by Peter C. Conrad
Paul sat down on the warm soil of the field as his friend Robert stood beside him. Robert sat down and felt comfortable as he watched the airplane on the runway start to speed up; the tail lifted and then the wheels rose from the pavement.
The spring air was warm, as the two smelled the moist soil and a faint odour of burning wood from the stove in the farmhouse on the other side of the low hill that separated the farmyard from the new huge air training school. The lines in the soil from the seed drill had started to disappear from the work completed three days before.
Both boys had just turned fourteen that spring of 1941.
Even though Robert was a town boy he was taller and looked older than Paul, but Paul was more muscular. They both had the same brown hair, wore the same blue cotton overall, and brown shoes that came from the general store owned by Robert’s father. Strangers to town always thought they were brothers. When strangers were told they weren’t brothers they would think they were cousins.
The two boys often walked to the top of the hill to sit, talk and watch what was going on at the new air training school. The school had three huge hangars along one tarmac and two more behind those. There were three full-length hard surfaced runways that formed a great triangle over what was once open pasture land, with taxiways along the runways.
They watched as the motors of the bright yellow training airplanes roared, the two-engine Avro Anson, an older light bomber from England, roared overhead. The Anson was too small for bombing runs now; as the Second World War continued so they were brought to the Canadian prairies to train pilots. The two watched as another Anson rushed down the runway and take off.
There were more Harvard airplanes now. It was a single-engine machine that flew faster than the Anson, they were high performance aircraft that the boys had heard could crash if they went into a spin and the pilot didn’t straighten them out and pull up right away.
The boys felt anxious with the news that week in May of the heavy bombing on London, England by the Germans. The English were responding by bombing Hamburg. Some of the bombers were probably piloted by guys from some of the schools in Canada like this one, thought Paul.
Paul and Robert were trying to figure out ways to get on an Anson without anyone knowing. They had already been to the air training school many times delivering eggs, milk, flour and whatever else their parents were selling. When they asked if they could fly on an Anson they were told that there was no way that a civilian could ride along.
Paul thought about what it would be like to fly over their farm with the cattle in the corals looking like ants, the tractor and truck would be no more than toys from up there. The barn would look like it belonged to the same toy set with the white two-story dollhouse. They would turn north and fly to River View and see the lines of tiny buildings with trees lining the streets as trucks drove along them—looking to the west the hills would roll into the distance to where you would see the outline of the mountains. Paul looked at the horizon to the west and saw the distant peaks of the mountains from the top of the hill.
“Anything is possible,” said Robert.
“Like flying an Anson?” asked Paul.
“You have to be in the air force to do that.”
“Are you talking about joining up, again?”
Robert looked at Paul annoyed, shook his head and then watched as another Anson accelerated toward the end of the runway. Only a few years ago most of the people around River View couldn’t pay for gasoline for their cars so they took the motors out and hooked a horse to them; they were named after the Prime Minister: they were called Bennett Buggies. The only airplanes any of them had seen were biplanes that were barnstorming at the summer fairs; everyone watched silently as the biplane at the summer fair flew overhead sure that the aircraft was no more than a novelty. When the air school came to River View it was as if they had all gone from the time of horses and buggies to the air age.
Paul thought about the years of the Great Depression that had just ended when everyone felt powerless to do anything. Robert’s father ran the general store in River View and even though they had just about anything anyone would want most of it remained unsold. They were seen as rich, but like everyone else they often didn’t have enough to eat.
Paul’s mother and father understood that and helped by bringing food from the farm to trade for whatever they could get, but they often gave Robert’s Dad milk and eggs for nothing, saying that they had too much. They had even helped Robert’s father build chicken coups in their backyard.
“For a long time no one thought we could do anything,” said Robert. “But, with this war, everything just showed up here. That was an empty field down there,” he said as he looked at the air training school. “Then there were men, machines, lumber and everything you need to build an air school. Look at it, there are hangers, repair depots, bunk houses, runways where there was nothing.”
Paul shrugged as he remembered how everyone he knew had been asked to help build the school, there were too many jobs for them and even the first aircrew to arrive had to help build. The aircrew were Canadians from across the country and men from Britain. At first everyone would stop what they were doing when one of the British men spoke, they wanted to hear the accent, but now they were used to the British speaking the “King’s English.” Now, there were others coming here from all over the world with their own ways of speaking.
Everyone wanted to do something and just about every man that was old enough in River View tried to sign up. Paul’s two brothers, Phil, his oldest brother, went with Riley to the recruitment office. Phil was turned down, because of his bad lungs, but they took Riley, who was now in the sped up school program, known as the War-Time Emergency Training Program, or just “WET-P.”
