Nobody slept much in Dorm 2 that night. The sobbing kept us awake. But nobody wanted to say anything nor do anything. Not until Kevin spoke up:
“I have a big match tomorrow”.
He was our star rugby player and we knew he needed a good night’s sleep before an important match. Rugby was an obsession, almost a religion, among whites in Southern Rhodesia. In the end our prefect roused himself and got out of bed to call matron. She appeared in a dressing gown with her hair in curlers. She took Theo with her to the sick room and, I think, gave him a sedative.
Now someone piped up: “No stiff upper lip, these Greeks.”
This aroused an angry response. “I bet you’d blubber if your brother had been killed …”
“That brother taught Theo fishing…”
“…and roasting maize-cobs. He told me.”
“Those two were very close.”
The sleepy dormitory was aroused. “And think how he died….”
It had been an unusual death.
The Couvaras family had a small rural shop – a “kaffir store” in the racist parlance of that period, a shop serving Africans among hills in a remote part of Matabeleland… perhaps a hundred miles from Bulawayo. In the beginning they had barely made a living. Then there had been a great influx of labourers: two dams were built in the surrounding hills, and a hydroelectric power station. Business improved. Now they could afford to build several rooms behind the shop. There they brought up three sons. Like immigrants the world over they wanted their sons to do better and to get a decent education. The brothers were sent to boarding school. It was wartime and their homeland, Greece was much admired for standing up to the Italian invaders and even pursuing them into Albania. “Plucky little Greece!”
Andreas, the oldest, volunteered for the Royal Air Force. The R.A.F had four flight-training bases in Southern Rhodesia and an “initial training wing” – ITW – where aerial navigation was taught on the ground. Rhodesia was an eminently suitable place for training pilots: Much of the year skies were cloudless and there were no enemy planes prowling these distant African skies.
After some on-the-ground training at ITW Andreas was sent to Heany, several miles out of Bulawayo, for flight training. The RAF used Anson Trainers. Every dawn these planes, flying low overhead, woke us in Dorm two.
For the first weeks learner pilots were accompanied by instructors. Eventually Andreas reached the stage when he qualified for his first solo flight. Such flights normally followed the easily visible line of rail – Bulawayo-Gwelo. This required no instrument navigation. Andreas, however, turned his plane towards his home valley and swooped down over the family shop. His parents had been forewarned that this was to be his great day. He must have been disappointed that no one had come out to wave. He banked and swooped down a second time, flying lower. Now his father stood in front of the shop, waving.
On the third swoop it happened:
Andreas flew straight into the high tension cables that stretched across the valley. Nobody could have known better than he about these cables. From his childhood bedroom he must have seen them being constructed. The plane crashed half a mile from the shop and burst into flame. The first person to reach the wreck was Andreas’ own father. He stood by helplessly as the plane burnt and cremated his son.
We, in Dorm 2, asked to go to the funeral. Too late. What remained of Andreas had already been buried. Mr Gebbie, our headmaster, suggested we pay a visit of condolence to the parents. He laid on a bus. Our bus skirted RAF Heany – the Training Camp.
We had been told to expect delays because of road works. We knew why.
The behaviour of the trainee pilots had often been discussed by RAF commanders:
“Irresponsible kids! We can’t afford to lose pilots before they’re even ready for combat!”
They went so far as to fly out a psychologist from England. He made a series of recommendations, most of them about the briefing of trainees. His main recommendation, however, was shelved “for further consideration”. This probably meant “Too much trouble”.
The spectacular death of Andreas Couvaras forced a change of mind. The road from Bulawayo to Heany was realigned. Similar realignments were rapidly undertaken at other training bases. The roads now skirted the cemeteries where the victims of accidents had been buried.
These were the roads the lads had to take each time they walked or cycled to town to shop or to meet girls. Every trip now reminded them forcibly that they were mortal after all.
It proved more effective than all the jawing of instructors.
On our return from that sad visit to the parents, we were shocked. By the side of the road we passed a gaping, newly dug grave. Had there been yet another accident? Or had it been dug merely as a brutal warning?