Celtic Illumination, part 186, Fat Albert
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I suppose my biggest worry was staying out of trouble, not that I was a trouble maker, far from it. Associating with certain people would almost guarantee trouble would come knocking. A new admin wallagh was posted on to the squadron, John Zammo. John and I became good friends; he was a level headed sort of chap. We were gearing up for another trip to Cyprus so John and myself decided to stick to each other and keep ourselves as far away from the madness as we possibly could. But as the great Scot, Robert Burns, once said, the best laid schemes of mice and men go often awry.
This time I was going out on the advance party and returning on the rear party, John was moving with the main party. This would mean that I would have to stay in Cyprus for six weeks. You may think, oh how lovely, six weeks in sunny Cyprus, all I could think of was forty two days of madness that I would have to survive. There were one or two rules we all had to follow when flying in air force aircraft. We had to wear smart presentable uniforms or jacket and tie. This was in case we landed anywhere, prior to our destination, so that we could show Johnny foreigner what a smart turned out bunch of lads we were.
The Hercules aircraft was fondly known as a Fat Albert. The movers and loadmasters would pack all the equipment in and then we would be ushered in to fit ourselves around the equipment. Like a sort of human polystyrene packing chip. The noise was quite annoying, just a constant droning which was loud enough to inhibit conversation. Any communication was done by shouting or hand signals. Once airborne we would find a comfortable slot and stretch out. I always made for one of the side doors and although it was a little strange lying in a forward sort of curve, at least you could stick your face in the small bubble of a window and watch the world crawl past underneath.
We were aiming for Brindisi air base in southern Italy. Our phantoms would follow us. It would be a very quick turn around and re-fuel and with all our birds airborne again and heading for Cyprus, we would load up and follow them. Dave Magee was part of that forward detachment. Dave had started a game of imaginary ball passing in the back of the Fat Albert. People were pretending to spin a basketball, bounce it on their heads and knees and elbows before passing it on. Everyone played because if you didn’t you were fined a crate of beer.
We landed in Italy and were milling around waiting for our aircraft to come in. We were standing in a lazy circle, still passing the imaginary ball to each other, being careful enough to get out of the way of the Italian F104 Starfighters that were zipping about the place as if they were in a grand prix. A small group of Italians had gathered around and were watching us pass our imaginary ball to each other. One brave Italian stepped forward and asked “What is this you do?” Magee of course decided to become the liaison officer. “We are the Royal Air Force baseball display team,” announced Dave. “But where is de ball?” “Aha!” says Dave. “We can’t carry one because of the pressurisation, but we still have to practise!” The Italian accepted Dave’s explanation and spread the information to the assembled crowd.
It was then that I noticed that some of our chaps were missing and without drawing attention to this I looked about. I spotted them in the buildings stealing anything they could loosen. I wasn’t aware that this elaborate ploy had been staged so that the squadron could liberate a few gizzits from the Italians. Someone pulled up on a moped with a shopping basket on the front. There was a small machine gun in the basket. A few minutes later all that remained was the machine gun and I could see the moped disappear into the rear of the Fat Albert.
Our birds came in and went and I had hoped that we would be airborne and away before the Italian authorities would realise what was happening. Of course, our guys were engineers, and very good ones at that. Something happened to the Fat Albert so we couldn’t get airborne and would have to wait for a spare part to arrive the following day, meaning that we would have to spend the night in Italy. With us all dressed to the nines and no aircraft or crews to look after, we could do the only decent thing which would be to go into Brindisi itself and experience the night life. It would have been wrong not to.
We ended up in some posh hotel drinking the night away. Drunk and lost we took the party to the beach where the hotel had a huge collection of sun loungers. As it had been a long day and the drink probably contributed to the fact that we were all exhausted we stretched out and fell asleep. You probably think it might be nice to wake up on a luxury private beach. It’s the sort of place that would attract the right sort of people. Unfortunately it also attracted the wrong sort of people. Some Italian pickpockets had decided to crawl around under the sun loungers and steal our wallets.
One of the guys had twigged what was going on and rather than lie there and think a crab or a mermaid was getting amorous grabbed one of the tea leaves and began to administer his own form of justice while the rest of us woke and applied a similar form of instant righteousness to his comrades. The thieves legged it, well; hobbled away and we laughed the incident off. As we waited for everyone to get themselves together and were trying to decide on the best way to get back to camp and breakfast, we were surprised to see a contingent of Italian police roll up and arrest us all for GBH.
The fecking tea leaves had gone to the local police and declared that we had attacked them, and they had the bruises to prove it. Italian police cells are really cool. I don’t mean that in a seventies, Osten Powers, sort of way. I mean they were fecking freezing and could do with the once over from a mop and some disinfectant. Luckily we were all together so kept each other’s spirits up. Dave was in command and wasn’t that worried about the Italian authorities. He was more worried that someone would notice that absolutely nothing was broken on the Fat Albert but something was missing.
These guys new exactly what small component to remove that would ground the Fat Albert and have us stay overnight in Italy. They wanted to get back and replace it so that the aircraft would appear to miraculously fix itself, the un-serviceability would be put down to being ‘just one of those things.’ Eventually the situation was resolved and we were released from the police cells. The aircraft healed itself and we set off for Cyprus. Although we seemed to have more equipment in the rear of the aircraft I was quite uncomfortable for the remainder of the flight as I kept watching everyone just in case they decided they wanted a night stop in Athens. One day down, and forty one to go, I hoped the following forty one days would be shenanigan free, or at least that I wouldn’t get caught.