A Wing and a Prayer

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Chapter 12

After dinner, Mags and Anne cleared the dishes away and started clearing up and sent the men in next door. They sat down and Andy and McCulloch brought out a box that contained about a dozen large cigars! After handing them round, Klein stared at the cigar as though he had never seen one before, rolling it between his fingers as if wondering what to do with it. Andy, already with his clenched between his teeth to let him talk, said,

“Don’t worry. It’s not ‘Senior Service’ or any of my home grown stuff. That’s the real thing there!”

Klein looked up at Andy and asked,

“Where did you get these? Did you steal them from herr Churchill?”

McCulloch laughed and replied,

“Not exactly, although, who knows where, or who, they were originally bound for!”

Andy added,

“Well, when the yanks came over to clear up the wrecks of their ’planes, they were very apologetic for the mess and were wary of upsetting their hosts and allies by crashing ’planes on top of them. We didn’t care so much as many of the wrecks were up on Goat Fell, you know, the mountain. Anyway, John Clark, the Smithy and Sandy Nairn, the owner of the fish and chip shop not far from Gordon’s pub, caught on to this and started telling the yanks that they would need experienced guides to help them.”

McCulloch carried on the story,

“Of course Sandy and John were not only going to act as ‘guides’ up the mountain, but were also looking for ‘interesting’ items that would be lying around.”

McCulloch paused to light up his cigar,

“And, naturally, these items would be dumped into bushes and gullies for that crafty pair to retrieve later on!”

Andy, had lit his cigar and was tilting his head back, blowing smoke rings up into the air, before adding,

“One of the ‘interesting’ items that they found was a large case of the finest Cuban cigars!”

Andy rolled his cigar between his fingers and admired it as if it were a fine diamond,

“They say that they are rolled on the thighs of beautiful peasant women in Havana, you know.”

McCulloch replied, mockingly,

“Aye, right. The women probably look about as feminine as you do! I can’t see many Greer Garson look-alikes doing a job like that, somehow!”

Andy never took his eyes off his cigar as he replied,

“Thank you Gordon - Another myth shattered!”

Klein was sniggering hysterically at the two men as he tried to light his cigar.

Mags and Anne then came in and asked if anyone wanted tea, before they sat down.

“And you’d better get that fire on, it’s bloody freezing in here!” Mags added.

Andy reluctantly put his cigar down and began pulling logs out of the large box that sat in the corner of the living room, which was once meant to hold blankets and linen. As he got on with the building of the fire, McCulloch turned to Klein and said,

“Have you had a look around the island yet?”

Klein admitted that they had been too busy dismantling the ’plane to have a look.

“When we get rid of it, then we’ll show you ’round,” McCulloch said.

Klein replied, finally lighting his cigar,

“I’d like that very much. It appears to be a fascinating and interesting place. When I flew over at first, I thought I saw palm trees, here. This is wrong, yes?”

McCulloch laughed and said,

“No, son. They are real! We get the Gulf stream here, you know, the warm winds from the Caribbean, or wherever, and they pass right through Arran. We grow fruit here, too and all sorts of things. Andy, here is still trying to grow tobacco, but so far he’s been unsuccessful!”

Andy looked up from building the fire and replied,

“That was going to be my big money making scheme, too. Aye, I’ll crack it eventually, you’ll see!”

Andy returned to his seat and sat down with a sigh.

McCulloch looked at Andy and shook his head as though it was the daftest idea he had ever heard, and Klein just laughed too, but Andy was deadly serious about it.

“Just don’t go buying any more weird plants from that dodgy pal of Iain’s,” exclaimed McCulloch.

Andy tapped the ash from his cigar and shook his head,

“Oh. Those bloody things! Meant to be the finest tobacco. I reckon they were poisonous or something!”

McCulloch explained them to Klein, with a snigger,

“He got these tobacco plants from a pal of Iain’s – a bit shady, but harmless, you know? Anyway, they were sold as expensive tobacco plants from South America or some place like that, and when we ground them up to smoke them, we all felt sick and even started seeing things! It was bloody awful!”

Andy frowned at the memory and added,

“And they gave off this horrible sweet smell. Aye, they must have been poison, those bloody things!”

