No 39 SFTS Swift Current, Saskatchewan
As we took a look at our new quarters it was plain that we could have been in any one of the other RAF barracks anywhere in North America. There was not even the distant sight of the Rockies. The crackling din of the Harvard promised better for the following day.
The vast plains stretched out of sight, featureless, uninviting. At least Swift Current was a small town and would have a Chinese restaurant and laundry as we had to look after the tropical kit with which we had just been issued. I determined to make myself known to both. Every small town in Western Canada had a few Chinese who gravitated to food and laundry. I had found them to be unfailingly kind and polite.The townsmen were all sprouting whiskers for the Rodeo that was to take place in the next month when there was to be a prize for the finest set.
The next day we could hardly suppress our excitement as we were divided into the usual two groups, alternatively flying and studying. Phew! We were to fly first but as usual there was much to be learned and we encountered our first extended cockpit check. HTMPFFGS. We were to mutter this to ourselves before takeoff as devoutly as ever nun counted her rosary or the devout of any religion stroked their prayer beads. It was more than a mantra for us; it was life itself.
Hydraulics - Trim - Mixture - Pitch - Flaps - Fuel - Gills - Switches. Forget one of them and pay the price. There would be others as we progressed thro' aircraft with differing demands but that would do us for now. The cockpit was so different. There were so many controls so many dials, so many switches, so bewildering. It seemed at first to be impenetrable; how could 'anyone' learn all that? Our wings seemed so far away.
Young men learn very fast and we were eager. Before long we were running our hands along the various controls without looking. I was not sure that the others did it, perhaps I felt that I was a slow learner but I practiced finding all controls unsighted time after time until every switch or whatever could be located instantly. We heard that the courses are to be extended. We are to be trained to the highest possible standard. We could only see that our wings were further away than ever.
This was a totally different kind of flying. The power was so evident, there was not the aerodynamic feedback we had in the old Tiger Moth which now seemed more a powered glider. All control surfaces were metal, it was very much a 'flying machine'.
My instructor, F/o McArdle and I got on like a house on fire, he was patient, humorous and very able. After going through the usual exercises of powered landings, gliding landings, emergency landings, recovering from spins to the right, spins to the left, aerobatics etc: I was ready for my solo on Harvards and by now I was beginning to like them. Solo was copybook so we set off to enjoy the course marred only by our first fatality. One of our number ran for his aircraft straight into the propeller of a Harvard taxiing along the apron. It was over in a fraction of a second. The back and side of his head sliced off and one arm at the elbow, flinging it down the line. The blood wagon was there in a moment with one of it's members swinging the arm by the fingers, dropping it on the remains which were hurried away. It was all so close and so quick and we all felt sick, one fellow was. Sand was poured and shoveled up; the apron was hosed down and that was that. The blood wagon hatred was reinforced and more so as we heard that the chap that recovered the arm was ribbed for not removing the watch. True? I don't know, I just do not know; rumours are on fertile ground in such cases.
The Rodeo was a huge success. We were to have the day off for it. The town was coming alive as a frontier town. Some of the beards were huge and the women were wearing 'Pioneer' clothes and bonnets. Some of the men looked decidedly awkward in their high heeled cowboy boots. A glance decided me that I did not want to be consigned to the stands so I went up to the office with my trusty Leica III and emerged with a 'PRESS 'card that fitted neatly alongside my white flash. With that I ambled straight into the arena and squatted by the 'release gate'. This was held closed, the bronco, steer, cow, calf or whatever was held in until a nod was given by the judge and then released.
Cowboys had come from all over North America and the standard was eyeboggling. In one class "Bulldogging" a steer is released between two horses and one of the two cowboys has to leap on it's back and wrestle it to the ground by it's horns. The world champion was there. He had the steer down and still in 4 seconds Yes! That's right! 4 seconds!!!! Then there is calf roping. The competitor rides up, lassoes the calf, and ties two back legs to one foreleg. Time for the winner? 18 seconds from the time the calf left the gate.
Cow riding is quite hazardous and no-one could stay on very long. A rope is slung round the belly just in front of the udder which seems to drive them crazy and they are bucking before they come out of the gate.
Riding broncos is probably the most popular of all. One hand only allowed, the other being held high in the air. The animals will do anything to unseat the riders, bucking, bucking and swerving all over the arena, rising on hind legs, even to the point of rolling on them (not popular!). Some manage to stay the course, in that case, at a signal from the judge another cowboy rides alongside and wrestles him off! It is a highly dangerous occupation. One of the judges was wearing a black silk shirt where the wind moulded itself into the place where the whole of the ribs on that side seemed to be missing. He had a magnificent face with hawk nose over a mouth ready to smile, body thin as a whip.
What amazed me was that there was no other photographer and squatting there took film after film. I had already made arrangements with the local photographer for immediate development and printing. He had seen where I was and came to meet me. We sat that evening in his home and selected what we thought were the best 52 prints. He was delighted and we immediately came to a deal. He was to charge me $2.00 a set that I could sell in the camp for $3.00, the same price as he was to charge. I was to hold the copyright and he was to devote his entire window to display them and give me $1.00 for every set he sold. It proved very profitable for both of us.
