East African Wedding – Part One

The 747-400 crept slowly forward, coming to rest with a soft jolt. The four Rolls Royce engines wound down, the noise diminishing quickly, drowned out by the simultaneous scrabbling for bags from the overhead lockers, the mass of humanity completely disregarding the seatbelt signs, which were still illuminated.

The Mighty, altough now retired Boeing B747-400, with the African Tailfin art.

After over thirty-two years in the airline industry, this still irritates me, but I digress.

Rescuing our bags from the locker, we stood in the aisle patiently until eventually, the passenger door was opened, and we slowly trudged forwards.

At the aircraft door, I was assaulted by the warmth immediately, and the hot breeze carried the unique smell of Africa into my nostrils.

A short walk, and we were in the terminal building of Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi.

Surprisingly, we were processed by Immigration and Customs very quickly, and we wandered out into the arrivals hall.

I noticed that security was mainly conducted by members of the Kenyan Army, who surveyed us with disinterest as we moved past them. I did see that their rifles appeared to be rusty, and un-serviced, and had obviously seen better days.

So, why were SWMBO and I standing in the arrivals hall of an East African airport?

We had been invited to Nairobi to attend a wedding. One of SWMBO’s friends was the Station Manager for a competitor airline, and he had met and fallen in love with a local Kikuyu lady, and as he had no living family, he invited us, together with a few of his other British friends to attend the ceremony.

Nairobi sits virtually on the equator (1° 16′ 0″ S, 36° 48′ 0″ E), yet the temperature isn’t quite what you would expect. It was one of the dry seasons (Kenya has two, one from June until October, the other is from December until March.

It was February 2002, so bang in the middle of the dry season, and average temperatures during the day were 27°C (80°F) and 15°C (59°F) at night.

So, shorts, bush shirts and boots during the day, and an additional fleece at night.

SWMBO and I were scanning the concourse, looking for the promised driver, but the multitude of meeters and greeters made this challenging to say the least.

Eventually, I spotted a tall noble-looking Kenyan, holding a battered piece of cardboard bearing my name.

I called to our other travelling companions, Nick and Graham, and we lugged our bags after our driver, who was striding swiftly towards the exit.

Outside Arrivals at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport

Clambering into the battered old Toyota cab, our driver, George wrestled with the transmission (which whined alarmingly), and shouted over the noise of the roaring engine, that he was taking us to our hotel.

The roads were navigated with much swerving cursing and swearing, and soon we were weaving in, out and through the traffic, and several times I thought we would collide with incredibly overloaded minibuses (matatu), which were not only filled, but also had dozens of people hanging on outside – for a reduced fare no doubt!

A Typical Matatu minibus. Think I’ll stick to cabs…

Eventually, we arrived at our hotel, which from the road looked almost passable. Once inside, my optimism crashed and burned like a shot down bomber, and I regarded the dilapidated reception, wondering if it was possible to catch a terminal disease from just being there.

SWMBO nudged me hard, muttering “This is a good, cheap and cheerful hotel organised by Duncan, and will only cost us a few US Dollars – and its only for two nights!”

Having registered, I was given a large metal key, and we made our way down the gloomy corridor to our room.

I unlocked the door, which swung open forlornly, as if embarrassed to reveal the room beyond. The cockroaches also seemed to be embarrassed, as they scuttled into the gloom as quickly as possible.

“Cheap and cheerful?” I exclaimed. “More like cheap and very dismal.”

The room was lit by a single incandescent light bulb hanging from a cable. The mattress was rolled up at the foot of the iron framed bed, and some moth-eaten blankets were stacked upon a rickety chair that looked like it had been stolen from the local Sunday school.

The shower was filthy, and I shuddered.

“I think I will take only combat showers[1] whilst we are here.

Looking at SWMBO, I could see that even her extensive travel experience hadn’t prepared her for staying in a one-star hotel on the outskirts of Nairobi.

Looking at my watch, I decided that whatever the time, I needed a beer, as it was bound to be five o’clock somewhere – Thanks Jimmy Buffet.

Walking back to the reception, we made our way to the hotel restaurant, which was made up of several tables designed to look like chuck wagons from the old wild west. The tables were arranged in a circle around a small dance floor.

I was thinking that this was all a bit surreal.

I spotted Nick and Graham sitting at a table, looking decidedly unsettled, so we swiftly joined them.

Within seconds, a waitress arrived and took our order. I decided long ago, that wherever I was in the world, I would always order the local brew rather than buy European or American imports.

In quick order I was presented with an ice-cold bottle of Tusker beer, which is made in East Africa. It wasn’t a bad brew either.

Sitting laughing and chatting with the others, I suddenly had the distinct impression that I was being, how shall I put it, interfered with in the trouser department. Looking down, I could see a slim brown hand engaging in what I can only describe as undoing my flies.

The involuntary yelp I let out made everyone jump, and Nick said “Oh, lucky you, seems like you have become the latest target of the night fighters”

I should, perhaps mention, that Night Fighters is the flight crew nickname for prostitutes – and it seemed that our table, being occupied by three white male tourists, was a designated and legitimate target.

I have to say, that the owner of the hand was a strikingly beautiful woman; elegant, tall, and very statuesque. She beamed at me, looking me in the eye, saying that for 500 shillings she would make me a Masai warrior. She told me her name was Elizabeth.

At the time, 500 Kenyan Shillings was worth about £4.00. Crazy. This woman would sell herself to me for so little. I was deeply saddened by this. When I said no, she persisted, and SWMBO came to my rescue, repeatedly telling Elizabeth that I was not available. Elizabeth, seeing that she was in a no-win situation re-targeted Nick and Graham.

SWMBO managed to drive off Elizabeth and her squadron, by being cousin to one, and sister to the other.

Looking back, it was quite amusing in a very English way, with Elizabeth with hands like an octopus, and SWMBO having to beat her off with a metaphorical stick.

It was the same later in the evening when Duncan arrived, and we ended up on the tiny dance floor. Elizabeth came cruising in on my six o’clock, and murmured in my ear that the cost of access to the ranks of Masai warriorhood had now reduced to 300 shillings.

Eventually, she lost interest, and wandered off into the gloom of the night, and we returned to our room, both eager for the morning.

I slept only fitfully, woken at intervals by the sound of doors slamming, and at one point hearing a woman’s voice yelling “I give you jig-jig, now you give me 200 shillings”

I was glad when daylight crawled into the room with me.

SWMBO was still asleep when I got up, so I decided that I would go and have a coffee whilst waiting for her to wake up.

The chuck wagon restaurant was almost deserted, so the waiter invited me to take any table that I wanted.

I plonked myself down, and ordered a large mug of coffee. I idly flicked my paperback book open (no iPads or Kindles back then!) and half-heartedly attempted to pick up from where I left off on the aircraft the previous day.

The waiter returned with a mug of simply monstrous proportions, filled to the brim with fragrant black coffee, and a large stainless-steel pot filled with milk. “Asante” I said, and he smiled, and scuttled back to his small podium.

I leaned back and took a sip of the coffee, which was strong, and full of flavour. I savoured the taste, rolling it across my tongue.

At that moment, I was distracted as the doors at the other end of the restaurant were flung open, and three men strode purposefully through the dining area. The one in the lead was about six feet three inches tall (1.90m) and must have weighed about 250 pounds (114 kg). He had the sort of face only a mother could love. He was scarred, pock marked, and had a nose that a Rugby prop would be proud of. Totally bald, he looked very intimidating.

His mate was equally sinister. He was shorter, very compact, and musclebound. He too was bald, had a livid scar which ran like a furrow from just beneath his left eye to his larynx, and was covered in tattoos. his head was entirely shaven except for a ponytail about a foot long.

Bringing up the rear was – surely not????

Bringing up the rear was a man whom I last saw eight years ago at Long Beach airport, when I was learning to fly – let’s call him Pieter Dirkmann.

Pieter was completing a Boeing 737 type conversion as I was plodding through the Californian skies in a humble Cessna 150. He was an affable bear of a man, with a very strong South African accent, and a love of proper beer. He lived in the same condo community that I did, and we would often share a brew at the communal barbeques that happened every Friday.

SWMBO used to fly out to see me regularly, the lovely woman was hauling suitcases filled with Newcastle Brown ale, and IPA to keep me sane. American beer back then was pretty dire to the English palate, and the only choices available locally were Budweiser, Coors, or Michelob. Things have changed over the years, and there are now some very good US craft beers available. But not back in 1989.

Pieter was particularly fond of Newcastle Brown, and he and I used to chat about the future whilst watching the sunset over the rooftops of downtown Redondo Beach.

He was hopeful of getting a job with South African Airways, and I aspired to work with the mighty BA.

He completed his type rating whilst I was midway through my course, and flew back to Jo’burg.

That was the last I had seen him.

Now, here he was, striding towards me accompanied by two heavy duty types in a seedy hotel on the outskirts of Nairobi.

He recognised me instantly, and he grinned.

“Mark! What are you doing here friend?”

“I’m here for a wedding,” I explained. I waved him to sit down, and called the waiter over.

He sat down, looking at me levelly.

“You want a coffee?” I asked, and he nodded a yes.

“Small world” I said. “What are you up to? I wouldn’t have thought that SAA would use this as a crew hotel”

He laughed. “Ahh, that. It didn’t work out with the big boys, so I am flying a Dornier 28, running freight between Dar es Salaam and small strips round these parts.”

“I won’t ask…”

He gave a tired smile.  “Let’s just say that some parts of this damned country need more than the local policeman to give them protection.”

So, my old friend was now possibly operating as an arms smuggler, and I suspected that he was running guns and maybe other contraband in and out of East Africa.

He drained his coffee, and reached across to me, offering his hand. I shook it firmly. “Gotta split mate” he said, and he stood up, and walked briskly out of the restaurant, and out of my life.

I haven’t seen or heard of him since. It is true that aviation is a very small world.

I was still musing about how life changes when SWMBO appeared at the table and started happily chatting about our trip up country to the foothills of Mount Kenya, for the wedding.

Finishing a surprisingly good breakfast, we decided to have a look around Nairobi for the day.

The cab dropped us obligingly in the city centre, and we spent a leisurely day just wandering around the place, soaking up the atmosphere. It was certainly a lively place, but by mid-afternoon we were ready to get back to the hotel.

Kenyatta Avenue, Nairobi

I was hot, dusty, and thirsty, so despite my misgivings, I decided to take a shower. To reduce my exposure to potential terminal illness, I completed my shower in less than two minutes, and came out feeling refreshed, and ready for the evening activity.

We had decided to visit Carnivore, an open barbeque restaurant, specialising in meats of all kinds.

The cab dropped us off outside the venue, which was brightly lit, and we could hear happy voices as we trooped down the short path into the place.

The entrance to Carnivore…

We were welcomed by a smiling waiter who found us a table located away from the main fire pit, so the temperature was fine.

The large wooden table was round, and easily accommodated our party of six. In it’s centre stood a circular two-tier tray, upon which were pickles and sauces, and salad vegetables.

In the middle of the upper tray stood a small wooden pyramid, bearing our table number – 33 in this case.

