A story of the life and death of one of Canada's fighter pilots of the Cold War, told again, 15 years after his passing.
The telephone woke me from my usual fitful night. For a few seconds I hovered between sleep and consciousness. The telephone rang again. In the darkness, with my duvet pulled tight around me, I was resisting the electronic warbling, for I knew who it was and I knew what it was about. Soon the sweet, tired whisper of Susan came across the darkness from my answering machine. I picked up. “He’s gone” she sighed, “He drew his last breath a few minutes ago… Jeannine was lying by his side.” With sleep-thickened voice I managed only a numb, croaking reply “Oh… shit, well… I guess… well, I suppose it’s over.” It was one of our shortest conversations over the past twenty-five years… there was nothing left to say except “I’ll call you in the morning.” I looked across to my night table where three numbers floated like red eyes in the darkness. 3:45.
I lay there in the billowing dark. The fan blew a white noise covering the sounds of my daughters as they slept soundly down the hall. The wind bumped and shouldered against the window from the outside. I waited in the grey-brown darkness of an October night, trying to feel something. I felt no pain, no overwhelming sadness… I wanted to cry, to feel the glory of hot, wet tears and the salty taste in my throat. But there was nothing.
I tossed the thick duvet aside and in silence pulled on a pair of sweatpants. My old knees creaked as I made my way down stairs in the darkness and I crossed the floor to the window near the front door. I pressed my forehead against the cool glass and shielded my eyes to gaze up at the sky. I longed to see a lone twinkling light of a solo jet streaking across the starry night sky, trailing a silvery shaft. Him.
No ghostly vision came. There was only the heavy bank of autumn’s wet cloud hanging like a dream above the amber-pink light of the city. My breath fogged the glass. I reached for the door and, letting in a blast of cool night air, stepped outside. I cocked my ear, held my breath. Perhaps the chilling sound of a high and distant fighter would signal his passing. No poetic thunder rolled across the sky. I waited. The sound of dripping came from the porch eave. The wind came up and I waited to feel it. But it was only a shiver. It was not him.
After a few minutes, I closed the door, the latch snicking gently. I retraced my steps to my bed, felt for the duvet in the dark and pulled the covers tight. I left the sweatpants on. I was feeling cold. I looked at the clock. It was 3:56. Major Ron Poole had been dead for 15 minutes.
He died as all fighter pilots wish to die – quietly in bed, with his wife at his side. His death was, however, untimely. He was young and fit and just commencing the sweetest years of his life when he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer over two years before. He did not complain much about it; just got down to the business of dealing with it, fighting it. He faced surgery of a kind not many survived. He faced radiation and the nasty things that come with the shitty card he drew. As with anything Ron did, he did it extremely well, teaching others along the way. For Ron, the glass was still very much half full. When approached, he willingly signed up for a medical study that had no bearing on the outcome of his own state. He was just Ron. Eager to digest new information, take some chances, find the shining gems of life.
The study was run by Susan Kirkpatrick, the love of my life. She often told me about the wonderful people who were part of her study – people who shared the way they felt, shared the very blood of their bodies so that medicine may be advanced. These were people who came through major surgeries and all of them were not well; some would die, some would find there way back through hell to square one. The information they gave with their words and their blood and their time would not lengthen their days or lessen their suffering. It was a way to share. I never knew their names. I never knew who they were.
There was to be one exception. He was a man. He was a pilot. He liked to talk. He had a wonderful life. He had a wonderful wife. He had a loving family. Susan was charmed by this man. In the evenings she would tell me about how he had much to say and much to pass on. Those were the first introductions to Ron. I did not know him then, but when all was said and done and I was lying awake as the clock flashed 4 AM on that October night, I could sum up this complex man with the same and clear statements. He was a man. He was a pilot. He had a wonderful life.