That weekend there was a great atmosphere of celebration in the town and the bored airmen took full advantage of it. It was very common to find RAF men in all stages of inebriation. There seemed little else to do and nowhere to go. The chaps would start off with a T bone steak that was so big that it hung over both sides of the plate, piled with chips and with one or two fried eggs on top. No drink was allowed on the table but a half bottle of Canadian Club rye whisky in each pocket and a glass of Coke it was all too easy to get plastered and the following hangover was literally painful. Once was enough for me but some of the lads made a habit of it. One night one got so tight that he removed most of his clothes, and used them as a pillow under the table. There was naturally some muttering among the staff but the airmen were their bread and butter and we thought that to be the end of it but a couple of red caps (Military Police) took a long look through the window. We dragged him by his arms through the kitchen and dumped him into the yard chucking his clothes after him. Only just in time; the red caps came in, walked casually round the restaurant taking a good look at the airmen and went. We paid up, and apologized to the owner who just shrugged it off. We whipped around to the yard but he was gone.
The following morning he was there with a hangover but no idea of what had happened. How had he dressed and got back to camp? He remembered absolutely nothing. The bullshit was relentless and there seemed to be so many completely stupid regulations. An undercurrent of resentment was growing but "they" knew that we wanted those wings above all! I have always found it difficult to conform to stupid constraints.
The die was cast. I put up two bookshelves between the statutory cupboards, covered the trestle table with a blanket and finished it off with a bunch of sweet peas in a half pint milk bottle and worst of all I put up a little photo torn from the popular magazine Lilliput. It showed a rather lovely nude photographed thro' a shower panel with the title "Who 'ere she be that not impossible she" The only thing that happened for the next few days was the theft of my copy of Joyce's "Ulysses" but then came the weekly C.O.'s inspection. He walked through every block followed (we always compared them to flying ducks) by the Adjutant, the Officer in charge of the Flight, Warrant Officer, Sergeant with the Corporal as 'Tail End Charlie'. Every blanket had to be folded just so; spare kit folded just so on the bed, spotlessly polished spare boots on top and down to the last detail looking identical to everything else.
We were in a session on navigation when the corporal entered and asked the instructor if L.A.C. Sparkes could go with him. We all knew it was coming. "It's your own fault if you are chucked off the course.' 'It's the glasshouse at least for you, you bloody idiot." The corporal's look of exasperation raised an inquiring eyebrow from the instructor. As soon as we left the room there was a loud buzz of conversation from behind the door. I tried to catch the corporal's eye but he would have none of it. As we approached the door music was being played. The corporal presented me, the Officer in charge of our flight took off the pickup and the others put the books they had been examining on the bed. The C.O. looked at me in silence.
"So you don't like the way we run things here?" "It is not exactly that Sir." "Then what *exactly* is it." "There is little for the airmen to do here Sir, unless they go to town and get tight." (I knew from the little lectures we got from time to time that they were anxious for us to give a good impression in town.) "And I assume you can solve that at a stroke."
"No Sir but if we could use a spare classroom we could use as a mess to read, write letters or listen to music it would be better than sitting on our beds or going to town."
There was a long silence. (Was he waiting for me to flinch?) "Right!' 'Let us see if you can do it!" Meanwhile get all of this (a flick of his gloved hand) out by night fall and if you have damaged His Majesty's property you will hear from me' 'Return to the instruction block." "Sir!" That was it. They swept out. I already knew exactly what I wanted to do and there would be plenty of helpers. It all took very little time and when I returned it was plain that there had been little talk of navigation. I think that I was sweating.
There was a message for me to go to speak to our Flight Officer. When I saluted he said "You were pushing your luck weren't you?" We had been allocated a fair sized room close to the dormitory block with chairs and tables. It took little time to move in the record player. The shelves had only been pushed into place and there was no sign left although they were examined closely. We cadged a few metal cabinets and we found the Y.M.C.A. very co-operative. We applied for and received several sets of the latest Tee-Ems but unexpectedly the room was much used to study for the ground study exams.
We were driven hard but did not mind because of our always urgent desire to get our wings. It is difficult to convey our near fanatical enthusiasm. Our whole future seemed to hang on it. We could so easily fail flying by not acquiring the skill or for physical reasons, airsickness, eye problems; whatever. That could mean becoming an observer, navigator, or air gunner. Failing in ground studies could mean becoming an air gunner or being chucked out of aircrew altogether.
Theoretical subjects were my Achilles heel on entry as my compatriots were without exception university or grammar school boys and to get into aircrew I had lied by implying that I had matriculated. They had all come straight from their studies to aircrew cadets. I had left high school before my sixteenth birthday never having risen above lower fifth. I was working through a very thorough apprenticeship in horticulture; had worked in Holland and Denmark etc: etc: but was ill prepared to study. My first exam results were abysmal but I slowly grasped the art of learning and by now was positively enjoying studies in navigation, geometry (lots of that in air gunnery) and particularly meteorology which made so much more sense when viewing weather from altitude.
There was no doubt for me that the training we were getting as pilots was second to none and we were learning to make decisions almost as though by instinct. There was, however, never a time when any of us could relax concentration on our goal.
Next: - Trekking with Mac [Photographs]
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Edward Sparkes ©1998-2002