popped up on a screen.  He’d expected a  regimented and Spartan routine but Hatfield was more country fair than air force base. It had a fancy restaurant, swimming pool, squash courts, putting greens and “en-tout-cas” tennis courts. (“Riding lessons and hacking can be arranged at the Aerodrome.“) In fact, it was operated as a country club and RAF trainees were given temporary membership, but a few weeks later my father was posted to No. 4 EFTS (Elementary Flying Training School), in Brough, Yorkshire, not far from Hull and moved into   a damp Nissen hut near the gasworks and railway bridge. In the morning he did physical training and in the afternoon he attended lectures on navigation, aircraft recognition, Morse signaling and air gunnery. He flew his first solo in a Blackburn B-2 “Lizzie” with dented metal fuselage.  An afternoon haze hung over East Riding as he flew east above the Humber, singing to himself,  over a  bend where the river split around a knuckle-shaped spit, silver light  slanting off tidal markers, riffles, wind streaking the water a gray willow hue, reed warblers flitting over salt marsh and brackish lagoons.

The other trainees continued to Goole at the confluence of the Ouse and Trent Rivers and further out to the foothills of the Wolds, but my father turned and banked the B-2 over a line of shadowed mounds made by Roman ruins, suffering a headache after late night at Ferry Inn, same crowd–Ratcliff, Langford, Mackenzie–but an unpleasant buzzing “at the roots” of his eyes. (He’d had two strange falls the same week, scrapes on both elbows and a gash on his knee.)  Colored specks, miniscule angels, clustered in the retina, were occluding  his line of sight and he had the premonition of himself and his fellow pilots falling from the sky, their unholy lives on fast forward, as if flickering through the broken projector in the Officer’s Club, all racing to their graves. And they were. Four died before final training. Another eleven perished by the fall of 1940, which made fifteen out of the original twenty-four. (My father would have been number sixteen if he hadn’t been so lucky.)

He could see where the river narrowed and made a natural crossing–the Romans called it Petuaria–where fingerling sandbars stretched out from the banks as he continued his descent over tidal swales, drainage canals and dry sedge. The landing field came up abruptly at an angle after the heiroglyphic outlines of Welton Waters, an abandoned clay pit where fragmented pools of water glistened with oil and puffy, iridescent reflections.

Above the door of the so-called Pilot’s Hall hung a rather Masonic looking insignia hand-painted with wings and bull’s-eye above a billowing explosion (or was it a parachute opening?) with zigzagging bolts of lightning and a seven-pointed star gleaming from the top.  Inside, Dr. Ingle, M.O. from Hull, was having his tea wondering if he should have grounded A.C.2 Gordon, just as A.C.2 Gordon completed a near perfect three-point landing and taxied up to the corrugated hangar. He waved at Goudie, the welterweight engineer from Inverkip, and waited for some sign or compliment but got nothing. Goudie was distracted. Goudie was enraged. He threw his monkey wrench and kicked the landing gear of an old Shark Torpedo Bomber, screaming “Fucking Fucker’s Fucked!!” loud enough so that everyone in Brough, even dead Romans, could hear.

I couldn’t see my father in this place, no matter how many times I walked the perimeter of the field and tried to imagine him gliding over the mud flats on his final approach. He was clumsy with tools and all things mechanical. He had trouble putting up a Christmas tree or changing a lightbulb. He was surprisingly clumsy, beyond the normal big-man clumsiness, and whenever he fell on the sidewalk, stumbled down a staircase or cut his hand on the lid of a can, it was extreme, with curses, blood, stitches and bruises that often took weeks to heal.  I just couldn’t imagine him operating one of those machines.

In the late 1990s I stumbled upon a box in my parent’s attic that contained a manila envelope stuffed with RAF memorabilia: letters from the Air Ministry in London; a “Certificate of Competency” (No. 11002,) bound in blue leather with a silk tassel issued on November 14, 1936, stating that my father was certified to fly any type of land plane except for “public transport or aerial work flying machines.” There was also a ragged shoulder patch with silver wings and the RAF emblem as well as a photograph of twenty-two trainees posing in front of a De Haviland biplane. It must have been early in the program because they were still dressed in civilian clothes. My father stands taller than the rest, over on the left, wearing an old jacket that’s too tight over a turtleneck sweater. He seems a bit baggy and unkempt compared to some of the others who look like proper Oxbridge gents, entitled, dressed in tweed jackets, club ties, neatly folded pocket handkerchiefs, hair waxed and parted. My father was the son of a Scottish lighthouse keeper, not highborn, dropped out of university, played rugby, joined in the occasional pub brawl, and still spoke with a broad West Highland accent.

