Thursday, December 08, 2016

50, now 75 Years Later

Some of my more ethereal friends over the years have placed great stock in the idea that we do not necessarily pass this  earthly plane once or even twice, more like a succession of times until we finally get "it" right. They seem pretty convinced; me, I don't know. I keep trying to get "it" right as I go this time around. That writ, I've found myself in some pretty interesting places in space-time.

There were glancing blows with the Great Beyond throughout my life, but a few stand out. 

In 1989, I happened to be The Expert (someone from out of town), flight training in Mexico. My students were very proficient pilots who had to log a few hours in the Gulfstream IV before receiving their Mexican type ratings on their licenses. One evening after toodling around to log some time, my first Mexican pilot in training, a fine fellow named Jose March, took me to a unique restaurant; a Polish establishment that was well known and later became even more so for catering Pope John Paul II's visits to Mexico. I like Polish food, having a Polish great-great-grandfather, so it was a treat to be there no matter who owned it.
The owner of the restaurant came around and chatted a bit, then the conversation got interesting; the owner learned we were pilots and revealed that he had flown during The War. He sent our waiter for a bottle of very good Polish vodka encased in a sleeve of ice and proceeded to tell us he would like to sit with us and celebrate the 50th anniversary of the day he was first shot down! I was stunned. The date was September 1, the day Poland was invaded to start World War II. We were face to face with a very special man.
Tadeusz Adam Podbereski, Flight Lieutenant, RAF
May 5, 1919 - May 14, 2006

Making his way to England, Podbereski was initially trained by the RAF on multi-engine airplanes, ostensibly to become a bomber pilot or navigator. The aircraft used was an Airspeed Ltd. AS-10 Oxford, designed by a company founded by a gent named Neville Shute Norway (later a writer of some renown under his pen name, Neville Shute. Possibly his most famous book was also a movie "On the Beach", an apocalyptic novel set, contemporarily, in the days of the cold war.) His Oxford training was apparently terminated after a really bad day in October, 1941, when he managed to damage an airplane on a night solo, landing just past midnight, then taxiing into a ditch just before midnight the same day. He transferred to single engine aircraft and was made a flight instructor.
Airspeed AS-10 Oxford

For his next adventure:
My translation of a Google translation of an entry in a Polish commemorative website: In the summer of 1942, as throughout the war, training at the Polish pilot primary school 16 (Polish) Service Flying Training School in Newton (UK) was going at full speed. On September 19, 1942, Tadeusz Podbereski was a flight instructor along with a student volunteer from the United States, Edmund (something). In flight, the wing of their airplane, a Master III (W8530), hit a tree and crashed on the White House Farm in the village of Colston Bassett, near Nottingham. The student was killed.  Podbereski survived, gravely injured. He was sent soon to East Grinstead and became one of the "guinea pigs".
Miles Master III
During our dinner (much of it liquid), I couldn't help but notice the diagonal scar across his face. Podbereski was one of the early subjects in the development of plastic surgery. The "guinea pigs" were a truly unique bunch of men, given wonderful support and special training to help them cope with, what were in the past, debilitating disfigurements. It must have worked; Podbereski survived at least three accidents/incidents during the war, emigrated to Canada where he became an engineer and participated in projects worldwide. On a fishing trip to Mexico he met and married a Mexican girl and moved to Mexico City. His restaurant, Mazurka, lives on as a testament to this truly remarkable man. (It's worth the trip, next time you're in Mexico City).

Moving right along

On September 15, 1990, I was on a Gulfstream trip to London and took the opportunity to visit the Battle of Britain Museum at RAF Hendon. The hall is filled with memorabilia, including a replica of the blackout board from The White Hart pub, signed by pilots based at Biggin Hill Aerodrome, quite possibly the busiest fighter base during the Battle. 
The blackout board was put over the windows of The White Hart at night - a practice all over England during the War. Group Captain Dickie Grice came up with the idea of signing his name on the board and told the landlady, Mrs. Preston (pictured above at a reunion after the War), "Don't let any but my men sign it." The board became an unofficial memorial when faces ceased to appear at the pub. It's now at the RAF Museum at Shoreham.

Looking through a coffee table book in that vicinity, an arm appeared next to my shoulder and at the end of that arm a finger pointed to a picture on the page. "You're looking at a picture of me!" the voice said. I turned and stood face to face with a man who introduced himself as Tony Bartley. I was stunned again. This made twice in just over a year that I could celebrate a 50th anniversary with men who, in their youth, had been my childhood heroes.
Anthony Bartley flew in 92 Squadron (Spitfires) during the Battle of Britain, then other postings. Coincidentally, I've just finished a book by a 92 Squadron mate, Geoffrey Wellum ("First Light") in which he mentions Bartley prominently. After the War, Bartley took a stint with Vickers-Armstrong as a test pilot and salesman, then turned to Hollywood. He was married, first, to the actress Deborah Kerr until 1958, then remarried another lady in the 1960s. He began writing and producing screenplays and films at the time he married Kerr. Bartley died in 2001 but left me with a brilliant memory of our sandwiches together at RAF Hendon on the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Britain.

Another day another anniversary

December 7, 1991. The 50th Anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. 
 I was based in Honolulu flying a G-IV, ironically, for a Japanese company. I made more than one trip to the USS Arizona Memorial while we lived in Hawaii - one of those a few days before the anniversary with my old pilot friend, Carlos, who was there on a layover with United Air Lines. You can take a virtual tour online but nothing can replace being there; seeing a post card written by a sailor from the Arizona and posted while he enjoyed a night on the town on December 6th (postmarked on the 8th when he was already dead) touched me with a keen poignancy that still gives me pause.

50, now 75 years on for the anniversaries of momentous events that have shaped my life

I was born between VE Day and VJ Day, 1945. My parents must have been optimistic in the fall of 1944 that the world would enjoy peace once again. Alas, people keep making the same mistakes over and over and we keep getting tangled up in wars. Maybe, if there is a next time around for me, we as a human race might learn something about how to live together. In the meantime, I hope there are a few who will stand up for what's right and good and noble so a future kid will have heroes like Podbereski and Bartley and their sort to look up to.