Jeremy’s War: Chapter 2 "Butterflies"

Posted on March 5, 2008

Ch.2 BUTTERFLIES

He gazed in awe at the flying machine they called an ‘RE8’, and wondered how he could ever hope to learn to fly. Butterflies roamed around his stomach, and a vague dizziness refused to go away. Their instructor, Captain Kershaw, was droning on at great length, but Jeremy was hardly listening. He was standing to attention amongst a dozen or so fellow trainees, all of whom were wearing the new Royal Flying Corps uniform. After a week of classroom preparation, they were now to be given their first lesson. It was rumored that the first flight was a ‘shake-out’, and that the RFC was anxious to rid itself of unsuitable candidates at an early stage. Jeremy thought wryly back to Mark Donaldson, and wondered what that worthy would remark if the news were to go home that Jeremy had got kicked out at the first hurdle.
At all costs, he could not let that happen…
"…and these are the ailerons." Captain Kershaw pointed them out with his baton. Kershaw was an old cavalry man through and through. He probably wore spurs to bed, Jeremy reckoned grimly.
"…the starboard aileron moving up, will be counteracted by the port aileron moving down, as we have discussed in detail in class.
Now, moving on…"
Jeremy thought of the funny little sergeant in the recruiting office, and his strange logic. He had wanted to know if Jeremy had ridden horses. The affirmative answer had pleased him immensely, a beatific smile crossing his plump little face.
"In that case, you’re just the man the country is looking for!"
The mock solemn statement had failed to impress Jeremy, who was nonetheless sufficiently amused by it to reply in similar vein: "I know. It’s taken a while, but I’m here now… I’m sure the cavalry will be delighted?"
But the funny little man had surprised him.
"The cavalry?" He had laughed heartily. A shade too heartily, Jeremy had thought. "The cavalry? Nonsense, my lad! It’s the Royal Flying Corps for you!"

"…move up when the stick is pulled back. Notice the elevator cables moving here…"
An airplane came in to land. Everybody’s gaze slid slyly across the airfield to watch. Captain Kershaw noticed, and bellowed loudly: "Pay attention! You’ll have plenty of time to watch airplanes later!"

Jeremy’s mother had moved heaven and earth to persuade him to change his mind. In doing so she had incurred the wrath of Jeremy’s father, who was quite delighted to see his son march off to war.
Jeremy, on the surface, had been resolute. Only Emmy knew the full story…

"…you can take it easy for the first few minutes, and get used to the idea of flying. I will then waggle the stick, and you can take control, and place your feet firmly on the rudder bar…"

Poor Emmy had looked crestfallen. But she had not argued, although her eyes had spoken volumes. Emmy… she quite fascinated him. He loved their discussions. She was at one and the same time very strong, and very feminine.
She could maintain a line of reasoning with an almost iron determination, regardless of his doubts or disagreements. But, once he had got to know her better, he had learned to recognize that slight wobble of the mouth, that intense look, that heralded Emmy’s peculiar character reversal. The moment when the strong woman became the little girl again. The moment when a strange vulnerability crept into her eyes…

The approaching aircraft they had been forbidden to watch obligingly touched down within their field of view. Jeremy’s pulse quickened, and he longed to get airborne for his first flight. Now that moment was so close, he reflected that he had no idea what to expect. It seemed quite unbelievable that he was actually going to fly.
What did it mean? Flying…

"…remember to move the controls gently. We don’t shove the stick roughly. You’ll soon see why. It’ll feel horrible, and you’ll probably make yourself sick. On the subject of that, anybody spewing up can bloody well clear up the mess…"

He knew he missed Emmy. They had seen a lot of each other, and it had always been possible to go and visit her. That possibility was now denied him since his journey to Hendon. Her face floated in front of him, and he remembered her saying goodbye to him at the railway station. Her chin had wobbled again, and he had experienced once again that hot desire to kiss her for the first time, full on the lips. Then to hold her tight, roughly, feeling her every quiver. Instead, they had shaken hands, and said goodbye. He had experienced mixed emotions, part of which had been a savage satisfaction to see her troubled…

"…which I think you will find enough for your first flight. But I want you to try hard to recognize the warning signs we have talked about, and to start getting a feel for the aircraft as soon as possible. Would someone care to remind us again of what happens when we fly too slowly…?"

