Joined: Mar 2011
Location: Margaritaville, UT
The pilot of the shepherd aircraft pointed down again, for another descent, and as he jinked in the moonlight I caught sight of the nose of the Mosquito. It had the letters J K painted on it, large and black. Probably for call-sign Juliet Kilo. Then we were descending again, more gently this time.
He leveled out just above the fog layer, so low the tendrils of candy-floss were lashing at our fuselages, and we went into a steady circular turn. I managed to flick a glance at my fuel gauge: it was on zero, flickering feebly. For God's sake, hurry up, I prayed, for if my fuel failed me now there would be no time to climb to the minimum 500 feet needed for bailing out. A jet fighter at 100 feet without an engine is a death-trap with no chances for survival.
For two or three minutes he seemed content to hold his slow circular turn, while, the sweat broke out behind my neck and began to run in streams down my back, gumming the light nylon flying suit to my skin.
HURRY UP, MAN, HURRY.
Quite suddenly he straightened out, so fast I almost lost him by continuing to turn. I caught him a second later and saw his left hand flash the dive signal to me. Then he dipped towards the fog bank, I followed, and we were in it, a shallow, flat descent, but a descent nevertheless, and from a mere hundred feet, towards nothing.
To pass out of even dimly lit sky into cloud or fog is like passing into a bath of grey cotton wool. Suddenly there is nothing but the grey whirling strands, a million tendrils reaching out to trap and strangle you, each one touching the cockpit cover with quick caress then disappearing back into nothingness. The visibility was down to near zero, no shape, no size, no form, no substance. Except that dimly off my left wing-tip, now only forty feet away, was the form of a Mosquito flying with absolute certainty towards something I could not see. Only then did I realize he was flying without lights. For a second I was amazed, horrified by my discovery; then I realized the wisdom of the man. Lights in fog are treacherous, hallucinatory, mesmeric. You can get attracted to them, not knowing whether they are forty or a hundred feet away from you. The tendency is to move towards them; for two aircraft in the fog, one flying formation on the other, that could spell disaster. The man was right.
Keeping formation with him, I knew he was slowing down, for I too was easing back the throttle, dropping and slowing. In a fraction of a second I flashed a glance at the two instruments I needed: the altimeter was reading zero, so was the fuel gauge, and neither was even flickering. The airspeed indicator, which I had also seen, read 120 knots and this damn coffin was going to fall out of the sky at 95.
Without warning the shepherd pointed a single forefinger at me, then forward through the windscreen. It meant There you are, fly on and land. I stared forward through the now streaming windscreen. Nothing. Then, yes, something. A blur to the left, another to the tight, then two, one each side. Ringed with haze, there were lights either side of me, in pairs, flashing past. I forced my eyes to see what lay between them. Nothing, blackness. Then a streak of paint, running under my feet. The centre line. Frantically I closed down the power and held her steady, praying for the Vampire to settle.
The lights were rising now, almost at eye level, and still she would not settle. Bang. We touched, we touched the deck. Bang-bang. Another touch, she was drifting again, inches above the wet black runway. Bam-barn-barn-babam-rumble. She was down. The main wheels had stuck and held.
The Vampire was rolling, at over ninety miles an hour, through a sea of grey fog. I touched the brakes and the nose slammed down on to the deck also. Slow pressure now, no skidding, hold her straight against the skid, more pressure on those brakes or we'll run off the end. The lights moving past more leisurely now, slowing, slower, slower.
The Vampire stopped. I found both my hands clenched round the control column, squeezing the brake lever inwards. I forget now how many seconds I held them there before I would believe we were stopped. Finally I did believe it, put on the parking brake and released the main brake. Then I went to turn off the engine, for there was no use trying to taxi in this fog; they would have to tow the fighter back with a Land-Rover. There was no need to turn off the engine; it had finally run out of fuel as the Vampire careered down the runway. I shut off the remaining systems, fuel, hydraulics, electrics and pressurization, and slowly began to unstrap myself from the seat and parachute dinghy pack. As I did so a movement caught my eye. To my left, through the fog, no more than fifty feet away, low on the ground with wheels up, the Mosquito roared past me. I caught the flash of the pilot's hand in the side window, then he was gone, up into the fog before he could see my answering wave of acknowledgment. But I'd already decided to call up R.A.F Gloucester and thank him personally from the officers mess.
