“Oscar Bravo, Oscar Bravo, do you read?” shrilled Carl Phillips into the radio headset. “Sod it. He’s off air. He’s dead in no-man’s land.”
I kept my thoughts to myself. We were hunkered down in the room that smelled of cheap disinfectant behind the drill hall. No-man’s land was an area strewn with old tires behind the hangar. The worst thing that could happen to Davies was being caught by Team B and subjected to an hour of boredom out of the exercise. They called it demobilization. These weekend warrior games were feeling increasingly pointless.
I had been the Air Training Corps for six months but the drill hall still carried a menace of its own. Where else in my world could one half-hearted salute or drooping beret lead to a grown man shouting at me?
“You just take it don’t you,” Phillips would shriek. “You take it you dumb mother.”
He’d always be jabbing at something with a pen or twitching. He oozed ADD in the same way his facial acne wept on a humid day. Increasingly I was beginning to feel this was not the real deal.
I joined because I wanted to fly and my first experience was a positive one. I had been ushered into a room with a small and wizened red headed man who was the Commanding Officer. There was a tiny, lovingly-painted model of a Spitfire on his desk.
I had joined with Billy Brown who had not lasted the course due to an uncontrollable mouth disorder. He moved to pick up the Spitfire and the CO made a small motion like swatting a fly that stopped Brown’s hand in mid air, although it didn’t stop his mouth.
“In the Battle of Britain or sommit?”
“That’s right,” said the small CO, his eyes not moving from the joining papers.
“No way. You didn’t fly a Spitfire?” said Brown.
“I was indeed a Spitfire pilot. Biggin Hill.” The CO was clipped and economical with his words.
As Brown’s mouth meandered on I fell to musing about how this small man had been scrambled round the clock to the skies black and bristling with Nazi Heinkels. I thought about how his comrades had risen into the clouds at breakfast and never returned for lunch, how his plane had plummeted hundreds of feet over London with the docklands ablaze from the fires from German bombs. He was one of the few who had triumphed against all odds against the many. Now he signed documents and made uniform requests for cretins like Billy Brown.
Two months after joining the Air Training Corps, the CO had a stroke and was taken to a nursing home. His replacement Peter Hall was a car salesman from Tewkesbury.
My cousin Monty joined the regiment at the same time. Despite having no previous knowledge of drill maneuvers, he picked it up quickly. Monty gained stripes before me, but I was eventually promoted to corporal.
Two years into my time in the regiment we conducted a night exercise on a disused airfield in Wales. By this time Carl Phillip’s shrill voice was a distant memory. He had left to sniff solvents or skirt. My team was young and keen, but the map reader mixed up his hangars. We hunkered down behind an old air raid shelter, where we could ambush Flight C. I looked up into the cold night sky thick with a web of stars, peaceful and unclouded by bombers, and I drifted away. I lost all notion of time and command. I was as anonymous as the stars. The exercise seemed insignificant and distant. Suddenly there were shouts and the sounds of a struggle. The flight we intended to ambush had crept up on us and taken us prisoner.
I was in the debriefing. It was uncomfortably hot in the drill hall. Sergeant Monty DeVere had his small pointer stick. He pulled down a map of the airfield on the screen with an efficient snap, folded his muscular arms and looked squarely at me.
“This was a classic case of an inability to think outside the box,” he said levelly. “Flight A had a clear ambush plan. It did not work but when they failed to see the enemy they didn’t switch to a plan B. They also failed to take stock of where they were and to make adjustments. If you are a one trick pony I’m afraid to say, you are not going to win any races.”
“Is that original or did you steal it from one of your father’s friends?” I muttered.
The low backdrop of whispering ended in the drill hall and the air cadets started to pay attention.
“If that was a question, you should know the rules,” continued Monty. “Save them for the end. I am only a very small way through my extensive criticism of your performance tonight.”
It was the last time my patchily shined boots would squeal on the drill hall floor.