The two boys turned and looked at the farmyard as they heard a honking horn. Paul jumped up and noticed his father pull up in the truck.
The farmyard was well kept with newly painted barn and house. Phil and Paul had helped their father mix the paint with linseed oil and pigments. Robert’s father got the oil while Paul’s father found what he needed to make the pigments with old receipts he had. They painted the farm buildings and the general store together; Paul’s father had said that he wanted the place to look like the bad years had never happened. They couldn’t change what had happened in those years, but they could control how they let the years affect them, “With hard work, even the hardest times could be made bearable,” said Paul’s father many times.
Robert looked at Paul, unsure why his father was honking the horn.
“Riley’s back,” said Paul.
“I thought he was in the ‘WET-P’,” said Robert.
“He finished a couple of days ago.”
“What’s he going to be doing in the services?”
“Don’t know yet,” said Paul as the two started down the hill toward the farm.
Dorothy, Paul’s twenty-one year old sister, walked out of the house wearing a white blouse and a brown skirt and carrying a large box. She was fit and trim with shoulder length brown hair with blond streaks in it from the hot sun.
Paul noticed Murray Devine’s truck parked by the barn; he was one year older than Dorothy and had taken over his father’s farm, when he died the year before of pneumonia. Murray had no interest in the war; all he wanted was to keep farming. Everyone had expected Murray to marry Dorothy, but that changed when the war started; both of them were arguing more often than not. Murray kept saying that Dorothy shouldn’t be working at the hostess club, which was set up in town to give the service men a place to go, because it wasn’t her business. He would explain to her that if she just married him and moved onto his farm, it would be as if there wasn’t a war. He thought that everyone had had such a hard time during the Depression that they deserved better; they could just farm and the years would pass like the war.
Riley stepped out of the passenger side of the truck in his Royal Canadian Air Force uniform. Dorothy saw the look of disgust on Murray’s face and felt angry as her cheeks burned. Riley looked stern, not the easygoing brother they had known. Murray nodded at Riley and turned to leave. They heard the motor of his truck start and he was on his way.
“You’re looking fine,” said Dorothy as she slipped the box of baking onto the back of the truck.
“So are you,” said Riley.
“What are they going to have you do?” asked Robert.
“Air Observer,” said Riley, as Robert looked confused. “I’ll be telling the pilot where to go,” replied Riley with a smile.
“You mean navigation,” said Phil as he approached from the house. Phil was fit and muscular like Riley, but Paul noticed how Phil coughed more than he used to, before he was turned down for military service for his lungs he would cough quietly hiding his trouble breathing.
“That’s right,” said Riley.
“I thought you wanted to be a pilot,” said Robert.
“We all want to be pilots, but there are a lot of other jobs that have to be done. I will be there to make sure that the pilot gets to his target.”
“I have to get to the hostess club,” said Dorothy.
“Is it the same as when I left?” asked Riley.
“We’ve just opened another place,” said Dorothy as she looked in the box she just placed in the truck.
The first hostess club was in the parish hall by the church, but it was too small and crowded with servicemen from the air training school. The new hostess club was now at the old theatre in town; a larger place was needed on Friday evenings when all the airmen from the air school came to hear the big bands and dance. They had to line up outside and enter for a few dances and then leave to allow others their chance; some were seen dancing in the streets as the phonograph could be heard playing “Jumpin At Woodside” or “Let’s Dance”. The new hostess club at the old theatre had a wide-open space where they could dance and they could easily bring in travelling bands.
“I’ll miss that little place,” said Riley.
“Well, once you’re a commission officer, you can go back,” said Dorothy. “We’re keeping it open for them.”
“That shouldn’t be long,” said Riley with a smile.
“He’s still wants it all,” said his mother as she carried out another box of baking for the new hostess club.
“Hi Mom,” said Riley.
“It’s good to see you,” she said with a strained and tired look. “How long will you be around before go again?”
“A couple days,” said Riley.
His mother had always been direct, not wanting to pretend that things were different than they really were; that was what made the hard years better for them all, she knew what had to be done to keep the family fed and comfortable. When she said something had to be done, the boys always knew that it would be done well and soon.
“Everything is loaded that Dorothy needs,” said their mother. “Come in and eat,” she said to Riley. She turned and went to the farmhouse as Riley stepped to the back of the truck and pulled out his suitcase and bag then followed his mother into the house.
“Jump in and I’ll drive you to town,” said Paul’s father.