Over the two years that Ron was my friend and over the starched white table cloths of the Officer’s Mess where we would meet, the “Maj” told many stories. Ron loved to tell stories, “skits” as he called them, and frankly he liked to tell them more than once. There were many such skits and upon the telling they would shape and colour a world I had previously seen in two dimensions and only in black and white. The books of my childhood were a source of constant amazement to me, places where my imagination took hold, but now things were coming alive. Ron was one of these pilots.
As if it were only yesterday, I remember the sunny summer day known as Air Force Day. For me, Air Force Day ranked far above Christmas or Halloween and the pilots of those Sabres and Starfighters and T-Birds were like gods to me. Ron was one of these god-pilots and even today, part of me – that little spark of childhood that burns even now – still sees Ron in the same way. Ron was not a god. He was however an extraordinary man.
Each of his stories would reach across the decades to a time, not too long ago, when pride motivated our air force, not budget restraint, not job security nor politics.
Ron Poole lived his boyhood dream by joining the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1950. He had grown up in Chemainus, British Columbia along the eastern coast of Vancouver Island. At fourteen years of age, he became an air cadet with the echoes of Canada’s Spitfires and Hurricanes still swirling on the strong western winds that howled up through Georgia Strait. The war was now over, but it would take decades for the legacy of these fighter pilots to fade from the eyes of the boys who lived and breathed their adventures and their honour. These men of the Battle of Britain, of the Burma Hump, of Malta, of Normandy and of North Africa were now the backbone of one of the greatest air forces in the world.
Their bravado, their disdain for authority and their fearlessness drew Ron like a moth to a flame. Many were never able to make the transition to a peacetime air force, never able to leap into the jet age and land feet first. But in teaching Ron to fly. they passed on to him the very spirit of the combat pilot. This spirit and pride in their job and their considerable luck to be able to do it was evident on their sweet young faces. You could see it in their eyes, feel it looking back at you from their photographs, sense it in the way they tilted their heads or carried their helmets. They were the men of the Royal Canadian Air Force. The power of this simple statement was strengthened and focused in the cheerful and rambunctious officers’ messes across the land. Before long, a fresh-faced boy like Ron carried himself in a new way, walking straighter, smiling longer and talking louder. They had become men.
Ron arrived at the manning depot (in the same year that I was born) along with 48 recruits and ex-cadets. Only fifteen made it though primary and basic flight school at Centralia. Ron was one of them. He was in the sky now and his bright yellow airplane carried four big yellow letters – RCAF– on each side, reminding him that his dreams were now to be lived. His instructors, many of whom had flown in the Big One, taught him well on a very unforgiving aircraft. One of those craggy, ancient thirty year-olds once told him that, if he could fly a Harvard and graduate, he could fly anything. In the decades to come, this was to prove so true as Ron went on to fly aircraft with one engine and some with eight; aircraft that landed at 60 mph and aircraft that landed at 200; aircraft that hovered and aircraft that flew faster than the speed of sound; aircraft which put the fate of hundreds in his hands; aircraft where he was on his own, rolling though the sunlit skies.
According to Ron, the nine months he spent at Centralia were the toughest of his life (this he would still say even after his first battle with cancer). Daily flights in the Harvard and the Beech 18 “Bugsmasher” (for instrument training) took their toll as young pilots washed out or, as in the case of some, were killed. As part of early training at Centralia, young flyers were instructed in the fine art of aerial gunnery and rocketry. At gunnery school, the Harvard was equipped with rocket rails and several concrete warhead rockets. Once, while pulling up hard after a rocket attack on the range, Ron forgot to release his thumb from the firing button and continued launching rockets. Upon debriefing, the range safety officer told him that “Most hit the target, but that last one? – It’s halfway to Hamilton!” When he graduated as a green Pilot Officer in His Majesty’s Royal Canadian Air Force, Ron had developed a new confidence that would remain with him until he died and can still be felt all around those that knew him.
