My First Flight
In one of the Sienfield episodes, Jerry says to Elaine "I can see you naked any time I want". Elaine protests but finally asks Jerry how and he says "I just have to close my eyes". It is like that with certain episodes in my life, like the time years ago when I was transferred from Clinton to St. Margarets, NB, and flew in a C-119 "Flying Boxcar". My memory starts in Quebec City, where we had stopped for a few minutes and stayed for a few hours.
I remember standing in front of a large window in the terminal; looking out at what had to be the ugliest airplane that I had ever seen. I stared at it wondering how the hell any aircraft designer had come up with this. Maybe it was design by committee I thought. I was bored and yet anxious to get back into that ugly plane and get going again. I only had one more hop in the sched I thought, but what did I know about what was in store for us. The gray of the day was gradually dulling into evening. Not bad I thought, for a boxcar. Why we had just left Toronto at what; 09:00 was it? It seemed like forever and we hadnít even been fed. The hunger was just sitting in the back of my mind, mixed with the boredom and anxiety. It was my first flight in an airplane and it was December 30, 1962.
We had been dumped in this shack and left for over an hour without any food; not even coffee. Mostly dependents on this flight, wives of service men and some children, a few Seamen, and a few other airmen besides myself. I donít remember much about the others; I was withdrawn, thinking about my new assignment. For over a year I had been training and now I was off to do some real work as a Radar Tech. What the hell, I had joined the Airforce to work on airplane engines. But there were no openings in that trade so they wanted me to be a bus driver. A standoff ensued between me and a couple of officers when I refused to accept anything less than Radar Ground. I finally won out when I still refused to give in and it was almost 16:00. The young officer who had argued with me all afternoon gave in and now here I was, transferring to St. Margarets. A long way from Winnipeg and I was very excited about finally getting to work. I was also looking forward to my first glimpse of the Atlantic.
Movement caught my eye and I was brought back to the moment by a group of airmen sauntering out to the plane. They moved with the lethargy that men have when they have just finished a big meal and had spent time talking over coffee. The group dispersed as some of the airmen went into the old C-119 and several of them moved to the front end of the aircraft. I was particularly taken with the one dragging the BIG fire extinguisher with him. The captain made his way methodically around the plane checking it out. Satisfied I supposed that nothing had fallen off or been stolen he to disappeared inside leaving the guy with the fire extinguisher to stand lonely vigil in the cold December wind.
How can I describe it to you? Those of you who have heard it will hear it in your mind without having to read the words. Those of you who havenít heard it will never be able to imagine it. The sound of a big radial aircraft engine firing up. Firing up . Made sense to have a BIG fire extinguisher handy. The guy on the ground made a half hearted gesture with his hand, his finger in the air and the big prop on the right wing started to move ever so slowly. A whirring sound, a grinding, whirring sound, a groan was just audible through the glass. A cough. A whirring noise. A belch. Smoke. Another cough, and another. The prop was blurring into a disk now as it spun faster. Another belch, a series of coughs and then the smoother roar as the engine wound up and the prop started pulling air, scattering the smoke out behind. I stood, fascinated at the sight. I was motionless as the ground crew dragged the fire extinguisher over to the left wing. He did the same thing with his finger and the engine obeyed. This time the roar of the right engine covered the sounds of the left engine turning. Smoke belched out the exhaust, flame shot out and then licked upwards at the end of the pipe. Then more smoke, and flame, but not out the exhaust now, but from around the engine. The guy with the fire extinguisher was doing his thing now, no longer bored as he fired CO2 gas into and around the big engine. The crew kept the big engine turning to suck the flame into the engine and soon the excitement was over. The right engine shut down and the crew gathered again on the tarmac, stood for a minute and then sauntered off without even a glance in our direction. My God I wondered, how long are we going to be here?
I sat now with the rest of the passengers as half an hour crept by. The same men came sauntering by from somewhere and the firing up process started once again. Iím not getting on that thing I thought to myself. I donít care what they do or threaten me with; I will not get on that fucking old crate. The engines spun up this time, the way they usually do, and suddenly the Loadmaster was in our face. Hurry up. Everyone on. Now it was rush. For an hour and a half it was saunter, and now it was rush. I hurried on board with the others, too frightened to refuse, and strapped myself into the jump seats. Seats? They were straps that ran the length of the cargo bay, one set along the sides of the fuselage, and another two sets back to back down the center. No worry about putting your seat back and seat tray into the upright position here. Thatís all there was.