Having caught our attention, the waiter explained that it was a buffet meal, and that the waiters would continue bringing food to our table all the time our flag was flying.

I looked around, wondering what on earth he was talking about, and thinking that I may have misheard him. My fellow diners also looked a little nonplussed.

Laughing, the waiter produced a small white paper flag on a stick which he deftly inserted into a hole in the top of the pyramid.

Effective…Keep ’em coming Solomon!

He went on to explain that he recommended the Game Menu, which would give us a true taste of Africa.

All of us were, to a large extent, either foodies or adventurous diners, so we opted for the Game menu.

Whilst we were still considering our forthcoming meal, our drinks arrived, in the case of the chaps, it was Tusker lager, and SWMBO had a Gin and Tonic.

Well – It IS called Carnivore, after all…

We relaxed, and regarded our surroundings. The woodsmoke from the barbeque was fragrant, and we could hear birds and insects in the trees outside through the unglazed windows.

My Tusker was ice cold, and was just what the doctor ordered for accompanying an African meal.

Another smiling waiter appeared, holding what looked like a mediaeval combat sword, impaled upon which was a huge haunch of meat.

This is where the action is…The Barbeque itself!

“Zebra?” he asked.

We all nodded, and he proceeded to carve thick slices onto our plates.

How can I describe Zebra meat? Far less fatty than beef, but with a delicate, “gamey” flavour[2]. I helped myself to a portion of green salad, and cleared my plate. It’s just as well that we had done a significant amount of walking, as I was already up for sampling the next meat being proffered by our waiter.

This time, he proudly announced, we were to try Hartebeest. I intercepted him before he had a chance to dump a pound of meat on my plate, so enjoyed just two thin slices. The taste was good – moist, tender, nicely flavoured, and with only a light suggestion of gaminess.

I decided to lay off the salad, as I needed to keep some spare capacity for more beer, and other meat types.

By now, the restaurant was starting to fill up with more patrons. When we arrived at just gone 1730, it was nowhere near busy, but it was now 1830, and people were arriving to eat so that they could be done by 2030, when the restaurant closes.

We all chatted happily, and everyone had been adventurous enough to try all the meats offered so far.

It wasn’t long before our waiter, Solomon re-appeared, bearing yet more meat. With a big grin, he asked “Who wants to try Crocodile?”

Crocodile, Sir?

I looked across at SWMBO, but by the look on her face, she was up for it, as was I and the other chaps, so I allowed Solomon to place a couple of slices onto my plate.

I cautiously loaded my fork with a morsel, and took my first mouthful of reptile meat. Strangely, it had a meaty texture, somewhat reminiscent of chicken or pork, but with a mildly fishy taste – which is hardly surprising.

I am not particularly fond of fish, and only eat very mildly flavoured species such as cod, and bass, and then only occasionally, if SWMBO serves it up. I was therefore quite surprised to find myself enjoying eating Croc, as much as they evidently enjoy eating us, should we fall in the river with them.

I was now beginning to feel a little stuffed, and conscious of the need to taste the last dish on offer – Ostrich, I left the salad alone, and settled for another bottle of Tusker.

Solomon reappeared at our table, and presented his sword, this time loaded with Ostrich.

Ostrich tastes very similar to high quality lean beef. It was mouth-wateringly tender, and beautifully flavoured, and I enjoyed it and hoped that I would be able to buy it back in the UK.

By now, all of us were replete, and could eat no more, and so with a triumphant flick of the wrist, SWMBO plucked the small white flag from its place at the top of the table.

Solomon spotted this as he approached our table with yet another haunch of meat on a sword, and immediately slalomed off to another table, without missing a beat.

Fantastic service, and good food. What more could I want?

As we approached the hotel, my heart sank, and I realised that I could want more, by way of a better hotel, but we were only here overnight, and would be checking out next morning.

SWMBO and I exchanged our goodnights with the boys, and made our way to our forlorn room, and we hit the sack immediately.

This account will be continued in the next episode, so watch out for it in due course…

[1] Combat Shower – No water used at all, spray on deodorant only

[2] Zebra meat contains just 0.5% fat, about one tenth the amount found in a similar-sized portion of beef, and 33% less calories, just 148 compared to 230 in rump steak.


Tyre Hotels and Tyres at Home. Your Choice…

Those of you who are my regular readers, will have seen my article on the benefits of fitting winter tyres to your cars for six months, normally running from October until March (or longer if long-range weather forecasts predict temperatures of below +7°C or +45°F).

Fitting winter tyres obviously requires the removal and storage of the summer tyres.

If you have decided to invest in a set of winter tyres fitted to steel wheel rims, then you will need to store the tyres until you need to refit them at a later date.

Those of you that decide to just invest in the tyres, and have them fitted to your existing rims will require the services of a tyre dealer. The fitters will remove the summer tyres, and fit the winter tyres to your existing wheel rims.

You will then need to take the summer tyres back to the location where you intend to store them. This is OK if your vehicle has a large load deck, but may be more of a challenge if you operate a small hatchback, or city car.

Alternatively, many tyre dealers have recognised a sales opportunity, and will store the tyres for you. Merit Tyres, for example operate a “Tyre Hotel” and ATS Tyres offer the same service. ATS charges £8.00 per tyre per season, so that will be an additional cost of £64.00 annually.  There will also be a fitting cost to cover the switchover of each tyre, and when I had a verbal quote for doing this three years ago, it was about £20.00 per wheel, so another £160.00 per year.

Typical Tyre Changing Equipment, Photo Courtesy Flippin504

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out that this is an extra £224.00 per year!

So, buying the winter tyres ready-fitted on the rims, as I did, (October 2018, 4 X Continental Winter tyres, fitted to steel rims, 205/55 R16 91H at £515.00) they would pay for themselves in under two and a half years.

I ordered them from eBay, and they arrived fully inflated, and fitted with the tyre pressure indication system modules, and were already balanced. All I had to do was fit them!

Available on the world’s favourite auction site…

It makes a lot of sense, if you have the space to store the tyres or wheel/tyre combinations yourself.

I am fortunate that I have a garage, but even a sturdy and secure garden shed would be all that’s needed.

There are a few things that you need to know before storing your tyres.

Firstly, you need to remember that tyres are made from both synthetic and natural products, so they will be affected by a number of factors.

Temperature, humidity and light are probably the primary factors to consider when finding a place to store your tyres. 

Ideally, the temperature should stable, and less than +25°C (77°F) and preferably below +15°C (59°F) and the light levels should be low or, better still, dark. Humidity should be as low as possible, so damp areas should be avoided.

Unless you are very wealthy, and have an air conditioned or climate-controlled garage, it will not be possible to completely eradicate temperature variations, but do the best you can.

Before storing your tyres away, you should wash them, and brush away any residues of grit, dirt, and brake dust. Dry them with a cloth, and allow them to air dry completely.

I also use the opportunity to carefully inspect the inner and outer sidewalls, and remove any flints or stones from the tyre treads.

There is no need to apply any proprietary dressings to the sidewalls.

Place each tyre or tyre/wheel combination inside a large black plastic refuse bag. Try and remove as much air as possible from the bag, possibly using a vacuum cleaner, and then seal it tightly with tape.

Clear a suitable area in which to place the tyres. Unmounted tyres should preferably be stored upright, and if that isn’t possible, then stacked on their sides. This isn’t ideal, and care should be taken to ensure that the tyres aren’t being deformed, and that the stack isn’t tipping. You need to avoid tyres dropping onto the floor from heights above 1.5 metres. This will prevent damage the tyre bead. Should the bead be damaged, it may prevent the tyre from being seated correctly.

Tyres mounted on rims should ideally be stacked. If floor space is limited, then tyres on rims may be hung from suitably mounted hooks. Unmounted tyres should never be hung from hooks as this will deform the tyre.

Other factors to consider, is that the tyre will be extremely susceptible to damage from ozone. Ozone is generated by electrical motors, and therefore, tyres must not be located near to electrical equipment in your garage or workshop.

So, items such as generators, compressors, bench saws, grinders, drills and routers should not be used near to the tyres on a regular basis.

You should also aim to keep tyres away from solvents, oils, chemicals and fuels as these may denature the rubber composites used in the tyre’s construction.

Doing these simple things when you store your summer/winter tyres will ensure that your tyres remain in good condition, and help to extend their useful working life.

They will also keep you safer.

Remember, that whilst tanking along at 70 MPH, your car is sitting on four patches of rubber that each measure about the size of your hand.

This is known as the “Contact Patch” and varies in size according to the air pressure inside the tyre, and the load that the tyre is carrying. It may be as little as 36 square inches. Not a lot is it?

When you refit your wheels, you should ensure that the wheel studs are tightened to the correct torque, and that you have inflated them to the correct pressure.

So, correct storage, and correct fitting and inflation will help you to stay safe on the highways, whether it’s the middle of summer, or the depths of winter.

Go Well…

Further information from Continental Tyres

You could also try one of these

Wheel Storage Unit

Heading Image courtesy of

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Greening Aviation – Not as Simple as it Sounds

According to recent research conducted by the University of Reading in the UK, many tonnes of fuel could be saved by airlines, (and therefore many tonnes of greenhouse gases) if they planned to always fly in favourable winds whilst crossing the Atlantic.

The study found that commercial flights between New York and London last winter could have used up to 16% less fuel if they had made better use of the fast-moving winds at altitude.

New satellites will soon allow transatlantic flights to be tracked more accurately while remaining a safe distance apart. This opportunity could allow aircraft to be more flexible in their flight paths, in order to more accurately follow favourable tailwinds and avoid headwinds, offering the aviation sector a cheaper and more immediate way of cutting emissions than through advances in technology.

The report stated: “Current transatlantic flight paths mean aircraft are burning more fuel and emitting more carbon dioxide than they need to”.

“Although winds are taken into account to some degree when planning routes, considerations such as reducing the total cost of operating the flight are currently given a higher priority than minimising the fuel burn and pollution.”

Boeing 747-400 pulling Contrails at high altitude. This fabulous photo was taken by Sergey Kustov

This needs to be put into context.

Way back in time, I used to create flight plans professionally. This was done by hand and was sometimes quite time consuming, and required careful study of aeronautical charts, upper air weather, including icing levels, and any forecast areas of turbulence.

A Transatlantic Chart showing the Entry and exit waypoints for the North Atlantic Track System

The charts would also be checked to see the locations of forecast Jetstream activity.

A quick explanation here about Jetstreams.  Jetstreams are caused by two factors. Firstly, solar heating, which causes massive air movements, combined with the effects of the earth’s rotation (The Coriolis Effect).

Image courtesy of NASA

At lower levels, these air movements are known as Trade Winds, and two hundred years ago, clipper sailing ships used them very effectively to transport goods relatively quickly around the globe, hence the name.

Most weather phenomena is generated in the troposphere, which extends from the surface up to high altitude (30’000 feet at the poles, and 56,000 feet at the equator), and it is at these upper levels that we find the jetstreams.

Jetstreams are defined as winds with a minimum speed of more than 70 knots (80 mph), and often they may exceed 220 knots (250 mph) and so it makes economic sense to make use of them.