With the systems off, the cockpit was misting up fast, so I released the canopy and pushed it upwards and backwards by hand until it locked. Only then, as I stood up, did I realize how cold it was. Against my heated body, dressed in light nylon flying suit, it was freezing. I expected the control-tower truck to be alongside in seconds, for with an emergency landing, even on Christmas Eve, the fire truck, ambulance and half a dozen other vehicles were always standing by. Nothing happened. At least, not for ten minutes.
By the time the two headlights came groping out of the mist I felt frozen. The lights stopped twenty feet from the motionless Vampire, dwarfed by the fighter's bulk. A voice called:
I stepped out of the cockpit, jumped from the wing to the ground and ran towards the lights. They turned out to be the headlamps of a battered old Jowett Javelin. Not an Air Force identification mark in sight. At the wheel of the car was a puffed, beery face and a handlebar mustache. At least he wore an R.A.F officer's cap. He stared at me as I loomed out of the fog.
"That yours? He nodded towards the dim share of the Vampire.
"Yes, I said, I just landed it."
"Straordinary, he said, quite straordinary. You'd better jump in. I'll run you back to the mess. I was grateful for the warmth of the car, even more so to be alive.
Moving in bottom gear he began to ease the old car back round the taxi-track, evidently towards the control tower and beyond them the mess buildings. As we moved away from the Vampire I saw that I had stopped twenty feet short of a plowed field at the very end of the runway.
"You were damned lucky, he said, or rather shouted, for the engine was roaring in first gear and he seemed to be having trouble with the foot controls. Judging by the smell of whisky on his breath, that was not surpising.
"Damned lucky, I agreed. I ran out of fuel just as I was landing. My radio and all the electrical systems failed nearly fifty minutes ago over the North Sea."
He spent several minutes digesting the information carefully.
"Straordinary, he said at length. No compass?"
"No compass. Flying in the approximate direction by the moon. As far as the coast, or where I judged it to be. After that..
"No radio, I said. A dead box on all channels."
"Then how did you find this place? he asked.
I was losing patience. The man was evidently one of those passed-over flight lieutenants, not terribly bright and probably not a flyer, despite the handlebar mustache. A ground wallah. And drunk with it. Shouldn't be on duty at all on an operational station at that hour of the night.
"I was guided in,“ I explained patiently.The emergency procedures, having worked so well, now began to seem run-o'-the-mill, such is the recuperation of youth. “I flew short, left-hand triangles, as per instructions, and they sent up a shepherd aircraft to guide me down. No problem."
He shrugged, as if to say if you insist. Finally he said:
"Damn lucky, all the same. I'm surprised the other chap managed to find the place."
"No problem there,“ I explained patiently. “It was one of the weather aircraft from R A F Gloucester. Obviously he had radio. So we came in here in formation, on a GCA. Then when I saw the lights at the threshold of the runway, I landed myself."
The man was obviously dense, as well as drunk.
"Straordinary," he said, sucking a stray drop of moisture off his handlebar.”We don't have GCA. We don't have any navigational equipment at all, not even a beacon" Now it was my turn to let the information sink in.“This isn't R.A.F Merriam Saint George” I asked in a small voice. He shook his head."Marham? Chicksands? Lakenheath?"
"No, he said, this is R.A.F Minton."
"I've never heard of it,“ I said at last.
"I'm not surprised. We're not an operational station. Haven't been for years. Minton's a storage depot. Excuse me."
He stopped the car and got out. I saw we were standing a few feet from the dim shape of a control tower, adjoining a long row of Nissen huts, evidently once flight rooms, navigational and briefing huts.
