Each family has its legends. And in the Cheney clan, one figure always loomed above them all – my father’s uncle Don, a pilot who made history with the 617 Dambuster Squadron in the Second World War.
I met him for the first time in the 1960s, when my dad loaded me into our Mercury Comet and drove me out to Don’s cottage on the Gatineau River. It was a hot summer day, the windows were down, and my father told me Don’s story as we followed the road along the river.
I was a teenager then, so I often tuned out my parents. Not this time. This was the kind of narrative that cuts through teenage self-absorption. In August, 1944, Don and his crew were shot down after bombing Nazi U-boat pens on the coast of occupied France. Three died. Four lived.
One of the survivors was Don, who stayed with the burning bomber and dragged an injured crewman to the door before bailing out. As my father described Don’s long-ago mission, I was transported from the Mercury Comet to a Lancaster over the French coast. The worst things that had ever happened to me were bicycle crashes, not getting the new Beatles album, and getting turned down by a girl. Don’s story took me to a parallel universe where young men lived and died in the skies above Europe.
When I met Don that afternoon, I was in genuine awe. This was a man who fought one of the toughest wars in history, and earned a Distinguished Flying Cross. But when I asked him about his experiences, Don gently shifted the subject.
“It was a long time ago,” he said.
I didn’t see Don for a quite a while after that. My dad was a military officer, and his career took us around the world. When my father died in the 1999, I gradually lost touch with his part of the family. I assumed that Don was long gone. But he and his Lancaster still flew through my imagination, and I never forgot that sunlit day when my dad told me Don’s story.
Even though I hadn’t seen him for decades, my connection with Don endured in unexpected ways. I rented the Dambusters movie so many times I lost count, and when I encountered tough situations, I often thought of what Don had faced at the age of 22. My problems always seemed insignificant by comparison.
In 2008, I got to fly with a restored Lancaster thanks to a pilot friend. There are only two airworthy Lancaster bombers in the world, yet there I was, up in the air with an airplane just like Dark Victor, the one that Don had almost died in more than six decades before.
But that was that. Or so I thought. Then I got some unexpected news a few weeks ago through my brother Rob, who lives in Hong Kong. Rob heard that Uncle Don was still alive. I was astounded. I tracked down Don’s daughter. My brother was right: Don was still with us; so was his wife, Gladys.
I drove up to Ottawa last week, not knowing what to expect. My great uncle was 89 years old, and the deeds that earned him his DFC were 67 years in the past. Would he remember them? Would he remember me?
I pulled up to a senior’s home not far from the Parliament buildings. It was a surreal moment that I had never expected – could my great uncle and childhood hero really still be here?
He was. And Don looked much like he did when I first met him back in the 1960s – a trim, compact man with an ever-ready smile. He was about six inches shorter than me – the perfect size for a pilot who had to squeeze into a Lancaster’s confined cockpit.
We shook hands, and the years melted away. Don’s memory was impeccable (among other things, he remembered the name of the dog I had in the 1960s). We talked about family for a while. Then Don brought out his hand-written pilot’s logbook. It was time for me to finally hear the story of the Second World War.