His Grey Lady
In 1957 I fell in love with the handsomest Air Signaller on 269 Squadron, Coastal Command (apologies to other Signallers of 269 Squadron). We met whilst on holiday and he was accompanied by three other Coastal Command young bucks.
Marrying in 1958, I went with him to a R.A.F. Station that went by the absurd name of Ballykelly, "Bally what?" I was told to fall in love with Ballykelly, needless to say being a dutiful wife I did. Then came the hitch in our relationship - Love me, love my aircraft. This I never did, I was not that dutiful.1958 was the year I began my association with the Shackleton, an association that has lasted for 38 years, and only death will sever the ties. I found out that I had met my husband's mistress. Like all relationships between a wife and a mistress I hated her, from the minute I first saw her sitting fat, squat, dirty, and so ugly on the tarmac at BK.
She had a terrible voice, I am convinced she is the reason my husband suffers a peculiar deafness, an affliction known only to those that consorted with her - high tone deafness. Her skin was a mottled grey, with black splotches as if somebody had thrown a tin of paint at her. Definitely, she had the most terrible acne. Her nose was very large with a peculiar bump underneath it. The eyes were nothing to write home about and she had fat rubbery legs. B.O. was another overpowering memory, it seemed as if she tried to gas all who loved her. Though my husband considered it to be the sweetest aroma, a mixture of Chanel, Brut, and Joy all rolled into one.
What had I to fear from her? She was no competition. How naive can one be at 22 years of age. For he was infatuated, besotted with an "Affaire de Coeur", a love that has never dimmed. In fact as he got older it seemed to get worse.
For the next eight years she was a very demanding mistress, she took him away from the family with monotonous regularity - Africa, Gan, Canada, Gibraltar, Hong Kong and Malta to name a few. If my memory serves me correctly there were many more well publicised assignations. Some destinations were so secret I never found out where they went together. They really had great times him and her. Their relationship must have gone through some bad patches; true love does not run that smoothly. Why does he only remember the good times? I know he experienced bad times and they are well remembered somewhere in the recesses of his mind, but he never talks about them.
Memories fade, but not the memory of him leaving me at some god unearthly hour to be with her. I would bury my head in a pillow to deafen the sound of them as they thundered down the runway together; bound for some far distant romantic experience that I could never share. Sometimes their absences lasted a few hours, sometimes weeks or months.
I used to pray that she would grow older and uglier and would be pensioned off. Silly me, my prayers were never answered. She just seemed to go from strength to strength, and is still doing to other wives what she did to me 38 years ago. Grudgingly I have to admit she has great staying power for a very old lady.
1966 was the momentous year he finally left her, or did he. The sad part of this sorry tale is that she still has the power to pull him far across the world to her side; part of my husband will always be with her. A day never goes by without some mention in always loving terms. Why do I put up with it? I must be a masochist. Our children were raised on tales of "derring do" exploits in days of yore. Nowadays it is our two grand-daughters who dutifully listen to Pop, and say "funny fella". They ask one another what are 269, 205, 210, contra-rotating props, S.A.R., sonar buoys, 15 hour navex, J.A.S.S., Avro, M.O.T.U., flying rations, and Merlin (isn't he the wizard?).
He wears her picture on a tie, cuff links, and tie tac. There are more pictures of the not so lovely lady adorning the walls of our home than there are of me. Why do I have an inferiority complex? I give in, I cannot compete. She can have him!
"The Growler" a magazine devoted to continually praising her comes out four times a year and is edited by a certain Mo Botwood who is apparently devoted to her. It is compulsory reading in our house; in fact you could say I know them off by heart every one.
Sadly I've never read an article in praise of the young and oh so handsome men who brought the Shackleton to life at all stages of her career. Without you she was and is useless, an inanimate object without a heart, a pile of metal, rivets and wires. Your devotion to the Shackleton is legendary. I have seen you come home tired, grim faced and haggard, after eighteen hours of flying and wondered why you chose this way to make a living. Never, ever forget that it was your dedication and devotion to her that has given her the reputation she has.
The Shackleton men I knew and grew to love are probably grey haired, balding, and wrinkled, dare I say getting on in years, aren't we all. But my memory of all of you stopped 24 years ago in a time warp where none have grown old - to name a few - Alan Pitches, Norm Sewell, Alan Butler, Pat (Dig) Miller, Taff Morris, Taff Rees, Johnny Mundy, Carl Nugent, Des Proud, Jack Perigo, and Dinty More. Apologies to those I missed. I still love you all.
Finally, to all who kept the Shackleton flying may I salute you. Not only to the ground and air crews of years gone by, but to the young men who carry on the tradition today. You cannot be that much different to the men of 38 years ago, only age separates. But the ties that bind you to the Shackleton I will never understand. I have heard that retirement for the Shackleton is only a few months away, many tears will be shed into pints, stories will be told, and legends written, your memories will never fade as long as you can all get together and talk.
I am too much of a coward to put my name to this, if my husband ever found out I had written derogatory words about the Shackleton it would be grounds for a divorce.