He had thought he might miss his parents, but it had almost surprised him how he relished the independence. Although he was close to his mother, it was as if he had discovered a new freedom. He could marshal his own thoughts in his own time now, and somehow, it all felt right. He could now tackle the world his way. The future was exciting as well as intimidating…

"…Perhaps Mr Armstrong would be so kind…"

The mention of his name dragged him back to reality, and his brain reeled for a second. His eyes refocused from the distant horizon to the shape of Captain Kershaw, and he started involuntarily. His eyes and reaction had betrayed him, and even as he fought to bring himself back to the present, he realized he had been caught napping.

"Errr… sorry, Sir, could you repeat the question?"
He felt utterly foolish, and a grim voice in his brain whispered angrily: "Idiot!"
There was no reply, and the pause lengthened into a horrible silence. Captain Kershaw approached slowly, almost casually, until his face was six inches from Jeremy’s. When he started, he was quite mild, but Jeremy was not fooled. The voice rose progressively, until in the end Jeremy’s eardrums were ringing.
When it was at last over, he felt his cheeks burning with shame. How could he have allowed himself to get into that sort of mess?
One thing was for sure: he had joined the RFC, and nothing would -ever- quite be the same again.

* * *

When his turn came to fly, his legs suddenly seemed wooden. He made a dog’s dinner out of getting in, and fastening his harness. A smell of factory fresh varnish assailed his nostrils. His fingers trembled uncontrollably, and he was aware that his breathing was shallow and fast.
The previous student had seemed glad to be down, and had looked sickly and pale. The engine was kept running during the changeover, and now that he was actually seated in the aircraft, Jeremy marveled at the power of the propeller to push back a wall of air, that made his clothing flap. It was all too much like a dream, and his brain seemed to be unwilling to come to terms with what was happening.
Kershaw made a signal, and the ground crew pulled the wooden chocks out from the wheels. The RE8 instantly started to move forward, and then kicked to the left with a mighty roar as Kershaw applied rudder and power.
Jeremy suddenly felt like a prisoner, bound and trapped, at the mercy of a man he hardly knew, and a strange machine that jostled, bumped and shook him as they taxied across the uneven ground. He knew suddenly that, given the choice over again, he would never have volunteered for the Royal Flying Corps. Mark Donaldson was right: he was a coward. He wished fervently he was back at home.
This was a big, big mistake.
The noise from the engine increased suddenly, and it reminded him of the stiff paper and cardboard they had fixed to their bicycles as children. Fastened to the wheel fork with clothes pegs, the cardboard had touched the spokes. When the wheels turned, a satisfying rhythmic buzzing had resulted, which increased in pitch and beat the faster they pedaled. Now this strange, alien machine was making a similar noise, and he wondered fleetingly where they attached the clothes pegs…
The cockpit attitude changed, and he could suddenly see forward much better. He realized from watching other aircraft taking off that their tail had come up.
They now seemed to be hurtling across the ground at breakneck speed. His brain was frozen in horror, and for the first time, he tasted deathly fear. There was nothing he could do, but sit and endure.
Then, unexpectedly, a strange thing happened. It was so unforeseen, so extraordinary, that, for a few seconds, he quite forgot his terror. He had been expecting to fly up into the sky. Instead of this, quite strangely, the ground simply fell away…

* * *

Emmy wondered how Jeremy was getting on, and found herself fretting and worrying. A thousand times she tried to put him out of her mind, and concentrate on her work.
She had been seconded to St.Thomas Hospital, a bleak, Victorian building, which had high ceilings, was impossible to heat, and had once been a ‘poor house’ for the destitute. The atmosphere retained a strange mixture of despair, damp, and pointlessness, and it seemed to work its way into the disposition of the staff.
But a thousand times, Jeremy floated back into her consciousness. She was quite appalled by how much she missed him. Was she in love with him? No, she reminded herself, that was out of the question.
A critically ill man cried out in agony, and tried to get up. She hurried to his side. On the other side of the ward, an embittered young soldier, both legs amputated, studied her body closely, and mentally undressed her.

