While We Wait for Death: A Battlefield Vigil

What a long absence I’ve had from this blog. Times have been strange, it’s hardly necessary to say that. I can’t guarantee that even after this post I’ll be publishing with any sort of regularity; but with the upside-down nature of the world right now and with this being Remembrance Week I just felt compelled to post this. Through these Covid times I have been writing, and I will try to share my work whenever I can.

The following piece was inspired by a very personal experience from earlier this year which I then transposed into a battlefield setting. I hope you will enjoy it; and as always:

Lest we forget.

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While We Wait for Death: A Battlefield Vigil

You were fallen when I reached you

And never said a word

So I spoke volumes to you

In case, perhaps, you heard

But ne’er a tremor was in your bones

Though I counted every breath

And promised in my whispered tones

To wait with you for Death.

The shells above, they crashed around

Ungodly were their songs

But never touched our piece of ground

Though nearer they came along.

And searing flashes of hellish light

Like the Devil’s picture-show

Lit up the dim and inky night

Though your eyes, they couldn’t know.

I feel I held more fear than you

-At least, that is my hope-

For the battlefield was a ghastly view

Beyond the civilised scope.

And what had you suffered, before

In the trials of the day?

Terror, loneliness, to be sure

‘Til your mind faded away.

Your breath now thinned like my courage

-Not now so long to wait-

Each haunting labour made me discouraged

That I had come so late.

Dark moments passed, and I mused

Which one of them would claim you?

Death reached His hand; you refused

And grasped for the life behind you.

How long should your being occupy

This cruel and transient state?

If Heaven beckons, why not fly?

Or face to a darker fate.

But you endure, and I beside

These perils and spectres of men

Watching, waiting for the sweeping tide

That will bear you to the end

And, at last, the moment came

A moment you could not deny

Your breaths slowed, your heart the same

In that, your turn to die.

Should I have granted you privacy

In your final moments?

To leave seemed near to heresy;

To ignore what God had chosen

But in truth, I was invested

In what your life had become

A peaceful death? I was interested

Though cold it may seem to some

Your breaths so calm amid the clatter

Gave me a fragile respite;

And hope that my final chapter

Would fade softly to Twilight.

I clung to this, while you expired

Gone- an unknown friend;

Though I felt we’d shared a life entire

No relief came at the end.

I felt no calm, sensed no spirit

No expected skyward ascent

So keenly had I believed it

But now felt my faith was spent.

And so too were you gone now,

Known to no Earthbound power;

Held by neither debt nor vow,

Untarnished by day or hour.

And I remain- forsaken

By all but the Devil’s Symphony

With a vicious glee unshaken

And piercing to the heart of me

Now the fallen I have become

-As softly goes my breath-

Closer the empty promise comes

While I wait here for Death.

Copyright 2020 Adair E. R. Jacobs

Changes

Nothing like a David Bowie title to start off a post. I do believe he had a song for everything. But this post is not about David Bowie, great though he is– it’s for you, my most faithful followers, who have been with me since this blog’s conception in early 2014 and through these dry spells of late. Over the past few years I’ve written about so many things interesting and important to me; World War II, aviation/flying, and my travels. Really, all these subjects were united in that they encapsulated my dreams.

Many of my past posts stemmed from the fact that I wished for something different and was dreaming of something more; whether that be a world more informed on the Eastern Front, a closet full of 1940s fashions, or a life spent half in beautiful destinations and half above the clouds. Although I’m sure my readership has dropped somewhat over the time that I’ve been silent, I know there are a few of you who remember me and who will be interested to know what that silence has yielded. And yes, it has brought many changes.

I’d like to take you back five full years to this post: In Awe of Aviation. Here there are differences beyond the pretentious writing and wishful thinking that dominate the post. To quote, With aviation having held such a monumental place in my life for such a long time, I expect it will continue to feature heavily for the rest of my life. Several years ago, before realizing I wanted to be a writer, I considered training to be a commercial pilot or even joining the Royal Canadian Air Force- although I may not have taken that path, I do know that I want aviation to be a part of my life no matter what I am doing.

