I happen to be on duty at the time, sorting out the morse from the crackle in my headphones, all concentration, laboriously scrawling on the message pad:
ALL GEE STATIONS INDIA
CLOSING 25 MAY
As the sense sinks in I do a double-take, ask for confirmation, find I got it right first time. Then I have difficulty convincing Bert, the operator sharing the watch, that I'm not pulling his leg. On phoning the signal down to the domestic site I meet with further incredulity and hang up asking myself why folk are so reluctant to accept good news when it finally arrives after an unduly long wait.
Almost immediately the handset jangles again. I leave it for Bert to answer. "Yessir," he says obsequiously, "I'll put him on now," passing the phone while his spare hand makes a cutting gesture across his jugular.
Obviously the duty clerk has had difficulties with the officer in charge, who is now quizzing me closely, leaving me wondering if I've been taken for a ride. When our relief takes over we traipse down to the cookhouse, only to find that Phil the duty driver, just back from Poona with the weekly rations and all the latest gen, has already clinched the matter.
"The radar officer at Poona drome was hoppin' mad about this order to close down all units," he reports. "Complains that all transmitters are working, all his bloody kites have just been fitted with the latest GEE navigational gear, and now he won't be able to try it out. Almost in tears he was. Says it's crazy to stop when the monsoon is bringing bad flying weather." He grimaces. "Hope the bugger doesn't make 'em change their minds-I don't fancy doing this run up the ghats when the rainy season sets in."
Our small isolated outpost, official designation 146 Air Ministry Experimental Station, is stuck in the wilderness of the Western Ghats north of Poona, and depends on motor transport for supplies. It's a key part of a long-range navigational network originally designed to guide Allied planes across India to a belligerent Japan. Although overtaken by events like atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the Japanese surrender, the installation has been completed to plan but only recently become operational.
For the whole of its brief existence it has basked in scorching sunshine, and after a short stay you tend to take this for granted. But there are signs of change; isolated grey cumulus occasionally drift overhead and gradually descend until by evening our hilltop site is enveloped in dank mist. Then the early morning sun boils it all away and we roast as usual.
The clouds return, sudden fierce breezes massing them, black and threatening, high over the ghat valleys. Flickering sheet lightning and grumbling thunder herald a monsoon burst, a torrential downpour that has everyone scrambling for cover. For an unremitting three hours the deluge beats a wild tattoo on the corrugated-iron roofs of the Nissen huts, forces a fine spray through every crevice until it's as damp inside as out.
We nearly have a casualty that day. Climbing back full from the river bed, the water bowser is overtaken by the storm. The ghat road becomes a mudstream, the sluggish bowser skids at a bend, avoids rolling down the hillside but ends up in a ditch. Its bedraggled crew is pinned down until the duty lorry from Poona rescues them, hauls the bowser back on the road and tows it to camp. No wonder Phil voices misgivings.
Next day the sun is back, blazing down from a clear sky and, despite the soaking, the landscape looks as parched as ever. Yet there is a difference. We've grown used to an horizon lost in permanent haze, but now the atmosphere is clean, every particle of dust washed out by the downpour.
The distant ghat hills look nearer, are sharply defined, crystal clear, like the restored detail of a painting from which obscuring varnish has been wiped. In the valleys the farmers are preparing for the monsoon. Columns of smoke rise during the day and fires are visible at night where the ground is being cleared, the burnt yellowed grassland slowly transformed as ploughing turns over the brown soil.
News of our imminent closure has surprising repercussions, like jolting the welfare officer at Poona into belated awareness of our existence. After months of neglect we are presented with morale-boosting largesse-games equipment, lots of books, and a brand-new portable wind-up gramophone with a large box of records. I join rowdy music-lovers investigating the box.
Alan has a broad grin of delight on his face as he rummages. "Sheesh... real swing bands! Benny and Woody, Artie Shaw, Harry James...," he drools, stacking them on the table. "Hey, Greenie, here's a couple of Spike Jones and his City Slickers." Dizzy Brown digs in while Alan gloats over his discoveries, "Not to forget Basie and Duke," he comments.
I notice he discreetly separates a few discards and raise my eyebrows in query.
"Don't ask!" he shudders.
Curiosity roused, I glance at the top label. The name Vera Lynn stares back at me.