From the day he was posted to his first operational squadron until the day he retired from flying, Ron’s life was an adventure, one “skit” after another as he would say. Whether it was a near brush with death or wild night in some foreign mess, Ron had a way of telling the story that made you feel like you were part of it and at the same time made you feel that your life was suburban by comparison. Ron’s career was unlike most pilots of today’s Air Force – he lived to fly and the Air Force allowed him to do it nearly every day. He went from one flying assignment to another with hardly a desk tour. Put Ron at the controls of the “mahogany bomber” and he would have crashed and burned long ago. A man was lucky to be able to fly his ass off in the RCAF and, as life would have it, Ron was a lucky man.
Perhaps the biggest stroke of luck came when he received his first posting. Fresh from flight school, Ron was sent to CFB Chatham, the OTU and then on to RCAF Bagotville to hook up with 413 Squadron. 413 “Tusker” Squadron was known as 13 Squadron (Photographic) during WWII. It had been renumbered 413 and operated a mixed bag of Mitchell and Lancaster bombers. In August 1951, it was re-forming to fly the new Canadair Sabre 2, when Ron showed up. Short on equipment, the squadron was employing the de Havilland Vampire for work-up only and they were expecting their Sabres in the months to come. Ron went straight from Harvards to the world of jet propulsion with out so much as a by-your-leave. Instruction was rudimentary at best. Fledgling jet jocks with absolutely zero hours in the jet log book were invited to climb into the cockpit of their “Vamp” while the ground crew pushed down on the twin-boom tail until the aircraft was tilted up at a certain angle. Their ”instructor”, a veteran of the Second World War, standing on the wing said “See that angle? Remember it. That’s what it’s supposed to look like on approach.” By this time, the Vampire was a truly obsolete aircraft with systems that functioned far below advertised ability. In typical understated fashion, Ron would quip that at 35,000 feet, the cabin pressure was 33,000 feet and that it did not take-off so much as jettison the earth. He continued to fly the aging fighter with his sights on the Sabre that would surely come his way.
The RCAF equipped 413 Squadron with de Havilland Vampires only as an interim measure. On 1 August 1951, 413 Squadron reformed in Bagotville, Quebec with Ron Poole as one of it's new pilots. Training began on Vampire jets, which were replaced by Sabres a few months later. After a year of training, and a tour of Eastern Canada to show off the new jets, the squadron was posted to Zweibruchen, Germany in April 1953. 413 Squadron remained a part of Canada's European NATO commitment for the next four years. RCAF Photo
When 413 Tusker squadron was reforming and fitting up for the F-86 Sabre, each pilot posed for their hero shots beside the first aircraft. There was but one flight suit and one helmet for the whole squadron and each pilot took turns donning the gear. Those of less than kahuna-size were forced to don the one-size-fits-all winter suit and without the eventual cropping looked, well… sort of goofy, but not so goofy that their pride didn’t shine through. When cropped to head and shoulders, a photo from that shoot made the pages of Vancouver, British Columbia’s newspaper when Ron went on a promotional tour of Eastern Canada in the summer of 1952. Images via Jeannine Poole
Performing at an air show not long after his first flight in the Vamp, Ron found himself in the air with twelve other airplanes, ten of which were being flown by pilots with qualifications similar to his own. As the squadron did not yet have flight suits, white carpenter’s overalls were issued to the twelve warriors in the display. As they strode confidently across the tarmac to their aluminum steeds, the show announcer remarked “Here they come folks. We don’t know if they are going to fly those airplanes or paint them.”
The days began to run together as Ron settled down to the business of being a fighter pilot, yet every day was an adventure. Still in the Vampire, he took part in a large formation of NATO aircraft which put on a display in the skies over Ottawa. Performing flawlessly, the arrowhead formation drilled spectacular holes in the sky, impressing everyone. At the same time, however, a small aircraft flew low over Parliament Hill dropping pro-communist, anti-NATO leaflets on the assembled crowds. The next day an Ottawa newspaper carried the embarrassing headline “Canada’s Air Defence?” and a picture of the formation.
