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Merry Christmas, and all that!

20 December, 2007
Merry Christmas! That time of year again, when, somehow, even damp, foggy downtown Victoria, BC is enlivened. Jollity appears from nowhere. Things that would normally cause you to leave the room, or change the channel, are seasonal, rather than weird or saccharine.

Alan Maitland will be on CBC, bringing The Shepherd alive once again: sometimes, I think that story might be the Canadian Christmas yarn. It’s got all the right qualities; ghosts, glories past, and wonders present, benevolence, honour, and a quirky sort of appropriateness.

For anyone who hasn’t been lucky enough to hear this story, here’s how it goes. A young RAF fighter pilot is flying back to Britain from Europe; on Christmas Eve, if memory serves; his jet loses all instruments and communications. As the young pilot tries to signal for help – flying patterns, to alert radar operators of his distress – and his fuel levels sink, a WWII Mosquito bomber comes out of the clouds. The pilot of the old plane signals by hand: follow me!

The lost pilot takes formation on the wing of the Mosquito, and follows his unknown benefactor, through fog and foulness, to an old RAF airfield, all but mothballed since the war. He lands, fuel all but gone, as the Mosquito and pilot vanish again, into the clouds. He’s greeted by a stores officer – one of the base caretaker staff. This worthy, roused by the sound of engines, switched on the runway lights, and came out to see to the visitor. Indeed, this fellow is amazed that anyone could find the station on such a night, as the RDF was stood down long ago.

The visitor, fighter secured for the night, tries to discover the identity of the man who guided him in. He contacts a Met squadron, the last RAF unit flying Mosquitoes: no luck; they retired the last some months ago. Sharp young fellow, he decides then that it must have been a civilian; perhaps some pilot from the war, who, having made it big, took to flying the plane of his youthful glory, and just happened to be in range to assist a lost pilot.

Our pilot is left to the mercies of an old mess sergeant; old indeed, for he was at this very station during the war. The sergeant gets the young pilot a room, and a meal. The room has picture on the fireplace mantel: of a young man, and a Mosquito bomber, with the same call-sign on the fuselage as the one that guided him in. Well, then, he thinks: that’s it! An old Mosquito pilot, who flew from this very station – who would know the coast and the land like nobody else, coming back to the Isles after a raid on the Reich – had indeed taken to the sky that night, and had, for lack of anywhere better, guided the stricken jet back to his wartime station.

He asks the mess sergeant about the young man in the photo – who is he – how can he be reached? The mess sergeant, perhaps thrown for a loop by this, tells a tale of an RAF pilot of that earlier age; a man who would, bombing done, take off again to guide in damaged planes, defying the fog and the Luftwaffe. A fine fellow; nicknamed “the Shepherd.” And one who, one night, just never came back.

Well, listen to CBC Radio One on Christmas Eve, on As It Happens, and you’ll get the real thing, rather than my pallid rememberings!

And all the other holiday traditions will be out in full flight, from those shared even across boundaries of faith and generation to those beloved only of a single family, and treasured all the more for their uniqueness.

So Merry Christmas, Happy Yule, and a grand Solstice to you all!

With the coming of a new Sun,
May Fortune turn your way.

Take Opportunity at a full run,
Follow Heart, what’er Mind might say.

All in balance, high times and low fun;
Live well, and by the way:

Best of everything to you and yours!

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