by Peter C. Conrad
The days of Riley’s leave passed faster than anyone expected, no one spoke much as they listened to the radio that their mother had turned on in the front room. As Paul listened he recognised the up beat brass sound of the tune, “In The Mood.” Their mother was trying to forget that Riley was going away, thought Paul.
His father used to be the one who turned on the radio to hear the news, but now it was his mother who turned it on to hear the music as she wanted to forget what was going on, but then the news would come on and there would be a hushed nervousness as another success of the German army was announced. It had been a bad year for the Allies, thought Paul. Paul realised that his mother had changed because she was not simply announcing that Riley must catch the train today and everyone must hurry, she was trying to pretend that Riley was home for good. Her assertiveness was her way of having control, but with the war she didn’t have the control she once had. Riley was going away to where she had no idea what was happening, she had an increasing discomfort with everything around her and even when she worked separating the cream, making butter or working in the garden, she could not escape the continuous sound of the aircraft flying over.
Once they had finished their meal, Riley would be driven to the train station and he would be on his way to Winnipeg to start his training as an Air Observer. He would come back one more time when his training was done and he would be on his way to an Operational Training Unit. As Paul listened to the sound of another Avro Anson fly over the farmhouse he felt uncomfortable and thought about how fast someone could change from being a civilian without any skills to flying bombing runs over Europe. It would be a matter of months, not years.
“We have to get going,” said Riley and his father nodded his head and pushed his plate further onto the table.
“Paul will be coming to town to help me,” said Dorothy.
His mother looked at Riley as he stood up, she would not come along to town, as there wouldn’t be enough room in the truck. “We’ll see you soon,” she said to Riley.
“Yes,” said Riley as he put his jacket on and looked at his bags at the door of the farmhouse. His mother stepped up to him at the door and gave him a hug.
“You’ll be all right,” she said and Riley nodded his head, leaned over and picked up his bag. Paul’s shoulders and neck were uncomfortable and tense.
“Come on,” said Dorothy to Paul as she looked down at the box of supplies for the hostess club. Paul picked it up and was surprised how heavy it, as it was full of glass jam jars. He followed Riley out the door and placed the box in the back of the truck beside Riley’s bags. Paul and Riley jumped into the back.
As the truck pulled up to the train station there was feeling of uneasiness, because the train was already there, a new group of airmen had arrived and they were climbing onto the bus parked in front of the train station to take them to the air school. They hurried through the front doors of the station to the platform beside the steam locomotive. The air was heavy with the smell of burning coal and the oil the engineer was putting on the locomotive’s bearings.
“I thought you would miss the train,” said Robert as he stepped close to them with a trolley of boxes that he and his father had picked up for the store. Paul looked down the platform and noticed that there were another two trolleys stacked high; he often helped Robert and his father when the train came in.
“I’ll get one of those as soon as I say goodbye,” said Paul.
“That’s fine,” said Riley. Riley started toward the passenger car with his bags, and Paul and Dorothy followed along as he stepped up to the train.
“I’ll be seeing you soon,” said Paul.
“Sure,” said Riley, as he glanced back at his brother and sister.
“As soon as you have those things in the store, I could use your help at the club,” said Dorothy.
The two boys nodded their heads when they started to pull their trolleys down the platform and listened to the creaking sound of the steel trolley wheels being pulled over the boardwalk as they made their way toward the general store. Paul stopped and looked at a new airman, standing beside a small group of other airmen, which had arrived on the train. He had a new air force uniform like the others, but he had a full beard. Robert stopped and looked at the same airman.
“What’s that airman wearing on his head?” asked Paul.
“It’s called a turban,” said Robert. “I’ve seen those in books. He’s from India and that’s why he’s got the beard too,” said Robert.
“Why does the air force let them wear those things?”
“They’re from India, they fly for their own air force.”
“You mean that’s their uniform?”
“It has to do with their religion,” said Robert.
Paul noticed he was staring and looked at the load on his trolley, he was seeing people from around the world who were coming to their town. Paul thought about the few pictures he had seen of India with its temples, jungles, and elephants, how strange images of India looked to him and wondered what River View looked like to this airman from the other side of the world.
They heard a loud call of “All aboard,” from the train conductor as they stopped on the boardwalk between two buildings. They could see the train cars start moving, as there was a loud hiss of steam and a clacking sound of the hitches between the train cars pulling tight against each other and the familiar sound of the steam whistle from the locomotive. The two watched as each train car moved by more quickly.
“I thought you boys would be at the store by now,” said Robert’s father who was pulling the third trolley. The two boys smiled and gave their heavy loads a hard pull to start on their way again.
