All the Things Never Done

RCN News - - Front Page - By Dave O’Malley

Some­where far off the un­seen coast of North Africa, far to the east of Gi­bral­tar, upon the open sea, David Rouleau was see­ing his world in un­bear­able clar­ity. Ev­ery­thing he looked at held such sharp­ness and de­tail, that he felt as though he looked at them for the first time—the coil of leather tape wrap­ping the spade grip of his Spit­fire’s con­trol col­umn, the lazy float­ing of the com­pass, the salt specks on his wind­shield, the green-grey hue of zinc chro­mate paint. He stared, per­haps for only three sec­onds, but it seemed for­ever, at the blue wool of his bat­tle dress trousers. Out­side his cock­pit, the white shirt and shoul­der boards of a Royal Navy lieu­tenant stood sharp and hard against the light grey side of HMS Ea­gle’s is­land su­per­struc­ture as the of­fi­cer leaned out as if to sig­nal some­thing to Fly­ing Of­fi­cer Johnny Plagis in the lead Spit­fire.

Ev­ery­thing he smelled was sharp and po­tent. With his oxy­gen mask sway­ing as it hung to one side, he took short, sharp breaths from a col­or­less cloud of air, high-oc­tane fuel, gly­col and oil. Be­hind this stench of com­bustible va­pors he de­tected notes of Bake­lite, wool, shoe pol­ish, salt air, metal warm­ing in the sun, leather and Ea­gle’s foul smoke. The whiff of sweat rose from his hel­met and mask. He mar­veled at all this, while run­ning through all the checks and ac­tions needed to get his Spit­fire ready to do some­thing he and it had never done be­fore.

His throat was dry and he longed for wa­ter. Ev­ery­thing he tasted was sharp and bit­ing. He could taste the metal in the air around him, his break­fast of hot tea, eggs and rash­ers, the salt of the Mediter­ranean, the cig­a­rette he had just crushed out on the round down be­hind his Spit­fire. He could taste his own fear ris­ing up in his throat. It was dif­fi­cult to swal­low.

Ev­ery­thing he heard was muf­fled and dis­tant. All sound seemed to come to him as if through the dark depths of the Mediter­ranean that ran in deadly shadow be­neath him, four decks down. The run­away tu­mult of the Rolls-Royce Mer­lin was felt as much as heard. The vi­bra­tion shook his eye­balls, made the nee­dles quiver in all the di­als be­fore him, masked his own shak­ing and yet made him feel pow­er­ful that all this was set in mo­tion by his own hand. The crazed har­monies of the Spit­fire did not mask all other vi­bra­tions. Two other rhythms found their way into his con­scious­ness de­spite the howl around him. Up through the tires, the oleos, the wing spar, his seat, his chute and his spine came the heavy steel thrum of Ea­gle’s screws cou­pled with a gen­tle rise and fall of the ship’s grey bulk. Per­haps he was just imag­in­ing the vi­bra­tions, but the slow yo-yo of the hori­zon com­bined with the smell of fuel was start­ing to make him nau­seous. And then there was his heart. It pounded out doubt and fear and ex­cite­ment and glory. He felt it rush­ing in his ears, felt his heart push his blood be­neath the tight­ness of his shoul­der straps. The blood he would soon shed.

David had not slept the night be­fore, at least not very well. He’d lain in his cot on the hangar deck chain smok­ing Se­nior Ser­vice cig­a­rettes, butting them out in a cof­fee can filled with sand. He had only smoked a few cigs be­fore the war, but now he needed them to calm his hands. Ev­ery­one needed them. Around him Royal Air Force “erks” and Royal Navy rat­ings la­bored to­gether be­neath harsh light all through the night to un­crate and ready the rest of the 31 Spit­fires for the morn­ing’s launch. The pi­lots and Spit­fires had sailed from

Photo: RN

HMS Ea­gle show­ing her unique high fore­mast with gun spot­ting plat­form (two of her six inch guns can be seen in tur­rets be­neath the flight deck) and long round down at her stern where the Navy en­sign waves proudly. Built on a hull orig­i­nally des­tined to float a bat­tle cruiser for the Chilean navy, Ea­gle was, in many re­spects, a one-off.

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