Above the narrow door at the base of the tower through which the officer had disappeared hung a single naked bulb. By its light I could make out broken windows, padlocked doors, an air of abandonment and neglect. The man returned and climbed shakily back behind the wheel.
"Just turning the runway lights off," he said, and belched.
My mind was whirling. This was mad, crazy, illogical. Yet there had to be a perfectly reasonable explanation.
"Why did you switch them on?" I asked.
"It was the sound of your engine," he said. "I was in the officers mess having a noggin, and old Joe suggested I listen out the window for a second. There you were, circling right above us. You sounded damn low, almost as if you were going to come down in a hurry. Thought I might be of some use, remembered they never disconnected the old runway lights when they dismantled the station, so I ran down to the control tower and switched them on."
"I see," I said, but I didn't. But there had to be an explanation.
"That was why I was so late coming out to pick you up. I had to go back to the mess to get the car out, once I'd heard you land out there. Then I had to find you. Bloody foggy night."
You can say that again, I thought. The mystery puzzled me for another few minutes. Then I hit on the explanation.
"Where is R.A.F Minton, exactly?" I asked him.
"Five miles in from the coast, inland from Cromer. That's where we are," he said.
"And where's the nearest operational R.A.F station with all the radio aids including GCA?"
He thought for a minute.
"Must be Merriam Saint George," he said." They must have all those things. Mind you, I'm just a stores Johnny."
That was the explanation. My unknown friend in the weather plane had been taking me straight from the coast for Merriam Saint George. By chance Minton, abandoned old stores depot Minton, with its cobwebbed runway lights and drunken commanding officer, lay right along the in-flight path to Merriam's runway. Merriam controller had asked us to circle twice while he switched on his runway lights ten miles ahead, and this old fool had switched on his lights as well. Result: coming in on the last ten-mile stretch, I had plonked my Vampire down on the wrong airfield. I was about to tell him not to interfere with modern procedures that he couldn't understand when I choked the words back. My fuel had run out halfway down the runway. I'd never have made Merriam, ten miles away. I'd have crashed in the fields short of touchdown. By an amazing fluke I had been, as he said, damned lucky.
By the time I had worked out the rational explanation for my presence at this nearly abandoned airfield, we had reached the officers mess. My host parked his car in front of the door and we climbed out. Above the entrance hall a light was burning, dispelling the fog and illuminating the carved but chipped crest of the Royal Air Force above the doorway. To one side was a board screwed to the wall. It said R.A.F Station Minton'. To the other side was another board announcing Officers Mess'. We walked inside.
The front hall was large and spacious, but evidently built in the pre-war years when metal window-frames, service issue, were in the fashion. The place reeked of the expression ‘it had seen better days'. It had indeed. Only two cracked leather club chairs occupied the ante room, which could have taken twenty. The cloakroom to the right contained a long empty rail for non-existent coats. My host, who told me he was Flight Lieutenant Marks, shrugged off his sheepskin coat and threw it over a chair. He was wearing his uniform trousers, but with a chunky blue pullover for a jacket. It must be miserable to spend your Christmas on duty in a dump like this.
He told me he was the second-in-command, the CO being a squadron leader now on Christmas leave. Apart from him and his CO the station boasted a sergeant, three corporals, one of whom was on Christmas duty and presumably in the corporals mess also on his own, and twenty stores clerks, all away on leave. When not on leave, they spent their days classifying tons of surplus clothing, parachutes, boots, and other impedimenta that goes to make up a fighting service.
There was no fire in the vestibule, though there was a large brick fireplace, nor any in the bar either. Both rooms were freezing cold, and I was beginning to shiver again after recovering in the car. Marks was putting his head through the various doors leading off the hall, shouting for someone called Joe. By looking through after him, I took in at a glance the spacious but deserted dining room, also fireless and cold, and the twin passages, one leading to the officers private rooms, the other to the staff quarters. R.A.F messes do not vary much in architecture; once a pattern, always a pattern.