This has been recognised by the aviation airspace regulators, and specific routings that take advantage of the jetstreams have been in place for many years.

Typical Jetstream activity over Euope.

Each night, weather data for trans-oceanic flights is analysed, and tracks are optimised to use the flows sensibly.

Flights crossing the Atlantic use a system known as NATS (North Atlantic Track System). In simple terms, a number of tracks are generated for both easterly and westerly traffic that will enable aircraft to benefit from a tailwind, or at least a reduced headwind.

These tracks will move north and south over the Atlantic according to the weather and the predicted positions of jetstreams; sometimes tracks will start to the north of Scotland, and terminate in the far north east of Canada.

On other occasions tracks will run to the south of the UK, and cross the southern part of the north Atlantic joining the continental air route systems as far south as the Canadian/US Border.

Typical NAT Tracks. Westerly tracks, showing available flight levels for each alphabetically-identified track.

So, flights across the Atlantic already have some basic fuel saving principles built in advance. The same system operates for flight crossing the Pacific Ocean, known as PACOT tracks.  They run between the western seaboard of the USA and Japan and Asian destinations.

However, times move on, and grey-haired aviation expertise has been replaced in almost every arena with technology.

Modern computer-based flight planning systems are extremely sophisticated, and use some advanced algorithms to plan with even better accuracy.

Consider this.

Every nation has the right to charge a fee to every aircraft that uses its airspace. Airspace charges may be based on the time that the flight remains within that state’s territory.

So, modern flight planning systems will look at every aspect of the flight. It will perform calculations that compare fuel burn with overflight charges.

Sometimes, whilst flying in a Jetstream will burn less fuel, it may mean that the flight will pass through airspace with relatively expensive overflight charges. If the overflight charges amount to more than the cost of fuel, then the system will plan to use the cheaper route, and therefore save money overall.

Airlines also use a system known as Cost Index to further optimise the flight costs.

This is basically a system that compares the direct operating costs of the flight, with the cost of the fuel being used. If the direct operating costs (crew wages, navigation charges, cost of galleys and airframe hours – affecting the amount of maintenance required) are more than the cost of fuel, the system will plan to fly faster, burning more fuel in order to get on the ground faster. Conversely, if the fuel is more expensive than the direct operating costs it makes sense to fly slower, burning less fuel.

Airlines are extremely cost conscious, and low-cost carriers will do everything they can to reduce and eliminate costs wherever possible. For example, Ryanair removed paper safety cards as they wear out and need replacing. Now, their safety information is riveted to each seatback.

Ryanair Boeing 737 – and Safety Cards riveted to the seatbacks!

Some carriers do not serve peanuts, as if they drop into the seat mounting rails, they take time to remove, and time is money.

So, persuading airlines to always optimise their routes and use high speed Jetstreams to the fullest extent may take some time.

Stay Safe…


The Women’s Institute – It’s really NOT Jam and Jerusalem

Ask most men about the Woman’s Institute, and the chances are their eyes will glaze over, and they will mumble a few sentences about Jam making and Jumble sales.

Unfortunately, this stereotypical image is almost universal, and not confined just to the male population.  Many women will also be dismissive of the WI, regarding it as “a bunch of little old ladies”

It’s a shame that the WI can’t seem to shake off this somewhat unfair picture.

Yes, it is true that many of the branches of the WI have a high percentage of older ladies, but this doesn’t mean that they are all in the final stages of decrepitude – quite the opposite in fact.

This was proved to me when SWMBO (at the extremely junior age of an early forty-something) joined our local branch of the WI. Within a few months she was involved in all sorts of activities, and for many years she was the editor of the county magazine.

She became expert at editing, proof-reading, composition, photography and graphics handling – not the sort of thing that one would normally associate with a member of the WI.

But the thing that really shocked me, was the day that she came home after one of her regular meetings, and sat down with me to enjoy dinner (Yes, folks, I really do cook!). 

Over a forkful of home-made lamb curry, she said “Are you still interested in learning sword fencing?”

I had always harboured a longing to fence, having been fascinated by the swashbuckling of Erol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks in black and white pirate movies from way back in my childhood. More latterly Johnny Depp slugging it out in Pirates of the Caribbean caught my imagination.

In 2002, Pierce Brosnan gave a fantastic performance as James Bond in the movie Die Another Day, with a fencing match that developed into something much, much more. This four-minute sequence had me enthralled.

A truly exciting sword fight… Die Another Day, 2002 Pierce Brosnan and Toby Stephens

“Sure” I replied, wondering what would occur next

“Well……Denman College is running a fencing weekend in June, and I wondered if you would like to go?”

I must have looked a bit sceptical, because she followed this up with “Its being run by one of the English National Fencing Team coaches.”

“OK” I said, without giving it too much deep thought. “Count me in”

And that’s how I found myself driving up the A34 towards Abingdon, where Denman College is located.

Denman College was formerly RAF Marcham Park, until it was bought by the Women’s Institute in 1947. A large, elegant mansion standing in acres of wooded grounds, it enjoys an air of peace and tranquillity, and is now the home of the educational branch of the WI.

Denman College – A beautiful place to learn anything…

Normally men aren’t allowed into the premises, but as the husband of a member, I was welcomed enthusiastically by the lady in reception.

We were staying in a first-floor room in the manor house, which was reasonably well appointed. but decorated in the way your maiden auntie would have done her guest room – lots of velour and brocade.  Not my taste, but comfy anyway.

Having checked in, we went down to the bar to enjoy a pre-dinner drink.  As this is a women’s college, there is not a great selection of Boy’s Booze, but I was impressed to see that they actually had 5 bottles of Old Speckled Hen hidden in the bar chiller. 

So, after quaffing 40% of the stock, we headed for the dining room, where we were treated to a fabulous meal, which I later discovered had been cooked by some of the ladies attending a cookery course.

After dinner, we met up with Monique, our instructress, who took us to the spacious conservatory where we were to undertake the course.

I studied my fellow students; in addition to Sue and I, who were the youngest amongst the class, there were about thirty women, whose ages I judged to be from early sixties to about mid-seventies.

I was just a little unsettled to discover that I was the only male on the course. Deep joy.

They appeared to enjoy varying levels of fitness, from the quite obviously athletic to the plainly lethargic, but all were incredibly enthusiastic and keen.

If I had any illusions that this would be an easy course, they were shattered when Monique announced that we would all be learning how to wear the protective equipment and how to hold our weapons – and the time was approaching 2130.

I have to make it clear here, that I have been a lifelong shift worker, and am normally at work by 0600.  The alarm goes off at 0445 every day, so 2130 at night meant that I was fast approaching shutdown.

I was struggling to concentrate on the rules of fencing, which were complicated by the fact that the commands and salutations are all conducted in French. However, I did pick up enough to be able to correctly wear the glove, hold the sword, and adopt the correct stance for commencing combat.

A typical fencing sword – this one is a Foil

At the end of the introduction, we made our way back to our room to get some rest.

Next morning, after a light breakfast, we assembled in the conservatory for our first real lesson in fencing.  This was run as a series of small bouts between various students.

In order to ensure that opponents were physically matched, I was paired with Margaret, a tall slender woman in her early 60s. 

We dressed in our protective clothing, and watched as others were shown how to lunge and parry.

When it was our turn, Margaret and I hesitantly adopted the correct stance, and then had an opportunity to practice attacking each other and defending.  This was very useful, and gave an opportunity to get used to the weight of the sword, and the restricted vision the mesh helmet causes.

Once everyone had practiced in pairs, we were shown how the scoring system works, and we were trained how to judge whether a strike was a “hit” or a “miss”. Again, this would all be conducted in French. 

The morning session ended, and over lunch, I found that the women involved were far from being “Little old ladies”. They were a feisty bunch, with wildly differing backgrounds, and far from feeling out of place, I soon felt one of the gang.

I have a sneaky suspicion that some of them were relishing the chance to hack away at me with a sword!

Fencing is quite a physical activity, so the course also included some modules on sports massage. Sue and I spent the afternoon learning how to give remedial massage to relax and release tired and aching muscles. This is actually very useful, and at the end of the session I felt quite drowsy and relaxed.

I should have known better!  After dinner we re-assembled in the conservatory, and Monique informed us that we were going to practice some bouts using the electric scoring system.

This system relies upon a small button fitted into the point of the sword blade sending a signal to a buzzer when it is activated.  Simply hitting the target triggers the light and buzzer. 

The wires connecting the system are attached to a clip at the waist of the jacket, and then fed down the sleeve into the gauntlet, where it’s connected to a jack plug on the hilt of the sword.

As fencing is a very fluid sport, there is a lot of advancing and retreating, so to ensure that the combatants don’t trip over the cable, it is fitted with a spring loaded auto-retract system that keeps the cable taut at all times.

Having all had a chance to become familiar with the system, we packed everything away, and started to filter out of the room.

 “Don’t forget – tomorrow, you will be fencing for real with electric scoring and you will be judging each other!” was Monique’s final comment.

I needed to indulge in a little more training, so I went back to the bar, and completed my stocktaking of Old Speckled Hen, and then headed for bed.

Sunday morning was fine and the conservatory was dappled in bright swathes of morning sunlight, interspersed with mauve-tinged shadows.

After a brief warm up period, we were put into pairs, and I found myself selected to fence against Julie.

Julie was much shorter than I, with a proportionally shorter reach when she lunged. I was inwardly relieved, thinking I should be able to place some strikes whilst staying out of range.

With these thoughts echoing in my brain, my reverie was interrupted by Monique’s strident voice calling “Mark and Julie”

We were already kitted out, so we walked out onto the piste, saluted the judge, saluted each other, and then donned our helmets. 

On the command, we advanced and retreated, both making exploratory lunges and parries. I lunged, and was surprised with the ferocity of Julie’s counter attack and her parries.

Back and forth we pranced, until I felt a glancing blow on the side of my helmet. The buzzer squawked, and I heard Julie being awarded a point.

A great photo clearly showing the electronic scoring equipment

The next two bouts saw me successfully stitch two hits to Julie’s chest, but the final bouts were hers, as she first stabbed my sword arm, and then my leading thigh.

I removed my helmet, and saluted the judge, and then offered a salute to Julie, this salute being so much more meaningful as it was offered in genuine admiration.

Chatting to Julie as we removed the fencing jackets and gloves, I discovered that she was 74 years old, and the last time she fenced was as a senior-year girl at her Grammar School.

I was greatly impressed with these ladies “of a certain age” Some of them are no doubt “ladies who lunch”, and some are Jam-makers and knitters. However, they are all alive, and have a passion and zest for life that many youth club members would find difficult to match. 

So, after my weekend with the “Silver Swordswomen” of Denman, I have come to realise that there is definitely something different about the WI – It’s not just Jam and Jerusalem!

Go Well…

APPRENTICE Comedy English Culture Humour Nostalgia Short Story Society Telecommunications Uncategorized Work

Phones, Dogs and Burials

The following is a modified extract from my forthcoming hitherto unpublished autobiographical novel “Making Connections”

It was my fourth week at work, and my first day working with the phone installation team.

