Peter Nixon, former RAF Ferry Command pilot, and new wife Marie-Marthe circa 1949.
My father had flown over the Nile.
The Nile River. In Africa.
And, even better, he had flown over the Nile…at night.
Weren’t we impressed, my two brothers and I, way back when in the 1960’s, to learn that particular spine-tingling fact.
Of course, we knew that our father had been in the War (well, duh) as part of something called the Ferry Command (ZZZzzzz) that moved planes back and forth over the ocean.
To us, our father’s Air Force career seemed dull and boring and highly unromantic and, obviously, not dangerous at all.
But, then, we kids ferreted out his black leather WWII log book. We deciphered his compact, prep-school handwriting to see that he had been over the Nile at night and, now, our already strapping 6 foot 4 inch British Pater suddenly seemed taller in our eyes.
(How ever did he fit that huge Yorkshire farmer frame into those tiny mosquito planes, I now wonder.)
I write about this because yesterday my husband came to pick me up at Trudeau Airport in Dorval.
My plane from New York City had been delayed by half an hour and he had wandered the premises for a bit.
“Do you know there’s a section of the airport devoted to the Ferry Command,” he asked me as we walked back to the car.
“No,” I said.
“And they show some of the airmen involved,” he continued. “Maybe your dad is one of them.”
But, I was too tuckered out from travelling all of one hour in a cramped commuter jet to take a look at said installation. Luckily, my husband had snapped some pictures on his phone.
Half a century has now passed since the day we kids first perused that enigmatic leather log book.
My father has been dead for 10 years, succumbing in 2005 to Alzheimer’s in the Veteran’s Hospital at Ste. Anne de Bellevue.
While he was sick, a couple of books were (finally) written about the Ferry Command. I read them.
I came to realize that the Ferry Command is the reason I am here, on Earth and in Montreal.
The Ferry Command, you see, was headquartered at Dorval.
(Hence, the installation. Hence, IATA headquarters being in Montreal.)
My father never mentioned it, or, more likely, I wasn’t paying attention, but the Ferry Command was an important part of the WWII effort.
There was nothing safe about being a Ferry Command pilot. Ferry Command planes, I discovered, were shot down and/or crashed regularly, and some crashes (the ones that made headlines, anyway) involved planes that were taking a dozen or more Ferry Command pilots, huddled together like so many human popsicles in the frigid belly of the machine, back to Canada from an overseas mission.
What exactly was this Ferry Command? Well, before the US officially entered WWII, skilled American pilots were hired on the sly, at sky-high pay, to ferry planes from Canada to England.
Planes, secretly being manufactured in the States, were literally pushed over the Border, and, then, these Yankee flying aces would take them over to England.
When the US officially entered WWII, enlisted men from the RAF were brought into the Ferry Command, my father among them.
My father, a British child of the Raj, was 19 in 1941, either having just finished prep school at St Bees on the coast of Cumberland, or a year into his Oxford studies.
He had been a top athlete at St Bees, captain of all the school teams. I’m guessing that’s why he was funnelled into the RAF.
Anyway, I read that the Ferry Command pilots partied hard in the Mount Royal Hotel between assignments. I’m guessing my father met my French Canadian mother at one of these gatherings.
(Too late to ask either of them.)
Lately, I also learned something else of acute interest to me: that Ferry Command planes were serviced by young women maintenance workers at Keswick Airport in England. I’ve seen certain alluring pictures on the RAF website. (I suspect they only chose the prettiest Screen Gems style women for these promo pics.)
Now, my father never mentioned that. That, certainly, would have stuck in my brain, way back when, in the optimistic era of the Beatles, Emma Peel and Women’s Lib; a time when WWII, to us Boomer children anyway, seemed so many, many lightyears away.