HIGHER THAN THE ANGELS
The story of a faith that faltered—and of a pilot who flew higher than he knew
ROBERT W. SNEDDON
EVERY NIGHT since his Canadian grandson had become part of the R.A.F. John Macdonald, after he turned out the gas, went to the bedroom window and lifting a corner of the blackout shade peered across the roofs of the narrow street at the sky and driving clouds over the city of Glasgow.
“Humph. Another cold nicht. Willie will be missing his warm bed.”
Outside, as he laid his white head on the pillow, he could hear faintly the continuous clang of steel plates, the staccato clatter of the riveting machines as they fashioned fighting ships, all manner of sea harriers and sea carriers whose skeletons rose gaunt on the stocks for miles along the narrow river Clyde. To the roar of smelting furnaces, the whirr of ten thousand lathes, he fell asleep content that nothing was being left undone to defeat That Man.
Everyone in the neighborhood knew John Macdonald with his tall spare erect figure, the grim uncompromising mask of his rugged features, a man who had worked hard all his life until a few years ago and expected all men to do likewise. And there were few who did not know of his simple faith in the workings of a personal God, hearing and answering all prayer.
He had lived in the same old-fashioned flat for twenty-eight years. Out of it his motherless daughter, his only child, had married and gone with her husband to Canada. They had never come back, never would come back. Willie, their son, was ten years old when an automobile accident robbed him of father and mother and sent him to the care of his grandfather, the only relative capable of supporting him.
The result was anything but happy. As the years went by, Willie found himself held in check at every turn. A healthy young animal with the active limbs and unlimited energy of the country in which he was born, he was never still for a minute. He was running, jumping, kicking or throwing a ball, shouting at the pitch of his lungs, wearing out his shoes as fast as they were patched, tearing his clothes.
His grandfather, who had gone to work as an apprentice cabinetmaker at the age of twelve, saw something wasteful and wanton in this exuberance of youth. He lectured Willie at intervals, pulling down his long upper lip in a severe line.
“It’s a wonder you wouldna get some common sense. You think of nothing but your football and your bass ball. At your age I was near to being a man. Away into the house and let me see you at your lesson books.”
Willie finally flared into open anger and uttered the resentful thoughts stored up in his mind.
“What do you think I am? I’m a Canadian and we don’t stand for the way you’re treating me. Why don’t you send me back where I belong? It’s a free country. I wouldn’t care if I never saw you or Glasgow again, the dirty city !”
His grandfather sank back in his chair, white as a sheet.
“Silence, boy. You don’t know what you’re saying. Away to your bed and doon on your knees. Ask pardon of your Maker for your wicked and rebellious spirit.”
But it was the old man, not Willie, who prayed that night.
A TRUCE was patched up, but the relationship was never the same. Both were proud and each believed justice to be on his side. It was a great blow when Willie ceased to go to church. He gave no reason but that he did not want to go. His grandfather consulted Dr. FYeeman, the minister, and that good man gave him what comfort he could.
“The Lord wants no unwilling recruits, Macdonald. Willie’s a fine clean lad. He’ll be a credit to you, and the Lord will take care of the rest.”
That night John Macdonald made an advance to his grandson.
“Old folks is hard to get along with,” he said slyly, “but we’re not always so bad as we are painted. Here, Willie, you’ll be needing some spending money.”
Willie looked down at the shilling in his hand, “Oh gee, thanks, grandfather.”
“Aye, and if you like to be off to the cinema, away with you.” And as Willie looked at him incredulously, for movies were characterized by his grandfather as trash, he added brusquely, “Away with you. Why are ye standing in the doorway? There’s a draught like to blow me out of the room.” The door closed. He heard Willie clattering down the stone stairs whistling loudly. And as he sat down to fill his pipe he was thinking: “His mother used to sing about the house. Willie is getting to look like her more and more every day.”
There was no prouder man in the old city the day he opened the pages of the Glasgow Herald and read the name of William Moffatt among those who had passed the entrance examination for the medical course at the University on the heights of Kelvingrove Park.
“It’s the least I expected of you,” he said quietly, though had Willie studied his face he would have seen a gleam of jubilation lurking in the corner of his eyes. “I would have been taken awful aback if you hadna passed. How long afore you’ll be a doctor?”
“Five years,” said Willie with a touch of sullenness. He had expected some little show of appreciation from his grim grandfather. He had worked hard enough to please anyone.
The sharp-faced woman who had lately entered the family as housekeeper and maid of all work put her face round the end of the door.
“Supper’s on the table, Mr. Macdonald,” she announced triumphantly.
Willie’s eyes opened wide at the treat laid out on the white cloth. The supper was indeed a “high tea.” Finnan haddies, large white eggs from an Ayrshire farm, scones, cookies, oatcakes, gingerbread, luscious shortbread, all the things for which Scots bakers are famed. Under a knitted cozy was the big silver teapot taken down from the top shelf of the cupboard for great occasions, a wedding or a funeral.