Ron proved to be a hot stick. He was selected by his squadron to check out first on the new Sabre. It was a cold, dark and icy December afternoon in Bagotville when he flew one for the first time and within a few weeks he was an old hand, rolling over at 30,000 feet over the airfield and pulling the nose into a vertical dive – “Mach 1.02, straight down, full power – let gravity do its thing”. Each pilot was required to “drop a boom” on the station to prove he had the cahones to go supersonic with the ground in his windshield. To avoid anyone chickening out, the Base Commander sent up each pilot alone with no other aircraft in the sky so that there would be no mistake who was “booming” who.
As the pilots walked out to their aircraft each day, they were watched from the windows of the commander’s office in Base Operations by the young civilian women of the administration office. One stunningly beautiful woman, the CO’s secretary, had caught the eye of every pilot on base, but they were soon to learn that Ron Poole had already won her heart. The rest of the girls would giggle as Jeannine Dagenais would lean from the window of the CO’s office and tell Ron to take care as he set out for the day’s flying. Soon they were married and thinking about building a family. Things were speeding up, life was unfolding and every chapter was a glorious tale filled with Jeannine’s beautiful eyes, the laughter of his child and the sound of 413’s mighty Sabres. He was now a Flying Officer. Ron was a lucky man.
Ron during his Tusker days with Sabre in background. Inset: Ron's wings from author's collection
That summer, in his 21st year, Ron joined a flight of “Tusker” Sabres on a tour of eastern Canadian cities to promote the RCAF. As with everything that Ron did, this particular summer became the source of plenty of “skits” with which he would regale his fans in years to come. While in Summerside, a number of Sabres, including Ron’s, streamed in across the airfield in tight combat formation followed by the ever-present trail of sooty Orenda smoke. The mayor of Summerside turned to the base Commander and remarked “My God that black smoke is impressive!”. The CO, in true Poole-style retorted “It should be, it’s costing taxpayers nine dollars a yard!” Another skit had Ron firing live 50 cal. rounds into Lake Ontario in front of the crowds at the Canadian National Exhibition. His only instruction was that he was not to switch to “Guns Armed” until he was on his strafing run to avoid spraying the crowd. Try doing that at Gatineau en vol!
Ron and Jeannine were transferred to 410 squadron in North Luffenham, where he continued to collect fighter hours and stories while flying under the control of the RAF’s 12 Group. From there, Ron was sent back home to St. Hubert to become part of the legendary Overseas Ferry Unit which was tasked with the safe transport of jet aircraft across the Atlantic to Canadian bases in Europe. The unit was initially staffed by pilots who were considered to be trouble. If you messed with the CO’s daughter, cared little for promotion, consistently passed out at the mess, flew too low too often or back-talked the brass, you were prime for the OFU. Like the mythic USN Black Sheep Squadron of WWII fame, the OFU pilots came to be known as not only wild party-ers, but top-rate pilots doing a dangerous job and doing it very well.
On each flight Ron and his OFU brothers would pick up factory-fresh or overhauled Sabres and CT-33 Silver Stars (T-Birds) from their home base at RCAF Station St. Hubert and head northeast over the vast expanses of Quebec wilderness. In this part of the world, there were no airfields, no flat plateaus or farmers’ fields to serve for an emergency landing. In the company of one or more aircraft, Ron navigated the ridges, rivers and lakes to the rocky coastline of Labrador and put down in Goose Bay for fuel and a pee. After a brief stop to pick up the latest weather reports along the route, they were off again to Nassarsuak, Greenland and a remote and lonely USAF/NATO strip known to the brethren as “Bluie West One”. Somewhere among the frozen and deadly cliffs that form the outer edge of Greenland’s southern tip, lay one particular fjord that slashed deep into the island. To reach the safety of Bluie West One, Ron would take his flight down into the gaping mouth of the cut, below radar, below the comforting beat of the beacon and in line astern they would sweep up the rocky channel – the valley of death.
