Wednesday, February 2, 2011

All R.A.F.

In pictures snapped at my cousin's wedding, my Grandad stands between me and my uncle; clear and steady, clipped and clean. All RAF.

Grandad flew Hurricanes over the shores of Devon during the Battle of Britain. He fought at the allied disaster at Dieppe. I remember with affection my mother's account of him accidentally flipping his plane upside down and entangling it in a tree. He really never spoke of this time, during his twenties, when he'd dash out to fight Nazis in the sky under the shared terrifying threat of national extinction.

He had a softly spoken presence that always filled in spaces, made things happen. I once stomped into the sitting room, flopping down in front of the TV, frustrated that my ball had disappeared somewhere into the overwrought flora of his garden.

"I can't find it" was all I said, arms crossed, a picture of sullenness. Ten minutes later he tossed it to me having gently snuck away, expertly managing the imminent upset with a grandfather's silent grace.

The old devil was a sly hand with the ladies too. At my sister's 18th Birthday, at the ripe old age of 75, he caused an admirable stir by taking time to have a slow dance with my father's girlfriend. She almost certainly enjoyed it too, since he would never have descended to an inappropriate hand or caress. The old bones had rhythm, and he certainly was a dashing fellow.

I moved stateside at the age of 27 and only saw the family occasionally. I called once at Christmas and asked to speak to him. And so, on the phone, I said, as we Californians often do, that I loved and admired him. There was some silence on the line and all he could say was a ruffled 'jolly good' in shocked embarrassment. The next voice on the call was mum's: 'What did you just say to Father?'

The summer before he died, I took a trip and spent a day with him at the old family home in Devon, the whole place teeming with memories of summer vacations, marriages and Christmases. We talked for the first time as men. He brought out some of his old Royal-Air-Force Logbooks to show me. This treasure described the chapter and verse of each sortie, of each kill, of each loss. Brilliant 1940s cursive penmanship gleamed brightly from the page. The clipped tone of the airman's unflappable commentary chimed echoing in the background. His voice was always soft, charming, and full of a working Englishman's propriety.

I think of him flying, risking everything; his young wife waiting at home pregnant with his first child: my mother.

So now he stands sixty years later. After a career as a Fireman and the father of a family of four kids, eight grandkids and some great-grandkids on the way. I do hope he feels proud in this moment: piercing blue eyes, airman's moustache, impeccable suit. All RAF.

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