Bert had a quirky sense of humour.
When people told me he’d flown Spitfires during World War Two, people told me, I had visions of air crews levering his big frame into the cockpit.
Sometime later I saw the framed photo of a young, scrawny, air-force-uniformed Bert sitting beside other mementoes above the fireplace in his lounge room. An official service record confirmed the photo, yet he never made a big deal of doing what thousands of his peers had also done.
After the war he took up farming, retaining his pilot’s licence for recreational purposes. He had great fun with the tourists who hired him for local joy flights; especially if he could catch any out with a few tall stories.
His favourite true story was about a long-time friend we both knew, who had never flown in a light plane before.
He finally agreed to take to the skies with Bert and another pilot friend.
All strapped in, they were just lifting off when Bert asked his co-pilot: “Frank, did you bring our landing instructions?”
Frank slapped his knee right on cue: “Ooh, no! I thought you had them!”
“It looks like an emergency landing – if we can find a safe place around here…” replied Bert, glancing around to see the rapidly-blanching face of his wide-eyed rookie passenger. After about five minutes of what sounded like a lifetime of whimpering from the back seat they let him in on their little game.
Bert and Dot’s grandchildren lived clear across the country, four days drive away, and they could only come for their summer break.
Bert especially enjoyed buzzing over his farm with them. Faces pressed against the windows while they circled above the property, they gazed down on hills that towered over them at ground level; until they soared to just below cloud-level; from where they sowed dreams of wider, personal life-horizons.
One year, another wonderful two weeks was ending in efforts to repack the car. “It’s no good, Jason,” Bert told the youngest boy; in the most serious tones: “You’re just too big for them now that you’ve eaten so much of grandma’s cooking. They’ve decided to leave you with us!”
Jason’s lip quivered slightly. Every ten-year-old loves to hear how big he is growing; but being dumped from the family? Bert reached down with a reassuring, grandpa-sized hug: “Jason, we want you to stay an extra week, so you and I can travel back on a big passenger jet.”
Jason’s face split into a huge grin, and he pulled his bag out of the car. Then it was kisses and hugs all round. The doors closed, the motor revved and they were off; with the horn tooting from within a diminishing cloud of dust.
That week Jason and Bert re-tensioned wire fences; painted a shed; fixed taps; set out irrigation pipes and tended the livestock. Jason worked hard each day, ate lots more of grandma’s cooking, and slept with industrial-strength intensity every night.
As the week progressed, Jason began to get excited about going home; and flying home in a big passenger jet was too big a bonus to ignore. Bert was chuffed as well, for he wanted to see what those big monsters were like up close from the inside.
They got to the airport in plenty of time to drink in the atmosphere before boarding their flight.
Jason’s eyes shone with excitement as he absorbed it all, but he reached for Bert’s hand as his back became imprinted into the seat as full-thrust kicked in for take-off.
As they attained cruising height, Bert had yet another surprise for Jason. He mentioned his wartime experience to a flight attendant, and asked about permission to go into the cockpit. She secured their clearance – for this was years before 9/11 – and forward they went.
Bert asked a few appropriate questions about the maze of the control panel; but Jason was totally in awe of seeing so much equipment. He asked the flight engineer: “Hey mister, what are all those for?”
“Well, sonny,” replied the engineer; with a broad wink to Bert: “we have a switch for every seat on this plane. If we hear that anyone is not behaving themselves, we flick the switch for their seat – and they just disappear out through the ejection chute!”
As Bert told me later; after they had returned to their seats poor Jason never moved a muscle!
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