* * *

The sheer surprise left Jeremy’s brain reeling for answers. The experience was devastatingly new to him.
So this was flying… the ground fell away further and further, and he peered over the side in utter amazement.
He swiveled his head to look ahead, and saw nothing but sky and cloud beyond the blurred outline of the air screw.
He became aware that he could already see for miles, and his mouth dropped open in astonishment. His brain was rapidly coming back on song now, and quickly assimilated that this was the way things looked from an airplane. His head spun everywhere, trying to take in the breathtaking adventure. Suddenly, he was aware of a big smile erupting across his face. The smile became a grin, which split his face from ear to ear.

This is… brilliant!

Kershaw, observing closely, noted the grin with approval. His pupil’s rapid head movements and evident enjoyment pleased him. He knew from experience how much easier it was to train an enthusiastic student.
This guy looked keen, even if he was a bit of a dreamer.
He decided to carry out a gentle turn, and watched his student carefully. There being no sign of terror or airsickness, Kershaw turned the other way, and then leveled off at one thousand feet. No sense in climbing much for such a short flight…

By the time Jeremy saw the airfield approaching again, he had quite forgotten his earlier fears. His disappointment at the imminent end of the flight was exceeded only by his elated spirits. He had taken a turn at flying, which had been a strange but intensely satisfying experience.
The aircraft had -wonder above wonders- actually responded to his gentle stick movements, and he could feel it quite clearly. It had given him all at once a feeling of power and knowledge, and a burning desire to go up and do it again.
As they floated down towards the grass, the thought briefly crossed Jeremy’s mind what it would be like to crash. But he had confidence in Captain Kershaw, and he found himself remarkably untroubled.
The RE8 seemed to float for a very long time at maybe five feet or so, and then slowly settled towards the ground. Jeremy distinctly felt the slight bounce, and then the machine was trundling along the grass. The air screw was turning much slower now, and he could see the blades quite distinctly.
They taxied towards their group, and Jeremy noticed the next man waiting slightly apart from the others, kitted up and looking very frightened. It gave Jeremy a feeling of superiority, and he felt a desire to tell his fellow student not to worry.
Jumping to the ground, he looked around at his instructor, with a face that was still grinning. Kershaw beckoned him closer, and shouted a question:
"How did you find that then?"
Jeremy, for once quite speechless, could only grin hugely. Kershaw, satisfied, nodded and waved him away.
The next student climbed in, looking pretty miserable, and Jeremy, walking on air, left them to it.

He had flown… Away up in the clouds, where only birds and dreams reigned supreme… It was too beautiful for words. He turned around, and watched the RE8 take off. He raised his hand to shield his eyes, and adopted the knowledgeable expression of a veteran airman.

F.M.

Last edited by Francis Meyrick on March 5, 2008, 8:43 pm


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2 responses to Jeremy’s War: Chapter 2 "Butterflies"

  1. I’m not a pilot, and I don’t know much about the technical aspects you describe.But despite this, I quite enjoyed this read. You communicate the love Jeremy feels for flying very well. And I can sense his excitement.
    The transition from chapter 1 to chapter 2 was a little abrupt.
    I liked it, but I glossed over the technical bits. It was easy enough to follow, anyway. Some readers might perhaps get a little annoyed by the technical stuff? Just a thought.
    I’m still not sure what to make of Jeremy. He’s hardly a hero yet in my eyes. But he IS human.

  2. The expressions you use…my, o my. What does "he made a dog’s dinner" mean? and "kitted up"?

    Beautiful description of his first experience flying. I love ‘the ground fell away’. Too bad we cannot make some things in life ‘fall away’ like that. I got a visual of the first time I flew in a small plane. It was WNW outta Washington National over the Shenandoah Valley in the spring afternoon. It was golden – just golden! I’ll never ever forget that.

    Ewww – now I have the frissons!

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