Well, I still don’t know what I was waiting for… as evidenced in the above post, I’ve always had an enormous love for flying. Now I believe I was kidding myself for a long time that I was going to do anything other than that. But I’m proud to announce that now in 2019, as a 24-year-old with her savings already blown on a misguided university stint and periods of unemployment, I’m following my dream skyward. I have my own Cessna, hangar, and am nearing the end of my Private Pilot License training with over 38 hours’ flight time to my name.

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Toronto Pearson Airport from 2000 feet. Can’t say I ever expected to fly over Canada’s busiest airport in a Cessna, at least not with my hands on the controls

The epiphany leading up to this began in July 2017 when I saw an airshow in my hometown. At the time I was preparing to start trade school in the autumn, but as I witnessed a weekend of flying I started questioning why I was considering anything that didn’t involve aviation. As you may know, my dad has always worked in aviation so of course he was happy to advise and encourage me along that path; and it didn’t take long for me to withdraw from school and for us to begin exploring flight training options. Given the fact that I have to work full-time to finance this journey, we decided to find our own plane to buy and to recruit a freelance instructor. This has offered me the most flexible training possible, as well as being cheapest in the long run. And I’m in it for the long run!

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The chosen one… purchased in May 2018 (after a very frustrating search across the province) from a gentleman in North Bay.

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Meet Bluebird, my very own 1973 Cessna 150 (thanks Mum & Dad!). Named after the song of course; and one day I hope to fly her over the White Cliffs!

I began flying in June, with a local instructor who has most recently taught for a prestigious college flying program. My main instructor is currently flying left seat for a commercial airline; and between their two approaches I’ve gained confidence and a whole lot of industry knowledge. I’m endlessly thankful that my parents and family have been willing to support this dream while my resources were low, and I’m so glad that we’ve gone about my training this way. Although going to a university/college program or just a flight school would have been quicker, it would also have put me into terrible debt and I’m fortunate indeed to be able to keep myself afloat while learning to fly. I guess I like having flexibility and I like doing things in unusual ways, so this arrangement has worked well so far.

Welcome to the flight deck! Don’t mind the ugly cushion… I realised on my very first flight that I was going to need some sort of adjustment for the seat height. Good luck staying straight and level by the horizon when you can’t see it

Sometimes it really feels like the pursuit of even my Private License (which requires 45 hours to the Commercial License’s 200) is taking forever; and I’ve had some points where I’ve been extremely down on myself and not confident in my flying. But I always try to remember one particular flight in July or August last year– my instructor was just teaching me the circuit, and I remember wondering then and there how on earth I was ever going to be able to maintain control of the plane, plus fly a good circuit, plus watch for traffic, plus make radio calls by myself, plus be responsible for a safe landing… it really seemed so distant and alien and impossible. Well, at the end of September I ended up soloing (and actually had minimal nerves in doing so), so if that’s not proof of progress then nothing is.

Another proud moment of progress was at my airport’s Gathering of the Classics event, which brings together a classic car show and a fly-in; drawing hundreds of aircraft and visitors every year. I was nervous to be around so much traffic in a relatively-uncontrolled setting, but I taxiied Bluebird out to the grass and parked with all the other airplanes. Seeing other pilots and visitors admiring her was awesome and made me feel really proud of myself. Even better though was when I taxiied her back to the hangar at the end of the day… the Harvards always fly to the Gathering and offer rides, and followers of my blog know exactly how I love the Harvards… when it was my turn to taxi out, I ended up being in line behind two of the Harvards! Following them down the runway while at the controls of my own plane made the dream very real. Definitely a wow moment, and even more special as my brother was with me; he has since moved across the pond to London and I miss him very much.

Bluebird made some friends!

My view of the Harvards as I taxiied along 08/26 to the hangars. Thanks mate for the photo

I’ve got to give credit to my family for helping make this a pretty ideal situation. My dad is trained as an AME (aircraft mechanic), and he’s able to do much of the maintenance on Bluebird and has connections who can do the stuff he can’t. And the fact that my parents were willing to help finance my career has given me a lot more peace of mind. Thank goodness Dad wants to learn to fly with Bluebird too so it’s not just me…  My brother seems to fancy the thought of jumping out of planes, so we’re a good pair and always have lots to talk about. He’s definitely a big supporter and despite being in the UK permanently now, we are extremely close as siblings and he`s a big influence. As for my other half, our first sort-of date was at the 2017 Gathering of the Classics and apparently I pretty much introduced him to aviation. He`s been very supportive in my pursuit of this and has seen the whole journey; I can`t wait til I can give him his first flight in a small aircraft.

