Sunday, 25 March 2012

99 Red Balloons... By: Trip Williams

  Legends are born unto themselves. Created by man - myth or fact, these iconic symbols of our lives can become something that transcends time.

Facts are often distorted. Blown out of proportion, they usually are embellished to the perception of the teller.

This story is about just that. A band of young airmen destined to become  Legends. It was truly a time of glory.

99 Red Balloons Go By....

It was a Sunday morning at the end of a hot July in 1976. Fog covered the fields of wheat around Canadian Forces Base Penhold, as the sun cast out across the Alberta prairies.  The Air Cadet League of Canada was winding down their first intake of cadets at the base during the summer training program and the proud band of flying scholarship candidates were getting ready for their wings parade.

Traditions are born from the actions of those few who have a vision. On this base, it had become such a tradition. The cadet band marched each and every Sunday morning between the twin barracks that housed the cadets at 6:00 am.  Awakening everyone to the bugles, trumpets, saxophones and drums as they proudly paraded off to base commanders home to play a morning revelry in his honor.  After six long weeks, this event was growing thin. 

That was me in the front row, 2nd from the left.  I was one of the proud few.

The band, you must understand, had become our enemy!  Flying Scholarship was the elite - we were gods among the cadets.  The chosen few who had passed all the exams, and review boards had earned our place at the top of all scholarships.  We were being trained to be pilots.  With this very expensive program came a few elitist privileges. This was, but far from being limited too, being at the front of the line at lunch in the mess hall, wearing civilian clothing on the base when not at flying school, taking the weekends to leave base and escort fair young maidens into Red Deer or Sylvan Lake for a day pass and our most treasured of them all; sleeping in on Sundays!

This is where the war began. You can imagine the irritation that one would be subjected to? listening to the cadets first learning to play those bloody instruments, and then listening to the continued cacophonous noise blaring each and every Sunday as they marched between the barracks! While we were trying to sleep!

The band by all means had their well earned dues forthcoming and I was surely not one to object. At first, the band complained that we should not be allowed to push our way into the mess line at lunch. After all, they didn't see the importance of us returning back to the flight line. Then, we lost our privilege to be wearing street clothes on base. The push was also on for us to loose our weekend forays into town as well.  They had gone too far! It had to stop!

By our last week, our obligations had been met to the flying school and we were now in fact full fledged pilots.  Our wings parade was on the Friday before and we were officially  graduated from flying scholarship. That meant that the last Sunday before we left, was free game. We had only a few more classes to attend that upcoming week to complete a few hours of ground school and then it was then homeward bound.  What a delightful thought.

A plan was proposed - bold and never attempted.  One of daring and total disregard for any of the base authorities and regulations.  Or was it?  Seemed to us that such an endearing had never been attempted and most certainly executed. They say that revenge is a dish best served cold. We couldn't think of anything colder!

Our barracks for flying scholarship was on the north end of the west building; third and top floor.  We had two rooms that bracketed the north end washrooms giving us a perfect killing zone. The Sunday prior had been the trial run.  Timing was everything as we laid out our plans.  180 water balloons were to be launched from our windows raining down a cold and wet tribute to our beloved band cadets!

The morning sun glinted on the horizon as we set up our ambush. It was time.  Beds were pulled into position as the band formed up on the north road. Balloons filled and placed on the lower bunks adjacent to the windows. Twirps and tweets began emitting from the pigeons below as they warmed up - the windows were opened. Loading crews stood by to pass the balloons to the firing teams.

It was show time.

The Sergeant Major hollered out. "Band! By the left - quick march!" The noise exploded as instruments rang out to the Royal Air Force March. Now practiced and accomplished the music was uplifting and emboldened us as they proceeded along the road; turning to march between the two rows of buildings and between the windows of the killing zone.

"Stand By!" was hollered down the hall.  Cadets from their rooms further down the hall emerged; unsure of what was unfolding.


The band noise was too great - we couldn't hear the order.  There was hesitation. The balloons remained locked and loaded.

"FIRE!!!" was hollered again.  No one heard.

The first balloon sailed free and through the crisp morning air as it soared high overhead of the band.  As if on cue, the sky became dark as what seemed like a thousand balloons soared from the windows. The first balloon hit a flute player in the front row.  Crap!  It was my girlfriend! The second barrage rained down exploding all through the band as the music subsided under the wave after wave of balloons exploding and showering them with ice cold water. Screams erupted form the band cadets as the popping sounds of balloons exploding covered them in the deluge. 

The assault was a success! 180 water balloons were launched in 37 seconds!

Cheers erupted from the cadets watching from their windows and cheers echoed the halls as the flying scholarship had once and for all, wreaked havoc on the band!

Needless to say, there was a fast and furious reprisal from the band squadron commander as he petitioned to the base commander to have us all stripped of our scholarships and sent home in shame.  I somehow think that the base commander must have seen the humor in it.  Our own squadron officer after the meeting and assumed berating, appeared to us laughing, when he finally got hold of us and although he tried desperately to be serious - it didn't work. The message from the base commander - don't do that again!

As the years have gone by, I think about this battle from time to time, and each and every time I do - I smile. A big broad smile, that etches its way across my face. I ran into a cadet about a year ago and I asked him about how he liked summer camp and we got to talking. As I began to tell him the tale of the water balloons, I was taken aback as he finished telling the tale of our exploits. He too relished in the pride of such an adventure and told the tale as if he was right there firing off those balloons himself! That happened before he was even born.

As I said my goodbyes, I was left alone once more to my thoughts and the extreme pride I felt, for the what we had all done that fateful Sunday back in 1976.  A legend had been born that day. And with it, heroes. Those magnificent bastards who dared to defy the strict protocol of military discipline and deliver a well deserved blow to an annoying enemy.

I had heard years later that the band never did march again through those barracks on Sunday mornings, and that some of the instruments had to be even be sent off for major repairs. I'm sure I don't have to tell you how saddened I was to hear of such news.  

At least..., that's the way I see it.


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