All the pilots had signed the back of the photograph, each in his own stylized script: D.G. Ractliff, A.B. Landgford, D. Mackenzie, T. Krikwood, and Freddy Langford who wrote his name with an almost Elizabethan flourish and wore his hair brushed back in a casual wave. A few of them were “spoiled sods,” according to my
father, especially Ratcliff and Harvie who acted like public school boys.  Henry Hind was not a snob and considered the most talented pilot in the squad. (His father was someone high up in the Air Ministry.) Harry McDonald was an odd-ball loner, tall and gaunt, who spoke  like an Englishman but came from a middle-class background in Glasgow.  In the photograph he stands stiffly next to my father with a pale face and eyes shut, an uncanny premonition of things to come.

I was shocked when I found the photograph of the wrecked plane taken at night in the lurid flash of the Fox Photos camera. How had he survived? All the branches and saplings must have slowed his descent and softened the final impact, gashing holes through the wings and fuselage. He hardly ever talked about the crash because it didn’t fit with the rest of his war narrative. It hadn’t ended well. His head slammed into the padded console and four of his front teeth were knocked out, punching through his upper lip.  He fractured his skull, broke his collarbone and spent three months at the RAF Officer’s Hospital in Uxbridge where he lay around in a plaster cast, smoking, reading magazines and flirting with one of the nurses. In one account he wrote that the plane suffered “metal failure” but it seems clear that he either ran out of fuel or blacked out. (One of the letters from the medical board inferred  as much.) Whatever the cause, the Air Ministry made it clear that he wasn’t welcome back in the program.  The photo appeared in the morning papers along with a sensational account of reckless RAF pilots, no names mentioned, and how “they” endangered public safety. (There’d been a fatal crash a few weeks earlier in Slough.) Upset about the bad publicity, upset about the loss of an expensive plane, the Ministry released my father as “unlikely ever to reach the standard of fitness required for aerial duties in the Royal Air Force, and they (the RAF Central Medical Establishment) regret that it is therefore necessary for you to relinquish your appointment on account of ill-health,” suggesting that he consider trying for a different branch of the armed services, signed Your obedient Servant, J.M. Wright, Air Ministry, Adastral House, Kinsway, London, W.C.2.

After leaving hospital in Uxbridge he was allowed to renew his pilot’s license but repeated pleas to the Air Ministry went unanswered. Some of his fellow pilots were discharged like himself, others died in training or went on to become heroes in
the Battle of Britain. (Only a few would survive the war.) He rather morbidly and methodically recorded their fates on the back of the photograph from 1936, writing the event and date in his own miniscule script beneath each name: Crashed. 16th Nov. 1936, below his own name while under his friend Harry McDonald he wrote simply: Killed. 11th Sept. 1937, with no further explanation.

I drove out to Uxbridge from London on a rainy Saturday but arrived a month too late. The old RAF base had already been decommissioned and the wreckers were making way for a shopping center and housing estate. There were no dashing young pilots lounging about in silk scarves lighting one another’s cigarettes, nothing like that. In fact, there wasn’t much to see at all, just a decrepit hangar and a few of the original brick barracks laid out like a borstal  school. Windows were boarded over and the concrete steps leading up to the old hospital had caved in. I walked across the rain-splattered tarmac wondering why I’d bothered to come.  Like any son, I always wanted to hear about my father’s adventures but I also wanted to know about his mistakes, his troubles, not just the heroic parts.  He had a hard time admitting failure and tended to turn everything in his life into a kind of Biblical allegory.  I certainly don’t want to add to the allegory, but whenever I think or dream of myself in his shadow, whenever I think or dream of my own son, I imagine a continuum of sorts. I  see my father’s crumpled plane and the northern wildness in his eyes. I see myself and I see my son. Perhaps I’ve come out here to find a moment when he was mortal and grounded just so I can walk through that ineffable break in space and throw my arms around him.

This is the first in a series of “discoveries” about my father’s life.
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