It was early October in 1975, and I was enjoying my new life as a Trainee Telecommunications Apprentice with Post Office Telecommunications, now metamorphosed into BT.

Based out of my home town of East Grinstead in West Sussex, I had an easy commute and was enjoying the mid-October weather, which was mainly dry and warm.

As I was only sixteen, I was still living at home and enjoying all of the comforts that Mum and Dad provided.

Getting up on this particular sunny morning, I showered and pulled on my Levis, a check shirt, and my jacket, and rushed downstairs to greet the world.

My dear old Mum, bless her, had prepared me a bowl of cereals, and gulping this down, I gave her a perfunctory peck on the cheek, grabbing my packed lunch as I rushed for the door.

Dragging my bike up the drive, I pushed and jumped astride it, nearly knocking down the neighbour’s nineteen-year-old daughter.

“Sorry!” I yelled over my shoulder, still accelerating down the cul-de-sac. Nice looking woman. Not interested in a kid of sixteen though, which was a shame as she was really hot.

The Telephone Engineering Centre was only just down the hill, right opposite my old school, and I zoomed down, eyes watering in the slipstream, arriving there within a few short minutes.

Swooping in through the open gates of the yard, I narrowly missed becoming a bonnet ornament for a bright yellow panel van which was just pulling out. Swerving, I dodged the truck, blasting through its sooty exhaust with inches to spare.

I carelessly rammed the front wheel of the bike into the rack, and snapped the chain around the wheel, locking it to the metal.

A Bedford Polecat Truck – Designed to remove old Telephone Poles and install new ones.

I noticed a door was ajar at the far end of the single-storey building, so, with a little trepidation, I walked down, and cautiously pushed the door open, and walked into the dimly lit interior. 

“Ah… must be my new Youth in Training!”

I looked over to the corner, where the owner of the voice was seated – a slender man, in his mid-forties, whose mop of black unruly hair had been mercilessly bullied into a 1950s Tony Curtis style. On his lap, he was clutching a piece of equipment, whilst tightening something within it with a large, yellow handled screwdriver.

His rumpled tweed sports jacket was distorted by objects that had been rammed carelessly into the pockets, and his grey flannel trousers hadn’t seen a proper crease since 1953.

“Hello” I ventured,  “I need to report to Mr Hudson”

“You’ve come to the right place then lad, as I’m Ben Hudson”

I shook his proffered hand, “nice to meet you Mister Hudson”

“It’s Ben” he chuckled, “no formality around here…, would you like some tea and toast?”

“Ben” I echoed. Bloody hell, a few short weeks ago, men of his age – my teachers at school, would have gone into meltdown had I addressed them in this way.

“Come on lad”, he said, placing the grey cased equipment onto the work bench, “Let’s go and grab some breakfast, and then we’ll head out.”

The restroom was full of sound – laughter, conversations, and odours of toast, coffee and cigarette smoke.

I followed Ben as he pushed his way to the kitchen counter, whereupon he dropped two slices of bread into the toaster.

Two minutes later, he passed me a plate with 2 slices of toast. “Butter is in the dish. We operate a tea swindle here which is 25p a week to cover tea, milk, bread and butter. Anything else you want, you buy yourself. You want to join, go and see Mitch, and he’ll put you on the list. Now, eat up because we have to get going.” So saying, he sluiced his plate under the tap and wandered out with his hands jammed into his pockets.

I hurriedly wolfed down the toast, and drunk the tea, (which I had to do really quickly to prevent the tannin from stripping the enamel from my teeth), then scurried after Ben, who was by now loading the back of his bright yellow Morris Ital van with plastic-wrapped phones, and cardboard boxes containing mysterious bits of equipment.

Loading Up…

We got in, slamming the doors shut, and Ben drove us sedately out of the yard.

We meandered serenely through the sun-dappled lanes of West Sussex, the sleepy villages etching their historic lanes into my mind; Sharpthorne, West Hoathly, Danehill, Horsted Keynes, finally arriving in the small village of   Scaynes Hill. 

Scaynes Hill this way…

We parked up outside an elegant 17th century Manor House, with timber beams, and a patina of age on the whitewashed walls.

Grabbing a shrunk-wrapped telephone, a reel of cream cable and his leather tool bag from the back of the van, I followed Ben as we crunched our way up the gravel drive, with me clutching my small, virginal zip-up tool bag.

My virginal Apprentices’ Zip-up Tool Kit.

Knocking on the door, we stood in the porch, admiring the Elizabethan garden, resplendent in its autumnal colours.  I idly wondered if they had a gardener.

At that moment the door was opened, revealing an elegant and stunningly attractive woman in her early thirties.

My eyes were immediately drawn to her magnificent breasts, snugly contained in a tight angora wool jumper.

My interest in her vaporised instantly as she spoke, haughtily, and with the arrogance that only the nouveau riche seems to have.

“I suppose you’re here to fit the phone….”

Standard Cream 746 telephone

Ben glanced at me and agreed. “Maybe you can show us where you want it fitted? He asked.

She about turned, and strode off down the wood-panelled hall, nonchalantly indicating an open door on the left.  “In there, on the window cill” she called without even giving us a further glance. I furtively watched her neat backside, as she sashayed off down the corridor. 

We walked into the indicated room, which was bright, empty and airy, with a wood parquet floor.  Ben smiled at me, and dumped his battered Gladstone bag on the floor, and tore open the cellophane packaging from the phone. Reaching into his bag, he tossed me the reel of cable and a small box of cleats.

Selecting a pin hammer from his bag, he explained to me “Secure the cable to the skirting board, using one cleat every pin hammer length. Put one cleat two inches from every corner you need to go around. Don’t nail through the cable.  Got that?” I nodded. He continued “I’ll start in the hall. You do the room here. Leave me three foot of cable to hook the connector block to”

Post Office Telephones Box Terminal 52A State of the Art in 1975

I gingerly unrolled a length of the cable, and commenced banging cleats in at the required spacing, managing to belt my thumb at least twice. I could hear the rhythmic thumping as Ben was cleating the cable to the skirting of the hall.  He was moving at about three times my speed, so it wasn’t long before he appeared in the room with me. 

He knelt down and started cleating as well.  “Bit of a dry visit, this one” he murmured. “Snooty cow didn’t even offer us a tea” I grunted my response, and turned to see a small child, emptying the box of cleats over the floor.

Ben called through the open doorway to the boy’s mother, asking her to take him out of the room, as he was in danger of hurting himself.

She strode in, sweeping the child into her arms, and glared at us both as if it were our fault, before strutting out.

We turned back to our work, and I started hammering again.  As I reached out to get another cleat, my hand struck something warm and wet. I looked around, and saw a Pekingese dog, snouting around in the cleat box. 

I pushed it away, and it immediately nosed forwards and recommenced its snuffling.  Ben also pushed it away, with the same result. He pushed it away – more firmly this time, but it was to no avail.

“Excuse me lady” he shouted down the corridor “Could you come and get your dog, it’s in the way”

There was no response from within the bowels of the house, so he called out again.  Silence.

Heaving a sigh, he knelt back down, and once again started pushing the dog out of the way.

Each time it happened, he pushed the animal away more forcefully. I could see him beginning to lose his placid sense of humour. I smirked. It seemed that the dog wasn’t interested in me, so I knelt back down, and carried on bashing my thumb with the pin hammer.

I could hear Ben swearing at the dog, as once more it was interfering with his work.  “Will you sod off!” I heard him exclaim.  The dog didn’t sod off though, and it continued to push its nose just where Ben wanted to hammer.

I watched as this happened once more, and laughed as Ben finally lost control. He pushed the dog back, and as it advanced again, he tapped it smartly on the forehead, between the eyes, “for the last time, WILL YOU SOD OFF!”

The dog stopped in its tracks, froze, and rolled onto its back, quivered once, and then flopped over, immobile.

I looked at the dog.  It’s chest wasn’t moving. “Christ Ben!” I exclaimed. “You’ve killed it!”

Ben looked shocked. “Nah. I probably stunned it. It’ll be ok in a minute”. I wasn’t sharing his optimism.  The dog was dead.  To make sure, I cocked my ear over its snout, and could detect no breathing.

“Ben……it’s definitely dead!  Christ. What shall we do?”

My brain was already playing a film clip, featuring me getting the sack from an incandescently enraged manager.

“Don’t worry lad” said Ben, perking up.  “I’ve got an idea”

He picked up the dead dog, slung it unceremoniously into his Gladstone bag, secured it closed, and said “follow me, and keep your mouth shut”

GPO Telephone Engineer’s Gladstone bag, to carry tools, equipment and occassionally the deceased.

He yelled into the kitchen “Sorry love, we have to go back to the yard to get a tool. We will be back shortly”

A garbled response from the kitchen confirmed that she heartily disliked The GPO in general, and the Telecommunications division in particular, and bemoaning the quality of British working practices. 

If only she knew.

We chucked Ben’s bag into the van, and we hurtled back to the yard in silence.

As we pulled into the yard. I asked “what tools do we need?”

Ben grinned, and said “A shovel lad”

Opening the back of his van, he passed me a large spade, and indicating the scrubby patch of woodland at the rear of the offices, he said. “Bury it”


“Bury it.  Over there.  Dig down two feet.  Come on, hurry up. We need to get back. Consider it part of your training. Thinking on your feet!”

I miserably picked up the dog, which had already started stiffening up. I pushed my way into the bushes, and dug a hole, into which I placed it’s little corpse.  I quickly shoveled the earth over it, and replaced the spade in the van.

Having completed my funereal task. We drove back to the customer’s house, and went back to wiring up the phone.

As we were finishing up, the woman came in, and cast her eye over our handiwork.  “Does it work?” She asked, as if already convinced that it would be a major achievement if it did.

“Of course” replied Ben, as he nonchalantly started loading his tools back into his bag.

“Have you seen Lionel?” She asked

“Lionel?”  We obviously both looked like drooling morons, as she explained to us slowly, enunciating each word slowly and precisely,  as if to a six year old, that Lionel was her dog.

Ben furtively glanced at me, but we both shook our heads, as Ben innocently said “No, Madam, we haven’t seen a dog”

“Oh dear. I expected he got out when you went back to the yard.  He’s probably in the woods by now”

“Without a doubt” I said, straight faced, looking at Ben. I could see he was trying very hard not to laugh.

“Yes, he likes to dig…..probably burrowing for rabbits”

“Oh yes…..I imagine He’s up to his neck in the mud” I said.

Ben had gone a strange colour, and was emitting constricted noises. I shuffled my feet, and said “Well…..cheerio then”

“Yes” she said, icily. “Goodbye”

She ushered us to the door, and with one final appreciative look at her wonderful chest, we were striding back down the drive to the van.

As we got into the van, Ben finally collapsed against the steering wheel, great guffaws of laughter filling the van.

“Oh my lord…..that was funny in an awful sort of way. Well done lad”. He wiped a tear from his cheek, and started the van, and we made our way back to the telephone exchange at Nutley for a cuppa and a bun.

Nutley Telephone Exchange – a good place for a cuppa on the way home. Photo courtesy of Dave Spicer

And so ended my first day as an apprentice installing telephones in Sussex.