* * *
Paul and Robert looked around the crowded hostess club trying to see Dorothy, as several airmen were looking at them, annoyed: this was not a civilian café. Dorothy rushed into the main room where the two boys were standing and put down a pitcher and waved at them. Dorothy had Paul and Robert helped at the hostess club, because when she asked Murray, he had scolded her, it wasn’t his place or her place to be helping with the war, but she pointed out that the air training school had brought a lot of money to the town and they should be grateful. Murray became more irritable. She wasn’t seeing much of Murray anymore, even though he wanted her to come over to his farm on Friday nights, but that was when the dances were on for the airmen at the hostess club and they needed her help. She was dancing with the airmen all evening and she liked it. It occurred to her that unless Murray changed, they would soon move too far apart to have any relationship.
“There are some boxes that have to be moved out in the back,” said Dorothy. “As soon as that is done, there are a couple things you have to move into the kitchen from the alley.”
Paul nodded as he glanced back to the serviceman that had just glared at them; he was now smiling and started his conversation with two other men in uniform. Robert looked bored as the two walked to the kitchen that was in the back. Kate, a friend of Dorothy, was there pouring water into a teapot. “I didn’t think you boys were going to come,” Kate said as she dropped the tea ball into the pot.
“We have to take some boxes out?” asked Robert.
Kate pointed at a small pile of wood and cardboard boxes and a wooden barrel near the door. The boys took two boxes each and swung the door open, stepped out into the warm spring air and saw that a small pile of crates like the ones they had just delivered to the general store.
“What about this barrel?” asked Paul.
Kate stopped and looked at it. “We don’t know where that came from. Just take it out for now,” said Kate.
Dorothy stepped through the door into the kitchen and looked at the two boys moving the barrel. “Make sure that the top is on tight: I don’t want it filling up with rain water.”
Robert nodded as he rocked the barrel out the door to the alley. Soon the two had moved all the full boxes into the kitchen and Paul followed Robert out the door and they sat down on the empty wooden boxes and leaned against the wall.
“This isn’t helping the war much,” said Robert.
“Oh,” said Paul. Robert was going to start complaining thought Paul.
“I’m going to do something,” said Robert as he looked at Paul. “If I tell you, you can’t tell anyone else,” continued Robert. Paul shook his head. He knew he wouldn’t talk if Robert did something big, Paul wouldn’t be able to say anything, because that would just mean more trouble for him, Paul would have to explain why he hadn’t told someone what Robert planned. “I’m going to go sign up,” said Robert.
“You’ve tried that already,” said Paul.
“I tried to do it right here in town where everyone knew how old I was.”
“I don’t think it’s going to be any different somewhere else,” said Paul as he looked at Robert: he was big for his age, but there was definitely something boyish too, and Paul doubted that Robert would actually get into the armed forces, but he was pretty sure Robert would try. When Robert had made up his mind to do something, even if it was strange, he would do it. “There’s nothing anyone can do to stop you,” said Paul.
Robert smiled as the door to the hostess club swung open; Dorothy stood blinking in the bright sunshine. “There you are,” she said. “We need you to move the tables away from the book case.”
The two boys got up and walked into the kitchen following Dorothy to the front room again, moved a table along the wall of the hostess club from where it had been blocking the bookcase.
“Are these your brothers?” asked an airman standing beside Dorothy.
Pointing at Paul she said, “Just him. He’s Paul. And this is Robert, his friend.”
“Hello,” said the small man with light brown hair and an air force uniform. “I’m Stan. I just arrived at the air school.”
“Good to meet you,” said Robert as he shook Stan’s hand. “I’m hoping to join up soon.”
“Stan is a part of an experimental plan,” said Dorothy. “He came straight here from the initial training school without going to an elementary training school first.”
“Why did they do that?” asked Paul.
“They’re trying to get trained pilots as fast as possible, so they took some of us with the best marks in the initial school and put us straight into service training schools.”
“That’s great,” said Robert. “You’ll be getting right into action.”
“That’s if everything works out; there’s a lot to learn in just a few weeks. They want to know if all the flying time the pilots put in at the elementary school is needed.”
“I hope it isn’t,” said Robert excitedly as Stan grinned at him.
“You two have to get going, Dad said he wanted you two to help him take some supplies to the air school,” said Dorothy.
Paul turned and walked to the door with Robert. The two boys blinked as they stepped out of the hostess club into the bright sun. “There’s no way that Stan looks older than me,” said Robert.
Paul looked at Robert and thought that maybe he was right: he could get away with passing for an older guy, but then, Paul just shook his head and kept on walking. Robert didn’t notice; he was sure that he would be in the armed forces in no time and with that sped up program he would be flying a bomber over Europe in months.
Robert’s felt excited when he was asked to come with Paul and his father to air school to deliver milk and eggs. They came to the gate where they waited before being motioned to move on and soon they were at the mess where they unloaded the supplies. Paul’s father was asked to talk to the officer in charge of supply. Robert waited to see Paul’s father walk away, then he pulled at Paul’s sleeve. They ran around the nearby building, as Paul ran after Robert, noticing that he was headed to the nearest hanger, there were two Anson parked in front of it.
