When I visit Ottawa and ask my 91 year old father where he'd like to go, he says' "I'd like to see that Lancaster Airplane again." Dad was a Royal Canadian Air Force bombardier in WWII on the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts. I ask him if he dropped bombs. "Yes, we did. They said it was a submarine but I think it was probably just a whale." My dad understates his own experiences. It's not uncommon with the survivors. He doesn't think he did much compared to all the men who died in the RCAF in WWII.
"Billy Attlesby was a tail gunner in the Lancaster. He did two tours. That's 12 trips over Germany each time. I don't know if he got wounded. He didn't say. His family's farm was next to ours in Swan River Manitoba. I asked why he went back for his second tour and he told me, "John, I went over to fight for my country so I figured I'd signed on to do that. I just kept doing it till the war was over."
"You know not many people survived as tail gunners." Dad says, " The fighters came right up under you."
I picked up my nephew, Graeme on the way. He's an engineer with the fusion plant in Kanata. Takes waste and turns it into gasoline. My dad is really proud of him. "Graeme's a really smart man," he tells me. We're driving in a little rental Hyundai Accent I've picked up from Budget for the trip. "Couldn't get a smaller car, eh Uncle?" Graeme jokes. "It's great for parking" I say, as these two tall men scrunch their bodies into the car with a lot more room than the military gave a tail gunner.
Graeme navigates and I pilot while Dad sits in the back and remembers.
At the museum Dad heads straight to the Lancaster. He's blind now. Macular degeneration. Has some peripheral vision. The walker keeps him upright and he tires easily. He's had a heart attack and he's becoming forgetful. He tells us the story of Billy Attlesby again. He crosses over the line and gets right up so he can sideways peer into the plane. He looks around and then is satisfied. "There was something I wondered about, " he says, "and I found it." I don't know what it is. He doesn't tell me. Something about the plane and his memory and it's now right. "We can go whenever you want to, " he says later.
We walk around the exhibits. I love the bush planes. My years with the Northern Medical Unit as a fly in doctor in Northern Manitoba and Northern Ontario come back to me when I see the De Havailland Beaver. "The pilot had to heat the oil pan with a blow torch one winter rescue mission we flew " I tell Graeme and Dad. The DeHavaillan Beavers and Twin Otters, Norseman, Cessna's, an Pipers all come back to mind.
Graeme's a photographer as well as an engineer. While Dad and I are looking at the Canadian Starfighter, the jet that made such an impression on me as a youth, it broke the sound barrier and served the backbone of NATO interceptor fleet, Graeme's taking pictures of the early wooden planes that began the age of flight. I like the way the exhibits are laid out with cars and motorcycles of the period set beside some of the older planes. They even have a 1912 Harley Davidson motorcycle.
All us guys just have to stop and look at the evolution of the plane engines. Naturally Dad, with his mechanical engineering and Graeme have more to say on the matter. It's certainly impressive to see the development. Reminds me of the NASA Cape Canaveral exhibits I visited in Florida. Both museums show a whole lot of care for detail.
Pressing a button Graeme starts the machine gun with the explanation and demonstration of how they developed the first synchronization of firing so that the nose mounted machine gun didn't shoot up the propeller. That impressed Dad. "Well, I'll be," he said. "I don't know if I ever knew how they did that."
We've walked around the whole exhibit and I know he said he'd seen what he'd come to see back at the Lancaster. He's made a stop in the washrooms which are spacious and clean.
At the Aeronautical Boutique, I've buy him a black Lancaster ball cap. They've got ballcaps for each of the old planes. It's a tourists heaven here with books, videos, pins, and clothing. But Dad's sitting in his walker now so I know he's tired.
As we're leaving I see his old RCAF uniform. When I was a child I remember mom keeping it in the cedar chest. He looks at it from the side using his peripheral vision to see and a smile comes on his face. "You're right, it is." He says, remembering.
I'm proud of my father. He asks again if he can pay for the admission as we're leaving. Graeme says, "Grandad, Veteran's are allowed in free. " "You're a cheap date, Dad, " I tell him. The admission for Graeme and I was $15. The experience was priceless.