No two days were ever that same, that’s for sure.

Go Well…

Aircew Airport aviation Flight Humour pilots Technology Transport Travel Uncategorized

radio failure, hot texas desert and bubblegum

The Texas skies were cerulean blue, and the sun was already blazing in the sky, despite it being only 0830. I was sitting in Dobbs Restaurant in the airport terminal at Fort Worth (Meacham) Airport.

Fort Worth Meacham – Also a Nuclear Bunker!

Breakfast was two cheesy hot dogs, with a side of fries and limitless coffees – all served by Jolene. Yes, I really have known a Jolene, but this lady did not have flaming locks of auburn hair, but a well kept blonde bob cut. Always cheerful, she mothered her “boys” as she referred to us student pilots – whether we were 30 or 70!

I nodded a good morning to Ralph, the helicopter instructor, and was rewarded with a grin.

Ralph was not overly talkative. His tanned face, silver crew cut and the numerous scars on his arms and throat bore mute testament to his previous career in the US military.

He brought his coffee and waffles to the next table, and sat down.

“Morning Ralph” I said, “How’s things?”

“I’m here” was his reply.

Situation normal then.

I had lost ten dollars to Ralph the previous Friday during his regular “Helo Challenge”

Each Friday at about three in the afternoon, Ralph would place four standard road cones on a 30-metre square area of the ramp. He would then invite anyone present to take the challenge. His challenge was that you had to hold the helicopter within the four cones for 60 seconds. He even made it “easy” by controlling the power and height. All the challenger had to do was use one control.

If you won the challenge, he would give a one hour lesson in the helicopter for free.

If you lost, then he kept the ten dollars, and you enjoyed yourself.

Easy right?

So last Friday, I was finished with lessons by noon, and so I had a leisurely lunch at Dobbs, and then sought out Ralph so that I could do the challenge.

A small crowd of students and instructors had gathered to watch, leaning on the chain-link fence. We slowly walked out to the Bell 47 helicopter – Ralph in his old olive drab flight suit, and me in tee shirt and shorts.

The truly iconic Bell 47 helicopter. Flying it is like being a one-armed soot juggler.

Climbing aboard, he explained the controls to me. I was to look after the cyclic. This is the main control column, and is used to steer the helicopter in its lateral sense. Basically, push forward to go forwards, push left to turn left, and pull back to go in reverse.

The collective control and throttle were located between the seats. Pulling the lever up, and twisting the throttle causes the power to increase, and the helicopter to climb.

Ralph would control the rudder pedals – so all I had to do as the helicopter climbed was keep it in between the four cones.

Having been briefed, I knew that I could nail this.

The power came on, and the cabin shook slightly as the surly bonds with earth were cut, and the helicopter rose majestically to about twenty feet.

Looking across at me, he grinned.

“Okay Son”, he said, “You Have it”

“I have it” I responded.

I gripped the cyclic and felt his hold relax. We started drifting left, so I eased the control right.

The infernal machine then leapt to the right like a cricket, and I almost went outside the boundary. I immediately moved the control to the left, and we lurched sickeningly to port, at a rapid rate.

I felt, rather than saw Ralph pull up on the collective, adding power as he did so. The helicopter darted upwards to a safe height.

“Easy son”, he murmured, “Treat her like a woman – Y’all gotta be gentle…”

I continued to wrestle with the machine, but in due course, we skittered out of the defined area, and I had lost the challenge.

“Ah have control,” he said, and he swiftly recentred us in the area. Just for good measure, he made that damn aircraft pirouette, dip and bow.

After we landed, we walked back to Dobbs, and I slapped a ten-dollar bill into his hand.

Folding it swiftly, he tucked it into a breast pocket of his flying suit.

He gave me a penetrating look, jammed a cigar in his mouth and lit up. “Thanks, Son. Now Y’all go and have a nice day”

I had then proceeded to have a very enjoyable weekend with my room-mate, Tomas.

Tomas was Portuguese, and had rented a condo locally, and had bought a car. He was in the middle of a full airline transport pilot course, and he would be living in the US for another few months.

He had advertised for an English roommate as he wanted to practice English as the English speak it, and we hit it off immediately falling into a happy and relaxed friendship.

Having been here for a while, Tomas knew the best places for good beers and good food, and we hit the local bars in downtown Fort Worth, around the Stockyards.

Our late evening visit to Billy Bob’s and my slightly inebriated (well – fully inebriated) state resulted in me being thrown off the indoor bucking bronco and consuming a great number of beers.

Filthy McNasty’s was also a bar we frequented when we visited the Stockyards and is it was at these venues where I probably developed my love of country music.

However, the weekend was now history, and I was looking forward to getting some air under my arse again, so here I was…

I finished eating and concentrated on the task at hand. On the table in front of me was a sectional chart of the Dallas Fort Worth area, upon which was my planned route. This was the biggie. I had completed my qualifying cross country a few days before, and this was a consolidation flight.

Fort Worth-Meacham Airfield – Just west of Dallas, and right next to Carswell Air Force Base, Home of B-52 Bombers.

There on the chart was the simple black pencil line describing my route to Midland Odessa Airport in West Texas, routing via Mineral Wells, Stephens County, Abilene and Big Spring. About 250 nautical miles, and about two and a half hours flying time.

A fairly simple straight line flight? Maybe…

Maybe not.

A considerable portion of the flight would be flying over the Texas badlands – desert with no real navigational features. The landscape littered by “nodding donkey” oil rigs, and tumbleweed.

A bit of a hostile environment for a student pilot with a total of only 30.8 hours in his logbook.

My first flying logbook. I am now working on filling up my seventh…

It was June 19th 1991, and I had been here for 26 days, fulfilling my life ambition of learning to fly.

After almost a month of living in the USA, I was now virtually a native and could shop in the local mall without adult supervision, and order beers without help in the local saloons.

Shiner Bock – the local brew of choice.

Now, not many people would consider taking a six-week break in Texas, as there are not a lot of attractions to pull in the average tourist. Lots of research had revealed that this was a very cost-effective place to learn to fly.

The Dollar – Pound Exchange rate was two to one, and aircraft rental was insanely cheap. Combined with the consistently good weather in Texas during the spring and early summer, I could probably come home with a pilot licence.

I was making good solid progress and my instructor had built steadily on my previous gliding experience, and as a result, I had soloed in just 8 hours.

My first solo was a bit of an event in itself. Fort Worth Alliance Field has two parallel runways, each 3353 metres long, and 46 metres wide. I had flown there under supervision that morning and did a reasonable join, flew a standard circuit, and landed without either bending the aeroplane or compressing my spine.

Bill appeared happy with my performance, as he asked me to park the aircraft but not shut it down.

I did as he said, and as soon as we had come to a stop, he was out of the cockpit like a jackrabbit, yelling to me that I should do three circuits, land, take off and then come and pick him up.

I didn’t have time to be nervous; With a dry mouth and only slightly trembling hands and sweaty palms, I taxied back to the holding point.

Air Traffic laconically cleared me to “Take the Active” and I swung out, over the numbers and the piano keys, and gently came to a stop on the centreline.

The runway disappeared into the heat shimmer, and my heart was pounding in my chest.

“Cessna 714 Hotel November, Clear Take Off, Runway 34 Right, wind is 320 at 5 knots”

“714 Hotel November rolling” I croaked, pushing the throttle fully forward.

The little Cessna 150 leapt forwards – alarmingly quickly without Bill’s six foot two frame in it.

I eased back on the yoke, and the ground fell rapidly away, and I settled the aircraft into a gentle climb. Why was my mouth so goddam dry?

I turned gently into the pattern, The view was simply marvellous without Bills not unsubstantial bulk in the way.

The crazy thing was that as I was levelling off and turning into the circuit, I could still see the runway stretching away in front of me. Looking down, I could see an American Airlines 767 taxing out to the other runway – a weird omen, as I was to start working for the mighty American from Heathrow once I returned from Texas to the UK.

I duly completed my three circuits, and Bill appeared to be happy with my airmanship. My cheeks were aching, and it took me a second to realise that I had been smiling solidly for a whole half hour!

Not many student pilots get to share the pattern with heavy commercial jets, and the local area was packed with B-52 bombers operating out of Carswell Air Force base, so a good learning environment.

On my return to Meacham Field, I underwent the obligatory ceremony following my announcement that I had soloed. Instructors, fellow students, and the salesgirl form the Longhorn Pilot Shop all helped to cut the back out of my tee-shirt, and write the date and my name on it whereupon it was pinned to the ceiling with countless others.

So here I was about to launch off on another epic voyage of discovery.

My aircraft was booked for 1100, so I kicked back for a while with some of the other students and watched the shool aircraft plod dutifully around the circuit.

Eventually, the time came, and I wandered to the operations desk to book out my aeroplane.

By a strange quirk of fate, the aeroplane allocated to me was N714HH, the identical sister to the aeroplane in which I soloed. Good Omen!

Or so I thought…

Cessna N714HH – An Honest Airplane that Looked After me on my FIrst Solo.

I signed for the aircraft and walked out to do my preflight. Bill had already checked and authorised my flight plan and was happy that my calculations and headings and my fuel planning were all correct, so it was just a simple matter of flying the route.

Swiftly completing the external inspection, I jumped aboard and rapidly conducted the pre-start checklist. The engine started at the first turn of the key, and I called Meacham ground for taxi permission.

It wasn’t long until I was sitting on the end of Meacham’s Runway 34, its 2287 metres of concrete baking in the sunshine.

Cleared for take-off, I opened the throttle and a few seconds later I was climbing out with a gentle left turn to pick up the westerly heading that would take me to Mineral Wells, and then onwards to Abilene.

The aircraft bucked about in the low air turbulence, but once I climbed above 3000 feet things settled down a bit, and I began to enjoy the flight.

Just over twenty minutes later, Mineral Wells appeared out of the scrub, and I checked off the waypoint on my flight log.

An hour and six minutes later, I landed safely at Abilene and taxied up to the parking. I needed a pee and to check the fuel levels.

After servicing the aircraft and attending to my bladder overfull warning light, I called Air Traffic and requested permission to taxi. The response from the tower was very scratchy and almost inaudible. I had to repeat my request and readback several times before I was happy that I was authorised to move.

I should have recognised the early indications that all was not well. Nowadays, with the benefit of hundreds of hours of flying experience behind me, I would have checked and resolved the problem before getting airborne.

Not back then with so few hours.

So, I happily launched into the bright blue yonder, climbing up to a comfortable altitude. The sky was bright blue, and hurt my eyes, despite wearing my green aviator sunglasses. The desert scrub below was a myriad of browns and ochres, with washed-out looking vegetation.

The radio was quiet, but not unexpectedly so, as this was a bit of a remote area. Basically, there was no one out here to talk to.

Eventually, I could see Midland Air Park just ahead, so I selected their VHF radio frequency and gave them a call.

“Midland this is Cessna November Seven One Four Hotel Hotel inbound to you with information Golf, request altimeter and airfield traffic”

Static filled my headphones, but I gave them two minutes, then tried again, repeating the call.

