When I was 19 I was almost successful in joining the RAF to become a fast jet pilot. Actually I wanted to be a navigator, but they wanted me to try out as a pilot. I think it was because there was only one other female pilot at the time, who flew Tornado F3s. Sadly my health held me back. I still can’t watch a jet pass without wondering what life I would have led if I had….
Walter “Jesse” James Hibbert is on the left in the picture above. My Grandfather. In his photo album he wrote the following caption under a picture of his own Father ;
“The cause of it all”.
Today is Monday, and the weather is a typical Highland February day. It is wet, and cold, and snowing, but it doesn’t lie, and the mud is coming up over your boots, and even stepping out to the bin brings back in enough of the croft to make the house floors look filthier than the barns. It’s the kind of day that really doesn’t help my mood, doesn’t motivate me or inspire me to adventure. It doesn’t inspire me to clean my over cluttered house, or go and cuddle my soggy horses. It doesn’t inspire me to smile at other parents on the school run, or make the important phone calls I need to. It doesn’t make me want to do much more that seek the comfort of clacking keys on the laptop as I write this. Writing is a very great comfort – spilling out my thoughts and emotions, my fingers moving quickly as my mind, but my body slouched still and quiet. I’m in a complete “funk” and have been since Saturday morning. I’m not even trying to pull myself out of it: I am all too aware that I can’t and only time will do that. This is the introverted side of my personality at play now – the part of me that is like a Highland Pony and wants to keep her feet still and move her mind. My mind is moving so far and fast. It’s racing through decades of memories and imaginings and has been since Friday.
Friday was not a typical February Highland day. The weather was all four seasons in one day, but just the best bits and all perfectly timed to provide perfect extra emphasis to the order of proceedings. Friday was not a typical day at all because it was the funeral of my Grandfather.
The day began with burning bright sunshine from dawn onwards. The sunrise at Rhinamain was more awesome and bright and full of energy than any other day so far this winter. It was as if the sun wasn’t just rising, but more rising to the occasion. It continued on so bright and beautiful all morning that it kept me focused and helped me to concentrate on getting my family organised and out the door in time.
As we came over the top of Tulloch Hill and looked over to the mountains to the south, they were perfectly sugar dusted with snow at the tops, and the sky was so pale blue, the sunlight so yellow that it was a picture postcard day and I found myself thinking “Poul should have taken his camera for this” and then realised that it was probably inappropriate to be taking pictures on the day of a funeral, wasn’t it? We drove over the Struie which was still almost as icy as when Poul and I had skidded and spun off the road as we crossed it at 1am on the way back from work the night before. As I saw in daylight the spot we had finally come to rest at was but a couple of meters from a very steep and long drop into an old dry loch bed, I realised we had been extremely lucky. It also reminded me of the last car accident I had been in, on January 14th 1997, when I had spun and flipped my mothers car and crashed it spectacularly on it’s roof right next to a Loch and the church the funeral service would be held in at 1pm today. Outside the temperature was just three degrees so was only one degree warmer than it had been when we hit the black ice last night, even though that sun had blazed down for several hours now. We drove carefully.
As we got closer to Cannich the sky grew darker. Heavy clouds burdened the sky over Strathglass and reminded me the solemnity that brought us together. As we entered the house snow began to fall.
My Grandfather had been a WWII Air Ace. The RAF had already put two Eurofighters over his house that morning before we arrived, and weather permitting they would put another over the church as he arrived at 12.50pm. We looked dismally up at the low dark grey sky knowing that even if they still sent the aircraft , we wouldn’t see it in this weather.
“It’s burning bright sunshine at home” I kept telling everyone, and they assured me that the day had started that way in Cannich too.
We gathered in my Grandmothers house with other close family members. It was bittersweet to see relatives from far flung places because of the reason we were together, but it was so very touching that they had made the journeys from Yorkshire, Surrey, and even Lake Geneva to be with us. There were many mutterings about the weather, and the fly past.
“Surely these fast jets are up to a bit of snow?!”
“But we won’t see it”
“We’ll hear it, we’ll know it was there”
“It could be completely different in an hours time, it might clear”
“Absolutely, who knows what it will be like by 12.50, this is the Highlands after all”
“Look it’s brightening, it’s looking good up there now” said my Uncle John pointing to a beautiful blue patch with just a few flakes falling away from it.
Mere minutes later the sky had completely cleared and the burning sunshine was back. Grandpa was taken from the house to the hearse in warm, crisp sunlight, and a very small icy breeze. I turned and pointed to the house sign for Poul to read “Thor House” it says and has a spitfire carved into it. Poul bought me a silver Thors Hammer when we first met. I wear it all the time, but today I and both my sisters (without conferring) were wearing the pearl necklaces we had been given by our Grandparents, so I had asked him to wear it and he hadn’t understood why perhaps until then. My grandfather had been one of two people, the other presumably being the Prime Minister, with a launch key to the Thor missiles, Britains first nukes.