“Sit in, Willie,” said his grandfather with the shadow of a smile. “It’s not every day a grandson of mine passes into the university.”
The grace John Macdonald asked was short. It asked for a blessing on the food and a continuance of divine encouragement to one setting forth into the battle of life. And hearing it Willie began to understand something of his grandfather’s faith. His tongue loosened. He wanted to make a name for himself as a great doctor, to acquire more and more knowledge and skill.
“Just that, Willie,” said John Macdonald finally. “You have the right notion. A doctor is not an ordinary man. He has to have the patience of Job. Half his work is charity, and what between helping the poor and waiting for them that has the money but pays the doctor last, ho has to be a good man. I’m not talking of your fancy physicians with a lot of idle women at their heels and their big fees. I’m talking about the man that sits with some poor woman that’s going to have a bairn and not a penny in the house, and him putting his hand in his pocket that’s not so well filled and sending out for a bag of coal or a basket of groceries. If that’s the kind you’ll be, Willie, it’s me that will be proud of you, and there’ll be money in the bank to start you as a doctor. And now,” he hesitated, “maybe’s you would like to go to a cinema.”
“Yes, if you come with me,” said Willie boldly.
“No, no; you’re not suggesting I should enter one of them.”
“Why not? I saw the minister and his wife there the last time. I’ll get your hat and coat, grandfather.”
“No, no,” John Macdonald protested. But when Willie brought his overcoat he held out his arms to put it on.
At the moving picture house the old man stalked in sternly after Willie and seated himself bolt upright. He insisted on keeping on his overcoat as though ready to walk out, but in a little he whispered to Willie:
‘‘I see they allow smoking. I’ll have a bit draw at my pipe. It will make me feel more at home.”
He lit his old briar and sucked at it contentedly. It was fortunate for Willie that the feature picture was one of the Lincoln stories. His grandfather sat through it silent. He even let his pipe go out. The end came and as they rose to "God Save the King” and the lights came up, Willie saw that his grandfather had removed his glasses and was polishing them with rather unnecessary care.
"They got kind of misted, Willie,” he explained. "Is that all now.”
"Yes. Did you enjoy it?”
"I saw nothing I could take exception to,” said .John Macdonald. "In fact, Willie, 1 enjoyed myself first class. My, yon Lincoln was a grand man. If he had been a Scot this country would have been proud of him, but as yon man said—he belongs to all the world.”
They went home and something walked the street with them, a warmth and better understanding.
THE WAR stirred the old man as nothing else could. He read the papers all day long; he studied maps. He even bought a radio. He found comparisons with the fortunes and misfortunes of the Allies in the Bible. Dunkirk, was it not likp the saving of those led by the Lord in the crossing of the Red Sea^ He grieved over the bombings and the loss of life, yet it never entered his head that the war would affect him personally. There were many like him—there are many still like him, to whom war is but a phantom.
One evening Willie came home from his classes earlier than usual. His grandfather heard him shuffle his feet in the hallway as though reluctant to enter. He glanced at him sharply.
Willie did not answer. There was something strange in his manner.
"What’s the trouble. Out with it, Willie.”
Willie cleared his throat.
"I’m going into the Air Force.”
His grandfather stared at him and rose to his feet. “You’re what? You’ve thrown up your university, have you? What do you think you could do? If a German was to blow on you, you would fall down.
The Air Force. Ye have a mind to be flying higher than the angels. Well, ye have a long waytogo,my mannie.” "I’m to report tomorrow for examination. I’d better be getting ready.”
"But your doctoring, Willie,” said the old man hoarsely. "What of that?”
“My studies can wait. I’m young still.”
"Aye, you’re young. Too young
to die. Oh, Willie, why did you not come to me first? But if you’re set on it, I’m not the man to hold back any kin of mine from serving his country. It’s a blow to me, but I’ll not stand in the way of duty.”
Willie went away. His letters were few but his grandfather thumbed them till they fell to shreds. At last Willie came home for three days leave, ready to go into active service. He was full of a strange lingo which his grandfather bore patienti}. This talk of "Mickey Mouse,” which was a lever to release the "eggs” or bombs. Talk of "George” and "Mae West,” an automatic pilot on the "kite” or "crate” and the airman’s life belt, and other oddities of language confused the old man but he tried to understand.
The three days passed. The pair went to the station, standing and looking at each other without tears or other show of emotion. It was a national tradition that suchlike shows of emotion should be kept inside the home, if anywhere. John Macdonald was holding a large parcel and as the train whistle blew he thrust it into Willie’s arms.
"There’s woollens in the parcel. See you put them on. You’ll need them in the clouds. And here’s a Bible, a wee one. Maybe you’ll find time to read it. Never forget you’re a Macdonald— oh, I’m not forgetting your father, dear no.”
The train was moving as Willie shouted something in reply, but what he said was lost. The old man stood straining his eyes after the tail of the long train, then walked slowly away.