Again, no answer. I began to have misgivings. I would have to land without a radio.

My God! I had read about this, but never done it.

I dialled 7600 into my transponder so that ground radar would know I had no radio and then flew cautiously into the pattern. I made blind calls but received no response.

I scanned the sky for other aircraft, but the circuit pattern was empty. Peering down at the ground, I could see no aircraft moving around, I decided that it was safe, so I continued with my approach, and landed safely.

I taxied up to the deserted Terminal, and shut the engine down,

Climbing out, I could see the place was deserted. Being a Wednesday afternoon, I could understand the lack of aircraft.

I wandered around and eventually spotted a guy in overalls working on a car outside a semi-derelict hangar.

I explained that I had a problem with my radio, but he was unable to help; there were no engineers around, and he was only there to work on his car.

I considered my predicament. I had tried repeatedly to get the radio to work. I had re-set the circuit breakers, and checked the security of the antenna. Nothing seemed to solve the problem.

The trouble was that without obtaining a radio clearance, I would be unable to enter the controlled airspace surrounding Abilene. This meant that my pre-planned and direct routing back to Meacham would not be available.

Under FAA regulations, as a student pilot, my instructor has to authorise each solo flight.

I called Bill at Meacham from the payphone in the pilot lounge. I explained what had happened, and he told me to plan a new flight and submit it to him over the fax.

I had already replanned, and I would follow the Santa Fe Railroad Northeast as far as Sweetwater, and then dog leg further North to avoid Abilene’s airspace. I would then continue east via Mineral Wells, and recover back to Meacham Field.

It was late afternoon as I departed Midland Air Park, and from 3,000 feet I soon spotted the railroad track, and dutifully followed it, watching the lengthening shadows as they crawled across the landscape below.

I slowly passed a freight train, which seemed to be a mile long. It took me a good few minutes to overtake it.

I was getting mentally tired by now, and the gloom was now chasing me. I had not undergone any training for flying at night, and whilst it was crystal clear, I had read that perception during landing can be distorted considerably.

I was now starting to wish fervently that I was on the ground, as it was now dusk.

I could see Mineral Wells coming up, and I made the decision that I was not prepared to fly onwards to Meacham, a further 35 miles away. The decision made, I felt much better, and re-focused on the task at hand, to land without breaking the aeroplane.

I made my landing safely, still making the required blind radio calls.

I shut down and using the payphone, I called Bill to let him know where I was. He agreed with my decision to divert, and arranged for another instructor to fly out to pick me up.

About 40 minutes later, I saw the lights of an approaching aircraft, which landed and swiftly taxied over to where I was parked.

Teri, one of the instructors got out, and came over to me, as the other aircraft backtracked and took off heading east.

“What’s the problem dude?” She asked me.

I explained the scratchy radio at Abilene and the actions that I had taken to resolve the issue.

She thoughtfully chewed her gum, then blew an expert bubble, which expanded to an obscene size and then popped.

Leaning into the cockpit, she turned the master switch on and switched the radio master on. Sure enough, there was nothing but static.

Reaching under the instrument panel, she pulled both of jack plugs connecting my headset and microphone out, and then pushed them back into the sockets.

The Cessna 150 instrument panel.

Trying the radio again resulted in clear sounds.

I felt hugely foolish.

“I’m sorry to have dragged you out here – I could have done that”

“Uh-huh” she replied. “At least you can log another 30 minutes dual night flying – look on the bright side”

I flew us back in near silence, still feeling that I had been a bit of an idiot.

Teri obviously sensed this, as she slapped my right thigh, saying “Dude, Y’alls instructor should have suggested this, as it’s happened before!”

The lights of Meacham were now sliding under the nose towards us. Happily, I didn’t make too bad a landing for my first one at night. Maybe a little harder than I would have liked, but hey, you can’t have everything.

Fort Worth Meacham at night.

So, What did I learn?

I learnt that when a problem occurs, you should check every part of the system, and not assume that pulling circuit breakers, or recycling equipment on and off will be sufficient to resolve the problem.

I also learnt that more experienced people may not always offer the correct advice, as they too may make assumptions that checks that are obvious to them may not be so obvious to anyone else, and therefore won’t have necessarily have been conducted.

Lastly, I learnt that pink bubblegum bubbles that burst can stick long blonde hair very effectively to Dave Clark headsets.

Go Well…

English Culture Lyricist Music Poetry Society Songwriting Uncategorized


Its a funny old world.

Ever since I was a child, I have loved music – in particular, any song that tells a full story. It seems that the only genres left that adequately do this consistently are country music and country rock. I could be wrong though, as my music taste has become more and more discrimnatory and selective over the years. I could be unfairly judging modern music, but, hey, I’m a product of my generation…

A Good Ole Country Boy, telling it how it is…

I havent listen to a “pop” station for decades, prefering the wider range of genres presented by (dare I say it ) Radio 2, I also listen to Union Jack Radio which plays all British artists and when I’m feeling nostalgic, Eagle 80s. If you’re interested, both of these staions broadcast on DAB and over the internet, so no excuse not to give them a try…

Anyhow, back to musical story-telling…

Now, love him or hate him, who can forget Kenny Rogers telling the story of The Coward of the County, or The Gambler?

Maybe listen to the Eagles, and let them sing the sad story of the love-lorn woman and her uncaring husband in Lyin’ Eyes.

If you like a little humour in your music, listen to the late, great Johhny Cash telling the story of the Boy Named Sue.

Love of music must be an almost genetic thing though.

My Father was a musician. He couldn’t read a word of music, but he was a competent guitarist, and played banjo in a Jazz band. He could also busk it with a trombone, and the harmonica.

My Dear Old Dad, playing the Trombone at a charity fund-raiser with the Fleet Jazz Band, circa 1957

Sometimes he would arrive home with a new instrument – purchased just because the mood took him. I seem to recall him coming home one evening with a ukelele and within a few hours of tinkering he could bash out a reasonable number of recognisable tunes.

My Mother on the other hand does not have a musical bone in her body, and couldn’t carry a tune if her life depended on it. But she does have a lot of poetic ability, some of which I think I must have inherited from her.

So, over the years, I have written reams of lyrics and poems, none of which had seen the light of day – mainly because as I am unable to read music or play an instrument, I have been unable to marry the words with a suitable musical vehicle.

Possibly one of the best Mystical Musical Stories – The Eagles’ Hotel California

That changed when I went to work for the Civil Aviation Authority. It turned out that one of my fellow managers was a skilled guitarist, and played in a band, and spent the rest of his free time either as a Johnny Cash Tribute artiste, or playing in a duo called Loki.

Discussing my problem with him, he said that if I sent him a lyric, he would see what he could do with it.

With a little trepidation, I passed over some lyrics that I had written in the early 1990s,

In my minds eye, I imagined this particular song being played by a group like Sad Cafe, or Air Supply, so I didn’t really know what to expect it to be like like after Kevin had played around with it.

A few weeks later, and it was finished. In a quiet side room at work, Kevin played me the embryonic song – which sounded weird – hearing words that I had written melded with music.

After a little tweaking, Kevin treated the number to a full studio workout, and the result was intriguing. I think it works very well, but I guess I’m a bit biased.

So, here it is.

Yesterday You Told Me It Was Over (Lyrics Mark Charlwood, Music by Kevin Russell)

Kevin Russell is The Fat Man in Black – Johnny Cash Tribute Atriste

Kevin appears regularly on the music circuit, and plays pretty much throughout the South East. One of his regular gigs is at the Sharpthorne Organic Cafe in Sharpthorne, West Sussex – so visit for a relaxed and mellow Sunday lunch whilst being entertained.

The Sharpthorne Organic Cafe in Sharpthorne, West Sussex

He may even play this song, if you ask him nicely…

Go Well…

Mark Charlwood© January 2020

Comedy English Culture Humour local economy Nostalgia Satire Short Story Society Technology Uncategorized Work

Thumbs up for typewriters? well, maybe not…

This is another modified extract from my forthcoming book, “A Salesman’s Story (Or Don’t Spend the Commission)

In the early 1980s, the cutting edge of office printing machines was an electric typewriter, and I sold many different models, from a simple “sit up and beg” typewriter, right up through the range to the latest electronic machines that offered a single line LED display, a 4,000 character memory and a Daisywheel printer.

Even in the early 1980s, standard electric typewriters still had a market, particularly with solicitors, as the weight of paper used for legal documents presented a problem to the electronic machines, mainly due to the hammer not striking the character hard enough against the paper to place a successful image on the underlying copies.

Now, I should explain here, that the Eagle 800 was built like a tank, and normally printed via fabric ribbons, which were bi-colour, with one half of the ribbon being impregnated with red ink, and the other half with black.

When powered up, a motor would run, which would spin a powered rubber roller. If a key were pressed, the associated type hammer (bearing a cast image of the appropriate character) would press against the spinning roller, and be flung upwards at great speed.  

A simple mechanical link would lift the ribbon carrier to coincide with the type hammer striking the platen, upon which the paper sheet was clamped. The type hammer would then fall back to its rest position.

Now, some of the keys were fitted with a repeat function. For example, the letter “X” key could be held down, and the letter x would be repeatedly typed onto the page, enabling lines of incorrect text to be obliterated from the page.

So, now you know the basics…

As salesmen, we not only had to know the basics, but also had to know every feature, advantage and benefit that each machine in the range was able to offer. To ensure that I had the necessary tools in my sales kit, I was sent to the manufacturers premises in Leicester to attend a product course.

Our instructor, a portly little chap called Richard Scratcher, was explaining the features, advantages and benefits of the Eagle 800 machine.  He was extolling its virtues as a very tough and well-built piece of equipment.

The Triumph Adler/Imperial Model 800 – A true Workhorse of the 1980s office

“Now, I’m going to show you a very powerful sales technique, guaranteed to help you get the sale”. We all gathered close as he fumbled in his trouser pockets, finally producing a penny coin. He held it aloft like some kind of Devine talisman. 

“To show how tough the mechanism is, simply hold the penny against the ribbon guide, and hold down the repeat “X” key, thusly”. So saying and with a very flamboyant flourish, he proffered the penny into the top aperture whilst holding the aforementioned key.

With a noise like a juvenile machine gun, the X type-hammer blurred against the ribbon guide, the carriage advancing at high speed with each impact, stuttering from right to left with a mechanical clatter.  

The demonstration complete, the silence was deafening. He passed the coin amongst us; I was surprised. It was deformed, and deeply embossed with a capital X. 

The theatrical impact of this would be impressive, and I determined to use this approach when I next went to demo an Eagle 800.  

I didn’t have long to wait, and it was two weeks later that I received a call from Mr Rayne of Babbage de Chelwode solicitors in Crowborough. I had met Mr Rayne before when I sold a dictation system to the practice. 

He was a curious individual, a cross between John Lennon, with his long, lank, greasy hair, and Marty Feldman, with his bulging eyes lurking behind large, round glasses. 

He also had a bad habit of suddenly stopping speaking in mid-sentence, and after a variable amount of time would suddenly recommence.  It was like his brain worked slower than his mouth, which had to stop until it had received the next packet of data. It was most disconcerting.