Mags and Anne came back in to the room, with the mugs of tea and a selection of cakes and biscuits that were either home made, or ‘acquired’ by various means!

As they sat down, Klein asked,

“I am fascinated by all the provisions here and the way that everyone helps each other. I have never seen this before.”

Anne handed Klein his tea and replied,

“It’s survival, son. And we do very well out of it. We have everything we need here, and more. Every one of us in the community has something to offer the other. For example, as well as his metal working skills, John Clark has bee hives,

Sandy has the fish and chip shop, whose used cooking oil, as you saw earlier, goes into all the diesel engines here. . .”

Mags continued,

“ . . .Anne and Gordon provide us with wine and beer, vegetables, and of course, being a part-time Policeman, the right contacts on the mainland!”

Andy then chipped in,

“ . . . I think we have the whole of Whiting Bay involved in something or other. Whatever you need, there is usually someone here that can either provide it, or knows someone else who can! Every village on the island is the same. If you need it, then chances are someone can get it.”

Mags then said to McCulloch,

“Do you remember when the yanks came looking for their ’planes?”

McCulloch furrowed his eyes as if recalling a dangerous time in his life.

“Not half! I thought we were for it, then!” he said, then added,

“It was fun, pinching the stuff from the ’planes, but it was just a pity that some of the crew were killed. It wasn’t very nice having to retrieve the bodies of kids that were just about your age,, he said referring to Klein.

Klein asked McCulloch,

“Did you have to help in the recovery?”

“Aye, son. As ‘Policeman’ on the island, I was meant to help co-ordinate the rescue, the searches and, of course help to guard the ’planes from any looters.”

Mags added, laughing,

“Aye, however, they didn’t reckon on their local guide and Copper as being the chief looter, though!”

McCulloch continued,

“They caught on fairly quickly that every time I was on watch, that’s when stuff went ‘missing’. We weren’t daft with it, though – we never took stuff away in shed loads, just bits here and there. I only got away with it because I told them that the locals would know me too well and would know when I turned my back for a fag or something.”

Anne added,

“You went through a lot more fags than usual those nights, didn’t you?”, and then said, jokingly,

“You didn’t even bloody smoke, then, did you?”

Everyone laughed heartily, then she then continued,

“Meanwhile, I had heard through the grapevine that the yanks were suspicious and here we were with a half buried fuel tank from one of the bombers in our garden! I tell you, it was touch and go. I had literally just put the floor of the shed back on top of it when they came around peering over the fence!”

Klein was laughing, imagining the chaos that would have ensued and imagining hoards of locals sneaking around with American issue goods, plundered from crashed ’planes.

Andy then added,

“It sounds as if we are all rogues, son, but we discovered that the yanks were at it as well, just as much as anyone else. We all have to bend the rules a bit to survive.”

Andy then said to McCulloch,

“Remember that one that came down on this side of Goat Fell, near Lochranza?”

McCulloch nodded, stubbed out the last of his cigar and said,

“Oh, aye. The ‘Kentucky Star’ - the ’party ‘plane’!”

“The party ’plane?” Klein repeated, requiring clarification,

Andy continued his story,

“It was just a couple of days before Christmas, and the weather was terrible. We had a snowstorm come from nowhere and the sky was a horrible shade of grey, thick with snow and rain. Anyway, we heard this ’plane low overhead and knew he had probably taken off from Prestwick, but also reckoned he should have been higher than he was and should have been over the mainland by that time.”

Andy put his tea down and continued,

“The next thing we hear is a bang, and we just put two and two together and presumed that he never saw Goat Fell and ploughed straight into it. We all got together and headed for the place where we thought it came down and eventually found the main parts of the wreckage near Lochranza and, sadly, the bodies of all the crew, bar one.”

Mags then continued,

“However, in amongst the wreckage were cases of cigarettes and broken bottles of whisky, good malts, too, and hawk-eye, here, spotted two crates which were complete and unbroken apart from two bottles, and stashed them in the woods.”

Andy added,

“So, they were getting illegal booze left for them at Prestwick. Apparently it was quite common for them to fly up to Prestwick on a ‘test flight’ and very clandestinely, pick up a crate or two of booze and then fly back to their base in England. We’ve no idea who would leave it for them, and I daresay our friends at Customs and Excise were never informed!”