At No. 1 Overseas Ferry Unit, Ron's commander was none other than Canadian ace Bob Middlemiss (seen here at left with Buzz Beurling on Malta in 1942) - a much loved and highly respected squadron commander. I only ever heard Ron speak of him in reverent tones and with a smile on his face. Midddlemiss is still very hale and hearty and stands today as Honourary Colonel for 427 Special Operations Squadron at CFB Petawawa.
At the very end of the fjord, and in line with the approach, was the 6,000 feet of Bluie West One’s single icy runway. The approach end of Bluie was a mere 10 feet above sea level and for about 3000 feet of that runway, things were pretty straight forward. But, at the midpoint, the runway began to rise steeply finishing at an amazing 640 feet ASL at the far end. Needless to say, all aircraft landed uphill and took off downhill - if they were smart. One day the wind howled down the runway into the fjord and the USAF pilots at the field headed for the mess, happy for the rest. Out on the ramp Ron and his mates flashed up the Orendas and taxied to the end of the runway nearest the water. Standing on the brakes they pushed the throttles to the end of their play until the aircraft shuddered under the beating.
Releasing the binders, the four aircraft rolled as one instead of the usual two-plane elements. They kept the wheels on the ground up to and beyond the recommended ground speed, held it, held it. Then with a two-fisted pull on the stick, they reefed their Sabres into a near-vertical climb that took them up the face of the mountain, rolling right and out of the deep valley. Down in the Officers’ Mess, the Yanks rushed to the window just in time to see the Canadians leaving. That night they went to sleep, safe in their beds but, with the emasculating knowledge that the Canucks had the bigger balls.
From Bluie One, the Sabres cut east across the ice packs that hugged the coast of Greenland. On a good day the sun sparkled on the green water, great, white bergs lay grounded in the deep turquoise reaches of the fjords, the vast ice field stretched north as far as Ron could see from 30,000 feet and the men of the OFU were happy to be alive. On a bad day, they entered a dull gray cloud 100 feet off the runway and saw nothing else but their wing man’s ghostly shadow and their own instruments until their wheels chirped down on the wet runway at Iceland’s Keflavik US Air Force Base.
From “Kef” they swept down across the North Atlantic to Kinloss in Scotland and on to North Luffenham. Such was the life of a ferry pilot. They were happy men, professional pilots, and wild hearts. They saw the world from a precious vantage point; they knew the best pubs in London; where to get good bratwurst in Baden Solingen or the best beach in Morocco.
In the end, the OFU, which started out as a dumping ground for misfits and free spirits, became a “career” posting. Air Force officers with an eye for the fat cuff-bands of a Group Captain or Air Commodore jumped at the chance to make the grade with the OFU. This legacy of excellence, however, was started by Ron and his fellow pilots, who wouldn’t have traded one single brilliant day or starry night for all the braid to be had in Ottawa. The OFU operated from 1953 until 1957 and successfully transported over 1,000 F-86s and T-33s across the “Pond” without a single aircraft loss or injury to a pilot. Considering the weather encountered over the North Atlantic and the distances navigated without the aid of beacons and control, the feat is even more amazing. The OFU pilots created their own unofficial heraldic crest which they wore with pride. On the bottom was a bogus Latin motto which betrayed their professional attitude and their inimitable sense of humour at the same time – Deliverum Non Dunkum.
