Once in a blue moon: a first

Dustbin men have become ‘refuse operatives’ and perhaps lorry drivers will become ‘logistics deliverers’ but customs and excise officers just have to live with the title; it is what it is. Consequently, I had no great expectations when I met my father-in-law (FIL) to be and I heard that he was a customs and excise officer; my heart beat no faster even if it did for his daughter. But there was a most unexpected bonus to be had from this relationship – let me explain.

He lived outside Bedford, not far from the Cardington air hangars, those vast domes of industry. At this time, in the late 1960s, the Goodyear airship was being assembled inside these premises with most of the components arriving in this country from the States. Needed: one customs and excise officer to supervise the arrivals from abroad.
This was a long job and FIL was on good terms with the workers. Slowly, the airship grew until it was ready to fly; would FIL like a ride? Silly question, really. Test flights were being held at Biggin Hill airfield in Kent so would FIL like to come down with family members – another silly question. What an opportunity. But FIL, for all his quiet and self-effacing manner, had something better in mind for his daughter and future, very excited son-in-law. Another event was to take place the day before the test flight.

So it was on one beautiful Saturday morning in mid-summer, he drove us down to Crystal Palace where the Amateur Athletic Association championships were being held, championships that included my running idol, Dave Bedford, he of the red socks, unruly hair and devastating stamina. He was world record holder for the 10,000 metres, every victory achieved in the same manner – a simple grinding down of the opposition with a metronomic pace that defied opposition; it was mesmerising, especially to a runner such as myself with a distinctly limited amount of speed as opposed to stamina. He won, and I exalted in that victory. All was well with the world, and tomorrow was Biggin Hill.

The airship was vast, tethered to the ground with distinctly low-tech ropes, and dwarfed beneath it was a gondola that held a handful of slightly apprehensive travellers with the pilot in touching distance. The huge vessel swayed in the breeze and, with helpers releasing the ropes, it rose into the air. I had never been in a plane before, much less a box under a balloon. Totally mesmerising. Lost for words. The world tilted below us and we all just watched, bog-eyed with curiosity and silent wonder.

Landing was, it has to be said, a little haphazard. The craft tilted sharply towards the ground where helpers stretched up to grab the dangling ropes. We were down, but the whole weekend had been utterly unforgettable, one big up.

Bob Forster

October – November 2018