The firm-jawed young man gazed at a distant blue horizon. The bright sunshine narrowed his eyes and made his cheeks glow. The goggles perched on his head glinted dazzlingly, holding the flying helmet snugly about his head. His fur collar, and the absence of perspiration, indicated the cold of his surroundings. A radio mask hung loosely below his chin, and parachute straps criss-crossed his khaki flying suit. The pilot was confident and determined, looking ahead to a bright future. By his right arm sat a roundel, the circular identification mark of British aircraft, but with the red inner circle replaced by a Canadian maple leaf. Next to this the words ‘Royal Canadian Air Force’ stood proud, while above the young man’s head flew the jolly enjoinder “Join the Team!” Rollie yelped as a fist punched his shoulder.
“Quit staring at that poster, you fat-head. Let’s get inside!”
Rollie followed his buddy through the small dark doorway that led to the rest of his life. The recruitment office was old and dusty. Dirt-brown paint peeled on the walls, though posters covered much of it, declaring ‘Let’s go!’ and ‘Ce qu'il faut pour vaincre’. Blue smoke curled in the hot beams of June sunlight that slanted through the grimy windows. The uniformed man behind the desk took a draw from his cigarette and watched them approach from eyes narrowed against the smoke. He licked his nicotine-stained fingers and took a form from a pile by his elbow, then picked up a stubby pencil.
“Name,” he said, wearily, without looking up. It had been a long day.
“Rollie Bucholz, sergeant,” announced Rollie, cheerily.
“John Jensen,” Jensen added, beaming a huge grin at the man. The grizzled old veteran looked up from his form with a sigh.
“I’m a warrant officer, son, not a sergeant. Once you join up, you call me ‘Sir’.” He eyed the two young men doubtfully. “You two come as a pair, do you?” He waved away their beginning explanations. “Hell, why not? It don’t matter to me. I can just as easy process you both at once.” He took a second form and laid it alongside the first, then pointed his chewed pencil at Rollie. “Name?”
“Rollie Ernest Bucholz.”
“Rollie, eh? My nephew’s called Rollie. Good solid name. It means ‘renowned throughout the land’. You going to be renowned, son?”
“I just want to fly, sergeant. Sir, I mean. Put the kibosh on Hitler and the rest of those jerks.”
“Good man. You’re pilots, then? We’re crying out for pilots.”
“We are quite possibly the finest pilots this side of Howard Hughes,” Jensen boasted proudly.
“No lines, Johnny, not here,” Rollie cautioned his ebullient buddy. He wanted this man to like him. The old fellow represented experience, knowledge, and the thrilling future that awaited them, a life of adventure, and the pride that came from knowing you were fighting against the world’s evil.
“Sorry, sir, Johnny’s a bit of a pistol but he’s a good egg at heart. To be honest, we haven’t exactly flown round the world like Hughes nor anything, but we do have some experience. Enough to know that we’d be good at it.”
The warrant officer looked into Rollie’s eager eyes. Fresh-faced ardour shone from these two boys, and the old stager felt an echo of the thrill that he had experienced when he had signed on for the incipient CAF at the end of the last war. Back then he had yearned for adventure. He had found instead a life full of form filling, as his superiors decided that he would better serve them by piloting a desk rather than an airplane. How disappointed his younger self would be to see him now spending his days wasting away in a hot office. He liked these boys. Perhaps they would find the excitement that had escaped him.
“OK, boys,” he said, gruffly, “Let’s fill in some bumf. You first, Mr. Renowned-throughout-the-land. B. U… help me out here.”
“B. U. C. H. O. L. Z.” Rollie chirruped, with practised ease.
“Date of birth?” the warrant officer continued, scribbling Buckoltz in the name box, with a ‘k’. Rollie didn’t correct him. He wanted to get on with this, and there’d probably be plenty of time for that later.
“September twenty-eight, seventeen.”
“Place of birth?”
“Wagner, South Dakota.”
“South Dakota? You’re not Canadian?”
“No, sir! Dakotan, born and raised!” The warrant officer turned his lined face towards Jensen, who nodded. “Me too!”
“Then what in tarnation are you boys doing in Winnipeg? You live here?”
“No, sir,” Rollie told him, keen to get things moving. “Again, South Dakota. We just arrived in Winnipeg today. Five hundred and sixty miles due north, sir, by thumb. It took us three days.”
“We slept in a barn last night,” Jensen added, helpfully.
“Well now, that explains your hair at least,” said the old-timer. Jensen licked at his fingers and tried to smooth down his reluctant hair. The officer continued to growl at them. “More saliently, what are you doing in here? In this office?”
“What’s ‘saliently’ mean?” Rollie asked with a puzzled expression. He suspected it might mean ‘salty’, but that couldn’t be right, surely.
“It means ‘to the point’. And that point is, the USA ain’t in this war.”
“We know that, sir. That’s exactly why we came up here. We’re antsy to fight the Nazis, and we can’t do that from home. We thought you might like us to fight for you.”
The warrant officer put his pencil down and scratched his bald patch.
“Son, do you realise the gravity of what you’re trying to do?” he asked.
“Sir, the war has been going on for a year. Everything that I, well we, believe in — freedom, equality and that — is now in a very precarious position. We can’t wait around forever for our country to see the light and do the right thing. Besides, we want to join the best flying club in the world: the Royal Air Force.”
“Fine words. But son, if you do join the RCAF, you’ll have to pledge allegiance to King George. America does not look kindly on such actions, pledging your allegiance elsewhere. It’s likely you’d lose your US citizenship. Hell, you might even be locked up if you dare return home again.”
“We're willing to take that risk,” Jensen said, grim-faced. “The war's gonna come to America eventually, and we don’t want to be drafted as grunts when it does.”
“Our aviation instructor back in Wagner,” said Rollie, “he told us that something called the Clayton Something Committee could assist applicants. Now, what did he say exactly?” Rollie stumbled over his words.
“The Clayton Knight Committee would assist applicants interested in the many positions available in both British and Canadian aviation,” Jensen supplied. “He sent us to a hotel lobby, where a helpful gentleman suggested we should enquire about aeronautical jobs at the recruitment office in Ottawa.”
“This ain’t Ottawa,” the warrant officer sighed.
“It's a hell of a lot nearer,” Rollie told him, “So we thought—”
“—why not come here instead?” Jensen finished.
“I’ll give you one reason right now,” the warrant officer said. “I don’t have a damned idea how to process you. You’re the first Americans to turn up here, and we’ve been given no instructions about what to do. Typical SNAFU.”
“But we’ve come all this way, and we want to …” Rollie glanced at a poster on the wall, and read from it in execrable French, “Ce qu'il faut pour vaincre.”
“Ha ha ha!” the warrant officer guffawed. “You want to ‘This is what it takes to win’, do you?”
“Damn it, yes!” Rollie ejaculated. Surely they were not about to be turned away?
“I’ll tell you what I’ll do, boys,” the warrant officer told them, “I’ll look into this. I’ll ask for instructions on what to do in this situation. Be warned though, bureaucracy in the military moves slower than a run-over skunk.”
“Then what shall we do? Shall we come back here tomorrow?”
The warrant officer took a draw from his cigarette and blew out a fragrant cloud of blue smoke.
“Give it a month.”