The next hour or so is nonexistent in my mind. It seemed like a long time before the engines cut back a little and we started our descent into Chatham. At last I thought, almost home. All I have to do now is get something to eat and find out where my ride to St. Margarets was, and soon I would be at my new station. A landing light flashed on outside, casting an eerie glow into the cargo bay. I turned and looked out and was startled to see nothing but white. White snow racing past our wing as we sat bouncing and lurching in place, or so it seemed. The Loadmaster came back then from his seat up in the warm cabin. I remember him saying something about the whole eastern seaboard including Quebec shut down, and that we were going to try to get in but if we didnít we only had enough fuel to get to Newfoundland. Something like that. The engines and the sound of my racing heart kind of drowned out his message. I didnít notice the hunger anymore. The fear was knotting up my stomach and had chased all other feelings out. Out of my stomach and out of my mind. The Loadmaster disappeared up front again and the bouncing, lurching, and yawing just kept getting worse. My God but does time ever slow down when you are terrified. Suddenly the engines roared back to life and we lurched up away from an unseen ground, climbing into the whiteness, the blackness, all mixed, all one. We turned a few times and then the engines again came back in power as we slid into the night. Nothing but our imaginations to tell us where we were. Again, after what seemed like an eternity, the engines roared into life and we bounced and lurched up out of the blizzard once more. Soon the Loadmaster came back and confirmed that indeed we were on our way to Newfoundland, that it really wouldnít be that long, and again he disappeared up front. I sat motionless and emotionless, staring across the cargo bay, past the others sitting there, all thoughts now drowned out by the roaring engines.
We spent the night at an USAF base in Newfoundland. They met us as we landed with two jeeps armed with machine guns. A hell of a way to greet us in our own country I thought, but I was just getting my first glimpse of how the Americans fought war, cold or otherwise. But they treated us right and put us up in Transient Quarters. A few of us made plans to go to the Canteen and I remember that one of the Seamen had split his pants and I gave him a spare tie to slip inside the seat of his pants to cover up the split. We went over to the canteen to eat, and then we drank some beer. We drank a lot of beer. I mean we drank way too much beer. When they threw us out of the canteen, I had three bottles up each sleeve of my great coat. We drank that back at our quarters, just to top the day off. You know.
The next morning hurt. It came in dull and painful and some rude guy was rushing us again. There was a hole or something somewhere or other and we had to find it before it left. Something like that. Hurry; get to the plane, now.
Oh man, have I mentioned the puke? No? Well see, as we had bounced and lurched through that blizzard the night before more than most of us (myself aside) had filled those little paper bags with the little that had been left inside our stomachs. And there those bags sat, softened by a night in the cold, just waiting for a kick or a nudge to start leaking. My lord that ship stank. My head pounded. My eyeballs bled. I choked back a gag reflex and vowed that I would not be sick. I held on for dear life, and I made it. I made it even though the guy sitting beside me recognized my plight and thought it was his duty to draw my attention to each new person tossing their cookies; to each new pool of puke on the floor; embellishing all of this with a running commentary of awful things. I made it into the Naval Air Station at Halifax and was puzzled when the doors opened and there stood a fire truck right behind us. Take all your things we were told. Donít leave anything behind. We were ushered into the Ops Room and just before going through the door I glanced behind and saw that a fireman was pulling a hose up into the cargo bay to flush out the nasty remnants of our flight.
Soon I was the only one left in the shack besides the kid who worked there. He had handed out a boxed lunch. Not nearly enough but that was it. No, no place on base to get anything to eat. No, too far to go to town, ya might miss your flight. I sat.
I barely remember Greenwood. We went in, we went out. I remember the crew talking about going to PEI, but the weather was too bad. Then, finally into Chatham, into a dark and quiet airbase. The Ops Center was dark and empty. I saw some lights and headed for them, the collar of my great coat pulled up, my scarf over my ears, as I struggled with my kit against the wind. I came off the flight line and saw the mess hall. I banged on the door and finally someone answered. No, sorry, canít feed you here without a mess card. Besides dinner is over and we have to get the mess ready for the party. After all, it is New Years Eve. St. Margarets? Right. The bus stops just down there. Thereís a shelter down that way, there. Sorry, donít know when it comes by.
Well, I finally rolled into St. Maggies on the shift bus, about 23:30 I think. The AFP at the desk called a guy named Tiny who turned out to be a very BIG man. I will never forget his humor and good will and his sympathetic manner as he helped me get my gear, sheets, pillows and blankets to my new room. The barracks were so quiet, I donít think there was one other person there. Perfect. I was way to tired to be lonely and I was quickly fast asleep. I donít remember hearing anyone come in. My next real recollection was walking into the mess hall at 06:00 the next morning. There were four airwomen, FtrCops sitting at a table and I asked if I could join them. Welcome, they said, have a seat; and welcome to St. Maggies. It was New Years Day, 1963, and things were, once again, as they should be.