I had a conversation with some other freelancers recently about how our culture loves to celebrate youth, and particularly the wunderkind, whether that’s in business, the arts or whatever. We were discussing how we’d like to see more stories of older people who may have come to their field late, but nevertheless blossomed, and it got me thinking about my grandpa, who I’m pretty sure gave me the writing genes.
My grandfather, Ken Sillcock, was a World War II veteran who, after retiring from his public service job in 1975 when he was 65, did a DipEd, learned computers (in his 80s) and devoted his time to writing and volunteering. He had quite a bit of writing published over the years, culminating in his memoirs of his and his brother’s war service, Two Journeys Into Peril, when he was 100.
But one of my favourite works is his poem The Jinx Kite (below), which appears as a foreword to the book G for George: A memorial to RAAF bomber crews, 1939-45 (G for George is one of the most famous Lancasters and now has pride of place in the Australian War Memorial’s ‘Striking by Night’ exhibition). Although Grandpa initially joined the Australian Infantry Force and was sent to what was then Palestine, where he did a lot of anti-malaria work, he transferred to the Royal Australian Air Force and became a wireless operator in Lancaster bombers with RAAF 460 SQN, based in the UK. This poem is about his time in that role, flying missions, seeing so many mates lost and wondering if they’d be next. He came home, but his brother, a pilot in the Pacific, didn’t. The poem still makes me tear up a bit. So here’s to him and all the other late bloomers.
“Grandpa, what kind of aircraft did you use
Back in the olden days?”
“Lancasters, lad, I’ll show you one some day.”
He made me think
Back to events, it seemed, of yesterday.
My first impression of the squadron was
A battle order on the notice board
And, next to it, the Melbourne Cup sweep draw.
I wondered which would give the better odds!
Then I saw Dalton, whom I’d known before,
Leaning on crutches, hurt on his first trip
By an incendiary from a plane above.
“Our fighters were not much opposed of late
Over the Ruhr.” The briefing room was hushed.
“Dortmund today, our deepest daylight strike.”
But they forgot to add “as fighter bait”.
Our next was Merseburg, late at night.
I thought “Why did I leave that useful army job
Killing mosquitoes in malarian zones?”
I’d known the threat of instant death before
In skidding cars on Gippsland’s soggy hills,
And, below decks, at sea, silent and tense,
Waiting the foe’s explosive messenger;
But this was not a passing episode too brief
For fear. Death stalked us eight long hours.
Seeking our slightest lapse from vigilance,
Just as I’d seen him wait in Lebanon
At the big house to which the wounded came.
The day we got an aircraft of our own,
“Yours is the jinx kite, Easy Two,” we heard.
“If you got G for George you’d have more hope;
“The last George, which got back from 90 trips,
“Flew to Australia just a month ago.
“But Easy Two — we lose them all the time!”
The pessimists were right, for, all too soon
E2 was lost, but with another crew.
From the depth of winter to the equinox
We flew in fifteen raids in Easy Two,
Our second of that name.
The squadron lost
Ten crews on those same flights: seventy men
Who had been with us in the briefing room.
We had our moments. Jim gave “Starboard go!”
We rolled, nose down, rolled port and down again.
Then steeply up, still rolling. Radio gear
Before me vanished till we levelled out
And blood returned to my depleted brain.
We did another ‘corkscrew’, to ensure
The fighter Jim had spotted to our rear
Would go in search of a less wary prey.
Over Cologne, by day, another craft
Direct above us, opened the big doors.
His load, released, would intersect our path.
We held our course into the aiming point
A little longer. Then I said, “Okay,”
He’s moved to starboard.” But I wondered then
What might have happened on a cloudy night.
The night our navigation aids went wrong
I found Polaris, from the astrodome,
On our port bow; a suicidal course
To fly at night alone above the Ruhr.
As we turned west to make our late way home
I pictured all the other crews at Base
After interrogation, at their meal,
Saying, “E2 has bought it once again.”
Adding our epitaph, “They weren’t bad blokes.”
Crews were not callous, though. It seemed to me
That the dark veil that blacks our future out
Had been dissolved. We lived right on the brink
Between two worlds. Lost crews were near us still
As we awaited the next lottery draw
To find who’d be on this side, who on that.
Returned from leave, we learned that Easy Two
Was lost again; used by another crew
On their first operation. We received
Our third E2, used it on three more trips
Before our tour of duty was complete.
Then a new danger loomed: I would be sent
To fly instructor with those novice crews
Of whom dread tales were told. When lost in cloud,
Instead of climbing for a radio fix
They would go down to seek a clearer view
And find Mount Snowdon in their path — too late.
I’d feel much safer flying in Easy Two
Raiding oil plants or mining in Kiel Bay
With my six trusted mates, and with the care
That Lofty and his ground staff gave that kite
As if they had to fly in it themselves.
But in three weeks that new-found danger passed
When peace in Europe left us still unscathed.
And now I stand beneath the sturdy wing
Of G for George. On the museum walls
Are names of many who were briefed with us,
“Lest we forget!”
Should not we also say,”Lest they forget”?
Might they have clearer sight
In the dimensions they now occupy?
Perceptions hidden from us, as we grope
In the dense cloud of man’s distrust of man?
Could they transmit to us a course to steer
Or lift our eyes to a great guiding star
Of shining wisdom? We have hands and minds
The only assets we could ever need
To build that better world of which we dreamed,
And to pass down to disenchanted youth
Our vision of what can be brought about.
The time is short. We who are left grow old
But, with good briefing, we could do the job
Just as we could when time was short before.