Carolyn Leslie is waving her hand, motioning me to come over to the hangar.
"C'mon!" she says, "C'mon, they're here!"
We are both pretty excited, and then Carolyn is introducing me to Louis Geoffrion and his lovely wife, Isabel, who have come to Vintage Wings for the final open house of the 2007 season. There is much to see, do and think about, plenty of people to talk to and Louis is eager to get going. I feel his enthusiasm in the firm grip of his handshake.
Stop One of course is a reunion with the Vintage Wings Spitfire XVI. Its R.C.A.F. 421 (Red Indian) Squadron markings have a special significance for Louis, who flew an XVI with 421 from early 1944 until the war's end. We thread our way through the guests, who sense the significance of the occasion immediately and make way so that we can get up close on the port side. Vintage Wings pilot Rob Erdos happens to be in the cockpit of the Spitfire, checking things over in preparation for some aerobatics later in the day. He climbs down to meet Louis and Isabel, and then he and Louis spend several minutes conversing about the aircraft and some of Louis's experiences with it. For those of us close enough to hear, we can only imagine what it might be like for Louis in this situation.
Vintage Wings of Canada pilot Rob Erdos and Louis Geoffrion share knowledge of the finer aspects of flying the Supermarine Spitfire Mk XVI. Photo: Peter Handley
At one point, when the talk centers on a comparison between the Hurricane and the Spitfire as gun platforms, Louis remarks " Well I always found the Hurricane steadier as a gun platform, you see, as the Spitfire was so light at the controls." A grin flashes across his face and he continues, "But then again I was never much of a shot. Johnnie Johnson used to say to me ‘Louis, if everyone shot like you the allies wouldn't be able to produce enough ammunition to carry on the war!'"
He and Rob shake hands once again, and Rob asks Louis for an appraisal of the aerobatics.
"Let me know what you think when I get back down!" he says with a smile, and Louis promises to do so. We spend a few more minutes looking at the Spitfire, moving around to the nose and noting the Red Indian emblem on the engine cowling. It is a good time to stay still and let Louis be alone with his thoughts.
Louis's enthusiasm is magical. He wants to see everything and talk to everyone, and is constantly reaching out and shaking hands everywhere he goes. He is full of questions, recollections, comments and answers as we make our way around the apron. The Hurricane prompts memories of his service in Egypt in ‘41 and ‘42. He wants to circle the aircraft, take it in from all angles and several times puts a hand out to touch the fuselage, a wingtip, the tail section.
"Let me tell you son," he says intensely, blue eyes narrowed and with a slow shake of his head, "We were scared, we were all scared. But you didn't talk about it. Everyone knew, but you didn't let on." You didn't need to talk about it because you all knew and that's what made you close. And it wasn't just fear of what the other side could do to you, it was fear of yourself, fear that when the moment came, you might let yourself and the other fellows down. "Not wanting to let the fellows down helped to keep you going."
"When I got it, I never even saw him" Louis recalls. "One second everything was fine and the next thing she was on fire and I had to jump."
"How long were you in the water?" I ask.
"About an hour. I came down between Turkey and Greece, just north of Crete. A Free French sloop picked me up. They saw the whole thing, right to when my Hurricane hit the water."
We leave the Hurricane and move over to the Harvard, where Louis spends some time answering questions and talking to guests. We get a good look at the Harvard, which prompts some recollections of his early training days, and then we move on. He wants to take it all in, and Isabel and I are right with him. Conversation just flows, changing directions and languages depending on the aircraft and the person close at hand. He definitely wants to talk to the flight engineer of the Canadian Forces Griffon helicopter, certainly does not want to miss seeing the Spitfire start up, and we simply must get over for a look at the Stearman. Oh, and we better get out to where the SkyHawks are going to touch down. We look up into the azure and see the SkyHawk paratroopers coming down through their stirring routine, and I hear Louis, once again thinking of his own descent into the Mediterranean, say to himself "I did that once."
While looking skyward to try and see the pinpoints drifting down, Louis reaches out and clasps Carolyn Leslie firmly by the hand. I think to myself "I will never forget this. Never."