I had heard funny tales of drunken dinner parties and invitations to see his “large erection” . He would take the guests to the air field and use his key to start the launch process. Without the other key it could never launch, but it would allow the hanger over the missile to slide back and for the missile to be moved into launch position, erect and pointing to the sky. The use of such deadly weapons as a dinner party trick was a perfect example of my Grandfathers sense of humour and also a wonderful reminder of the different times he served and lived in. Not a chance of any large erections being revealed in modern times with Health and Safety. The idea of a couple of men with keys being all that stood between normality and mass destruction is almost incredible by today’s standards, but then everything he and his peers did is incredible by today’s standards. These kind of men, in the forces of those times, will never be seen again. They were the real deal, actual heroes. No war will ever be fought in the same way as it was back then. Now launches require keyboards not keys, and no close proximity. Aircraft that drop devastation are unmanned drones. It’s unlikely there’s ever going to be any generation of pilot who has to do the kind of dog fighting that Grandpa and his peers did. Engaging the enemy in a far more gritty and personal way. Knowing being shot down, escaping from behind enemy lines if you survived just as my Grandfather had, without GPS to give your team your location, no medicines to deal with wounds like today’s, no surgical techniques to repair or replace what you lost. Flippant erections of nuclear missiles may sound ridiculous or dangerous, or even a gross misappropriation of WMD, but when you think about the kind of war that these men were involved in then you can understand the dark humour that grew out from it. Grandpa was an exceptionally humorous man, it was inevitable it would have a darkened edge to it by the end of the war.
I took Poul, Chloe, one sister and two cousins and we followed directly behind the funeral cars. We had a little giggle that the initials of the undertaker on the car number plates were “WTF” but that soon gave over to emotion as the undertaker walking in front of the cars, down the drive and onto the road stopped at the end, removed his top hat and bowed to the coffin before alighting. It was so terribly moving to see our little Grandfather given the respect he was due.
Throughout the past years and his recent decline we had worked hard to preserve his dignity and ensure he received the respect he was due as a man who had sacrificed a lot of himself for his country. The care he had received privately and from the NHS had been varied. It could be expected that over such a long time as Grandpa had kept going, we would experience both the best and the worst of all situations. 5 weeks previously he had been admitted to hospital with pneumonia and we had gathered, clan style, in the hospital to provide the show of support we hoped would keep the little man first and foremost in the minds of those around him. We also wanted to be there for my Grandmother who, after more than 67yrs of marriage to him, never left his side in the hospital. On more than one occasion she witnessed equipment failure of his oxygen supply or drip and was able to get the staff to come and fix it. For almost two weeks she never left his side, until finally they decided no more could be done, and they would send him home to die – the day before her 88th birthday. At this point he hadn’t eaten in roughly 3 weeks and was being kept alive by glucose. He had almost halved the infection in his lungs and was fighting hard for a man that my Mother had given CPR to and brought back to life after 4 dead minutes. They had said he wouldn’t last that first night, and perhaps it was a gross underestimation of his will power, or maybe it was just the way things worked out, but had they managed to get him feeding sooner I think we may have toasted him at his 95th birthday.
Perhaps if they had known this man, who had got Polio whilst serving in Malta and had been the only one on the ward not to die, they’d have got on board the fight with him. Perhaps if they’d known he had been paralysed completely by Polio with the exception of a single toe, and in “Kill Bill” style he worked that one toe until it became his whole body he could use again, and got right back to work leading squadrons of aircraft.
Perhaps if they had understood his mental fortitude then they would have given him more of a chance and a feeding tube.
Sadly, when the end finally came for him, at home in his bed, his diligent and devoted wife had been admitted to hospital with suspected pneumonia herself and angina. Her heart was literally breaking, and she had completely wiped herself out making sure he got everything he needed. This, for me, is the saddest part of his passing that after all those nights by his bedside she wasn’t there when he finally left. After more than 67 years together, they weren’t together to say goodbye. He’d told me years previously when we thought he was on his way out “I’m not worried about dying, I am just worried about leaving my wife”.
The sun lasted all the way to Loch Miekle. Many were waiting to pay their respects and show support to the family. Outside was a Squadron Leader, highly decorated, that the RAF had sent to represent his other family. We gathered outside and my Grandmother spoke to him, he said to my Mother that the little (tiny) church was beautiful. She replied that one of her granddaughters had been christened here and another two had crashed a car here “so it was special to the family”. We had a little laugh at that, it lightened the tension that was building quietly as the mourners stood waiting to see if we would receive the Flypast.
Of course the RAF did not disappoint, and at 12.50 on the dot, the roar of that incredible engine could be heard swinging into the glen from the west. As it approached and was lining up perfectly over the church it roared louder; a symphony of highly tuned perfection. Finally it came into view and charged over the top of us all and into the distance of the east. I lost sight of it through the tears I could no longer control. It was such a beautiful tribute to him, and so good of the service and country he had devoted himself to, to repay some of the debt. In the stiff upper lip of British service life, there is still affection. Anywhere I meet an RAF serviceman who speaks to me about Grandpa they talk of him and the Air Aces with huge respect and reverence. The contribution is not whittled away by time, and although there’s no one serving now who could have known my Grandfather, they will always see him as one of “theirs”. It was a great comfort to us, as well as very moving, to see such huge physical representation of what he meant to Queen and Country and the RAF. He had led the flypast for her coronation so it could be argued it was only fair she returned the favour.
It showed it wasn’t just us that thought he was special.