h2>Dating : The Spitfire Pilot
Late evening had settled uneasily over Ben More as the ominous thundercloud overhead the mountain signaled a portent of things to come. Things happen on the island, they just do.
Larry Schilling was a former Spitfire pilot, serving with 603 Squadron between 1942, when he was nineteen years old, and 1945. Larry was a musically talented teenager, and after the war, became professional, joining the London Symphony Orchestra in 1957, which happened to be the year I was brought to the island, an adopted child.
Dad knew Larry well and liked to join with him and a couple of the guys to play at the local pub. Larry was a bit of a fireball. That’s how dad described him. I was around fifteen years of age when I really got to know Larry and of course was intrigued by him, he was a hero. I mean, honestly, a nineteen-year-old Spitfire pilot!
Larry was regularly away from home, off touring the world with the LSO. In 1963, he returned home disgruntled, having had a falling out with the conductor of the orchestra, and played his last professional musical note in Philadelphia, refusing to go back when the conductor was fired the following year.
After the war, Larry had kept up his flying in civilian life, and in later years kept a Cessna at the Glenforsa hotel’s grass airfield, built to accommodate the air ambulance’s service to the island.
Larry had made frequent flights to the Isle of Skye, but on this day he flew her back, then having dinner at the Glenforsa Hotel that included a bottle of red wine and later, whisky. The hotel was busy with Christmas tourists. Larry invited us to join his table. It was the first time Maddie and I met Maureen, purely coincidentally, as we had also booked to have dinner. We had known for years that Larry had a girlfriend, though he was very secretive about their relationship. We left them with their drinks, having invited them to come over on Christmas Eve. Larry lived just fifty yards away, and we’d been neighbors since my marriage to Maddie three years earlier.
Maureen, however, then left the island, still four days before Christmas Day, and we were naturally surprised. The next couple of days Larry didn’t show up for his usual lunchtime beer, causing dad to ask if I knew why. I didn’t know but suspected an upset had occurred between him and Maureen.
In the evening of that same day, Maddie and I had settled down to watch an episode of Fawlty Towers. The phone rang, irritating the hell out of me because on the TV, Basil was beating the crap out of his Morris 1100 car with a tree branch.
The phone was sat on a three-legged table next to the front door. It was George, manager at Glenforsa. “Harry,” I heard him say as a sudden gust of wind blew hard, determined, it seemed, to prevent George’s voice from reaching its destination. “Harry?” he yelled again.
“I hear you George, what’s up?”
“It’s Larry. He’s taken a boat out. He’d had a skinful before he left. I thought he was going home. There’s a force 8 coming.”
An hour later, dad pointed to a bobbing point of light on the water in the darkness. Larry was in a bad way, his windbreaker briskly flapping, and paying no attention to the violent rocking of the boat. He looked concussed, blood pouring from a wound to the back of his head. We dragged him aboard Nightshadow and towed the small motor cruiser back to Tobermory.
The loud thump of running footsteps on the wooden planking of the jetty made me look up. “Dear God, Larry, you lucky bastard.” It was Snowy McLeod, out of breath “Christ, I’m getting too old for this,” he said.
“Not old, Snowy, just a little out of shape,” I replied, smiling all over my rain-thrashed face. We yelled above the wind and the water, which was slapping against the side of the jetty so hard any casual observer might assume we were arguing, not that any of us cared what others thought.
Dad grabbed Larry, as if he were going to land him a blow, and said, “Fuck, Larry, we love you to death. I can’t understand why you did this. Are you crazy?”
“Perhaps.” Larry said standing quietly while those words sank in and the howling wind whipped around him. A flash of lightning silhouetted the four of us standing in our yellow slicks against our surroundings, and the resulting clap of thunder shook the jetty and everything in the area.
Many on the island mistook Larry’s action for a suicidal tendency, mostly because there was no way anyone could understand what he had already experienced in his life or what now burned in his heart.
On the afternoon before Christmas Eve, over lunch, I talked to him about the ordeal.
“Initially it was reported that a guest at the hotel saw an explosion out on the water. We thought you’d been struck by lightning, and it pretty much blew you apart. Then, when dad spotted your light, I couldn’t believe how lucky you were. When we dragged you aboard Nightshadow, it was obvious that something had slammed the back of your head. Even now,” I told him, “I cannot figure out why you didn’t capsize. You got damned lucky, my friend.”
Larry just stared into his beer. Something about the word ‘lucky’ then allowed Larry to disclose his heartbreaking decision; a decision he had revealed to Maureen before she left the island two days earlier.
“You think I’m lucky, Harry?” I heard the heartbreak in his voice.
