Tuesday, December 18, 2007


We meet at a hotel in the outskirts of London for a Christmas lunch each year.
We are old. And as we die off, our numbers naturally decline.
But we get resurrected as well. When, soon after the war, some of my fellow Codgers went to lodgings I had in London, they were told by the landlady that I had “gone”. As they knew I had contracted TB at the end of the war, it was presumed that I was dead – there being no cure for TB in those days.
It was not until much later that one of them saw my second BBC 2 Gardeners’ World programme. Word got around that I was alive. So I became a Codger.
The meeting is a reunion of RAF pilots – or rather, those of us who obtained our wings in Oklahoma at the end of the war.
I think that we had all done a little operational flying as part of our training to be pilots. Mine was 20 hours in Coastal Command, flying from Davidstow Moor, in Cornwall, out over the Bay of Biscay looking for baled-out aircrew. We flew Vickers-Armstrong Warwick aircraft, with a specially moulded, wooden lifeboat strapped beneath. These lifesaving boats would be released to descend to the briny, suspended beneath vast parachutes.
One of the great benefits to all who took part in the 1939-1945 war was that men and women from all walks of life were thrown together. Both Lords and paupers found out that our desires and aspirations were all much the same. So it is with Codgers.
None of us, I believe, took up permanent employment in the RAF. One became an airline pilot, one a country vicar, another a Bishop and so on. Many of us had left our schooling to fly. As we were released slowly into a peacetime world we had to decide on a career. It was easier for those with pre-war jobs to return to. For myself, I became a medical student at St Thomas’s Hospital in London.
Skip sixty or more years and there we were, or what’s left of us, eating turkey and Christmas pudding, and drinking wine in each others’ delightful company – Codgers all, with the exception of our seemingly younger and more sprightly wives.
I hear much the same stories each year, mainly about how I crashed an aircraft into small pieces right in front of many of our company, and how, in hospital after it, a drunken orderly amused himself by playing Russian Roulette, spinning the chamber of a revolver, while pointing the weapon at my head. It was an incident that I cannot recall (possibly because of concussion) and, anyhow, would rather not.
But there was something new this time. One of our number told me that I had probably saved his life.
It came about like this. When flying from an auxiliary grass field in wet and freezing conditions in Oklahoma, the controls of my aeroplane (PT 19, Cornell) started to stiffen up. I landed, found my instructor, with his feet up in a warm shed, and reported the matter. “Carry on if you feel like it,” he said.
In the constant quest to accumulate flying hours, I took off from a slushy field into the freezing air again, only, this time, to have the controls go completely solid – iced up. I was too low to jump out with my parachute, so did my best to crash back into the ground as advantageously as possible.
My fellow Codger told me that at the time of my crash he was experiencing exactly the same freezing-up trouble with his aeroplane.
After I had splattered bits of my aircraft about the place, flying was abandoned for the day.
So, unknown to me, I probably, and inadvertently, did save his life.
It was nice to hear, after so many years, that at least some good came from what we might then have called “a wizard prang”.