Dorothy walked to the passenger side of the truck and got in while Robert and Paul jumped into the back. Phil walked to the barn as they pulled out.
As they drove down the main street of River View Paul was struck by how run down the buildings looked, the general store was the only one that didn’t show the affects of the bad years with its new paint that was the same colours as they used on their farm. The paint on the general store had the same white walls and the rust-red trim as the barn on the farm, but the colours were reversed on the barn, the walls were dark rust red with white trim. There were two elevators, a post office, and train station on the CPR line, a hotel, blacksmith shop, town hall, theatre, and two churches in addition to the general store. Most of the trees along the side of the streets survived the dry years in town, there was a line of trees toward the east along the river, and there was another growth of trees on the other side of the river. The relief airfield for the air training school was just beyond that line of trees on the other side of the river. Things were better now, but with the restricted supplies during the war because of wartime rationing they had to be just as resourceful to make things happen.
The truck came to a stop in front of the old theatre and Dorothy stepped out of the cab and hurried to the back of the truck as Paul and Robert jumped down. Paul already had one box as Dorothy picked up the other.
“We need you boys to carry in the table and chairs from the lobby to the main room,” said Dorothy.
The two nodded as they picked up the boxes of supplies and followed her toward the front door as their father got out of the truck and started walking to the general store. The boys followed Dorothy into the old theatre that had a new banner over the double doors that announced, “River View Hostess Club”.
Paul and Robert worked moving the furniture into place for the hostess club, tables, chairs, couches, easy chairs, and they had boxes of magazines and books to put on the shelves.
Both boys had been told too many times that these tasks were an important contribution to the war effort, but neither of them agreed, both of them knew they would enlist as soon as they could. Robert decided he wasn’t going to wait—he was going to just disappear one day and he was sure that if no one from River View was around, he would be able to pass as nineteen maybe twenty and he would get into the armed forces. Once he was in the forces and when he had a leave, he wouldn’t come back to town in case one of them would tell the armed forces how old he really was. Robert would return once he had completed a tour of duty having proven to everyone what he could do.
The two boys walked out of the Hostess Club to go to the general store. As they stepped into the bright spring day and were slightly blinded by the light, Paul put his hand up to shade his eyes. Paul’s heart sped up and a cold shiver of recognition and dread overcame him, as he looked into the face of Old Joe. Joseph was the “ghost” that haunted River View from the end of the first Great War and through the Depression; he was always thin with a thin nose and hands that Paul had often thought were mere bones. Joseph always walked with a straight upright posture, his sunken cheeks were so pronounced that they could be seen from across the dry dusty road and he didn’t speak much; he was always watching and listening, but the two boys always feared what he would say to them, especially since the war began.
Joseph came back after the First World War and took over his family farm, with a few cattle, and a small herd of horses. Everyone thought he was strange, keeping more than one or two horses during the hard years. During those years he would collect them into a single line, riding one with the rest carrying small packs and walk off west to the mountains, while Paul’s father always kept his two cows for him when he did this. He would be gone for weeks at a time and no one knew why he would head out to the mountains, but Paul’s father always pointed out that the hills to the west had more grass and Joe was just taking good care of the horses. They all thought that the mountains were the only place he could forget what he had see as soldier during the Great War.
Joseph’s tall posture and rhythmic step when he walked announced to everyone he was still a soldier. Was he was going to ask them why they weren’t serving in the armed forces? Paul felt sick as Joseph stepped closer to them, but Robert was ready for Joseph, he knew exactly what he was gong to say. He was going to tell Joe that he had tried to join up locally, but he was too young. He was going to tell Joe that if he thought he should go into the armed forces, he could take him by train to the city, wearing his old uniform and medals, and he could march right into the recruitment office with Robert and say, “Look at what I’ve brought you.” After looking at Paul, Joseph stepped sideways to look into Robert’s face. Robert felt a rush of excitement, as Joseph stared and slowly brought his hand up to feel his unshaved cheek.
“You should be careful about what you wish for,” Joseph said so quietly that Robert thought he was whispering.
Robert’s heart began to speed up and he began to sweat, because he had been so sure moments ago how this conversation would go, Joseph was a soldier that surely wouldn’t expect anything less than every man who could, to sign up and serve his country.
“What?” said Robert with a trembling voice.
Joseph continued to stare at Robert. “They can’t fight wars without young lads like you.”
“They can’t win wars without guys like me,” said Robert, nervously.
“Wars aren’t won. They just stop fighting once they’ve had enough,” he said, then turned and strolled away.
“Did you hear that?” said Robert. He had never heard anything like it before and couldn’t believe it.
