11.11.11

As for the past few months, I’ve been immersed in republishing my father’s books on World War Two, I’ve become especially sensitive to extraordinary contributions made by otherwise ordinary people. War is well known for bringing out the best in people, amidst its otherwise destructive and horrific aspects.

Veteran’s Day, Armistice Day, especially on this date of 11.11.11, should rightfully give us pause to remember and thank those soldiers who gave their all for freedom.

There were a lot of soldiers in my family, such as my late Uncle Allen, a rear gunner in Short Stirling bomber, shot down over Germany and who endured two years, two months, and two days of captivity in a Luftstalag. His father, my maternal grandfather, fought in the Boer War and in the trenches in WWI. My Scottish great-uncle Donald McVicar served in the Black Watch in that same “War to End All Wars.”

In 1941, his namesake, my father, volunteered as a civilian pilot in the Royal Air Force Ferry Command. The RAFFC, under its several titles, had delivered 10,000 aircraft from North America to the “sharp end” by VJ Day.

The purpose of this post is to honor the service of those heroic civilians who put themselves in harm’s way in the RAFFC. They might have been paid more than military individuals, which did cause some griping at the time, but they were hired because they were, like Dad, already trained and qualified for the job at hand. They were desperately needed to fill a large gap in manpower.

When they were hurt, they had to pay their own medical bills.

When they died, their families had to pay funeral expenses and did not receive a pension.

If they lived to old age, as did my father, they were not considered “real” veterans and did not receive a pension or any sort of benefits.

Yet the proportionate losses of aircrew in the Ferry Command were comparable to those who were in combat. Men in the Merchant Marine also suffered the same shabby treatment.

So my heart is full as I write this, with deepest gratitude to these unsung heroes. Their wide-ranging and hazardous mission was secret, and their contributions therefore have been almost overlooked. Dad’s book, Ferry Command, published in 1981, was the first time public mention had been made of this unique organization.

I sincerely hope that you, dear reader, will also take some time to remember and thank these brave aviators, those forgotten fliers of World War Two.

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Peanut Tubes, Labelmakers and Kindles

Although the Twentieth Century was crammed with rapid technological advances, in my opinion, aviation holds top honors. Think of it: from the Wright brothers’ wobbly kite managing a few feet in the first decade, to a moon landing in 1969?

Dad earned his private pilot’s license in 1936, so as a pilot during this aptly-named Golden Age of Aviation, he made his living on the cutting edge of technology.
I remember Dad as being an “early adopter” who loved to be the first to buy a new gadget when it appeared on the market.

When he was twelve, he rigged up a couple of “peanut tubes” into a primitive radio, and was able to listen to transmissions from far-off and exotic locations: such as the United States! This would have been 1927. He went on to become one of the first ham radio operators, and wherever we lived, he’d always be seeking a good location for his antennas. I have a pleasant memory of being quite young, and being assigned the task of sorting out his resistors and other tiny components, usually by colour, which made it more fun. His radio room was a cozy place to visit with its glowing dials and tubes, but I was taught very early on to have a healthy respect for electricity.

Another delightful childhood memory resulted from a trip Dad took to California. He traveled extensively on business, and from this particular trip he brought back a new gadget called the Dymo Label-maker. Even though we lived in the suburbs of the most progressive and cosmopolitan city in Canada (Montreal!) this amazing invention was not yet available to anyone we knew. So we gleefully seized upon this new piece of American know-how, making and sticking signage on everything that wasn’t alive. Dad was particularly pleased with its label-making ability, because he built much of his ham radio equipment from scratch (or from kits) and now he could replace the primitive labels he’d made from masking tape. To this day, I feel happy whenever I see a Dymo.

Fast forward to 2011. Dad, sad to say, has been gone from this world since 1997. But in the last two decades of his life, he became a writer, getting down his story with the help of, first, an IBM Selectric typewriter, and then, eventually, a computer/word processor. It was of a brand I’ve never heard of before or since, with a very tiny green screen. Its entire memory — RAM and ROM — was 30 megabytes.

This computer, which he was both grateful for and enormously frustrated by, was his means of sallying forth into the wilds of the Internet. Dad predicted that a writer would be able to use this new “web” to sell his books directly to the public. Well, yes, we know that. It’s old hat, right.

But please understand, this was in 1994 and Dad was 79 years young! I meet 80-year-olds NOW who refuse to use computers and that new-fangled Internet. Okay, they were how old when Dad made his momentous prediction? Goes to show, healthy curiosity keeps the brain young.

I do wonder if Dad ever thought technology would come up with devices such as Amazon’s Kindle. It’s just a mini-computer, really, dedicated to reading. As a voracious reader and student of history, a seeker of knowledge and a person with many interests, in his last years stricken by infirmities that confined him to his apartment, Dad would have loved a Kindle. Between the Internet and the Kindle, Dad would have been in his glory!

