I had by now settled into my new course. I had lost about a month so I slotted in at exactly the same stage. I was missing Johnnie, Mac and the rest of the boys on S.F.T.S (Service Flying Training Course) No 57 but I knew quite a few of the fellows on No 58 so it was not too bad. We were to move No 37 S.F.T.S from Swift Current to Calgary a distance of about 500 miles but the only difference it will make to us is 10 days leave while the admin bods settle in.
I also had to say Goodbye to my precious record player but nothing matters but getting those wings. We were to make the longest crosscountry flight of the course to get us in the mood and here quote another letter home:-
"Sorry about the delay in finishing this letter but I was up in a "clamp" today on a crosscountry flight of about 350 miles. Had to fly to town 'A', about 105 miles North, then to town 'B' about 120 miles East of 'A', and then back to base. The Met office told me that I should get to 'A' all right but to report what I found when I got back.
Another fellow agreed to come with me in loose formation. We reached 'A' and after circling the town, set off for 'B'. That was the last I saw of him. He saw me disappear into the weather and hared off back to base. I did get through but since I was well overdue everyone got in a flatspin. I reported to Met as requested and they were most interested. I did have to fly pretty low but there was nothing to it. Here's to more clamps!"
I have just checked my log book and see that the duration of that flight was 3Hrs 20mins so I was well overdue and flew into the circuit with a ceiling of less than 200ft. Calgary was a much larger station. We resumed our flying training by starting flying at 06:00 and ending at 13:00. Two hours of night flying and then starting flying the next day at 13:00 to 20:00 thus making a two day cycle.
The "LINK" trainer was essentially an aircraft cockpit complete with all relative instruments and controls. It was mounted on struts which could be varied in length so that the instructor could illustrate any possible flying condition. The pupil was blacked out and had to rely on his instruments alone. I note by my logbook that my 'Link' instruction covered my training on Tiger Moths right through to flying Spitfires and amounted to 42Hrs 20 mins in all.
The Link Trainer.
This of course did not count as flying time but it was a fine training tool. Sitting in there as a tyro pilot and suddenly finding that one is in a spin, that the artificial horizon is going crazy, having the instructor's voice in the earphones "Correct with rudder and ailerons - nose down! Get your speed up before attempting to pull out' 'You have run out of air. You have crashed" Controls dead. Instrument panel dead! "Try again.' 'Act more quickly this time" Are my palms sweaty?
42 hours is not long but it seemed an age even though never more than an hour at a time. It did however act as a very good simulation for those times when there is no external feedback as when one suddenly flies into cloud. We had our exams on ground studies before the end of the course. I note that there were 61 left at the wings parade. I must have been confident because I wrote home expecting to come in the first 10. The final exams seemed to come early which was good for me as there was little time for cramming which I hated. The only individual marks recorded in letters home was for meteorology, 87% but overall my position was 4th with flying and character and leadership still to come.
One subject that caused much amusement was 'Public Speaking'. We had to present one talk of 20 minutes but there was plenty of warning unlike the one minute speech that had to be made at the drop of a hat. We had to stand on the stage in front of our half on the course with our backs to the audience. "Ahbout ...Turn!". As soon as we had done so, a subject was barked out and we had to start talking at once. The subjects were usually fairly 'far out'. Mine was "Pistol Packin Momma" It was a matter of searching ones mind for aggressive women; in my case that Biblical woman who, not having a pistol, beat out his brains with a tent peg or something like that. Have forgotten her name. Pity Thatcher was not about!
We carried on flying but had more time to ourselves and the pressure was reducing. Bill Wray was out of hospital and was temporarily working in the Adjutant's office. He met a few of us as we walked back from flying. "Do you want to know something?" "What?" "Sparkie's top of the course and I've got to get his logbook. We crowded around asking if he knew what was happening to us but he knew nothing more. That damned logbook was to be the bane of my life. It was to be given to me at our passing out parade, bound in blue Morocco leather with my name and all four initials in goldleaf. Every month our logbooks were gathered in and mine always stood out like a sore thumb, with my old one bound in with a new Canadian one so it was over twice as thick.
"Oh! Top of the course were we?" "You must be good."
Finally the day of the parade had arrived. Everything had to be just so. Previous parades were arranged so that the tallest cadets were at each end and the shortest in the centre. This time we were to be in alphabetical order so that it would be more tidy as we were to be called up to have our wings pinned to our uniforms. The first alphabetically was Addison, an ex guardsman who, coincidentally was also the tallest and I, having to go up first was to stand beside him. This was ridiculous, he was always the smartest man on parade, a fact that had not escaped my fellow cadets so they set about making sure that I did not disgrace them. Addison set about my boots and managed to get them almost as good as his which shone like jet. My uniform was taken from me and ironed but the greatest difficulty was the hair. It had never recognised a parting but they at last, had it plastered down. We were marched onto the ground and I felt stupid standing next to the towering Addison but the moment had arrived.
My name was called by the Adjutant who was standing at the right of the parade ground. I came to attention in front of him, left turned, marched to the Group Captain while the Adj bleated out why I was getting my wings first. Right turned, one step forewards, Groupie leaned over; he was pinning my wings on. I was hardly aware of anything, he was leaning over me; "I will place the logbook in your left hand" he whispered. One step back, salute, left turn, march back. I had never thought of marching with a bloody great log book in one hand. Swinging one arm only seemed all wrong but I supposed it was the best thing to do.
A very smart ex Guardsman Addison at attention by adjutant waiting his turn. Wing Commander Slater (behind C.O.) was our Commanding Officer. He finally escaped training and was killed soon after. A good egg.