Mags then replied, with mock laughter,

“It was probably Customs and Excise that left it for them!”

Anne, in a moment of reflection for the tragedy that had also occurred, said to Klein, although without the fatal conclusion said,

“It was very sad to see the bodies being brought to the pier. They were just kids, like you, but they were basically on an outing rather than a combat mission. Somehow that seems worse, to die in a war, but not to die fighting. They were up here for a ‘carry out’ for christ’s sake.”

Klein sympathised completely with this sentiment,

“I understand this,” he said, adding,

“I thought I was going to be killed by some geese! Thankfully they never put the reason for death on a headstone!”

Klein then furrowed his brow again as another colloquialism nearly escaped him,

“What do you mean by ‘carry out’?” he asked Anne.

Anne laughed and replied.

“A ‘carry out’ is what we nickname a load of booze that someone buys, say for a party.”

Klein still looked puzzled, so Anne explained in more detail,

“If you were in a pub, then before you went home for the night, you could buy some of the booze from behind the bar and take it home with you for later – you would literally ‘carry it out’ of the pub and then home.”

Klein now looked a little astonished at the thought of drinking all night and then taking more away with you to continue at home!

Anne smiled and replied,

“Aye, but it’s good business!” mindful of her and her husbands day job.

Klein then thought back to the tragedy of the American airmen and asked,

“Did they bury the Americans here?”

McCulloch drained his tea and said,

“No, they sent them home. Unfortunately, the tenth body was found about six weeks later, by a hill walker. By that time, they had already sent the ten coffins back to the ’States and had buried them with full military honours. One of the coffins was full of bits of the ’plane to make up the weight, so that the relatives would have something to mourn, although, of course they never told them that!”

Anne concluded the theme of the conversation with a sigh,

“I guess there are many more empty graves out there, with no closure for the families involved, whether it’s here or in Europe. I wonder how many more graves are filled with bits of ’planes instead of bodies.”

Anne then suddenly realised that this was probably too close to Mags and the farmer’s situation for comfort and put both hands to her mouth in shock,

“Oh, god, I’m so sorry, Mags!” she exclaimed,

“Me and my big mouth! That was so insensitive! I’m really sorry, I never meant to, you know . . .!”

Mags smiled and said to her,

“Don’t worry, Anne. I know you meant no harm by it. Forget it.”

Klein, once again, got another reminder about the pain and the torment that his two hosts were going through day after day. He had never really thought about the fact that they didn’t have a grave to visit or a memorial to lay flowers at for Jim.

Klein, feeling a little awkward, since his job was to ensure that people like Mags and Andy lost their fighting sons, made a

promise to himself that he would, one day, find out where Jim was buried, and get them over to Germany to see for themselves. He decided he would use his share of the money from the ’plane, if necessary

Mags broke the mood by saying,

“Do you remember the first time they came in to your pub, Anne?”

Anne, realising that Mags meant what she said, and feeling a little better for the opportunity to change the subject, replied,

“Oh, hell, yes! I can remember the look on their faces when we served them up the beer made from one of their ’planes fuel tanks!”

Klein sympathised with this as he recalled his first encounter with the infamous ‘B17’ beer!

Anne recalled the story to Klein and continued,

“They never knew, of course that they were drinking ‘home brew’ and some of them were a little puzzled by the name we gave it! Gordon had to explain that he called it ‘B17’ because it was just as potent as one of their aircraft’s bomb loads!”

Andy said,

“As far as quick thinking bullshit goes, McCulloch, that was very good!”

McCulloch then added,

“After that, they seemed to be quite happy, although I’ll bet there were a few green faces on the ’plane back to base the next day!”

As the evening wore on, the stories and anecdotes continued, and Anne and Gordon eventually left around 11.30pm. As they strolled down the lane, with a customary backward wave from McCulloch as they disappeared, Klein said,

“They are nice people. Do they have any children?”

“Yes.” Mags replied,

“They have a daughter - Allison. She is a WAAF down near Cambridge, somewhere. She’s only 19 and spends most of her time driving the top brass around the airfield and sometimes driving the airmen to the dispersals. I wish Jim had done something like that, but, no, he had to be a bloody pilot.”

As they closed the door on the cold night air, Andy said,

“Come on. We’ve another long day tomorrow.”

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