Monday, March 5, 2007

1961. Per Ardua Ad Astra

“I hope it doesn’t get any windier.” I say to my new friend Brenda as we stand in line waiting for our turn to go up in the glider. They told us flights would be cancelled if the wind got too strong. We fidget; neither of us has ever done anything as exciting as this before. Neither of us expected to ever get the opportunity because we will work in offices once we are posted to our permanent bases next week.

“Are you scared?” she asks.

“A bit,” I confess. “But we can’t chicken out. We may never get another chance.”

I have to hitch my uniform skirt high up my thighs to climb clumsily into the front of the glider. My bottom thumps inelegantly down into the seat and my legs straddle to joystick. My pilot swings himself gracefully in behind me. He runs through a list of things I should expect during the flight. “I control the joystick,” he tells me. “Do not to touch it.”

Only half listening, my mind races and my hands shake with a mixture of fear and excitement as I take off my beret and roll it cap badge forward, and secure it under my shoulder epaulet. Who would have thought that after just two months in the Women’s Royal Air Force, I would be heading for the sky.

“Ready?” My pilot asks.
“Absolutely.” I lie as the catapult whirs. It tows our glider ever faster down the bumpy runway. My stomach lurches as we leave the ground.
Oncee we are high enough the pilot shouts, “I’m releasing the tow rope.”

And we are free soaring silently above the green flat fenlands surrounding the Kirton Lindsey Air Training Base. Exhilarating. It’s so beautiful up high in the clear blue sky I wish I could stay forever banking and turning, soaring and swooping.

I plunge into memories of the first time I told anyone I wanted to fly, to be a pilot.

The strong smell of furniture wax mixes with milk soured in empty bottles sitting on the classroom windowsill since morning break. Miss hands out worksheets for us and tells us we must choose the two jobs we most want to do when we leave school. There are pictures of women in nurses dresses, teachers, clerks and charwomen. The men are in police uniforms, pilots, doctors and soldiers.

I choose a pilot first and a soldier second. A long time ago I wanted to be a nurse, but Mum told me I wouldn’t like it. All she got to do when she was a nurse was empty bedpans and make beds and take orders from men. I used to want to be a policeman until I went to the police station with my sister to see if they had my Dad. It smelled horrible in there of drunks and robbers and murderers.

I am still daydreaming when Miss smacks me around the ear. She makes me stand in front of the class and tell everyone what jobs I’ve chosen. I proudly tell everyone that I want to be a pilot. They snigger and whisper.
Miss looks mad. “Stupid girl. That’s a job for a man. Do you want to grow up to be a man?”
“No Miss.”
“Then sit down and choose a woman’s job.”
I look at the women’s jobs again. There is nothing I want to do. I’m a lot smarter than most of the boys. I don’t see why I can’t be a pilot just because I’m a girl. I don’t change my choice.

Miss sends to the Headmasters office that smells thickly of cigars. Mr. Hawk doesn’t ask why I am there doesn’t even look up, just instructs me to bend over the desk and lift my skirt. I try not to think about the strap stinging my legs. I remember my Mum telling me that Mr. Hawk smelled just like Winston Churchill when she sat on the front row to listen to him give a speech, she was so close she could see food stains and ash all down his waistcoat.

Miss whacks me across my knuckles with the ruler when I get back, but she doesn’t try to make me change my work. At dinnertime, the kids push and shove me and say nasty things to me. They laugh and chant, “Deirdre wants to be a boy.” They don’t listen when I tell them I like being a girl, I just want an interesting job when I leave school. Luckily, they quickly get bored and move on to weaker prey. My best friend Janet says, “Next time forget what you want and just do what Miss says.”

Pity Miss can’t see me now as thermals carry me upward, soaring ever higher over the fens.

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