It all happened in dreamtime. As soon as I came to attention back in line I felt something. It was my hair, suddenly freeing itself and sticking up like a cockscomb where the parting had been. So. It was all over. Our course felt harshly treated. I received my commission with my wings as did two others and I was the only one to go on to fighters, All of the rest went on to multiengined aircraft. That was it. No arguments.
At the celebration dinner that night the Wing Commander was surrounded by frustrated pilots, all asking questions at the tops of their voices. "Sir?" "Sir?" "Sir?" "Why has Sparkes gone onto fighters?" "Because he flies with a certain lack of apprehension!" "No more questions on your postings." "You catch the train East tomorrow morning." The celebrations after the dinner were a a release of the tensions of our training so far. Young men tend to get very drunk and do things that they would not tolerate in others.
Lofty came to see me off at the station. I thanked him for getting me through and he wished me the best of luck, said that he had to go and to my amazement he snapped to attention and saluted. Good God! He was saluting me! I returned his salute as quickly as possible and he was gone. He was, of course, not saluting me but the uniform but it came as a shock. He had held my future in his hands for three months, he had quietly nursed me through my insecurities and taught me as much as he could and in the matter of a few hours the rank standing had reversed. Life in the services poses many conundrums.
We boarded the train in high spirits. As we started travelling East we had already a good load of newly trained army sergeants etc: from Vancouver and being the first to get my wings I was the senior of three Pilot Officers and therefore in charge of the train with just a pathetic white band over my L.A.C. armbadge that made me more vulnerable. Several groups of returning trainees joined the train as it trundled East but alas there were no more officers. We stopped at a few stations, some hardly more that a whistle stop, sometimes for as much as half an hour and at such stops several of the fellows would get off and try to buy spirits. What the authorities would expect me to do was beyond me. To my great shame I was reduced to trying to 'talk sense into them'; it would have been useless to put anyone on a charge, everyone was in such high spirits.
Then came the worst experience of all. (I have already mentioned this in another thread but include it for the sake of continuity).
It was at Winnipeg station. I had been told previously that we were to be given tea on the platform by that noble and well meaning group of local matrons "The Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire". Thinking it best to forewarn the lads I passed the information down the train. It was like red rag to a trainload of bulls. There were the ladies with their sandwiches, tea trollies etc: all dressed in their Sunday best most of them with hats as big as cartwheels. The air was full of catcalls and invitations to come onto the train to see what real men were like etc: etc: and then came a flight of inflated condoms batted into the air. The ladies marched, shoulders back for the safety of the waiting room.
Fortunately I had seen the Station Master on the platform. I sought him out and tapping my pathetic white band told him that I was the senior officer on the train and asked him if there were any Red Caps (Military Police) nearby and was told that he was about to contact them. I asked him to hold it for a few moments. Returning to the train I hissed at them that he was about to call in the Red Caps and did they want to lose their newly won promotions by being reduced to the ranks? Finally silence reigned and it was up to me to placate the ladies. I explained that the boys were excited to have completed their training and just let their feelings get out of hand. That they were on their way to give their all for the war effort just as they (the ladies) were doing. On the promise that they would not be further insulted they returned. Wiser heads must have prevailed; there was not a condom to be seen, inflated or otherwise and all was sweetness and light which was just as well as a group of Red Caps appeared on the platform.
All went as before with the usual roundups after a stop until we arrived at Montreal. I went to buy the uniform of a Pilot Officer. The Uniform Allowance seemed very generous but it was soon plain that it was 'just' adequate. The new uniform was painfully obvious. There was a plump lady who invited me back to her home where she would introduce me to her 'nieces'. So. Back to being a 'sprog' again, this time the Officer's Mess was to be faced and with a very new uniform.
We returned on the Queen Mary. There were no escort warships but once or twice we made an incredibly tight turn to go back the way we came. The whole ship shuddered with the effort and heeled over considerably. There was nothing to see but a huge 'U' shaped wake. We were not sorry to arrive in England. I had been away ten months.
There was no a shortage of girls in Canada but we were kept pretty busy.
On leaving Swift Current for Calgary an address was given to me which when followed up led me to a very attractive girl with whom I spent most of my spare time. It was made plain to her that nothing could come of the relationship as the future held no promise of permanence. I came across her photograph about a year ago when sorting and discarding. It was taken in a favourite park of mine with a backdrop of lifesize concrete dinosaurs.
It must come as a surprise to modern youth that, at that time, most girls were determined to enter marriage as a virgin. The day of recreational sex had not arrived. This jousting was on a very different field. It was obvious that we were sexually attracted. She was a lovely girl and every time things could have put us on 'Auto pilot' she very gently reminded me that she did not want to renege on her principles. I respected her for that. On the last night before my 'wings' parade we talked everything over we agreed not even to contact one another.
I was in my hotel room just about to change for the final dinner when the phone rang. It was the reception desk saying that a Miss --- was there to see me. Did I want to come down or should he send her up? "Ask her to come up". I had no sooner got my shirt on when the bell rang. She was already there. She slipped into the room and said that she had wanted to see me again. There was nothing defensive this time and there was no doubt where all this was leading "I really must not be late for dinner".
"Surely you can spare me a little time?" I really did respect this girl and as a last shot said "I can't take precautions because I don't carry any" That was an utter lie because every airman carried a three pack but she said "I don't want you to". As I surmised it was her first time. She was so very sweet and as she left she said "Thank you!"
I decided that I would never understand women; I still don't. Why had she done it?
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Edward Sparkes ©1998