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Lost behind enemy lines: Bill and Rocky

IT’S MARCH 1945, just two months before the end of WWII. Bill Barker, 27, is flying his Spitfire on a bombing and strafing mission over Germany. He gets hit by enemy fire, his plane is damaged, but Bill isn’t hurt. He radios his squadron to say he’s returning to base in England as quickly as possible.

Up high in the air it’s a beautiful day. Bill is cold, because the Spitfire isn’t heated very well. The small, knee-high air vent burns one small patch on his leg, but does nothing to warm the cockpit. Luckily, there are no enemy planes on his tail, so Bill feels unthreatened; he can see the patchwork German countryside several miles below. It looks peaceful, despite the war. The steady drone of the Spitfire’s Rolls-Royce 1,000 HP engine keeps Bill company as he heads for home.

Suddenly, the engine dies, and the reassuring hum turns to a quiet whoosh as the plane glides forward without power. Bill checks his gauges. The fuel tank is empty. The gunfire must have punctured his tank. He’s 100 miles from England. He checks his map and realizes he’s still well inside German-held territory.

• • • • •

Bill Barker was born in the Vancouver General Hospital in 1918, at the start of the city’s sudden transformation from a mill town to a vibrant international port city. He grew up in Kitsilano at the corner of Yew and 7th Avenue. Today, that’s a posh address for professionals, a few blocks from the boutiques and gourmet food shops of 4th Avenue. But back then it was like a cottage community, just up the hill from the salty water of English Bay.

Bill and his friends would run down the hill to the shore every morning in summer, to spend the day playing games and swimming. They’d climb back up the incline at lunch, then return to the water for the afternoon. When supper was ready, Bill’s father would bring his large hands together – CLAP-CLAP-CLAP-CLAP – a pause, and then again – CLAP-CLAP-CLAP-CLAP. Even if Bill didn’t hear his father’s claps, his friends would, and they’d urge him homewards.

For two summers, in 1928 and 1929, Bill and his friends were driven south, far out of town, across the two-lane, wooden Marpole Bridge that spanned the south arm of the Fraser River, to a beach next to a remote First Nations reserve near the U.S. border. Bill’s dad hacked a forest trail down the sharp, 200-foot drop from English Bluff so that the boys could camp on Tsawwassen Beach. “It was damned uncomfortable,” says Bill, “all stones.” So they built platforms for their tents. They’d buy milk from the “Indians” (Bill’s term) who lived on a reserve nearby and spend their time exploring the woods, the beach and the mud flats, which stretched out for more than a mile at low tide.

One night, they slept on the beach, and Bill’s father lent them a gun loaded with blanks, as symbolic protection. Bill accidentally fired it in the middle of the night, doing more damage to his friends’ nerves than any nocturnal prowler could have.

Bill’s summer reveries ended abruptly in 1930. His father lost his job as the Depression took hold. Bill never visited Tsawwassen Beach again.

He learned to fly, and spent the first part of WWII training pilots for the RCAF, soaring over the improbable landscape of B.C.’s west coast mountains. Then late in the war, he was summoned to the European theatre of war himself, leaving behind a young wife and two children.

• • • • •

It’s April 2006 and Bill is in trouble. At the age of 88, he still lives independently in Surrey, B.C., his two daughters nearby. Macular degeneration has left him nearly blind, with only limited peripheral vision. His left ear is completely deaf, and the right functions only with a hearing aid; it whines constantly because Bill turns it up too high. Some other ailment – he never explains what – has left his face disfigured, including a skin graft over his left temple. Bill must take strong painkillers every day to cope with his facial discomfort.

This spring, Bill contracted pneumonia and his doctor prescribed antibiotics, without checking for contraindications with his pain medication. The combined effect of the two drugs drove Bill into a helpless stupor, destroying his balance. His daughters rushed him to the Delta Hospital in Ladner.

Two weeks later, he’s back to normal, recovering everything except his balance. He dislikes eating in bed, so he takes his meals sitting in a wheelchair at a table in the visitor’s kitchen. And that’s where I meet him. He winks at me with his gimpy eye and shouts, “How ya doin’ kid?” We’re instant friends. He lost his wife to cancer six years earlier, the same slow progress of disease that I’m witnessing this week with my own mother. He sympathizes, but doesn’t dwell.

Despite his disabilities, Bill is a remarkably happy man. He scoots around the 40-bed acute care floor using his feet, even though his arms and hands seem perfectly capable. He wears a pair of battered slippers and the standard-issue blue hospital gown. His hair is always well-combed and his bushy white mustache neatly trimmed. His face is all asymmetric angles as he smiles, winks and nods.

We have snatches of conversation over the course of three days, in the visitor’s kitchen, in his four-bed room, or in the middle of the busy hospital hallway. As nurses and cleaners navigate around his bulky wheelchair, he jokingly chides them: “Hey, get out of the way!” He addresses the nurse that found him a pair of eye shades (so he could nap in the afternoon) as “my angel.” He’s quite a flirt.