"I'm sorry it's not very hospitable, old boy, said Marks, having failed to find the absent Joe. Being only the two of us on station here, and no visitors to speak of, we've each made two bedrooms into a sort of self-contained apartment where we live. Hardly seems worth using all this space just for the two of us. You can't heat them in winter, you know; not on the fuel they allow us. And you can't get the stuff."
It seemed sensible. In his position I'd probably have done the same.
"Not to worry, I said, dropping my flying helmet and attached oxygen mask into the other leather chair. Though I could do with a bath and a meal."
"I think we can manage that, he said, trying hard to play the genial host. I'll get Joe to fix up one of the spare rooms God knows we have enough of them and heat up the water. He'll also rustle up a meal. Not much, I'm afraid. Bacon and eggs do?"
I nodded. By this time I presumed old Joe was the mess steward.
"That will do fine. While I'm waiting, do you mind if I use your phone?"
"Certainly, certainly, of course, you'll have to check in."
He ushered me into the mess secretary's office, a door beside the entrance to the bar. It was small and cold, but it had a chair, empty desk and a telephone.
I dialed 100 for the local operator, and while I was waiting Marks returned with a tumbler of whiskey. Normally I hardly touched spirits, but it was warming, so I thanked him and he went off to supervise the steward. My watch told me it was close to midnight. Hell of a way to spend Christmas, I thought. Then I recalled how thirty minutes earlier I had been crying to God for a bit of help, and felt ashamed.
"Little Minton," said a drowsy voice. It took ages to get through, for I had no telephone number for Merriam Saint George, but the girl got it eventually. Down the line I could hear the telephone operator's family celebrating in a back room, no doubt the living quarters attached to the village post office. Eventually the phone was ringing.
"R.A.F Merriam Saint George," said a man's voice. Duty sergeant speaking from the guard-room, I thought.
"Duty Controller, Air Traffic Control, please," I said. There was a pause.
"I'm sorry, sir," said the voice, "may I ask who's calling?"
I gave him my name and rank. Speaking from R.A.F Minton, I told him.
"I see, sir. But I'm afraid there's no flying tonight, sir. No one on duty in Air Traffic Control. A few of the officers up in the mess though."
"Then give me the station duty officer, please."
When I got through to him he was evidently in the mess, for the sound of lively talk could be heard behind him. I explained about the emergency and the fact that his station had been alerted to receive a Vampire fighter coming in on an emergency GCA without radio. He listened attentively. Perhaps he was young and conscientious too, for he was quite sober, as a station duty officer is supposed to be at all times, even Christmas.
"I don't know about that,“ he said at length “I don't think we've been operational since we closed down at five this afternoon. But I'm not on Air Traffic. Would you hold on. I'll get the Wing Commander (Flying). He's here."
There was a pause and then an older voice came on the line. I explained the matter again.
"Where are you speaking from?" he said after noting my name, rank and the station I was based at.
"R.A.F Minton, sir. I've just made an emergency landing here. Apparently it's nearly abandoned."
"Yes, I know," he drawled. "Damn bad luck. Do you want us to send a Tilly for you?"
"No, it's not that, sir. I don't mind being here. It's just that I landed at the wrong airfield. I believe I was heading for your airfield on a Ground Controlled Approach."
"Well, make up your mind. Were you or weren't you? You ought to know. According to what you say, you were flying the damn thing."
I took a deep breath and started at the beginning.”So you see, sir, I was intercepted by the weather plane from Gloucester, and he brought me in. But in this fog it must have been on a GCA. No other way to get down. Yet when I saw the lights of Minton I landed here assuming it to be Merriam Saint George"
"Splendid“ he said at length. “Marvellous bit of flying by that pilot from Gloucester. Course, those chaps are up in all weathers. It's their job. What do you want us to do about it?"
I was getting exasperated. Wing commander he might have been, but he had had a skinful this Christmas Eve.
