Saturday, 7 November 2015

For Fuzz

Burns Foster
My dad always called him Fuzz.  He never explained why. It wasn't until years later when Fuzz and his wife Kay came for a visit that we learned his name was Burns. Kay did not call him Fuzz any more than my mom called my dad "Ginge"- which was the name Burns called my dad. This was mystifying for us kids because Fuzz was the guy who featured in many of Dad's stories as bomb-aimer of their Lancaster "S for Smitty". Burns was someone else altogether.

My dad was a pilot in World War II. Fuzz was a bomb-aimer who described his job on the plane as follows:

“Fuzz”, Burns Wilfred Foster, Bomb-aimer, probably caused more disturbance than the others. He sat beside the skipper and shoved the throttles through the gate on take-off; took a position beside the navigator and behind the pilot to operate Gee and H2S and pass fixes to the navigator; down to the bomb hatch to fuse bombs upon crossing the enemy coast; drop window (foil strips) to confuse enemy radar, give the pilot directions to the target—steady,steady, left left steady, push the button and wait before calling bombs bays closed. Much the reverse on the way home.
Burns far left and my dad third from the right.

I think about Dad and Fuzz and their navigator Doug as they once were, bright Canadian boys barely out of high school. How young they were. How eager. I picture them flying through the dark skies over Europe, skies pierced by searchlights, holding their breath as they prayed to escape detection by the enemy. As they watched one plane after another fall in front of them, at some point did they think their luck would run out? I imagine Fuzz and Dad and Doug working in a kind of strange rhythm that must have developed over their many missions, reacting to whatever came at them. Hoping their bombs would hit the target. Mission after mission, returning unscathed. My dad's neat notes in his log book tell a tiny part of the story in his own perfect block letters, "FLAK HOLES IN KITE."  "SAW FIVE KITES SHOT DOWN, 2 CHUTES OPEN." On D-Day "GOOD TRIP EXCELLENT NAV. BRIDGE AND HIGHWAY." "WELL PRANGED." Once in awhile "RESULTS DOUBTFUL" and once "WE DID IT AGAIN!"


I imagine the adrenaline rush. The camaraderie. The joy and relief after a safe landing. And I wonder too, did they dare dream of the future that they might never experience?  

These life and death experiences must surely have shaped the men that they became. Confidence, faith, civic-mindedness and compassion were qualities they all came home with. An appreciation for what they had. And friendships that lasted a lifetime. Dad and Fuzz had a special connection in those exciting years in 419 Moose Squadron. Their experiences in the air created a bond as did their time away from their missions. 
The home of Gwen Smith in the Lake District.
On leave they once spent time on an estate in the Lake District. My dad boasted that he had once played on the same pool table as Winston Churchill. I wonder if Fuzz was with my dad the time these gullible young lads met some girls in the pub-perhaps the infamous "Oak Tree" down the road- girls who told them they would meet them in church the next day. The boys showed up and the girls never arrived.

Burns was not the youngest of my dad's crew as I once thought- he says he had five months at least on my dad and Pete was younger yet. He went on to become a pharmacist in Ontario and had a couple of kids and now grandchildren and great grandchildren. My parents received Christmas cards and letters from them every year. Once they came to visit. Years later we drove across Canada and met them. I know very little about him but I know he is a good man who has lived a good life.

Every June 6, Burns used to phone my dad. They talked about their families and their lives. They caught up with stories about the rest of the crew. I don't know if they ever talked about what they did on that fateful day-D-Day-a day that changed the course of history. Did they reminisce about their flight over the coast of Normandy or the bridge they bombed, the night they flew so low they could feel the bomb blast in the cockpit? Did they recall their amazement as they looked down on the ships that filled the English Channel on their return flight? 

I contacted Burns when my dad passed away and every now and again I hear from him. An email entitled, "Love of my life" telling me that Kay, to whom he had been married for 72 years, had died. Another time, an apology, saying that even though his picture had been in his local paper as being a "tech savvy senior" he did not know how to accept my accidental LinkedIn request. More than once he has complimented me on my blog and thanked me for being my father's daughter because "that, of course, is how I make the connection." That is a kindness not many would think of. Burns and I were both excited to hear from the grandson of the one missing member of the air crew. John Knox junior had read my blog. I sent him photos he had never seen. Burns shared stories with him. In my Dad's absence, Burns and I speculated about why their old wireless operator had fallen out of touch. 

Now, every June 6, Burns reads my blog and sends me an email. Perhaps I am the only connection he has to his past: the only connection that remains to his good friend Ginge.

Once in awhile the phone rings and I see "Burns Foster" on the call display. My heart skips a beat and I smile. Yet while he talks my eyes well with tears and I can barely speak because it's like for a few minutes my dad is right there beside me. The emotion is almost overwhelming. I too have a connection, a connection through my dad to a man I have scarcely met and barely know. A connection to the lively young Fuzz who came alive for me through my father's stories. A connection to the much older Burns, a wise and gentle man who is so much like my dad. A connection that transcends the miles and the years. 

Burns Foster. The last living connection I have to my dad and his generation. I am glad to know him.
Dad in the middle at the back, Burns far right front.