Dad tinkering away. Knowing your particular aircraft plus a general knowledge of engines and airframes is a big focus in learning to fly. I`m spoiled to have someone to answer complicated questions

Learning to fly has helped me develop in a lot of ways outside the cockpit too. Although I`ve always been quite inclined to discipline and thoroughness, in aviation it’s amplified. A pilot has a lot of responsibility; not only the hands-on operation of the aircraft but also over its condition, flight-planning and navigating, troubleshooting, and preparing for various scenarios that may occur. I’ve already had a few snags in the air– like flaps not extending on approach, a flock of birds crossing the runway just prior to touchdown, and unexpected traffic in the circuit. Once my door even came open on climb-out, which was a bit of a shock. Although none of these are desirable and they seem frightening, when they happen in the air it’s important to simply take charge and address them in the safest way possible. Fortunately, I’ve found that I don’t panic when these things happen, which gives me some confidence that with continued training I can handle those bad situations properly.

I feel I’m also a better and more aware driver thanks to flying, and am more precise in tasks that I do. As my instructor told me, it takes just as much concentration to stay within your lane on the highway as it does to drive to one side of it; the latter is just laziness. Good advice for more than just flying or driving. And if you’re curious like me, aviation is a great thing to get into. I’m learning navigation (on the ground and literally on the fly), meteorology, emergency procedures, airmanship, and so much more. There is so much to learn!

This is my flight computer… it looked like a disc of a whole lot of confusion when I first saw it, but now it’s another thing I’ve learned. It can be used in flight planning and in the cockpit to calculate time, distance, and speed

A very visual lesson in the dangers of icing. This was accumulated on the propellor as we taxiied to the fuel pump, and we knew something was wrong because a lot more power than usual was needed to get us moving.

Flying has helped in other ways as well. It really is another world up there, and when flying I’ve never had earthly problems in my mind. Even if work was rubbish or money is tight, those things just aren’t something I think about when I’m up there. It’s really calming, and it takes a lot of focus! My brother’s recent move to London has been one of the biggest things on my mind over the past few months. Living together for 23 years and then suddenly living in separate countries hasn’t been easy for anybody, but it is a little better when I think that perhaps one day I’ll fly jets across the Atlantic for a living, and will be able to visit him more often.

I watched my brother’s departing flight leave the Toronto area on FlightRadar24, and it really hit home when I realised that only a month before I’d flown along that same shoreline with my instructor.

As for the highlights in my flying journey so far, there have been many. Of course my first solo was a big one; just like driving standard it took me a long time to nail the landing flare so that milestone was a long time coming. Doing a downtown tour of Toronto’s lakeshore area was massive for me at the time and is still exciting to think about; it was my first foray into controlled airspace and was my first proper cross-country flight.

Yes, that is the CN Tower… tallest free-standing structure in the Western Hemisphere. Breathtaking!!

Another highlight was my most recent cross-country; 160 miles to Muskoka in the north and then Oshawa on the shores of Lake Ontario in the south. I was very on-edge and anxious for this flight for some reason and didn’t perform well at all on the first leg to Muskoka, but after that I fixed my mistakes and dealt with heavy traffic and high winds at Oshawa in what was a good learning experience. Honestly, most of the highlights are just small things; like being proud of how I handled my door opening suddenly on takeoff, or thinking ahead and maintaining good awareness in the circuit. Having my instructor pat me on the back and say “you got it, good flying” even for something small is what I’m most proud of.