There is not much visual record available on the web related to the RCAF's Overseas Ferry Unit. This very well known image of Canadair Sabre 757 appears several times with a caption that indicates it belonged to the OFU at St. Hubert - perhaps for pilots to keep up their skills between ferry assignments. The patch is that of the OFU – with humourous “Latin” motto - "Deliverum Non Dunkum”
After the OFU, Ron and Jeannine and their growing family moved to Rivers, Manitoba, home of the Air Training Wing of the Canadian Joint Air Training Command. Here pilots of the Army, Navy and Air Force were trained togethert. Some of Ron’s most exciting and memorable moments were at Rivers where he was current on 10 aircraft at the same time – the Harvard, T-33, McDonnell F2H Banshee, L-19, Mustang IV, B-25 Mitchell, C-45 Bugsmasher, DC-3 Dakota and the S-51 and Bell 47 helicopters. Back then, things were done a lot more casually than they are done these days. The Navy pilots wanted the Air Force’s T-Birds to see their girl friends on the weekends, so they let Ron fly their Banshees. They showed him the gear lever, the flap lever and told him “125 knots over the fantail”. With this rather rudimentary knowledge of the idiosyncrasies of the Banshee, Ron took off into the wild-blue with a couple of other zoomies. That’s the way it was done then and despite the safety freaks and the form fillers and the consultants and the you-can’t-do-thatters, this attitude and confidence combined with the freedom granted by a bold military milieu made us the great air force that we were.
Ron flew many types of fixed-wing and rotary aircraft during his career with the Air Force. After arriving at Rivers, Manitoba in the late fifties, Ron learned to fly the Bell 47 training helicopter. Later he would fly the Piasecki H-21 “Flying Banana”, Kiowa and S-51 as well as many other helicopters. Here, Ron strikes a warrior pose at the controls of his “Banana” in the late sixties. Photo via Jeannine Poole, Ron's Rivers CJTAC patch from author's collection.
At Rivers, Ron instructed on the Harvard and developed a sense of humility about his profession. He said to me often that it wasn’t until he started to instruct that he learned how much he didn’t know about flying. Flying is what Ron lived to do and at Rivers he flourished. If it landed at the base, Ron managed to snag a few hours on it. In 1956, during the Suez Crisis, the RCAF was looking for DC-3 pilots and Ron swung into the left seat and checked out in the Dak in 1.5 hours. Following Rivers, Ron moved on to Moose Jaw to instruct new flight instructors. The next decade was a blur of assignments including Heavy Helicopter OTU, Voodoos at Bagotville and a NORAD exchange that had Ron, Jeannine and family on their way to Colorado Springs. For three years in Colorado, Ron flew the North American Sabreliner on exchange with the USAF and checked out in the Convair F-106 Delta Dart, Boeing B-52 Stratofortress and Lockheed C-141 Starlifter.
Ron’s nearly three decades with the air force were the sweetest years of his life. There were many stories and I never did get them all lined up in the right order. Each was a special moment, perhaps embellished as cocky fighter pilots have embellished their tales since the days of Billy Bishop, but true in the spirit and pride of those great men. Ron always loved to focus on the dazzling years he spent as a Sabre pilot and looking back now, I realize he taught me well about those days. His later military career is confused in my mind but he ended his days with the Air Force as a McDonnell CF-101 Voodoo pilot with 425 Squadron. He loved the One-O-Wonder, but it was no Sabre. Many of the boys from those days in the fifties were now gone – some to staff positions, some to retirement, some to their graves at 600 knots indicated. He finished his Air Force career as a respected and veteran pilot, an “old man”, listened to and loved by the new generation of jet pilots. He was “Air Force”. He looked best in blue.
Ron flew his first tour on the CF-101 Voodoo in the early seventies. After three years at Colorado Springs, he returned to CFB Bagotville and the Voodoo. Ron’s military career started with jet fighters and ended with them -– a feat rarely matched in today’s Air Force. Here Major Ron Poole leads a formation of Voodoos across the field at “Bag-Town” at the end of his military career. Photo via Jeannine Poole
This is my favourite photograph of Ron. In one shot you have the two things that Ron loved more than anything – the two J’s – Jeannine and Jets. His look is one of relaxed confidence – a visible pride in his wife and his life as a military pilot. I see Jeannine’s lovely hand draped over the crew ladder and can’t help but see the diamond there. It is a picture of love. It makes me happy. Photo via Jeannine Poole
After leaving the CAF, Ron hooked up with the Department of Transport as a check pilot. He continued to fly aircraft virtually every day and spearheaded the program team that certified the Boeing 767 and 757 for Canadian airline use. He was the first Canadian to check out on the 767, something he was very proud of. Wearing the DOT wings he flew in the uniforms of Air Canada, Nationair, Nordair and others. He flew the world over and racked up hours in the 767, 757, 737, Sabreliner and many other aircraft. He remained the quintessential veteran pilot and retired from active flying with over 16,000 hours logged in scores of aircraft.