Louis Geoffrion chats up three members of the Canadian Forces Parachute Demonstration Team, The SkyHawks Though Louis has only jumped from an airplane once, it was one jump that had the respect of troopers with hundreds and even thousands of jumps for it was into the Mediterranean Sea after being shot down while on ops during the Second World War. Photo: Peter Handley
After the SkyHawks finish their presentation they come over to meet Louis and Isabel, and an animated conversation about jumping ensues. There are lots of handshakes and laughter, and then we head back towards the Vintage Wings hangar. I finally convince Louis and Isabel that having a bite to eat would be no trouble, and sell Louis on the idea by suggesting that he can eat his hamburg right out by the Spitfire and not miss a thing.
Wonderful. A little bit of onion, some ketchup, just a dash of mustard and oh yes, some tomato.
The Spitfire adds a little drama by not starting right away; no sport in that, old fellow. Keep everyone on their toes by blurting a little flame and smoke, and then catch with a roar after four or five tries... We all applaud and Louis thrusts a clenched fist in the air. Rob Erdos waves heartily and taxies off. As we watch the Spitfire present itself against the back-drop of a lovely September sky I remind Louis that the invitation to get into the cockpit still stands.
"Mr. Potter let me sit in it last time," Louis answers, referring to an event at the Aviation Museum two years ago. I look over to Isabel, who smiles and turns her hands palms-up as if to say, "No turning back now!"
The Spitfire is coming back in, and then it is being towed tail first back towards the hangar doors.
As Louis looks on, Rob Erdos goes inverted during his aerobatic routine which no doubt was dedicated to Louis Geoffrion, Spitfire Pilot. Photo: Peter Handley
Louis shakes hands and chats with guests who come forward and introduce themselves and their families, but he keeps looking over at the Spitfire. That first hamburg was delicious, and he decides to split another with Isabel. She and I are glad he is eating; he has put in a full morning. When he asks, between bites, "Can I go in now?" I answer "You sure can, but finish your hamburg. I'll let them know you're ready."
Two bites and that half hamburg is gone. Cockpit time.
With some help, a lift on this leg, a hand clasp here and a hand on a shoulder there, Louis Geoffrion, 421 Squadron, is once again up on the wing and then in the cockpit. A large crowd forms a ring around the Spitfire, but I think that at this moment Louis is alone. No one else can feel what he is feeling; none of us will ever truly understand.
But we can try, and when Louis accepts the microphone and in a broken voice says, "Thank you all very much, I love you", maybe he is thanking us for at least trying, at least accompanying him as far as we can.
He indicates, after a few moments, that he is ready to come out. As we are lowering him down off the trailing edge of the wing I say to him "Easy Louis, it's a long way down to the Mediterranean" and he snickers. The day has taxed him, but instead of immediately re-occupying his wheel-chair, Louis stays on his feet and talks for a few moments with Michael Potter. They shake hands, it is a lingering handshake, and then it is time to go.
Shannon Gray, one of Vintage Wings of Canada’s best loved ambassadors, listens intently as Louis Geoffrion relates a story from his days as a fighter pilot. Shannon’s gift is his deep felt empathy for our veterans, which enables him to draw memories from even the most reluctant veteran. Photo: Peter Handley
In closing, a little episode Louis related to me partway through the day is in order. In his own words:
"We were on for a sweep and I was having an awful day. You know, when everything seems to go wrong from the start. Well there I was, doing my cockpit check and somehow I must have bumped the gun button and they went off just as Danny Browne (Squadron Leader Danforth Browne) was walking in front. Luckily he was at the nose and so the rounds passed in front and behind him. Well that was it. I thought I was going to be sick right there in the cockpit, and just put my face in my hands. But you know what, son? You want to know what kind of fellows they were? When Johnnie Johnson saw what happened, he just climbed down and walked over with his hands in his pockets, he came around, climbed up on the wing, clapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘Louis, maybe you should sit this one out. When the mess opens, have yourself a drink and the boys and I will see you when we get back.' That's the kind of fellow he was. What a great guy. And Danny? Well, when he saw me later on in the mess, he put an arm around my shoulders and said, ‘Lou, if I get shot, I'd rather it be in the air.' Then he winked at me and said, ‘Looks better for the family!”