Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Random Memories #2

Jame Fell's This Day in History column is about the Battle of Stalingrad this morning, so that reminded me of one of my brother's stories. When he was a teacher, one of the older shop teachers on staff was a German refugee who said he was a survivor of the Battle of Stalingrad. Doug, being a student of history, questioned how this was possible, given that there were very few German survivors of the Battle of Stalingrad--about 5000 out of the quarter million encircled and they were still in Russian camps when this guy got to Canada. He explained that he was one of the lucky ones who was airlifted out. But my brother happened to know, the only units airlifted out were the SS. "And a few lucky others. Not enough to be worth mentioning in any book." My brother may have looked at him askance, because his collague explained, "Look, I can't be SS because every member of that SS unit had that unit's tattoo right here (points), and you can be sure when immigration processed legitimate German refugees at the end of the war, they bloody-well checked for that tattoo." My brother asked, "They all had the same tattoo?" "Yes, the death head and unit number. You had to get it in training. It wasn't something optional that some of the guys got after going to the bar last night, it was required, mandatory, no exceptions." My brother nods, they speak of other things. Then as my brother is getting up to leave the staffroom, the guy leans in and says quietly, "Unless your family happened to run a farm and before the end of training you asked for leave to help with the harvest, and you happened to be away the week everybody else got their tattoos, and when you got back nobody remembered to have the tattoo guy come back just for you. But what were the odds of that happening? And to survive the Battle of Stalingrad? You'd have to be the luckiest bastard in the entire German Army."

Friday, November 18, 2022

My Review of Doug Smith's The Hollow Boys

My review of Doug Smith's The Hollow Boys up at Ottawa Review of Books

Random Childhood Memories (1)

Maybe this airplane/airline, maybe not. It was 60 years ago, so some of the details are iffy.


A post on Facebook reminded me of the time I was on a transatlantic flight on a turboprop (propeller) plane back in the early 1960s, and the only one awake at night, staring out at the stars. And I happened to notice that the plane is on fire.

"Hmmm," I thought, "that doesn't look good, but it must just be that the exhaust from a turboprop engine sometimes looks a bit flamy."

But I woke my much older brother seated next to me, and he look out the window and said, "Huh". And he pushed the call button for the stewardess, who struggled awake and came back to our row and my brother asked her, "Is it supposed to look like the engine is on fire?"

And she said, "Sometimes at night the wing can pick up the reflection of the sun below the horizon before the sun has cleared the horizon which can look a bit like—" And then she actually glanced out the window, went completly pale, and said, "I'll be right back" and ran-walked back up to the front, and went into the cockpit and closed the door.

"Those definitely LOOK like flames now" I said to my brother, "not a reflection."

About a half hour later (seemed longer), as parts of the wing were definitely on fire, the pilot came on and said, "Oh, sorry to wake everyone, but wanted to say we're having a bit of an issue with one of the engines, so we're just going to turn around and go back to Greenland and for a quick check up." [or maybe it was Iceland--this was 60 years ago, so I can't remember which was the halfway stop for our plane that trip--back when planes had to stop half-way between Canada and Europe]. By then he had turned off that engine, the propellor wasn't turning, and the flames were down to kind of a flickering glow.

So it was a tense 90 minutes or so as we flew back, but I wasn't really scared until we circled the field and every fire engine and ambulance in Greenland [or Iceland] seemed to be out by the runway. But we landed safely and everyone got off in an orderly fashion via the usual roll-up-to-the-plane stairs. And four or five hours later we were escorted back onto the same plane to continue on to Europe--which, I confess made me a bit nervous, but I was 10 and trusted adults, and my brother was all "I'm sure it's fine" because he didn't want to freak me out but later confessed he wasn't completely happy about getting on the same plane again. In the end, we made it safely to London.

So that was my second scariest time on a plane.

My scariest time on a plane, we seriously thought I was going to die.

[Not my dad's plane, Cessna 150 photo from Wikipedia]


My dad was a pilot and owned a Cessna 150 (I think—except the 150 was a two-seater and this one had a sort of back seat, or at least an area I could squeeze into as a child, and had a seatbelt, so maybe another model, though I seem to vaguely recall my dad telling me it's where he normally kept his maps). He would regularly fly around the province for work, and occasionally take my mom and I with him. On this occasion I believe I was four or five, and we were flying over endless pine forests on our way back from Northern Alberta, when I choked on a candy. As it stuck in my throat, my mom struggle to reach me to help, but of course the interior of a CessnaI 150 being the size of an early space capsle, there was no room to move. My mom shouted at my dad, "He's choking, you have to land!" but my dad looked at her and asked, "Land where?" indicating the pine forest stretching to every horizon.

"You have to!" my mom cried.

"Can't. Think of something else."

So mom worked her way out of her seat, then turned around to reach over the back of the seat, grabbed me, undid my seatbelt, and eventually managed to turn me upside down, and shook me until the candy fell out. I have sort of still pictures of the event my memories because I was apparantly going in and out of consciousness.

I only made one solo trip with my dad, partly because it got on his nerves when I kept saying, "but if that's the fuel gage, why does it say empty?" (it was the fuel gage and we were out of fuel, but he needed his attenion on the long coast into landing--he explained that turning off the engine entirely miles from the airport was standard operating procedure for landing. Apparantly.) The other reason for my not going with him solo more than tat one time, I found out decades later, is that my parents were already talking about a separation, and my mom was concerned he wanted to abduct me if he got another chance with me alone.