Obligatory airport selfie at Muskoka airport back in February

Bluebird’s eye view of my city of Barrie

As for the view ahead, I have some solo time, a solo cross-country, and instrument time before I can go for my checkride/flight test. There’s also a written exam to write, which I am enrolled in ground school for. I started flying in June 2018, and my goal is to be a Private Pilot License holder this summer! I feel like there’s much to do, but I have a lot to motivate me. My brother is planning a trip back to Canada come summertime, and I sincerely hope I’ll be able to give him a flight. Beyond that, I want to fly to Tillsonburg to see the Harvards’ home airport, and to St. Thomas to visit my grandparents. It will also be exciting to add ratings to my license (obviously if I’m going to fly a Harvard then I need my taildragger rating!) and to begin the requirements for my CPL. I’m going to be busy but this is such an exciting journey and I’ll try to share it here with you.

Check ignition, and may God’s love be with you…

Visiting London earlier this year provided an extra reminder of how fascinated I am with flying

Me and Bluebird, Edenvale Aerodrome, August 2018

See more of my journey on Instagram @bluebird_over

All Text and Photos © Adair E. R. Jacobs, 2019

 

 

 

 

The Past Mind: A Short Story

Perhaps one of the most chilling and memorable lines in war poetry comes from the third stanza of John McCrae’s work In Flanders Fields: “To you from failing hands we throw/The torch; be yours to hold it high”. For me, this section has always carried a hint of the futility and uncertainty of the two World Wars; as well as the necessity for those of us– veterans, children, new generations– to accept that torch. Not a torch of conflict, but certainly one of remembrance and of resolve. I think of this every time I hear McCrae’s lines and every time I watch those staunch veterans march past a little fewer.

The idea for a brief story based around this idea of inherited remembrance has been in my head for awhile, and finally I got it on paper. I don’t have much time for writing anymore, but as I write this I realise how much I’ve missed it! Perhaps that is a good metaphor for remembrance too; let us each contribute what we have when we can, and what’s important will never be forgotten. I hope you enjoy, and remember.

The Past Mind: A Short Story

The Tuesday 09:50 to Kamenskoye was my trip; every week, without fail. I used to walk it, but sometimes if weather was poor I wouldn’t make it in time for lunch, and Babushka loved her Tuesday lunches. So now that I was head seamstress on my factory floor, I made sure that I always put aside that bus fare. I’d bring along whatever leftovers I had– usually okroshka– and my book bag. Tuesday was reading day at Babushka’s.

As the bus lumbered past the Bylniki junction, I heard engines outside and looked up to see the four contrails of a jet tracing the sky. Too bad Babushka was housebound, she’d get a thrill to see that. She was used to being alone, really, but I’m not sure she was used to not getting out. Dedushka died during the First Battle of Smolensk; and their daughter, my mother, died in ’83. In the past few years though, Babushka has started to get old and forget. So with my father in prison now for car theft and with no children on the horizon, I’d decided it would do us both good if I gave her some of my time. A few hours every Tuesday wasn’t bad, even if she didn’t remember it for long.

After an hour or so, I was off the bus and at the door of Babushka’s flat. It looked grim, paint peeling and number askew, but it really hadn’t gotten much worse in twenty years. I’d hardly finished my first knock when the door swung open, Babushka peering keenly up at me. “What is it?”

“I’m Nastya,” I pointed to myself as I’d learned was necessary. “How would you like some lunch?”

“Lunch? Well, I haven’t eaten today. Are you alone?” She asked, looking past me into the hall.

“I am quite. I have some books too, if you’d like to read.”

“Books?” Babushka sounded surprised. “Well, alright. Come in and tell me a good story.”

Walking inside, my eyes lingered on the portrait of a smiling Yuri Gagarin which still hung pristine in the hallway. Babushka caught my gaze, and she nudged me and chuckled, “Handsome, isn’t he? Look at that smile…”

She can’t remember, but she sure is sharp in the moment. Pity she can’t remember, though. Mama always told me how she stayed up all day and night waiting for updates and Gagarin’s inevitable speech once it was announced that he was in orbit in ’61.

“Here, have some food,” I said, setting a plate on the windowsill and opening my book bag. “And what would you like me to read?” As usual, I brought a selection of books with me; a volume of classic Russian short stories, an imagining of The Firebird, and a timeworn book full of the exploits of women aviators in the Great Patriotic War. Scanning the books with keen eyes, Babushka picked the last one. And that’s the funny thing; she always did. I don’t know how you can have favourites if you can’t remember and everything seems new, but she did. She always picked that book.

