I suppose you could say I knew these days were coming - these final days of loss, these inevitable days when so many of the remaining few run their time out on this earth. I did in fact know, even talked of its coming, the unstoppable emptying of an hour glass that was turned for the last time at the end of the war, the sad truth of the last men, the urgency to extract the stories and lessons.
Over the past months we have borne the news of the deaths of men like Hap Kennedy, Bill McRae, Stu Soward, John Scullin and Arch Simpson. Every weekend, the obituaries sound the toll of pilots, navigators, gunners, bombardiers and radiomen. It's hard to endure at times. Occasionally I close my eyes in silence at the numbers, at the handsome young men in their official photos, at the DFCs, at the later accomplishments, at the children and grandchildren and great grandchildren. These were proud men whose proudest days were in the air, with their friends, their machines and their dreams.
Last week, at work, I got a call from my wife Susan to say she had glanced at the obituaries in the paper and found one for my friend Dr. John Bennett. This news, like the death of Bill McRae, cut like a shard of broken glass, filling my heart with a hard knot of sadness and, unlike the others, a deeper sense of regret and shame.
I first met John in the hot summer of 2007, when I spotted him self-consciously posing for a photo beside our Supermarine Spitfire. There was something in his gentle countenance and the way he stood at the wing root with his hand resting on the wing, that told me he had an intimate relationship with that airplane.
Normally, I am a shy guy, but I was drawn to this tall, slender man and I walked right up to him and I introduced myself. Before long with the help of my "kid brother" Shannon Gray, we had him hoisted up into the Spitfire cockpit and were already mining his broad memory for stories. That day spawned a series of visits to John's home during the following autumn and winter, where, with some degree of gentle coaxing and respectful tugging, I was able to learn a lot about his days as a Spitfire and Meteor fighter pilot with the much vaunted 74 Squadron Tigers.
Our evenings were long and enjoyable and I felt a friendship developing and a trust building. I learned much about this quiet and respectful man while sitting at his kitchen table - that he was a pacifist, a doctor, an athlete and a remarkably gentle man. He began to open up long quieted memories and he illustrated them with fading photos of friends, folded and yellowed maps that had not seen the light of day in decades, artifacts wrapped in delicate cloth and memories told in humble thoughts, tinged with sadness and a sense of futility.
Over the next months, I was able to pull together a story about John for this very website - a story of a pilot warrior who flew throughout the entire war and into the jet age, but who then turned to medicine and science. John emigrated from the UK to Newfoundland in 1955 and thence to British Columbia. He raised a family, moved to Ottawa and became a key member of the Canadian Medical Association, sitting on numerous councils and retiring as Associate Secretary General.
From these trysts over tea and biscuits there began what could have been a good and lengthy friendship. Yet I let it slip away. And therein lies my shame. I always had the sense that he was grateful for my visits and for the chance to talk about those days and to remember his old friends. And for that reason, I feel shame for letting our tenuous friendship slip into oblivion, always promising myself that I would call him, always wondering how he was doing but never calling, forever thinking I should swing by and squire him to one of our air shows.
I see John now, standing at his door, caught in my headlights as I back my car from his drive. There he is with his body half out of the front door on a cold winter's night, smiling warmly and shyly, wispy white hair hanging over his forehead. He was the kind of man who accompanied you to the door and even to your car, who shook your hand and who would not turn his back on you to go inside until you had made the street and were homeward bound.
Last September, Shannon came up to me at our Wings Over Gatineau show and said he thought he had seen John on the ramp. I looked about for him but he had either gone home or had slipped quietly into the crowd - a warrior pacifist hidden amidst the throng of young people - watching, remembering, knowing. If only they knew he was among them.
Swept away by life and work and family, I let a diamond of a friendship fade to black. I regret all the days I did not spend with that remarkable man. I regret that I had only scratched the surface of a life filled with accomplishment.
But I know he will forgive me, for he was that sort of fellow. Godspeed on your next journey John Bennett.
By Dave O'Malley
The volunteers and staff Vintage Wings of Canada offer their sincerest condolences to John's wife Robina and his children Karen and Mark and their families
Click here for a story
written by Shannon Gray for Vintage News about that first day.
Click here for a story
about John's amazing RAF history.