The dream eluded him, but it had taken him back in time — so much so that as he went to shave, he found himself asking when his hair had gone so grey? Could he really be an ageing man when he felt like he hadn’t yet started to live?
Wasn’t he still the same young man who had scrambled up from a trench in late 1916 to give a downed pilot a hand restarting his engine? That too had been on a cold and dark November day. The mud of no man’s land had been frosted in the first glimmer of dawn. They had heard the aircraft sputtering overhead and looked up in astonishment as it banked and set itself down on the rough stretch of mud. They were even more astonished still when the pilot clambered out and ran around to open the cowling of his engine. “Must have some kind of engine trouble”, someone surmised as they all stood there staring.
Rhys had glanced towards the rising sun and reckoned the German artillery spotters would soon find the downed plane and start taking potshots at it. He handed his tin mug filled with lukewarm tea to one of his mates and scrambled out of the trench to jog over to the pilot. “Can I help, sir?”
The young man who looked over at him in evident astonishment was about his age. He had pushed his goggles onto his forehead, but they left huge, red rings around his eyes, making him look frightened and vulnerable. He was bundled up against the cold, but his hands were so numb and stiff they were practically useless. “Do you know anything about aircraft engines?” he asked in an accent Rhys had only heard from very senior officers — the ones who came and went and never said much anyway.
“No, sir, but I’ve tinkered with the odd car engine. If you tell me what to do….”
Somehow together they got the thing going again. He and the pilot turned the fragile crate around by the wing tips so it faced the longest stretch of more-or-less level ground they could find, and then the pilot started to climb back into the cockpit. He stopped and looked back over his shoulder, “I say, what is your name?”
“Lance Corporal Jenkins, sir. Royal Welsh Fusiliers.”
“Ever think of joining the RFC?” That was the Royal Flying Corps.
“No, sir. Do you think they’d take someone like me?”
“They would if they had any brains, but you never can be sure with the blimps, can you? Thanks again and cheerio!”
The pilot and aircraft disappeared in the misty November morning, never to be seen or heard again. The idea of joining the RFC, on the other hand, wouldn’t leave him alone after that. Eventually, he broached the subject with the company sergeant major.
The sergeant major took a dim view of the idea. “What do you want with the RFC, Jenkins? Those crates are bloody dangerous. Crash even when no one is shooting at them. You may think this life is lousy – which God knows it is – but the RFC is a damn sight worse. Take my word for it, at least we get rotated out regular, but those poor blighters have to keep at it, regardless.”
But he didn’t want to fly, Rhys explained. Quite the opposite. What attracted him was the idea of tinkering with engines, getting these complicated constructions of wood and canvas to leave the earth. He loved to watch them just as he had once loved flying kites. The mere thought of climbing aboard one and flying, by contrast, made him want to dive underground.
The desire to go below ground when things were difficult came naturally to Rhys. He came from a long line of miners and had left school at 14 to start work. He’d been working down the pit for almost four years when the war broke out. Although mining was a reserved occupation, Rhys had been swept up in patriotism and ran off to join the army in 1915. He’d been wounded twice, and he’d had more than one opportunity to regret his decision, although he didn’t. Despite the horror, misery and pain he had seen, the war had opened windows. His parents had never travelled more than 20 miles from the village of their birth, whereas he had seen London and Paris. His parents hardly spoke English and mistrusted anyone that wasn’t Welsh – and half the Welsh as well. Rhys, in contrast, had met and learned to like and respect men from every part of the empire. After three years in the army, Rhys knew that he wasn’t going back to the pit or to spend the rest of his life – if he had one – in the mountains of Wales.
Yet, for some reason, that brief encounter with the pilot was like an itch that wouldn’t go away. Reflecting on it now, more than 20 years later, Rhys speculated that perhaps it had gripped him so because it was the first time in his life he had ever done anything out of the ordinary. As a boy, he’d been one of five brothers, the second to last. His parents hadn’t seemed to remember his name most of the time, content with just calling him ‘boy’ as they did the others. In school, too, he was just one of the crowd, neither particularly good nor particularly bad at learning or sports. In enlisting, he’d broken away from his family a bit, but only with a horde of other youths. After that, everything had been merely more of the same: He was a cog in the wheel of a giant war machine.
But on that fateful November morning in 1916, when he’d clambered out of the trench to tinker with an aircraft engine until it sprang back to life while the others just looked on, he had stepped out of the ranks. For once, he had become someone unique. It was, Rhys knew, the defining moment in his life, and eventually, he’d convinced the company sergeant major. The sergeant had eventually been decent enough to find out what forms were needed and helped him get them properly filled in. Indeed, he must have recommended him because Rhys found himself transferred to the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) almost three months later.
He could still vividly remember the day he arrived at an RFC training unit. He had felt small and alone, shivering in a threadbare uniform on a dreary and bitter March day. Everything had been grey and dirty, just like in the trenches, but the air had smelled different: Aviation fuel and wood and glue rather than cordite and shite. A sergeant waved away his salute distractedly and informed him he was to be trained as a fitter. Rhys had nodded dutifully while wondering what in the name of God that was.
Now, as Rhys stared into the mirror, he couldn’t grasp that he wasn’t still that overly-thin young man with black hair and eyes, but rather a man whose face had become square with flesh and whose hair was silver-grey.
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