Larry was tall, good looking, and well-liked by those he met. Maureen, from everything we knew about her, was the one woman with whom Larry had formed any kind of relationship. She had dark hair, reminiscent of a soft summer night, and clear eyes that stilled his heart. They shared much the same interests, music mostly, both intelligent, both at their best when full of life. After meeting her, seeing how they were together, Maddie and I wondered why Larry had stopped a few steps shy of asking her to marry him? But Larry had never opened that door for her, even though it was felt by me she gave off the appearance of a woman leaning against the door frame, waiting for him to open it.
Larry met Maureen at Oban High School. They shared a deep youthful bond until Larry left to join the RAF. They kept in touch during his service, and twice Maureen learned his aircraft was lost, but Larry had survived, earning a DFC (Distinguished Flying Cross).
Both sets of parents had lived in Oban, with only Larry’s mother surviving the war.
Larry had explained, shedding some tears in the process, that Maureen was the one woman who had managed to capture his heart. Then, I listened as Larry told a gut-wrenching story of his mother’s admission several years back, that his father had had an affair with a woman living in the same town. It was an affair that resulted in the birth of a child, a girl. Larry’s mother had kept her husband’s betrayal a secret from him, but finally, hearing of her son’s relationship with a woman living on Skye, told him that Maureen was that girl.
Larry and Maureen secretly maintained a between-island relationship, flying from Glenforsa’s 780-meter grass airstrip, that had no runway lights, to Broadford on the Isle of Skye. The two chose never to discuss their relationship as half sister and brother, until three days before Christmas, when Maureen announced to Larry that she wanted a child. He said they could adopt, if they moved away, and Maureen said no.
On Christmas Eve, I watched Larry leaving his cottage. I didn’t want him to leave. We’d had another lunchtime chat over a beer and a platter of cheese, and I asked him, with genuine interest, what will you do? His response revealed an emotionally charged nightmare.
That same evening, around 5:00 PM, through an open kitchen window, I watched him leave his cottage. I turned to Maddie, my wife, “I think he’s going to see, Maureen. I hope he’s not going to let a cruel fate get in the way of their happiness.”
I remember Larry paused at the gate, taking a moment to look up and observe the encroaching storm. I swear he closed his eyes, as if allowing his senses to feel the onset of night, or maybe the tension being held in the night sky. I watched as he walked to his car, the gravel and old pine needles crunching under his feet before watching him drive out of sight as clouds began to illuminate from within as lightning careened throughout them.
I felt two hands rest on my shoulders, “Don’t worry, love. He’s got a big heart. He’ll work out the right thing to do.”
I kissed Maddie on the cheek before stepping outside, wanting to make sure our wooden shutters were securely closed against the storm’s onset, and observed the waters of the Sound becoming untidily choppy. I returned inside, saying to Maddie, “I feel so lost and sad for him.”
“God knows how, but they’ll find a way to move on,” Maddie replied.
Larry took off from the unlit airfield on a moonless evening on Christmas Eve and, after the plane disappeared behind a line of trees, was never seen again.
In discussion with George, I learned he left with every intention of returning the same night. George, with other members of Glenforsa’s staff, had been asked to use powerful torches and the headlights of cars to use as landing lights to guide the Cessna’s landing. Larry had called George from Broadford airfield, telling him he was departing and with instructions to light up the runway at 11:00 PM.
George asked the hotel guests to darken windows or turn off lights to reduce reflections and get a better view of the night landing. Four staff members drove their cars onto the grass verge to help with lighting. George then drove his Ford Cortina to the other side of the runway to illuminate the water, but no trace of the plane was ever seen. At 11:30 PM George called me to tell me he thought the plane must have ditched, having confirmed with Broadford airfield that Larry had indeed departed.
The Coastguard was alerted. The search was mounted on Christmas Day and was huge. The mysterious disappearance soon had everyone of the island talking. They found nothing. Nor did the RAF and Naval Air Service helicopters which, on Christmas Day, began scouring the island and deployed sonar equipment to look for wreckage. The search continued for days, using hundreds of volunteers. Pilot and Cessna seemed to have disappeared without trace. Maureen was unable to be contacted.
The following June a plane was found on the seabed off the Isle of Mull. The wreckage was 200–300 meters deep at the bottom of the Sound. It was reported that the plane’s windscreen was out and both doors still locked. The aircraft yielded no clues as to how it came to be there, or if, in fact, it was Larry’s Cessna.
I don’t know how Larry did it, if he did, but I know why. The morals of the world would frown upon his decision. Maureen’s home looked like the inside of the Mary Celeste. She was never seen again.
In 1988, I received a Christmas Card, there was no message, it was a photo of a Spitfire.