Anyhow, he was looking to upgrade a manual typewriter and had received my letter offering good prices on the Eagle 800.  

So here I was, sitting across the desk from him, in the wonderful old Jacobean room that served as his office.

“Now, you see, we have legal engrossment paper here, Judi………………”

I waited.   And waited.  He was still staring at me through his glasses, like a scene from a Wild West poker game. 

I leaned forwards.  “Judy?” I ventured, hoping to re-activate his speech system.

“Yes.  Judy.  You know. Judicial paper for wills and stuff. It’s thick and that’s why we need a manual typewriter as it needs to cut a carbon copy underneath”

I nodded, explaining that there was no typing job the 800 couldn’t do, said with a confidence that was belying my uncertainty.

Paper is graded on its strength in terms of the weight it will bear, expressed in grams per square metre. To assess the standard weight of paper, a square metre of it is clamped into a frame, and weight is applied to it until it bursts or tears. 

General-purpose paper is anywhere between 70gsm and 90gsm.  Luxury and specialist paper is over 100gsm, with legal paper at the top end of the spectrum at 120gsm.

Naturally, a copy would be needed, so the carbon paper would be beneath the Judicial paper and the copy paper beneath that. My guess was that the total paper weight would be almost 200gsm.

I seriously wondered whether the Eagle electric 800 would be man enough.

I really shouldn’t have worried.

I had set the machine up in his secretary’s office, which was gloriously untidy, with files everywhere, flowing as if a waterfall from her desk, over the carpet. 

Now was my moment!

I walked over to the machine and pulled a penny piece from my pocket.  I could see they were both regarding me in confused silence.

“To demonstrate the power of the 800, I would like you to watch this”

With a flourish, I placed the penny inside the machine, locating it against the ribbon guide.  Whilst looking them in the eyes, I confidently pressed the “X” key and was rewarded with the high-speed clatter of the type hammer reverberating against the coin.

I lifted my finger from the key and passed the coin across to Mr Rayne.  He took the proffered penny, and held it up, examining its distorted shape and the deep impression cut into it by the machine.

“Wow!” He exclaimed. “Take a look at that Mary”, passing it to her.

She looked at it – a bit dubiously, I thought.

“So, now let’s have a crack at your heaviest legal paper.  By the way, if it does what you want it to do, will you be in a position to place an order today?”

“Oh, I think so….we really need to……………………”

Mary and I both watched him in silent anticipation, waiting for him to finish

“……..bring ourselves up to date”

I inwardly smirked.  The 800 was superseded a couple of years ago by the golf ball typewriter, and the golfball was now being superseded by the daisy wheel.  Up to date indeed!

I watched as Mary pulled the bail bar forwards, and wound the unwieldy paper onto the carriage.  

She started pecking away at the keys, suddenly exclaiming “Oh…it’s not working”

I smiled as I reached forwards, switching the machine on “You now have the luxury of electric power. You don’t need to hammer these keys as heavily as on your previous machine”

The machine was quietly humming, and she hesitantly started typing, speeding up as she became used to the feel of the keyboard.  At the end of the line, I saw her left hand reaching for the carriage return lever, which would have been used on a manual typewriter to push the carriage back to the right-hand stop, and advance the roller by one line.

“It’s a common event” I laughed, showing her the key marked RETURN. She pressed it, and the carriage smoothly moved.  “Oh My,” she remarked.

Now she was up to speed, and we allowed her to type a few paragraphs.

She pulled the document from the carriage, and we all inspected the output. The print was crisp, dark black, and perfectly aligned.  The carbon copy was just as good.

I dramatically passed the carbon copy to Mr Rayne, and he was suitably impressed.

Twenty minutes later, I was happily sitting in my car in the car park, filling out the rest of the rental agreement. Tapping away at my calculator I worked out that a thirty-minute meeting had netted me a cool £60* commission.  Snapping my case shut, I started the car, wound down the window a crack, and stoked up a Bensons. I idly watched the tendrils of smoke being slowly and gracefully sucked out. 

Twirling the key in the ignition, I decided to head back to the office.

I swung into the office car park in what I considered to be my exuberant fashion.  The Managing Director referred to it as “You arsehole” fashion.  I know this, as he indicated his feelings by bellowing into the car park from his office like a fairground barker, calling into question both my driving ability and my parentage.  

I smiled, and waved cheerily up at him, which, judging by the further incoherent ratings, merely proved to enrage him further. I strode briskly into the office, charging up the stairwell two at a time, running into the Sales department, and plonked myself down at my desk. I bashed away at the calculator, which confirmed that so far, I was having a very good month, and would hit target without breaking a sweat.

I checked my diary for the next day and saw that I had a fairly relaxed day, starting with a local farmer, a simple drop off on the industrial estate, and then a visit to an author to sell a binding machine.

The next morning dawned bright and sunny, as I made my way to the rambling old farm in Turners Hill.

This was going to be a simple drop off, and a demonstration of how to set the machine up. I knew that he was pretty switched on, and would pick it up in no time. I was confident that this would be a mere formality prior to me raising an invoice for £400!

Setting up the Cash Register

My assessment proved to be accurate, and I was finished with him by eleven o’clock. I drove sedately down passed the fruit farms and into the industrial estate, cutting through the side roads of Three Bridges.  

Parking up at Worldwide Injection Moulding’s Goods Inwards, I hefted their new typewriter – still in its box – into the bay, and got the warehouse foreman to sign for it, and then I was off again, heading back south and cross country for the pretty village of Horsted Keynes.

The Author was an elderly American chap, called Cyrus J Whittaker. He was the archetypal hippie, with his long grey hair pulled back in a ponytail, secured with a bandana, and wearing a battered old straw hat which I think was actually an integral part of his head –  I had never seen him without it.

He was always friendly, and frequently offered me some of his homegrown pot. Today was no different, and on this occasion, I decided to accept his offer. He passed me his tobacco tin, some papers, and a plastic bag full of leaves.  I duly rolled a respectable reefer, and we both lit up.  

I ambled back to the car, and pulled out the thermal binding system, which I was to demonstrate.

Simple to use – even when you’re stoned

Once the machine was plugged into the mains, and up to temperature, I showed him how quickly he could bind a book. The folders all had pre-glued spines, and the required pages were simply laid into the spine in the correct order, and the whole book placed spine down into the mouth of the machine.

A simple timer would indicate when the process was complete, and the thermal glue had melted and stuck the pages securely to the book. 

In his chemically-induced pliant state of mind, he readily agreed to sign the paperwork, which I happily secreted away into my briefcase – just in case he had second thoughts.

It was well gone one o’clock when I walked slightly unsteadily back to my car. I drove very carefully over to the next village and parked up at the Coach and Horses.  I was a little disappointed, as none of my friends were about, so I ordered Ham Egg and Chips, and a pint of Harveys.  

Nice place for a pub lunch…

As usual, the food was excellent, but the combined effects of one large organically grown reefer, and a pint of Harvey’s Best made me very sleepy. I knew that I would have to sleep this one off, so I drove a mile or so up the road to Ghylls Lap car park on the Ashdown Forest, rolled back the seat, and took a restorative doze for a couple of hours.

I woke up refreshed and decided to finish off the promised deliveries.  I would need to get a hustle on…

I finally arrived at Babbage de Chelwode’s at a quarter to five, so it would be a quick dash. Happy Jack the town’s parking warden would be on his way back to the Town Hall to sign off duty, so unless I was very unlucky, I could park on the double yellows for the duration of my call.

I switched the hazard lights on, and trotted up the steps, and into the cool reception area.

I was swiftly shown in, and Mr Rayne stood to greet me. I walked forward, extending my hand to shake hands, but he recoiled away. I soon saw why.  He held his hand aloft, the thumb was thickly bandaged.

“Ohh – that looks nasty” I exclaimed “What did you do?”

He looked at me very sheepishly. “Well, I had a colleague from Bennisters here yesterday……”

He stopped.  I waited. He was still looking at me, and I nudged him “Yes….”

“Well, I decided to show him how tough my typewriter was, so I tried your trick with the penny”

“Yes…” I said, encouragingly.

“Well, it must have slipped, and I engraved a letter X through my thumbnail, and about a third of my way through my thumb”

I visualized this, and immediately had to suppress the desire to laugh out loud.

“Oh dear” I sympathised “That must be really painful”  

He grunted his agreement, and I carried on “Does he want a machine as well?

“He didn’t say – as I had to go to the Village Hospital to get the bleeding to stop”.

Flipping my notebook open, I swiftly jotted down that Bennsiters could be in the market for a new machine.

“So” I said, snapping my notebook shut, “I’ll be getting on then. I hope that the machine continues to perform well. I will get the engineers to pop over sometime within the next week or two just to check the adjustments.”

He continued to gaze at me through his glasses, not saying anything, so I picked up my case, and quietly left him alone, contemplating his butchered thumb.

£259.00 in 2020*

Comedy English Culture HEALTH Humour Satire Uncategorized

Sniff it – Dont bath in it!

It had been a long and tiring few days.

Yesterday, I had started work at 0430, and it had been pretty much full on all day. I was lucky that I managed to slip out at 0830 and grab a late breakfast from the “Roach Coach” burger van, as the crews used to refer to it. The Roach Coach, or Botulism Bus was an old Citroen van fitted out as a kitchen.

Egg and Bacon French Stick – Fantastic Breakfast for the AA IFO Flight Operations Crew!

Breakfast was usually good and reasonably cheap – I had a simply huge egg and bacon French stick and a mug of tea so strong that it stripped the plating off the spoon. Despite its nickname, in all of the eight years that I used it, I never got any form of food poisoning!

By the end of my shift, I had handled one inbound emergency diversion, two gate delays, and a flight returning to gate due to a technical problem.

My throat was tingling with the tell-tale signs of an oncoming cold, and my nasal passages felt strangely dry and cold, and I was feeling distinctly under the weather as I returned home.

In an effort to clear my head, I dripped some Olbas Oil into a Pyrex bowl filled with hot water, and then draped a towel over my head and around the bowl, so that I could breathe the vapours. My dear old Mum used to swear by this stuff when I was a kid.

I think after about half an hour under the towel, my head felt marginally clearer, so I took full advantage of this, and went straight to bed.

The next day, I was on an 0500 start, and would be co-ordinating the whole of the flight operation at Heathrow for the Mighty American Airlines.

Happy Days at LHR T3 Gater Room L25 – AA European International Flight Operations.

Waking up well before dawn, the hot shower did little to improve either my mood or my well-being, and my throat felt like I had swallowed a cheese grater. Overnight, someone had slipped into my room, and stuffed both of my nostrils with glue, and my head had been packed with cotton wool.

Once I was booted and suited, so to speak, I drove mostly on auto-pilot to the Northside staff car park, and waited in the cold pre-dawn air for the staff shuttle bus to ferry us to the Central Area of London Heathrow’s Airport.

The bus soon filled with security-screened zombies, bright in their High Vis jackets, and the uniforms of many different airlines. The conservative navy blue of my Flight Operations uniform was overshadowed with the bright crimson red of the Virgin Atlantic hostie who plonked herself next to me.

