I don’t suppose there’s any reason why Witbank should have got less ugly than it was 73 years ago: shabby feral gum trees sprung at random about the flat untidy veld, dirty and dry dry dry, cracks in the brick-hard earth seeping wisps of sulphur dioxide gas, deadly, choking, from the perpetually smouldering coal seams underground. But of course being so flat it was dead right for an airfield, that’s where SAAF No 8 Air School was, and right over in a far corner I shared a room with Pupil Pilots Vic and Biebie, fresh out of school and training for our wings.
Only a barbed-wire boundary fence separates us from the repellent landscape, and there one Sunday morning as we come back from breakfast stands incongruously a dainty blue-eyed schoolgirl with a halo of golden hair like the sun rising, her dress is crisp delicate white against the grim background, her voice delicate too, with an accompaniment of soft gurgles from turtle doves. Indeed her name is Dawn.
She is from that farmhouse over there and she wishes she were 18 like us and grown up so she too could learn to fly. We expect to go solo soon, we answer, and she gasps Oh I wish I wish I wish I could do that! It is tradition, say I, that when you go solo you should buy a cake for your instructor. I’ll bring you one too.
Up among the clouds in the Tiger Moth the saturnine Bertie Wold in the front cockpit suddenly says “Take me home,” and I head for Witbank. There I deftly side-slip off excess altitude and alight graceful as a seagull; now what will he think of that, hey?
“You drive this aeroplane like a shit-cart,” says Bertie. “I’m getting out. Taxi back to the fence here.”
At the fence I stop and he dumps his parachute pack on the grass, plants his plump bum upon it and lights a fag. I sit there in the Tiger and look at him. He waves me away soundlessly, telling me voetsak. Which I do.
It seems this Tiger hates waddling around on the ground, but we’re soon at the downwind end of the field, I turn her into the wind and open the throttle wide. In a few seconds her tail is up and she’s nipping tiptoe over the tufts of grass and my ears are filled with the loud hollow drumming of it, she’s resonant as a guitar with her wood-and-fabric construction. Then abruptly the drumming stops and it’s really happening: I’m flying solo! I nudge the stick back at forty-five knots and without Bertie’s freight of flesh aboard she springs so wildly into the air that I have to push her down again and hold her just off the grass, then pull back slowly, and elegantly she sails up to a thousand feet as if she has just risen from the hand of Noah.
I wobble the wings and for the first time get that strange feeling that they are my fingers stuck out in the air. This air in the air seems different from the air on the ground, sort of brittle as it hisses and tears at my head. I look at the empty instructor’s cockpit and get a sudden shock at realising what I’m doing. What if I should suddenly go faint? What if my arms should suddenly go numb, hey? What then, when I’m all alone? But in two twos I’m around the circuit and on final approach and there still sits Bertie with his fat arse on his parachute and he hasn’t even done smoking his fag, things have happened so fast.
I come close over his head throttled back. I hold her off at a couple of feet and she sinks so daintily to the ground that I feel the grass brushing her tyres before the wheels touch it. We do a perfect three-point landing, no bounce because she’s totally stalled, and we roll just a few paces before stopping and turning back to fetch Bertie. I pull up next to him, he heaves his parachute and bulbous buttocks into the cockpit and speaks to me over the Tiger’s primitive hosepipe intercom: I’ll have biltong, he says, I don’t eat cake.
On Sunday I nip over to the canteen and buy a big slice of chocolate cake on a paper plate for Dawn, so do Vic and BB with vanilla and lemon, and sure enough, there she is at the fence, beaming at our success. So you did it! she cries, Oh I wish, I wish, I WISH I could!
That awesome sense of reality, the seizing of the sensory moment, these are the things of childhood that get slowly lost to us grown-ups. But this image remains sharp, sharp, clear: the dainty white dress against the shabby veld, the gurgling doves and the cakes. And especially the sunrise golden hair.
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