This week my partner and I shared a friend’s birthday present – a flight in a Spitfire airplane. These planes became famous in WW2 and there are about 54 left in the world. Originally, they were single seater planes, but many have been adapted to fit in an extra seat so that they can be used for training and also to take people up for pleasure flights.
My friend was both excited and emotional. He and his late father, who died some years ago, shared an interest in airplanes. The fact that he was going up in a plane, much admired by his father, re-connected him with his dad and pleasurable moments they shared together. A happy and powerful memory.
Two other flights were scheduled, as well as my friend’s. In an enclosed area, adjacent to the control tower and runway, relatives and friends could stand and watch the plane take off, fly away, then reappear to land. Part way through the morning, whilst we were waiting for my friend’s flight, I noticed an elderly gentleman arrive. He was seated in a wheelchair, zipped up in a thick coat, a cap pulled low down over his ears and with a thick blanket wrapped around his legs. He looked old and frail.
I found myself wondering what brought this elderly gentleman to the airfield on a sunny, but chill September day. Curiosity got the better of me, so I questioned a lady who was accompanying the gentleman. She told me that the gentleman lives in a care home for war veterans of various conflicts, including WW2. During the war, he worked as an engineer, on Hurricane airplanes. For the first time, in a long time, he had become engaged and animated, when watching a TV programme about the Spitfire. His brilliant carers had organised a visit for him to watch the Spitfires, at this local airfield, to encourage him to continue to engage and to have some enjoyable moments, however brief.
A representative from the company operating the airfield came to speak with the gentleman and he was taken out to the Spitfire, waiting on the runway, for its next aerial performance. There he received a personal briefing from the airfield representative and one of the pilots. From what I could see, he looked thoroughly happy and engaged. I thought of my dear old dad, who also worked as an engineer on Hurricane airplanes during WW2 and would have been about the same age as this old chap. My mind film switched to photos taken of my dad in uniform, standing in front of planes, in various parts of Italy, North Africa and the Middle East. I remembered the war tales he told me, later in his life, when he seemed to want to finally speak about his war experience. The power of memory.
Eventually it came time for my friend to fly up, up and away. As his pilot started up the engine and began to taxi down the runway, I looked across to the elderly veteran, positioned right next to the fence of the enclosed area. His vision was impeded by the fence and, as I watched, I saw him haul himself up from his chair, like Lazarus rising up off his bed. His shaky legs barely held him up, but he grasped on to the rail of the fence to steady himself, with the supporting hands of his carers at his back. He stood there, tottering and swaying slightly, until the plane took off and climbed into the clouds. He was determined to see the whole event, even if it took the last ounce of his strength. In his mind, he was a young man again, back with the Hurricanes, in the middle of the action.
The power of memory ………