Muted desultory conversations murmured around the bus, but in the main, we all slumped in silence each still longing for bed.

Arriving at the central staff bus stop, I briskly strode the five-minute walk to Terminal Three, the home of American Airlines. The check in hall was almost deserted as I walked through, but some of my colleagues from security were already at work, checking and calibrating the X-Ray equipment and testing the baggage belts and check in computers.

Pushing the large, heavy-duty vinyl doors open, I walked down the gloomy corridor towards the baggage make up area, and waited in line to have my ID card inspected, and walk through the arch scanner.

On this morning I was feeling too miserable to engage in my normal banter with the Indian lady who normally manned this isolated post.

I arrived in the Ops room, snotty and grotty and made myself a hot Lemsip, and then went to look at the movements board, which had been updated by Mick on the night shift. It looked like the system was running normally, with all of the birds departed, and heading east, and no obvious delays or cancellations.

The first arrival from JFK would be hitting the tarmac at about 0615, so I had time to check in with all of the other parts of the operation, doing radio checks with check-in, arrivals, gates, security, catering, special services, ground movements and engineering.

I then sat back sipping mournfully at the Lemsip, in the vain hope that it would clear my head and ease my throat.

It did neither, and by 1300 I was feeling really rough. Thank goodness the shift had run smoothly, with no problems or incidents.

When I got home I was feeling hot and sweaty and my skin had become super-sensitive.

I decided to have a good soak in a hot bath to try and warm up, and feel a little more comfortable.

My nose was still blocked, and my sinuses were still jammed, and I felt totally congested.

As the bath was running, I spotted the small brown bottle of Olbas Oil, still sitting on the shelf over the hand basin, where I had left it after using it the previous evening.

It was then that I had my brainwave.

Such an innocent looking bottle…

I could save time if I were to mix the Olbas Oil into the bath water, and gain the benefits of a relaxing tub of hot water whilst the vapour gently penetrated and cleared by nasal passages.

Unscrewing the cap, I looked at the bottle top. There was a small nozzle similar to the shaker top on a bottle of vinegar, so I could apply it easily.

According to the instructions, all I had to do was drip a few drops into a bowl of hot water to clean my passages.

I considered this, and decided that if I needed a few drops in a bowl, I would probably need to shake a considerable number of drops into a bath that probably held 100 litres.

I upended the bottle, and vigorously shook the bottle, watching as the droplets scattered over the water.

I stirred the water around briskly, and was satisfied to smell the pungent odour wafting from the water. I could see that the drops had each formed a miniature puddle that floated on the surface, some refracting the light in a myriad of rainbow hues.

Satisfied that all was well, I climbed gingerly into the bath, the water coming up to the middle of my calves.

Crouching down, I slowly eased myself into a sitting position, sighing deeply as I relaxed back into the water, leaning back into the wonderfully warm water.

I had just shut my eyes, when the burning began.

It started gently initially. A slight tingling in my crotch, and a faint burning in my armpits.

My eyes snapped fully open as suddenly, it felt as if someone had taken a welding torch to my family jewels, the heat searing and eye-watering. I clambered up out of the water as fast as I could, but getting out of the water did nothing to ease my immediate predicament.

The logical side of my mind was telling me that the oil-based product was clinging to my skin, but the other side of my brain was demanding that I use the abrasive cleaning sponge to rid my skin of the intense fire caused by the herbal napalm that was soaking the most delicate bits of my anatomy.

I hauled the shower head from behind the taps, turning the water on full, and attempted to douse the areas that were blazing with the intensity of a bush fire, but it was to no avail, the Olbas Oil was diligently refusing to release my soft tissues from its inferno grip.

Hopping out of the bath, I literally ran down the stairs, and grabbed an ice pack from the freezer, and jammed it lovingly between my legs, praying that Olbas Oil wouldn’t leave chemical burns that would need treatment at Ashford General’s A & E department. That would take too much explaining away.

The ice pack made little difference, but eventually, after what seemed like three days, (but was in fact about twenty minutes) the pain subsided a little, and I was able to face returning to the bathroom.

I spent a good half hour cleaning the bath, wiping the walls and base with a cloth, and rinsing and re-rinsing the entire structure to ensure that there was no Olbas Oil left to interfere with future bathing enjoyment.

I dried off, and eventually conceded defeat to my cold, and went to bed, tired, damp, feverish and very delicate.

So, folks – whatever you do, DON’T climb into a bath laced with nasal decongestant -Stick with bubble bath or foam bath.

Go Well…

Driving Motorcycling Motoring Old Friends Society Transport Travel Uncategorized Vehicles

Beer, Bikes and Burritos – a Ride Out to Southern California’s Most Famous Biker Bar at Cooks Corner

What on earth possesses a man, evidently in his late fifties to wear a tassled baseball cap back to front, and wear a ripped tee shirt bearing the legend “Red Rider – Death Machine”  My mind is definitely boggled. He arrived by pick up truck rather than a hog, so I was a little confused as to why a Ford Ranger could be regarded as a Death Machine.

Unless there is something I don’t know…

I was sitting at a beer-stained table at Cooks Corner, a well-known biker’s bar in Orange County, California.  Sitting in front of me was a large pitcher of ice cold beer.  The hubbub of conversation was frequently overwhelmed with the booming thunder of a large capacity Harley Davidson arriving, or the bellow of one accelerating hard up East Santiago Canyon Road, heading for Silverado or the Limestone Canyon National Park

Cook’s Corner, Trabuco Canyon, Laguna Hills, California

Just behind me, a simple stage had been set up under an awning upon which was a drum kit, three guitars and a keyboard. As it was a warm and sunny lunchtime, the place was filling up fast. I have never seen so many tattoos, leather waistcoats and goatee beards….and that was just the women!

Plenty of seating and near to the stage!

The atmosphere, for a busy biker bar was relaxed and friendly, with everybody up for a good time. And the hubbub of happy conversation bubbled around the place. 

As the advance guard, I had located a table capable of seating the eight people in our party, which was already occupied by a middle aged couple. Evidently, the man hadn’t been stroked by the happy stick, and neither had his wife, who bore an expression suggesting that she had just been engaged in sucking on a particularly obnoxious substance, such as a skunk dung.  

“Are these seats taken?” I asked.  The man stared at me vacuously, giving a shrug, so I assumed that his inability to articulate was due to him being profoundly happy for our extrovert and vociferous group to join him.

I plonked myself down, and inspected my fellow diners more closely. Both in their late forties, they had obviously embraced the West Coast Urban Designer Biker culture. He was wearing a gloss black leather peaked cap, which I imagined he borrowed, or maybe stole from one of the more flamboyant members of The Village People, and wore what looked like a Swarovski diamanté encrusted crucifix around his neck.  Large? I imagine it probably weighed in the region of about a kilo!

His red leather waistcoat was adorned with patches proclaiming his membership of an absurd number of biker clubs, but the biggest patch of all was for The Laguna Hills Motorcycle club.  He also had a patch with a screaming skull embroidered upon it.  In other respects, from his sallow complexion to his soft, pudgy hands, he hardly looked like a biker.  I expect that in reality he was a suburban architect, or ran a firm of accountants.

But then, I am a biker, and I’m a sixty year old balding flight instructor… Go figure!

Tangmere Aviation Museum, with the Triumph Tropy

His wife fared not much better and was also wearing the obligatory black leather cap, although, her’s was of a style favoured by Donny Osmond in the early 1970s.  Her waistcoat was tasselled and covered in biker patches.  

In the ten minutes or so that I sat there waiting for the rest of my group, they never said a single word to each other, and totally ignored me.

When my friends finally arrived after parking their bikes, they spotted me snd descended on the table in a happy chattering gaggle, with three or four conversations taking place simultaneously. I could hear Giuseppe’s strident voice loudly discussing something in Italian, with Francesca, his partner. 

The rest of the group were talking animatedly about motorcycles, aeroplanes, beer and women. 

The beer-stained menu was hastily passed around, and as we were all hungry, we wasted no time in placing our order at the bar. As it was fairly early, the service was relatively quick and our food order arrived quickly. 

A sudden silence descended on the table as we dived in on burgers, fries, beers, and burritos.  Our inadvertent companions, the odd couple, stonily sat there, still not talking, and looking disapprovingly at our group, who were clearly getting noisier in direct proportion to the food and beer that was consumed.

Seeing that my friend’s glasses were almost emptied, I wandered into the bar, and ordered a further two pitchers of ice cold Budweiser, and two Cadillac Margaritas. The cheerful young woman behind the bar smiled at me, saying how much she loved my accent, and then asked me which part of Australia I was from. I replied, dryly saying that I came from a suburb of Sydney called Earls Court. 

Cooks Corner Biker Bar

Taking my proffered cash, she told me she would bring the beers out to our table.

Must have been my smooth-talking antipodean charm!

We finished eating, and I must say, that for a so-called “Biker Bar” the food was superb, well cooked, and full of flavour. The servings were generous, and fantastic value for money.

What a fantastic place. Everyone I met there was friendly, (although I can’t speak for our table companions, as they didnt say a word) and we were made to feel very welcome, by both the bar staff and our fellow bikers.

Everyone was there for one reason – to share good food, cold beers, great bikes and fun memories.

The linguistically-challenged bar girl came to our table, clearing plates. She was really lovely, and simply exuded happy friendliness, exchanging banter and flirting with the customers as she glided effortlessly between the tables. We left her a very generous tip.

It’s a shame I had no Aussie Dollars though…

We all relaxed now, full of lunch and beer and happy to stay in the shade as the temperature continued to rise whilst the sun crawled up the blue fabric of the sky. More and more bikes arrived, with many of the riders wearing nothing more than shorts, tee-shirts and flip flops. Many of the girls riding pillion wore bikinis and little else.

During a quieter period – Just wait until it gets busy!

I shuddered to think of what would happen to them should they have a spill out on the highway.

I glanced at our group.

All in our fifties and sixties, we had all experienced coming off in the past and so were wearing slightly more appropriate wear, and everyone had a leather jacket, gloves, jeans and boots. Not quite what I would wear on the miserable roads of Blighty – back home I would be wearing an armoured leather jacket, armoured leather trousers, armoured boots and armoured leather gloves.

I guess that our climate, and the dreadfully congested roads mean that you have to dress like a mediaeval knight to withstand the risks.

My attention was caught by a group of pasty-faced youths in ripped jeans who were picking up guitars and obviously tuning up with a view to playing, and with unspoken agreement we all decided that now was the time to leave, whilst we still had the benefit of functional hearing.

So, having chilled for about three hours, we decided that a gentle meander through the canyons and passes in the Laguna Hills was in order, so we suited up, and rode back to Coto de Caza via the back roads,  enjoying the warm wind on our faces, as we swooped along the almost empty highways that run through the valleys of the Laguna Hills.

Returning to my friend’s house, we all peeled off our leathers, and spent the rest of the afternoon and evening talking, drinking and watching the sun dip slowly in the west, drowning in the waters off Laguna Beach.

California sunset, from the terrace in Coto De Caza

A good ending to a great day out.

Go Well!