"I am ringing to alert you to stand down your radar and traffic control crews, sir. They must be waiting for a Vampire that's never going to arrive. It's already arrived here at Minton."
"But we're closed down," he said. "We shut all the systems down at five o'clock. There's been no call for us to turn out."
"But Merriam Saint George has a GCA," I protested. "I know we have," he shouted back. "But it hasn't been used tonight. It's been shut down since five o'clock."
I asked the next and last question slowly and carefully.
"Do you know, sir, where is the nearest R.A.F station that will be manning 121.5 band throughout the night, the nearest station to here that maintains twenty-four-hour emergency listening?" The international aircraft emergency frequency is 121.5 megacycles. "Yes," he said equally slowly. "To the west, R.A.F Marham. To the south, R.A.F Lakenheath. Good night to you. Happy Christmas."
He put the phone down. I sat back and breathed deeply. Marham was forty miles away on the other side of Norfolk. Lakenheath was forty miles to the south, in Suffolk. On the fuel I was carrying, not only could I not have made Merriam Saint George, it wasn't even open. So how could I ever have got to Marham or Lakenheath? And I had told that Mosquito pilot that I only had five minutes fuel left. He had acknowledged that he understood. In any case, he was flying far too low after we dived into the fog ever to fly forty miles like that. The man must have been mad.
It began to dawn on me that I didn't really owe my life to the weather pilot from Gloucester, but to Flight Lieutenant Marks, beery, bumbling old passed-over Flight Lieutenant Marks, who couldn't tell one end of an aircraft from another ,but who had run four hundred yards through the fog to switch on the lights of an abandoned runway because he heard a jet engine circling overhead too close to the ground. Still, the Mosquito must be back at Gloucester by now, and he ought to know that despite everything I was alive.
"Gloucester?" said the operator. "At this time of night?"
"Yes, I replied firmly, Gloucester, at this time of night."
One thing about weather squadrons, they're always on duty. The duty meteorologist took the call. I explained the position to him.
"I'm afraid there must be some mistake, Flying Officer," he said. "It could not have been one of ours."
"Look, that is R.A.F Gloucester, right?"
"Yes, it is. Duty Met. Officer speaking."
"Fine. And your unit flies Mosquitoes to take pressure and temperature readings at altitude, right?"
"Wrong, "he said. "We used to use Mosquitoes. They went out of service three months ago. We now use Canberras."
I sat holding the telephone, staring at it in disbelief. Then an idea came to me.
"What happened to them?" I asked. He must have been an elderly boffin of great courtesy and patience to tolerate darn fool questions at this hour of the night.
"They were scrapped, I think, or sent off to museums, more likely. They're getting quite rare nowadays, you know."
"I know, I said. Could one of them have been sold privately?"
"I suppose it's possible," he said at length. “It would depend on Air Ministry policy. But I think they went to aircraft museums."
"Thank you. Thank you very much. And Happy Christmas."
I put the phone down and shook my head in bewilderment. What a night, what an incredible night. First I lose my radio and all my. instruments, then I get lost and short of fuel, then I am taken in tow by some moonlighting harebrain with a passion for veteran aircraft flying his own Mosquito through the night, who happens to spot me, comes within an inch of killing me and finally a half-drunk ground-duty officer has the sense to put his runway lights on in time to save me. Luck doesn't come in much bigger slices. But one thing was certain: that amateur air ace hadn't the faintest idea what he was doing. On the other hand, where would I be without him, I asked. Bobbing around dead in the North Sea by now.
I raised the last of the whisky to him and his strange passion for flying privately in out-dated aircraft and tossed the drink back. Flight Lieutenant Marks put his head round the door.
"Your room's ready," he said. Number Seventeen, just down the corridor. Joe's making up a fire for you now. The bath water's heating. If you don't mind, I think I'll turn in. Will you be all right on your own?"
I greeted him with more friendliness than last time, which he deserved.