My Kindle has become very dear to me, and I would so love to have the means to give them as presents to certain friends who, like Dad, find themselves home-bound. Instead of passively accepting what fare the television doled out, or the newspapers and magazines that quickly grow stale, Kindle readers (“Kindlers?”) can actively seek and choose all types of reading material without leaving the safety of home.

But even better for Dad — and me as his proud editor/publisher— his books are now being “re-published” on Kindle. It’s immensely satisfying to me that I am fulfilling his predictions regarding not just the usefulness of the Internet, but the more direct link between the author and the reader.

When he was a pilot in the RAF Ferry Command, he was famous for being a real press-on type, and that drive never left him. It manifested itself in his writing, and then in his pioneering efforts to self-publish. So as I dive deep into my father’s adventures, I feel his drive re-kindling within. Genetics, gotta love ‘em.

But here’s what really started my props spinning: I learned that now people can download for free the Kindle application on their phones and computers, and read to their heart’s content anywhere, any time!

So, it struck me.

Technology had finally caught up to Dad.

The Heart’s Flight into the Past

If ever there were a milestone in the process we call “growing up,” I believe it’s when we can see our parents through the eyes of an adult— an empathetic adult, hopefully.

If your childhood has been difficult at times, and you are still nurturing the wounds you received from those who brought you into the world, perhaps you will find understanding and healing by wrenching your perception to that of an adult’s.

If you can place yourself, with all of your flaws and “meant-to’s” and “wish I could’s,” at your current age, into the perspective of your parent at that same age, you may be rewarded with a great sense of inner peace.

As I read somewhere, “thoughts of judgment block the light.” If we take the time to imagine our parents as young people faced with problems of every type, if we can say, what would we have done in their shoes?— then a healing light of empathy and understanding may very well flood your soul and heal you.

This is a process that has certainly helped me. My father was a complex man brought up in a time when men were never allowed to show emotion— and he was Scottish, to make it worse! Only when he’d consumed a sufficient quantity of Scotland’s most revered liquid, could he let loose his emotions about the war.

As a child, I was embarrassed. Children do not like to see their parents inebriated, crying, out of control, not being perfect parents. At that time, I was barely aware of World War Two and his contributions, and what he went through. And I seem to recall, he felt he hadn’t done enough, compared to the other good men he knew.

Since I’ve been able to read his story of his service in World War Two as a civilian pilot in the Royal Air Force Ferry Command, and realizing he was in his mid-twenties at the time, my childish heart has softened and forgiven him for those excruciating moments from my early years. He was letting out some of the pain he suffered when those brave guys he knew, flew off over the ocean and disappeared forever. Sometimes without a trace.

How often he remarked, “only the good die young.”

Every time he climbed into an aircraft, did he wonder, will it be my last flight?

Could he even allow himself to think that?

Dreams Finding Their Wings

Finding a place to begin is the most difficult part.

So, in my mind’s eye, I see a tall boy, good-looking and lean, hearing an unfamiliar sound in the sky, shading his eyes against the glare of the Alberta sun as he glimpsed a flying machine for the first time. His heart must have accelerated as he watched the progress of what was most likely a biplane, across the bowl of endless sapphire sky.
And at that point, Don McVicar determined to find a way to master that aircraft, as his
escape from the dull life of growing grain on the Canadian prairies.

Without that life-changing moment, I would not be here. For, as I look back in as much
clarity as possible, my creation was tied up in my father’s aviation adventures. He would not have met my mother, had he not been a pilot in the Royal Air Force Ferry Command.

So you never know.

And then, suddenly, you do. And I’ve learned to respect such epiphanies, and to take energy from them, and direction. “Words on Wings” came to me in a flash— it’s a name which will allow me to explore many routes, but all with the underlying theme of aviation.

It’s not just about my father’s life, or the books he wrote about his long career in aviation — a career which took place in what has been called the Golden Age of Aviation. It was an age of innovation, heroism, and unique opportunities for a certain type of individual to shine.

My father’s story is interwoven, therefore, with stories both universal and personal, and so, I believe with all of my heart, it’s worth sharing. He took the time, and possessed the sheer will and determination, to write the books, so the hard part’s been done!

I also hope to inspire young people to fearlessly seek their dreams. When Don McVicar
was in his teens, the Great Depression struck: not just the United States, but Canada and the rest of the world. Yet somehow, he persevered and got his pilot’s license and a lot of other certifications in the harshest economic period in modern history.

He looked to the skies and followed his heart, brought his dreams into being: and so can we all.