Ode on a Canadian Warbird

The author remembers childhood, with round engines.

Behold, the Bolingbroke: a slack-jawed patrol bomber that could set a young imagination on sub-spotting missions. (Bruce McCall)
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It was impossible to greet the epochal advent of the jet fighter with anything but contempt. I happened to grow up between 1939 and 1945 in a small Canadian town, but any kid born and raised anywhere during World War II knows in his bones that a true warplane wears matte paint the color of mud and swamp water; has exhaust stacks, glycol tanks, air scoops, and a cage-like cockpit; and is pulled ahead by a huge rotating disk. On startup, it snorts awake and coughs and sputters and shoots fire and smoke from its exhaust pipes; the noise smooths into a rising roar on takeoff as the landing gear swings up and it barely clears the tree line. When it comes home to land, its wings wigwag a bit and the tail sinks and the airplane bounces a couple of times on its fat black tires before rolling to a quick halt, emitting one final snort as the prop ticks to a stop.

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Where was the romance in a shiny silver pipe that sounded like a vacuum cleaner and flew so fast and so high you could barely even see it? Even today, it's painful for worshippers of warplanes to admit that jets rule the skies and have for half a century.

I doubt I'm the only ex-kid thus frozen in aeronautical time. To have lived through World War II as a boy is to have absorbed a passion for the warplanes hurtling across the skies of Europe and the South Pacific with murderous intent. Their pilots were knights-errant maneuvering for the kill on adrenaline and instinct, furnishing the only glint of glamour in that endless slog of a war. Putting a knight-errant into a jet was like tucking him behind the wheel of a Buick Roadmaster.

A large part of our fascination was that every one of those countless, pre-1945 piston-powered warplane types was so vivid a personality—no two alike. Douglas, Lockheed, Supermarine, Hawker: Each manufacturer stamped its identity on the product—in the shape of the wing and the stabilizer fin, the blunt nose (air-cooled radial engine) or the pointy one (water-cooled in-line), the cross-section of the fuselage. British and American warplanes won our allegiance, in part because kids like me could have been in charge of naming them: Mustang, Spitfire, Hurricane, Thunderbolt, Tomahawk, Flying Fortress, Lightning, Liberator. German kids had to make do with letters and numbers (served them right!): Bf 109 and FW 190. Sinister-sounding Zero aside, Japan's fighting planes were saddled with sissy American-coined nicknames like Betty and Dot.

The media of the day didn't cater to kids; we had to feed our avidity for warplane facts by scrounging information via bubblegum cards, the silhouettes in plane spotter books, magazine photos, movies, and comic strips like Terry and the Pirates, Steve Canyon, and Buz Sawyer. Peer status hung on micro-knowledge: the difference, for example, between a Blackburn Skua (a fighter/dive bomber used by the British Fleet Air Arm) and a Blackburn Roc (an improvement on the Skua with an electrically driven, rotating gun turret).

What a mercy that kids couldn't penetrate the hectic Allied propaganda enough to learn, for example, that the Brewster Buffalo was a big fat hog of a fighter and a sitting duck in combat; that its pilots called the Bell Airacobra the Iron Dog (and not as a compliment); that the majestic-sounding British Boulton-Paul Defiant, its only armament a fixed, forward-firing gun turret amidships, was a kind of airborne Maginot Line; that at least half of all British bombers circa 1942 belonged in military aviation's old-age home even before the war. In a kid's superheated patriotism, anything with wings and a British roundel or American star—or a red Russian star, don't let's forget our Gallant Soviet Ally—was a gladiatorial hero.

The kid bursting with warplane mania needed outlets, so as not to explode. Drawing warplanes was easy, cheap, quick, and satisfying, and turned my bedroom walls into a gallery of aviation art refreshed almost daily. Flying models promised to be even more fun. Building them proved, alas, forever just beyond the skill and patience of a nine-year-old; every attempt to cut and glue all those delicate balsawood ovals and stringers into something resembling a Spitfire or a Messerschmitt exploded in curses and tears long before the glorious realm of rubber-band-powered flight was ever attained. Carving a 25-cent solid model from a rock-hard block of basswood with a paring knife (X-Actos were for the gentry) ended in similar frustration; the result would never even approximate the sleek object on the cover of the box.

To the despair of Canadian lads, some evil pact between FDR and Ottawa blocked the inflow of far superior American-made toys; I can never forget that visiting kid from Detroit smugly flashing a beautiful little plastic B-17 in his palm like the Hope diamond. The tiny Canadian toy industry's conversion to a wartime market produced only a crude metal object, painted an idiotically inauthentic pastel blue or mint green or scarlet, that looked like a Hawker Hurricane only if you held it at arm's length and squinted.

Canada, so vast and empty and safely distant from the European war, was the natural venue for a sweeping emergency program called the British Commonwealth Air Training Scheme. Almost as soon as war had been declared against Germany (Canada beating even Britain to the punch), training airbases sprang up across the country to mold fighter pilots and combat aircrews out of raw British Commonwealth and various other Allied recruits. Three or four such bases lay within a 20-mile radius of my Ontario hometown, the closest a mere nine miles east, near the hamlet of Jarvis. To a war-wild kid of eight, this was better than if they'd plunked down the Great Pyramid of Cheops in those empty fields.

My fondest dream was to get as close as possible to the action of the war— fated, barring some miracle, to remain a dream for a kid stranded thousands of miles from the battlefront. But miracles can happen. One such occurred the day in 1942 when my expat Uncle Gib, a New Jersey doctor and a lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Forces, stopped by on a family visit. “Kindly Uncle Gib,” I should have said, because he leveraged his prestige to wangle the five McCall boys a tour of the Jarvis Bombing and Gunnery School.

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