“They say Old Joe has gone crazy because of what he saw during the last war,” said Paul.
Paul’s father walked to the truck that was still parked by the theatre, looked at the two and then Old Joe; he smiled and nodded toward Joseph. “He had something to say?” asked Paul’s father.
Paul nodded, as he wondered what Joe was talking about, but if the war were still going on when he was old enough, he would join like Riley. Paul knew that it was something he should do, but he didn’t think would be such an adventure anymore. Paul and Robert got into the back of the truck for the ride back to the farm; Robert still wanted to hear from Riley all about what it was like to be in the RCAF.
The two boys got out of the back of the truck quickly once it stopped in front of the farmhouse, Paul and Robert felt restless as they waked to the farmhouse to talk to Riley. Things were changing quickly, Riley had changed already and when he went away, he would change again before he came back.
“Riley’s at the McIntyre place,” said Paul’s father as he stepped out of the truck. He walked to the house.
Robert looked disappointed, and then Paul noticed that Robert’s expression changed to determination. “Let’s go to the barn,” said Robert. Paul nodded his head and the two turned toward the barn.
“What do you have planned?” asked Paul.
“Nothing much,” said Robert. “Can you go get some rope?”
Paul nodded. “How much?”
“About thirty yards. I’ll be outside checking something”
Paul went into the barn, unsure where to look for a rope that long. He checked the shorter ropes hanging on the wall that were tied to the halters for the cattle, stopped when he heard a creaking sound that had come from near the top of the wall of the barn. It might be the sparrows again, he thought. Paul pulled at a pile of rope that was lying on a shelf above the grain pails, unwound them as he heard another creak on the roof of the barn above him. A feeling of fear radiated from his chest, but he didn’t move until he heard another louder creak near the top of the roof, a small drizzle of dust floated down from the highest rafter. Paul clutched the rope tightly and ran out of the barn.
Paul looked at the lower section of the barn roof and saw nothing and looked high up to the very top of the roof of the barn and saw a dark figure silhouetted against the sky perched on the apex of the roof. Paul blinked his eyes and realised that it was Robert with his arms straight out to each side for balance, he saw the ladder that had been leaned against the roof just below another ladder that had been nailed to the roof when the barn had been built.
“Robert?” said Paul, but Robert continued to walk along the top of the roof one step at a time; with each step he was more confident and walking more freely as he moved to the middle of the barn roof, stopped and looked out to the far side of the barn, looking out to the horizon.
“Robert?” said Paul more loudly as Robert continued to walk to the end of the barn’s roof and stood at the edge looking out at the field and horizon. Paul was paralysed, he had no idea why Robert was on the roof of the barn, had Robert mentioned anything that would suggest that he planned to do this? There was nothing.
“Robert,” said Paul again and Robert turned slowly around looking quickly at his feet and then up at the horizon. He would go back to the ladder and come down, thought Paul; he would climb down the ladder and then they would walk to the house, no one would have to know that Robert had climbed to the top of the roof of the barn, it would be their secret, thought Paul as he watched Robert start to walk back again as if he was just strolling along the boardwalk in town. Robert is just catching his balance, thought Paul as he watched Robert’s hip adjust to one side and his arm glide higher, without a sound he was gone! Paul wondered if it had really happened, as his heart was pounding and sweat was running down his face he started to run around the barn. Paul stopped and stared at Robert who was sitting on a pile of moulding straw holding his cheek. A pitchfork lay beside him.
“What were you doing?” asked Paul as he panted.
“Flying,” replied Robert quietly.
“You went up there to fly off the roof?”
“No,” said Robert. “I was up there to see what it would look like. Once I was there I wanted to see what it felt like to move, then, I wanted to see everything without the roof of the barn in the way.”
“So you went to the edge of the barn,” said Paul as his breathing began to slow.
“Yeah, it was great,” said Robert as he got up from the old moulding straw. He knew he would smell bad no matter what he did; he wasn’t sure whether the bruise on his face or the smell bothered him more.
“Don’t do that again,” said Paul angrily.
“I don’t think I’ll do that again,” said Robert as he swiped the lumps of straw and manure off his pants.
Paul noticed that he was still holding the rope Robert asked for. “What did you want this for?”
“Nothing,” replied Robert.
“I’m not sure what I was thinking,” said Robert.
“That’s for sure,” said Paul as he realised how different he was from Robert. Paul wanted to fly to see what it was like, but it was a curiosity not an obsession, but Robert wanted to feel it, breathe it, and be completely absorbed by the experience.