His gunner, a metre away, finally took to snoring and Allan flipped in his netting to block the sound. A monkey at the window ledge who had been nattering for an hour scampered away at last. But in its place the wind carried a gruff wheeze. It came from the left and then it came from the right, and from the left again until, with a huff and the thud of a thousand pounds of flesh and fur, it was immediately behind him. Hot breath condensed on his back, carrying the stench of decayed meat. A long tongue smacked against a damp muzzle. Coarse whiskers tickled him through fine mosquito netting, but Allan remained still, releasing a slow breath—picturing the single curl on his little girl’s head, the green trim on the white house he’d painted just before he got the call, Agnes’s small waist and the lavender dress she wore rowing that fine summer day. His final memories would be his best ones. Suddenly a light punctured his reverie. He turned, squinting in the beam of his gunner’s torch and witnessed the black tip of an orange tail slip away from the window ledge.
Here Allan smiles. He tells me that in the morning, when his men saw paw prints encircling his hut, they were sure of a bloody mess. But he and his gunman emerged triumphant, regaling them with a yarn about outwitting the beast through their own sheer cunning.
On he goes, chuckling to himself as he remembers childhood shenanigans: convincing his younger brother to eat slugs as a remedy for an earache; charging the neighbourhood kids a penny each to witness a boxing match between his sisters, unbeknownst to Mae or Grace; towing his polio-crippled friend in a self-fashioned wagon so he’d not miss a stitch of fun.
He tells me the miraculous tale of his first cross-Atlantic flight. From their base in Ontario his crew flew a bomber south and fuelled in Florida for the first leg. Trouble began over a vast stretch of ocean, with heavy sleet and lightening and then wind that flicked his Liberator like an eyelash off the cheek of a roiling black cloud. His radar failed and then his compass. Flying blindly through tar skies, one engine sputtered to a halt and then the other. The fuel gauge pointing firmly at E. Allan was a man of great faith and, within his crew, great authority, so while he manned the controls he directed his men to their knees. And as they prayed, a beam of sunlight broke through the fog. Like a searchlight it shone, not only toward the cluster of Azorean islands where they were due to refuel, not just at the very island that held the fueling station, but on the airfield itself.
He’s getting tired from all this talking, and also from drawing on the memory he’s always worked to subdue. But finally, he tells me a love story.
War was over—had been for over a month. He was already weeks overdue on his promise to be home for Christmas. He had a son who he’d never met, a daughter learning her first words, and Agnes, of course, who had stopped writing weeks ago lest her letters pass him on the journey.
In Southampton, soldiers and war brides clogged ship decks bound for New York. Cunard’s twin ocean liners were converted to carry 15,000 soldiers each—30,000 homecomings a week between them. But there were millions of soldiers in England. The wait was months.
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