"Sure, I'll be fine. Many thanks for all your help." I took my helmet and wandered down the corridor, flanked with the numbers of the bedrooms of bachelor officers long since posted elsewhere. From the door of Seventeen a bar of light shone out into the passage. As I entered the room an old man rose from his knees in front of the fireplace. He gave me a start. Mess stewards are usually R.A.F serving men. This one was near seventy, and obviously a locally recruited civilian employee.
"Good evening, sir,“ he said. “I'm Joe, sir. I'm the mess steward."
"Yes, Joe, Mr. Marks told me about you. Sorry to cause you so much trouble at this hour of the night. I just dropped in, as you might say."
"Yes, Mr. Marks told me. I'll have your room ready directly. Soon as this fire burns up, it'll be quite cosy”
The chill had not been taken off the room, and I shivered in the nylon flying suit. I should have asked Marks for the loan of a sweater, but had forgotten.
I elected to take my lonely evening meal in my room, and while Joe went to fetch it I had a quick bath, for the water was by now reasonably hot. While I toweled myself down and wrapped the old but warm dressing gown that old Joe had brought with him round me, he set out a small table and placed a plate of sizzling bacon and eggs on it. By now the room was comfortably warm, the coal fire burning brightly, the curtains drawn. While I ate, which took only a few minutes, for I was ravenously hungry, the old steward stayed to talk.
"You been here long, Joe? I asked him, more out of politeness than genuine interest.
"Oh, yes, sir, nigh on twenty years; since just before the war when the station opened."
"You've seen some changes, eh? Wasn't always like this."
"That it wasn't, sir, that it wasn't." And he told me of the days when the rooms were crammed with eager young pilots, the dining room noisy with the clatter of plates and cutlery, the bar roaring with bawdy songs; of months and years when the sky above the airfield crackled and snarled to the sound of piston engines driving planes to war and bringing them back again.
While he talked I finished my meal and emptied the remainder of the half-bottle of red wine he had brought from the bar store. A very good steward was Joe. After finishing I rose from the table, fished a cigarette from the pocket of my flying suit, lit it and sauntered round the room. The steward began to tidy up the plates and the glass from the table. I halted before an old photograph in a frame, standing alone on the mantel shelf above the crackling fire. I stopped with my cigarette half raised to my lips, feeling the room go suddenly cold.
The photo was old and stained, but behind its glass it was still clear enough. It showed a young man of about my own years, in his early twenties, dressed in flying gear. But not the blue nylon suits and gleaming plastic crash helmet of today. He wore thick sheepskin-lined boots, rough serge trousers and the heavy sheepskin zip-up jacket. From his left hand dangled one of the soft-leather flying helmets they used to wear, with goggles attached, instead of the modern pilot's tinted visor. He stood with legs apart, right hand on hip, a defiant stance, but he was not smiling. He stared at the camera with grim intentness. There was something sad about the eyes.
Behind him, quite clearly visible, stood his aircraft. There was no mistaking the lean, sleek silhouette of the Mosquito fighter-bomber, nor the two low-slung pods housing the twin Merlin engines that gave it its remarkable performance. I was about to say something to Joe when I felt the gust of cold air on my back. One of the windows had blown open and the icy air was rushing in.
"I'll close it, sir," the old man said, and made to put all the plates back down again.
"No, I'll do it."
It took me two strides to cross to where the window swung on its steel frame. To get a better hold I stepped inside the curtain and stared out. The fog swirled in waves around the old mess building, disturbed by the current of warm air coming from the window. Somewhere, far away in the fog, I thought I heard the snarl of engines. There were no engines out there, just a motor cycle of some farm boy, taking leave of his sweetheart across the fens. I closed the window, made sure it was secure, and turned back into the room.
"Who's the pilot, Joe?"
"The pilot, sir?"
I nodded towards the lonely photograph on the mantel shelf
"Oh, I see, sir. That's a photo of Mr. Kavanagh. He was here during the war, sir."
He placed the wineglass on top of the topmost plate in his hands.
"Kavanagh?" I walked back to the picture and studied it closely.