And so I read to her, choosing a few particular accounts which she had always seemed to enjoy. There were many magnificent women who fought for our country, and they displayed bravery seldom seen even in our men. Many of these women had worked in factories or in the fields and already were raising families, so they completed their Soviet duty and then some. I’d always seen them with an eye of admiration that I extended to Babushka.

Babushka’s favourite story was about a lesser-known woman pilot named Vasilisa Orlova. She flew Lavochkins for nearly three years in the war, and although she was not an ace she was characterised by her relentless attacks even in poor weather and damaged aircraft. Through interviews with her comrades, the book spoke glowingly of how she never gave up on her targets and how she was a fearsome and relentless thorn in the fascists’ side. It gave particular praise to the instance where she escorted a heavily-damaged and flaming parachute plane to its drop-zone; ignoring the threat of its imminent explosion, and navigating a barrage of anti-aircraft fire while firing upon attacking Messerschmitts all the while.

This woman was never awarded Hero of the Soviet Union nor anything beyond awards for bravery and for battle merit, yet her conduct had an effect upon all her comrades and all those who knew her. After making such a positive contribution to the defense of our Motherland, the book noted that Vasilisa Orlova returned to civilian life and focused on raising a good Soviet family, although she never forgot her love of the skies. Her story seemed to have an effect on Babushka, as it did every Tuesday.

“What a woman,” she marvelled once this astonishing account was finished. “To fly high above in fire and adversity and to accomplish so much! And yet, she was an ordinary Soviet woman through it all.”

“Indeed,” I replied. “She led a life that I aspire to.”

“You know, Nastya–” Babushka turned her eyes to the window and the sky; the sky that held so much promise and that had seen Captain Orlova’s legacy: “–I am not a young woman, but if I were young again, I should do all that.”

I smiled to myself, slipping the volume back into my bag for next week. “Ahh, Babushka Vasilisa. You did.”

 

Text copyright © Adair E. R. Jacobs, 2019

 

The Fall: A Poem

A few weeks ago I had the honour of seeing a Spitfire in the air not far from my house. She was a newly-refurbished bird with less than 30 hours flight time, but the sound of that Merlin engine remains unchanged from how it did at the height of wartime! It was a sight (and sound) to remember.

I’ve also recently been missing England a lot. Three years since I’ve been to that green and pleasant land… so lately I’ve been enjoying a lot of patriotic music, and have been listening to the part of my heart that will always be in England.

Anyway, these two events really influenced me to share this poem with you today; full of aviation and British nostalgia, it’s one from my archive which I hope you will enjoy.

The Fall

Aflame, I fall

A burning carcass beside me

The wings that served me nobly

Now shrapnel plummeting to the sea.

We spiral wildly

As we did in triumph

But now we are the fallen

Soon to be silent.

He came from the sun

A ferocity I never knew

Until we burned like the rays

Which disguised him from my view.

I look around

As she falls down, my noble bird

Twisted metal, shrieking

The saddest sight in the world

She soared like a lark

Like an angel; and stung like a bee

Not meant to fall, though now she does

Further away from me.

Further and further

To the sea, my little Spitfire

Burning like the fury of her name

Ablaze, like a pyre.

And she is gone, her fury now extinguished

It was only through her spirit

That I became distinguished

And I mourn her,

Even as I spiral and burn

Towards the same ruin

Which awaits me in my turn.

My aeroplane gone,

My eyes fall to the north

To the green and pleasant land

Undefiled by war

England, my home

Keeper of my heart

Yet I fall in exile

England and I apart.

The chalky cliffs

Stand resolute, and beckon

But I won’t reach them

They are too far, I reckon.

I feel England’s song;

Her heartbeat in my very own

Mine failing, hers goes on

I pray for evermore.

And I pray now

For a final return

To those shores, those cliffs

For which I yearn

I do not need

To be recalled in thought or name;

But only for England to accept me back

And I will feel no shame.

 

© Adair E. R. Jacobs, 2018