An impromptu concert is held that very afternoon, most of the off-duty camp inmates turning out to form a noisy but appreciative audience, lounging on chairs and beds dragged out of nearby huts. For a few hours the happy sound of music sets feet tapping, and brings a mood of relaxation broken only momentarily when, by accident or design, the strains of We'll Meet Again ring out. Amid catcalls and whistles of protest, the disc is promptly whipped off the turntable. A brief but solemn ceremony is held when the concert ends at which the record of the "Forces' Sweetheart" is ritually shattered and cast down the hillside for the vultures.
Obviously anxious to get back to the comforts of Poona base camp, our officer in charge sets a party of mechanics to work, dead on schedule, reducing the framework of the tall aerial tower to its component parts. Others start in on essential paperwork, worrying through huge lists of RAF reference numbers and obscure descriptions, checking spares in stock against the inventory, a task simplified by a forward-looking benefactor who seems to have provided us with everything in duplicate.
Once the mast has been converted into neatly stacked piles of dipoles, spars and assorted fittings, the demolition team transfers its attentions to the ops block, stripping fixtures, taking apart the transmitter and standby units, ready for crating. The hilltop clearing fills with stuff to be moved down to the domestic site, but there's no sign of a gang of coolies we were promised would be sent to take over at this point in the operation. In desperation, the o.i.c. bribes some of the local villagers to join the workforce.
Everything has to be manhandled, and it proves no easy task manoeuvering some of the heavier bulky items down the steep path, when loose soil slides from under feet striving for purchase and the rate of descent unavoidably accelerates. Having made several trips festooned with weighty coils of cables and connections, struggling to maintain balance, glad to dump my burdens and get a breather before scrambling for another load, it amazes me to see what some of the helpers can carry.
It takes two of us to lift part of a telescopic aerial array on to Babu's shoulders, yet he resolutely insists on staggering down with it solo, a feat that earns him cheers and whistles of encouragement as we all knock off from our labours to marvel at his erratic but successful descent.
The tech site is cleared and deserted by the time the sky clouds over again. We are distracted by spectacular displays of sheet and fork lightning but while adjoining valleys are drenched, our hill stays dry. Though we are plagued by a sudden proliferation of insect life. Wherever you walk, what at first glance looks like puffs of dust raised by flapping sandals turns out to be countless crawling juvenile crickets hopping frantically out of the way. Glossy beetles dash purposefully round rocks on which lizards still bask.
Our quarters are invaded by centipedes and clouds of flying ants, joined after dark by so many moths and beetles on the wing that we are forced to put mossie nets over the beds in self-defence. And after 'lights out' we find the gloom relieved by the winking glow of innumerable fireflies. To counter this invasion the huts are sprayed with DDT and there is a temporary but welcome respite: no prying ants invading kitbags, no little mango flies jigging up and down at nose tip. Though the persistent flies that haunt the cookhouse seem to lick up DDT with relish. Happen they'll regret it later.
The general demob programme grinds away behind all this activity, tardily whittling down our numbers, until I find myself left in charge of the working party. Forced to extend my limited command of Urdu, swotting up basic phrases each night to try out the next day, I provoke much merriment amongst the hired help. Fortunately bakshish an occasional hand-out of cigarettes, or spare K-rations works wonders, and despite trouble with transport, and increasing bad weather, all the technical gear is transferred safely to Poona stores.
We prepare to follow it, but the inevitable signal postponing the closing date of the camp then arrives, creating general gloom, closely followed by another signal posting Alan and me down south to Bangalore for a course. We don't argue, but pack our kit, glad to shake the mud of Pokhari off our sandals and enjoy some dry sunny weather for a couple of weeks.
There is the usual mix-up at Bangalore: we arrive in the middle of a course and have to hang around waiting for the start of the next. Just as we finish, fortuitously, my demob number comes up, so I return to Poona merely to get my documents cleared before joining the queues waiting for the next boat home.
Travelling down the ghats to Bombay, there is a steady downpour of rain, an unusual coolness. Once scorched yellow slopes are now vividly green with new growth: waterfalls bounding down the rocks and through the dense vegetation look from a distance like giant snail trails.
As the train descends to the flooded paddy fields of the coastal plain, I wonder when everyone got away from the camp, almost wish I could have a last look at a transformed Pokhari Ghat: the dried-up waterfalls will be restored, all the isolated pools in the Bhima river will be united in a raging torrent, the sunsets will be spectacular...
And the once dusty ghat roads will be muddy and impassable, comes a final sobering thought. ■
© Harry Turner, 2005.