Another afternoon he wheels back and forth between his room and the TV lounge, updating his three male roommates on the progress of the Master’s golf tournament, hole by hole.

I’m completely charmed. I show him photos of my family and my sisters. When he examines a family portrait circa 1975, he can’t believe my bearded face. “Wow,” he says, “you were black kid, really black,” referring to my hair in the past tense. He asks where the portrait was taken, and I say Tsawwassen Beach, launching this born story-teller into his fascinating anecdote about camping there in the 1920s.

Finally, in one breath-taking 30-minute stretch, he tells me his ultimate war story, the day he had to crash-land his Spitfire in rural, northwestern Germany.

• • • • •

After the engine dies, Bill frets for a moment, and then his pilot’s training kicks in. Find a smooth field (not a freshly ploughed one) and glide her down. He has trained other pilots on how to crash land in adverse conditions, even how to ditch a Spitfire in the ocean. (Stall it at the last second – he demonstrates with his hands – nose up, look for a wave trough, then get out as fast as you can!).

One of the hazards of crash-landing a Spitfire is the gun sight that is located right in front of the pilot. A quick stop will drive the pilot’s forehead directly into the hard metal barrel; the airplane might be intact, but the pilot gets impaled on his own weapon. Not a good outcome.

Bill finds the soft cover for the gun sight, designed precisely for this situation. But it slips from his grasp as he tries to install it, dropping to the floor of the cockpit, well out of his reach.

The descent goes according to plan, but on his final approach to the smooth field he’s chosen for his landing Bill misjudges the air speed of the Spitfire without the engine running. At 50 miles per hour he’s running out of field and up ahead there’s a row of trees spaced evenly at about 20 feet apart. The wingspan of his airplane is 32 feet. Beyond this hazard is a freshly-ploughed field.

“I aim between the trees,” says Bill. “Thwack go the wing tips – gone – then the fuselage digs into the ground and starts breaking up.” The Spitfire grinds to a halt without catapulting in the fresh dirt. He’s safe, for now.

Bill looks out the cockpit window and sees a farmer on a nearby hill, examining him and holding a pitch fork. He gets out and approaches the man, offering him cigarettes, and then heads for the road behind on foot. Already he can hear children playing in the wreck of his plane. He remembers something: he forgot to turn off all the switches, standard procedure after a regular landing. It might still contain live ammunition. What about the kids? He can’t afford to worry about that now and doesn’t turn back.

He walks for miles, heading west. It’s hard to tell friend from foe, because although the Germans hold this part of the country, they are in retreat. Night falls, and now he’s traversing villages in the dark, Alsatians barking madly at the sound of his footsteps.

He’s found by some Czech soldiers who aren’t sure if he’s a German or an ally. They put a pistol to his neck. He begs them, “Parlez-vous français?” When they answer in the affirmative, he uses his best high school French to explain that he’s an Allied pilot. They withdraw the pistol and lift him to their shoulders. Now he’s a hero.

At this point, I lose the final chapter of Bill’s story – reaching allied territory, the trip back across the channel. More missions? The end of the war?

Lunch has arrived at the hospital and I must check on my mother. Bill says, “Go, go, she needs you.”

I leave WWII behind and re-enter the 21st century, flabbergasted at the light-hearted way he has recounted to me what was probably the scariest incident of his life.

• • • • •

Later that afternoon Bill corners me by the fridge in the lunch room. “The warden is letting me out,” he declares with a huge grin. “My daughter will be here at 10 tomorrow to fetch me.”

I don’t want to miss his departure so I wander over to his side of the floor at 9:45 the next day. He has parked his wheelchair in the middle of the hallway, pointed towards the entrance, his arms crossed over his blue gown as he awaits his release. Hospital staff must walk around him. He explains that he has no clothes to put on until his daughter arrives.

“Come and see me before you go,” I implore. “Room 203. I want you to meet my mother, and I want to see you in street duds.”

“Sure kid,” he replies with his usual grin.

He arrives wearing a short-sleeve blue checked shirt and smart beige pants. Relieved of his hospital uniform it looks like he could make it in the real world.

He rolls in for a quick visit with my mother. She perks up considerably, because his movements and speech are so captivating. As he spins around to leave, he gives mum’s hand a squeeze and says, “If you were a guy I’d say, ‘keep your pecker up!’ ” I’m a little horrified, but mum just laughs and replies, “You fly out of here,” not realizing the  prescience of her farewell.

Outside the room, I meet Bill’s daughter, who is pushing the chair. I introduce myself and she replies, “I’m Rocky.”

“What a great name,” I reply. “I don’t think I’ve ever met a female Rocky before. How did you get it? Is it a nickname or a real name?”

“My dad called me that,” she answers.

“It was the name of his Spitfire, the one he crash-landed during the war.”

My eyes well up in tears, but Bill just winks at me.

“Keep your pecker up,” I say to him as Rocky wheels his chair down the hall.

I never see him again.

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