Dreary months dragged on, months of trial, pain and grief set down in the blood and tearstained pages of history. A letter now and then from Willie told of flights over French ports and Germany as fighter escort for the big bombers.
Continued on page 22
Higher Than the Angels
Continued from page 11
-Starts on page 10
He was w’ell. He had nothing to complain about except the weather. Too often it was “ropey.”
John Macdonald’s spirits rose. Surely the divine cloak of protection was cast about the lad’s shoulders. Everyone asked about Willie: Postie with the letters, McBain the grocer, Thompson the butcher, Mrs. Eraser in the newspaper and tobacco store, Dr. Freeman the minister, and even a host of folk he did not know but who knew Willie. Aye and a lass, too, a bonnie lass who said she was a friend of Willie, a sensible lass he had to admit. They had a fine time talking about Willie.
One day Dr. Freeman came to call. The old man answered the door himself.
“Come your way in, Minister.” “Thank you. I hope you are well.” “Yes, yes, so so. There wasna much sleeping last night.”
“Three o’clock before the all clear. It was a very sad night for some of our people.” Dr. Freeman’s face grew graver. “Macdonald, I would give my right arm off if I did not have to come on this errand. Willie has been taken away from us. He died bravely, and his country is proud of him this day. I just had word from my brother, the chaplain with the R.A.F.”
The old man stared at him almost as if he had not heard.
“‘The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away/” said Dr. Freeman. “‘Blessed be the name of the Lord.’ Let us go down on our knees, Macdonald, and beseech comfort for you in your hour of affliction.”
He knelt down by his chair. John Macdonald stood for a moment as though about to follow his example, then he stiffened.
“No, I’ll do no praying. I’ve said my last prayer. What good has praying done me or him that’s dead? First my wife, then my daughter, and now all that was left me. I prayed the Lord to protect Willie, and He has turned a deaf ear to me. Dinna speak to me of God.” Dr. Freeman rose to his feet. He was white, his face was lined.
“My poor friend, I understand,” he said in a voice that trembled. “But turn to God. He alone can comfort .and console where man fails.”
He went out softly. John Macdonald bowed his head over his clasped hands at the table, but not in prayer. That night he told his housekeeper, should the minister call, to say he was not seeing anyone; and he who attended the kirk, rain or shine, went there no longer. He sat at home with his grief. Had he been younger he would have enlisted. He was too old even to be a fire fighter.
ONE AFTERNOON two months later the front doorbell rang. The housekeeper answered it and came into the room where lier employer sat.
“There’s a man asking to see you,” she announced timidly.
“I told you I was seeing no one,” he said impatiently. “What kind of a man is it?”
“It’s a sojer, Mr. Macdonald.”
“A soldier? What would he lie wanting with me?”
“Bring him in.”
She went off to come back with a tall young man.
“Yes,” said the old man gruffly. “What’s your business?”
“My name’s Cameron. I’m in the Royal Air Force and I’m home on sick leave. My folks live in Langside.
I was a friend of your grandson.” “Will you sit down. I’m sorry I canna offer you any refreshment. You knew Willie, did you say?”
“Yes. We were very close friends. Willie spoke about you many a time.” “Aye, he would do that. I believe the lad was fond of me in his way.” “He was, sir. He had a great regard for you. I was fond of him myself—we all were. It was a great loss to me and all the others when he had to go.”
John Macdonald steadied his voice and his gaze.
“Tell me, did you see him die?” “Yes, I was his gunner in one of the new two-man fighter planes. Our squadron went up to intercept a swarm of Jerries making for Hull. We gave them what they needed—I got a Messer myself, I and Willie. We put up a good show and they turned tail. We made for our landing. I thought we were wobbling a bit, but we made a perfect landing and I hopped out. Willie sat still in the pulpit, and then I saw him fall forward. But he brought his machine down safe. I owe my life to him. He died half an hour later.”
The old man sat still, without a word, almost as if he had not heard a word.
“Here is his wrist watch, sir, and some of your letters. Oh yes, and his Bible. I noticed the inscription you had written in it:‘Liberty’s in every blow. Let us do or die.’ Burns, isn’t it?”
The old man quickened to life. He bent forward, eyes under the heavy eyebrows searching Cameron’s, eagerness in his question.
“Willie’s Bible, say you? And he would be reading it at times?”
Cameron looked at h'm sharply, and then suddenly he knew the importance of his answer.
“Oh my yes, I’ve seen it in his hand many a time. And now I’ll be getting along. I’m glad to have seen you, sir.”
Long after Cameron’s departing steps had died away, John Macdonald stood looking at the Bible he held in his hand. Then slowly he sat down at the table and opened it. On the flyleaf, under his own inscription, Willie had written: “Dear Grandfather, if this Bible gets back to you, know that what I’ve learned from it will have helped me to do my duty when the time comes.”
Dr. Freeman looking out over his congregation on Sunday morning saw that John Macdonald was once more within the fold.
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