"Yes, sir. An Irish gentleman. A very fine man, if I may say so. As a matter of fact, sir, this was his room."
"What squadron was that, Joe?" I was still peering at the aircraft in the background.
"Pathfinders, sir. Mosquitoes, they flew. Remarkable pilots, all of them, sir. But I venture to say I believe Mister Johnny was the best of them all. But then I'm biased, sir. I was his batman, you see."
There was no doubting it. The faint letters on the nose of the Mosquito behind the figure in the photo read J K. Not Juliet Kilo, but Johnny Kavanagh.
The whole thing was clear as day. Kavanagh had been a superb pilot, flying with one of the crack squadrons during the war. After the war he'd left the Air Force, probably going into second-hand car dealing, as quite a few did. So he'd made a pile of money in the booming fifties, probably bought himself a smart country house, and had enough left over to indulge his real passion flying. Or rather re-creating the past, his days of glory. He'd bought up an old Mosquito in one of the R.A.F periodic auctions of obsolescent aircraft, re-fitted it, and flew it privately whenever he wished. Not a bad way to spend your spare time, if you had the money.
So he'd been flying back from some trip to Europe, had spotted me turning in triangles above the cloud bank, realized I was stuck, and taken me in tow. Pin-pointing his position precisely by crossed radio beacons, knowing this stretch of the coast by heart, he'd taken a chance of finding his old airfield at Minton even in thick fog. It was a hell of a risk. But then I had no fuel left anyway, so it was that or bust.
I had no doubt I could trace the man, probably through the Royal Aero club.
"He was certainly a good pilot" I said reflectively, thinking of this evening's performance.
"The best, sir“ said old Joe from behind me. “They reckoned he had eyes like a cat, did Mister Johnny. I remember many's the time the squadron would return from dropping flares over bombing targets in Germany, and the rest of the young gentlemen would go into the bar and have a drink. More likely several."
"He didn't drink? I asked.
"Oh yes, sir, but more often he'd have his Mosquito re-fueled and take off again alone, going back over the Channel or the North Sea to see if he could find some crippled bomber making for the coast and guide them home."
I frowned. These big bombers had their own bases to go to.
"But some of them would have taken a lot of enemy flak fire, and sometimes they had their radios knocked out. All over, they came from. Marham, Scampton, Cotteshall, Waddington; the big four-engined ones, Halifaxes, Stirlings and Lancasters; a bit before your time if you'll pardon my saying so, sir."
"I've seen pictures of them," I admitted. And some of them fly in air parades. "And he used to guide them back?"
I could imagine them in my mind's eye, gaping holes in the body, wings and tail, creaking and swaying as the pilot sought to hold them steady for home, a wounded or dying crew, and the radio shot to bits. And I knew, from too recent experience, the bitter loneliness of the winter's sky at night, with no radio, no guide for home and the fog blotting out the land.
"That's right, sir. He used to go up for a second flight in the same night, patrolling out over the North Sea, looking for a crippled plane. Then he'd guide them home, back here to Minton, sometimes through fog so dense you couldn't see your hand. Sixth sense, they said he had; something of the Irish in him."
I turned from the photograph and stubbed my cigarette butt into the ashtray by the bed. Joe was at the door.
"Quite a man, I said, and I meant it. Even today, middle-aged, he was a superb flier."
"Oh yes, sir, quite a man, Mister Johnny. I remember him saying to me once, standing tight where you are before the fire: Joe, he said, whenever there's one of them out there in the night, trying to get back, I'll go out and bring him home." I nodded gravely. The old man so obviously worshipped his wartime officer.
"Well, I said, by the look of it, he's still doing it."
Now Joe smiled.
"Oh, I hardly think so, sir. Mister Johnny went out on his last patrol Christmas Eve 1943, just fourteen years ago tonight. He never came back, sir. He went down with his plane somewhere out there in the North Sea. Good night, sir. And Happy Christmas."
Just show me the way to the bar and a nomad who knows
- Jimmy Buffett