In Merrie Olde England (Pt. 1)

While stationed in Germany, my dad had to attend quite a few NATO weather conferences.  Since he was the commander of the local weather detachment here in Stadt, he was the one who assigned himself to attend.  My mom was okay with them but only if she got to go.

One fine summer day he came home and began packing his bags.  He told her that some joint British/American group had formed and needed a weather observer to attend their war games.  At the time my mom was fighting a terrible cold.  She coughed, wheezed, and groaned out a feeble protest that she really didn’t feel like going.

I had been especially grating on her nerves for reasons I don’t remember at the moment (perhaps my only sin was being 16+), so she was the one that proposed letting me go along with him.  He thought it over and, at her insistence, allowed that it might be a good thing.  Luckily, I was already packed when he came to my room to ask.

Back then, dependents were allowed on military airplanes as part of any rest and recreation flight.  Since I was a dependent, I could go.  We arrived at Flight Operations at 0God o’clock and blearily filled out all the forms that serve to make a plane take wing.  No paperwork, no flight.

Since my dad was a light Colonel he was assigned a seat that had at least an inch of foam on it.  There were only six such seats on the whole plane.  The rest of the rabble had to sit in canvas slings or stand and hold on to the straps hanging down from the ceiling.  I didn’t see any enlisted men but I was told they were being strapped to the wings.

With a huge cloud of smelly, black smoke and a large backfire, the port (or left) engine began to spin up.  I watched with interest as the propeller appeared to be going first forward and then backwards.  Probably a trick of the eye I told myself.  Similar sounds were emanating from the starboard (or right) side of the craft but, since I was seated somewhere in the middle, I couldn’t see very well.

With a slight waddle, the C-47 made its way ponderously to the end of the runway.  I was to find out in later years that a ‘taildragger’ such as the C-47 had to waddle from side to side because a pilot couldn’t see directly in front of the plane.  So, in order to taxi, he had to move from side to side of the taxiway to see where he was going.  Makes perfect sense now, but back then I began to hear whispers that perhaps the pilot was hitting the bottle a little too hard.

We made out final turn onto the active runway, the idling engines power came up rather smoothly, to my surprise, and we began shooting down the runway.  I felt the tail lift first, which made the cabin almost level.  I thought to myself that this was a bit strange, but I had to assume the pilot knew what he was doing – unless the rumors were true, that is.

We lifted off and bounced our way up to cruise altitude.  The ride got a bit smoother as we left the heated farm fields behind and rode up above the thermals.  I passed the time by looking out a cracked Plexiglas window at cloud formations and naming them.

The flight approached the English Channel right on time and once we were over the water my dad commented on the clouds that were hovering over land in front of us.  I couldn’t decide if they were cumulonimbus or nimbostratus.  When I questioned my dad he said they were just crapto-fractus clouds.  Huh?  A couple of guys behind us chuckled at that.  I figured he had to be joking.

We entered the clouds on an even keel.  Within seconds we were standing on one wing.  Things on the inside of the plane (us, in particular) were straining at seat belts.  If we had unbuckled them I am sure a lot of us would have risen to the ceiling.  Following our wing-over and dive we caught an updraft that squashed us down in our seats like bugs.  I’d been on lesser rides at a carnival.  Now I knew what he meant by crapto-fractus clouds.

Huge sheets of rain pelted the aluminum sides with the added noise of hail.  I just had to wonder how much water was getting inside the engines.  About the time of severe shaking and porpoising reached maximum, the engines got considerably quieter.  This alarmed apparently only me.  Others around me were gathering their snack boxes, paperwork, books, sick sacks, and attaché cases in preparation for our crash landing.

We didn’t crash, but, instead, landed in London – three times in rapid succession.  While we were taxiing to the terminal, the port engine stopped turning.  We screeched to a stop and waited for the mobile stairs to hit the side of the plane.  When it did, the crew chief opened the door and we all filed out.  My eyes grew wide as the cockpit door opened and a guy came out wearing dark glasses and holding the leash attached to a German shepherd dog.  The dog led him to the door and they went down.  Oh, I get it.  Some joke.  Ha, ha.

When we got into the terminal a very pretty girl whispered to me that the pilot always did that.  Oh, yeah.  I knew that.  Sure I did.

Various groups filed out into the very wet weather in front of Base Operations and waited for their rides to the hotel.  My dad and I found a spot out of the direct rain and stretched tired muscles as we talked.  He told me that this trip he was assigned to a new hotel that he’d never been to before.  It was supposed to be only three blocks from NATO Headquarters so he could walk there every morning.  This was going to be a really fun week if the sun would come out.

Our ride finally arrived and we headed for the hotel.  It was a wild ride because I had never been in a left-hand drive car before.  It was quite exciting to be sitting on the left and not having a steering wheel in front of me.  The hard part was making blind left turns.  Every instinct screams at you that a truck will be waiting around that brick building to smash you head on as you turn.

The hotel turned out to be very nice in an old world sort of way.  The elevator was one of those wire cages that you can see out of from all angles – even down.  With predictable clattering and banging it ascended to the fourth floor; pardon me, the fifth floor.  The ground floor is actually the first floor here.

The room was very narrow but extended quite a ways towards the window.  I knew that if I got out in the middle of the night I’d have to watch my shins or I’d kick the feet on the bed sure enough.  The bathroom was so small you couldn’t change you mind in it.  No tub either, just a small shower with a flexible handheld sprinkler.  There was a big red sign over the electrical outlet that warned it was putting out 240 volts at 50CPS and to take care using American appliances.  Good thing I used a safety razor for my beard.  Three hairs, three swipes, and finished.

The gloom of late afternoon was seeping into our room about the time the telephone gave out with a distinctive double ring.  One of my dad’s friends asking if we wanted to get something to eat.  We agreed and would meet him down in the grill.  By the time we got there, the table had been expanded two times and more than ten or twelve persons were sitting at it.  My dad ordered two beers and when they came the waiter set one down in front of me.  I glanced at my dad and he appeared not to notice so I started sipping it.

Now, I make no claims to being any type of heavy drinker.  In fact, I related my first bout with drinking a while ago.  This happened to be a very dark ale and, as such, tasted very heavy to me.  The foam persisted for quite a while.  It was served at room temperature and certainly didn’t get any colder as time passed.  I was used, more or less, to good cold German beer.  I didn’t fancy English beer at all.  But I manfully sucked away at it until dinner came.

We had a very good dinner of some sort of fish.  The waiter expertly sliced along the back and with one swift movement completely pulled out the spine and rib bones.  It was a very classy move which I resolved to try the first time I got a chance.  It tasted extremely good to me, but, then I’d not eaten anything in quite a while if you didn’t count a dry peanut butter sandwich and an apple on the plane.

I began to get drowsy around eight and with the drone of conversation all around me I caught myself nodding off.  I told my dad I was heading back to the room and left.  By the time he came in I was not even sure what time it was.  I’m not even sure I said anything.  Tomorrow would be fun was my last coherent thought.



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