Fear is something that is very personal and comes in degrees.
It is possible to imagine the fear that others experience in life and often to be very moved by what we hear or read about it. But one’s own fears are real, very real, and usually remain in the memory – not always happily.
The fear of death is, I suppose, the greatest universal fear, much of which has been used to coerce religious people into devotion and donation. We atheists are spared it.
So what I write here are some of my very own fears and what has frightened me in the past. So they are someone else’s fears and probably of little interest to you. But here goes.
I suppose, as a boy, I was frightened while waiting outside my headmaster’s office door to be caned by that sadistic man. But then showing off the raised, purple welts to fellow pupils later proved that I had experienced fear and come through it unscathed – except for the marks on my behind. So pride was to follow fear, and made up for it.
At the same school we boys were taught to swim by a master holding us up from drowning in the swimming pool (where masters took moving films of us naked) with a ring of material attached to a rope at the end of a pole. I hated it and did all I could to avoid the lessons. That created a fear of the water that I retain to this day – except, of course, for baths and drinks.
Fear and excitement are close companions, especially for me whenever I flew in those early biplane aeroplanes with their open cockpits, wind, noise and bumps on the ground. It was exciting yet enjoyable fear.
But generally, fear and flying do seem to go together, even now when transportation in the air is about the safest form of getting from A to B where great distance is concerned.
When flying in Warwick aircraft from an airfield in Cornwall during the war, and still only training to be a pilot, I was taken along on sorties over the Bay of Biscay, simply as another pair of eyes (excellent ones). So when I saw, in the far distance, a menacing, German, four-engined and cannon- bristling Focke-Wulf Condor, that would have made mincemeat of us had any aboard it seen us first, we dived to just above sea level (so we could not be shot at from below) and headed for base full tilt. I doubt if any of us aboard felt fear, but certainly considerable apprehension.
With aeroplanes again, when I crashed a lovely Cornell primary training aircraft into the muddy ground of Oklahoma, in the USA, I was more occupied with how to save myself and the aeroplane than to experience much fear. But it must have been there all the same.
I had joined the RAF in 1942 and, because weather was so bad in England, potential pilots were kept waiting for vacancies to train abroad in better climates. Until called, I took a job first as a farm labourer. Hoeing in the middle of a field one day, a German Ju 88 flew so low over me that the gunner could have popped me off very easily. This aircraft was banking on its way to bomb Reading Station. It missed the target and killed a lot of children in school. The enemy, in such close proximity so that I could see the pilot and gunner almost to have been able to identify them, should have frightened me, but I was so astonished, and it happened so quickly, that there was no time to be frightened. After the war I hated to be flown by another pilot because I knew how dangerous flying was at that time and could only trust myself to be in charge. I suppose that that was fear in a way.
I do not see the pleasure, in any form, for caving. Yet, in Bulgaria, I joined others in a journey underground from A to B. After a while I found myself wearing quite inappropriate gear for the operation and trying to balance on a narrow, muddy and slippery ledge, with a deep chasm below. I then felt fear all right.
Just as crashing old aeroplanes and fear seem to be complementary, so are cars and road accidents. Once, a lorry-driver, not seeing me behind his rear-view mirror, drove straight out from a country side road into my main road. There was nowhere for me do steer around it. Despite full braking, I had to hit it head on. Fear? Probably.
And on another occasion, in snowy conditions and poor visibility, an articulated lorry-driver decided to turn around his huge vehicle in the middle of a main road. My car simply slid into it. That must have frightened me – and probably frightened a few spectators when I appeared from the car just having painted some scenery in a northern theatre, and was now covered with multi-coloured scene paint that sloshed over me when the accident took place.
When stationed at RAF Davidstow Moor in the war, there were separate ablution blocks for men and women placed near to living quarters. I was in a very clean one once and was more than surprised to hear a woman cough from a few cubicles away. Such cleanliness should have alerted me to the fact that I was in very much the wrong place. Being caught in a women’s convenience was a Court Martial offence. My career in the RAF now depended on my making my way out unobserved. So, hastily adjusting my clothing, I made for the exit and, as nonchalantly as I could manage, went on my way - seen by no one. Now, that really was fear.