“Robert, we can’t go over there,” said Paul as his heart raced and cheeks burned, they would be right out in the open once they were on the tarmac.
“Just stay close to me,” said Robert as he rushed forward to the aircraft.
Paul didn’t want to go back and decided they couldn’t get into too much trouble. He followed Robert as he hurried to the side of the Anson with a glass gun turret on top, but there was no gun in it. Robert was leaning over the back edge of the wing trying to look into the windows, but the windows only extended to where the wing was. The door was small and was just above the back edge of the wing. To see in, he would have to climb onto the wing and Paul watched with increasing nervousness as Robert climbed onto the wing and pulled himself up to look in.
“Man it’s small in there,” said Robert. Paul looked around and didn’t notice anyone, climbed onto the wing beside Robert and looked into the Anson; there would be room for just a few guys sitting tightly together. “There wouldn’t be any room to sneak into a machine like this,” said Robert.
Paul felt his stomach jump and the tension in his shoulders increasing, but he hadn’t seen anything. “We’ve got to get out of here,” said Paul. He wasn’t waiting for Robert: he started to step backwards off the wing, as Robert continued to look through the window. Paul slipped off the wing and turned to run back in the direction they had come, but he was frozen in place, as he looked at the man in a uniform standing with his arms crossed, as he said nothing, watched Robert continue to stare into the interior of the aircraft.
“Who are you?” asked the man.
Robert stopped, turned and looked at the man, quickly slipped off the wing and stood beside Paul. “This is Paul,” said Robert as the man looked angrily at Robert. “And I’m Robert.”
“What are you doing here?”
“Looking,” said Robert quickly.
“We came with my Dad,” said Paul.
“Where’s he?” said the man as he glanced at the Anson parked behind the one the two boys had just been on as if he expected Paul’s father to be climbing on it.
“He’s talking to some officer,” said Robert.
The man squinted at Robert as if he was thinking that Paul’s father had already been caught. “He’s talking about the supplies we brought,” said Paul.
“Where are you from?” the man asked Paul.
Paul pointed to the small rise in the nearby field in the exact direction of the farm and the man realised he was speaking to the two boys he often saw sitting on the rise watching the planes take off and land. He thought it was amusing when he first saw them, but now he looked every day to see if they were there when he took a student pilot up. He would turn around and watch them in the field and fly over their farm, because he was seeing the same enthusiasm in them that he had for flight, they would be pilots if they followed their dreams like he did.
“What were you doing on the Anson?”
“Looking inside to see if there was enough room,” said Robert quickly.
“Enough room for what?” asked the man.
“Too ride,” said Robert. Paul’s heart sped up as he heard Robert’s words; they were going to be in a lot of trouble.
With a stern look the man said, “You two were thinking about how you could sneak into one of these aircraft and get a ride?”
Robert stopped as he realised that his secret was known. “Well, we’re really weren’t thinking that we could do it,” said Paul quickly.
“These are air force aircraft, and you have to be in the forces to be on one,” said the flying instructor.
Robert wanted to tell him how he had tried to sign up in town, but they wouldn’t let him join. He wanted to tell him how he was going to go to the city soon and sign up where no one knew his age and he would be flying in an Anson in a few months, but he didn’t want anyone to know who could stop him.
“There’s always a way to get what you really want,” said the flight instructor.
Robert thought about it, the flight instructor must be talking about him, he was sure that he must think he was old enough and that if he wanted to be a pilot, he would just have to sign up. “I guess,” said Robert.
“We should go,” said Paul.
“Yes, you should,” said the man. “I’ll see that you don’t get lost.”
The three turned and started to walk back along the side of the hanger, the same way they had come.
“You boys aren’t allowed on this air school without permission. I don’t want to see you two around here, unless you are supposed to be.”
“Yes sir,” said Robert. As they walked around the corner of the hanger they saw Paul’s father walking to the truck, the two boys hurried up.
“I’ll be seeing you,” said the flight instructor as he stopped to watch the two rush to the truck.
“You two didn’t get into trouble, did you?”
“Not really,” said Paul.
Paul’s father looked at the flight instructor turning to go back to the tarmac and smiled. “You two stay at the truck the next time we come here,” said Paul’s father.
Both nodded their heads as they sat down in the truck box. As the truck moved along the road to the gate, both of the boys had a feeling that they would be back and they both might be flying in an Anson, but they had no idea how it would happen. Paul stopped himself from thinking he would be flying in an Anson, but he watched Robert looking more confident than he had in a while. Paul felt nervous, Robert may be planning something, and if he wasn’t careful, who knew how far it would go next time.