Ron entered my life one sunny spring Sunday. He was recovering still from his operation, but he was animated and brash and wonderful. In the dappled light of my back yard, he kept me spellbound with his stories. He fired them at me like cannon shells from the nose of his Sabre. There was a need to tell them. He was scared of his future or at least of its length. I fed upon his years, his memories; once again a slack-jawed 12-year old looking up at a square-jawed pilot. I loved it. He loved it. Jeannine and Susan sat back and watched with pride. You could feel Ron growing stronger that day. I could feel myself growing too.
I learned much from Ron over the next two years. He was a teacher. He lived to pass on his experiences. Even in his death, he taught me. He showed us how to face the inevitable with dignity and courage, how to ease the crossing with humour and clarity. The last two times that I saw Ron alive, it was as it always was with us – he regaled and I feasted on his presence. He would dance across his life from decade to decade meeting up once again with old friends both, human and winged and he would bring them to life for me.
If asked to sum up the Maj in one word, I would say that above all Ron was “proud”. He was proud of his life and his experiences, he was proud to be a Canadian, he was proud to be a Sabre pilot, and beyond everything he was proud of his wife and his family. Ron spoke with delight and satisfaction of his sons and daughters, his daughters-in-law and his sons-in-law, his grandchildren and his friends. I knew them all long before we came together at his funeral. Over the years, I have learned that those who show pride and love for their kin are those that are happiest. Ron was a very happy man.
I see him now, standing just ahead of me in the line at the Officers’ Mess on Gloucester Street. He is leaning his left elbow on the high stainless steel counter above the chafing dishes. He adjusts his glasses with his thumb and forefinger. He’s just finished a cornball joke and his eyes are sparkling. He looks great in his Harris tweed with the Sabre pin in the lapel. He smiles wide, revealing the gap between his two front teeth. He calls to the girl at the beer cooler and says “A half litre of white wine” and inclining his head in my direction, adds “and my father will have a Blue.” I miss him. He was my friend.
The last time I was with him, he was hidden inside his casket in the back of a big black hearse and his old, crushed RCAF hat lay upon the polished wood. The door closed on him and the car rolled silently and very, very slowly away from the steps of the church towards the roadway. He left behind a weary and trembling family and a large group of old friends and new friends. Each stood in their own space surrounded and protected from anguish by memories of their time with Ron. As the solemn car turned in slow-motion onto the street, there existed a wonderful moment, drawn out in time – a fleeting moment which spanned only a few seconds but lives on forever, like the moment when the very top of the sun’s burning disc finally disappears below the horizon. They say there is a bright green flash of light at that moment. It lasts such a short time that it is imperceptible to all but those who wish to see it. They also say that if you speed backwards up a hill of a certain slope at that precise moment, you can extend the flash for as long as you can fly backwards. As Ron left us, I could feel many of us back-pedaling up that hill, back into time, to the Ron we each knew, unwilling still to let go of Ron’s bright flash. His fellow pilots and navigators, stooped with age, straightened their backs and all around me I could see their arms come up in one last RCAF salute to the Maj. The air was still, very still. A few soft sobs. Ahead, holding onto her mothers arm, Ron’s youngest daughter, Nancy, held up her hand, fist clenched and thumb extended upwards – a pilot’s thumbs-up, one that he probably gave her a thousand times over the years. A fitting good-bye.
Many thanks to the Canadian Aviation Historical Society for their assistance. The CAHS is Canada's finest organization dedicated the preserving our aviation heritage. To join the CAHS and to receive its many benefits, click here.