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The Commander

Saturday, September 23, 2006

The Commander

[Translation of El Commander by Alfredo de Hoces García-Galán published in Despacho101 on 20-Sept-2006.]


Antonio described the plan for tomorrow while we were enjoying our drinks: we were going to fly in a light plane from Axarquia airport to Almeria. The pilot would be Mr. Peckam, a seventy year old English gentleman who had bought the plane in pieces and had assembled it himself with a screwdriver. Put like this, the plan didn't sound very appealing; I could already see the Guardia Civil clearing the Herradura beach of my body parts. The fruit of Mr. Peckam's labours had four seats; Toni was also coming along for the ride. We resolved to drain our glasses and go to bed immediately so that we would be alert the following morning.

“Welllltheeen, shlee you tumorra, mate,” I said, five rounds later.

I went home, took off the silly Forges cartoon mask from my face and got into bed to dream of Heath Robinson aircraft, multiple brain lesions and fourth degree burns. A little later, the alarm went off.


I went out to have breakfast with Antonio. Two orange juices and two ham sandwiches later I was still none the wiser.

“So how is it that he took out all the gubbins from the plane and rebuilt it? Look, an aircraft isn't like a lighter which either needs fuel or a flint...,” I said to Antonio.

“Don't worry about it, mate. Mr. Peckam was an engineer.”

Ah, so that's all right then! Some choice moments from my ten years as an engineer passed in front of my eyes: inspired analysis, brilliant design, pompous presentations, shed-loads of documentation, self-confident smiles, impeccable coding, exhaustive testing and, in the demo, the client enters a user name and password and puff! Null Pointer Exception and back to the cubicle with my tail between my legs. Another demo flop! But as a Null Pointer corresponds roughly to the connection between the con rods and the crankshaft in an aircraft, then how confident would you feel...

“If he wears a tie then I'm going to start running without looking back,” I said.

Toni picked us up in his car. We reached the aerodrome in a few minutes, got out of the car and waited at the end of the runway for the plane to arrive.

At any moment, I was expecting an old cronk to appear from behind the hangars, trembling and hippety-hopping and leaving a trail of nuts and bolts behind it to the shriek of rusty gear wheels, smoking rockets and horn blasts with the music of La Cucaracha. The propeller would fall off and a charming old geezer Harpo Marx look-alike would come out of the cabin, replace the propeller, smile at us with a look of nothing-untoward-has-happened-here-has-it and would invite us to get in with a couple of blasts of his hooter.

Minutes passed and I mentally rehearsed my last words to my loved ones. How many texts would I be able to send during a free fall from the sky? Some phrases came into my head from nowhere. “Just to let you know that I loved you even though I was always a silly bugger,” and “goodbye, thanks for everything and please never let my dog feel lonely,” things like that.

Then The Commander (this is the name Mr. Peckam had given to his creation) appeared, gleaming. On the outside it looked like new. But this was only the external appearance. What worried me was the implementation.

Mr. Peckam got down from the plane and greeted us warmly. Antonio made the introductions, “Toni, Alfredo, this is David Peckam. He doesn't speak much Spanish.”

“I have started to learn now,” he said in Spanish.

Well bugger me! I had given up learning German at twenty-four because I thought it was already too late.

David's eyes gleamed intelligently. His expression was bright, deep, courageous and positive. When looking at David, age became a mere technical issue, a number written on a sheet of paper somewhere. There was nothing in him that is normally associated with what is known as the “third age”.

We went to the bar while David filled up with fuel and made the routine checks on the plane. I went straight to the toilet, took a look at myself in the mirror and seriously considered clearing off. I pulled the chain and abandoned that option.


David came into the bar: the moment of truth had arrived. We finished our coffees and returned to the landing strip. Everything was ready for take-off. We got into The Commander.

The plane began to move slowly. We headed along the runway. David made a series of last-minute checks. He checked the lights, adjusted the controls, confirmed that the doors were properly locked and told us to tighten our seat belts.

“Are you ready?” he asked us.

I turned to look at the runway. It seemed to go on forever. I felt as if the whole of my life was in front of me. And between it and myself, fear. Then my mind cleared. I closed my eyes, breathed deeply and said to myself, “This is the time to throw caution to the winds. I want to fly.”

“Ready,” I said.

Antonio and Toni raised their thumbs. David gripped the controls. We rolled along the runway, faster and faster. The Commander started to vibrate and roared majestically, like a great tiger just before jumping on a fire. I clenched my teeth. My heart beat faster and faster.

Suddenly, all the power bottled up inside The Commander was set free. The wheels left the ground and we started to ascend. We cheered David and clapped with enthusiasm. We were in the air, fear remained behind on the ground.

David's actions showed astonishing skill. He consulted the flight plan, adjusted our course and then took his hands off the controls.

“It flies by itself,” he explained. “I only have to make an adjustment now and again.”

Of course it flies itself. Once you've had the balls to take off. That's life. Life starts when you overcome fear.


We were tracking the coast. We laughed and enjoyed the views. Up here, the sky and the sea fused together; the horizon was something we had to imagine for ourselves. I tried to make it out among the clouds, to have some kind of mental image. In the end, I gave up: this way was much more beautiful.

From time to time I turned to look at my friends. We were talking to each other without saying anything; it was enough to look at each other and nod gently. We were all immersed in the same sensation. It's very rare that two spirits are really in the same place and here we were, four of us, sharing a single smile.

In a little over half an hour we were flying over Almeria. We started to descend. It was a clear August afternoon; the light of the sun rested gently on a greenish sea, minute ants ran along the roads, a cruise ship lay at peace in the harbour. Life continued on its pleasant journey and we were floating on soft and gentle stillness.

David landed smoothly. While we were rolling down the runway, I realised that were were not on some tiny aerodrome. When we got out of The Commander we saw an Iberia jet take off.

We went inside the terminal and walked between the luggage belts. A number of workmen dressed in boiler suits and reflecting jackets were loading suitcases and there we were in swimwear and flip-flops with towels over our shoulders like holiday-makers. We went down a corridor and as were were just about to go out of the exit, a security officer stared at us with eyes like two white plates.

“Hey! You! Where do you think you are going?”

“To eat as much lobster as we can, officer”

He took us to a window and made us fill out some paperwork. We went out into the street and took a taxi. “To the beach bar, please!”


The lobsters tasted of the sea, of summer and of victory. A salty breeze slipped through the window, a breeze tasting of damp sand, of old wood lapped by waves, of bits of fish, of seagulls. We emptied cool golden jars of beer and chatted excitedly.

Between mouthfuls, David told us about his life. He was born in 1941 in England, became an aeronautical engineer, he worked there for a while and then they sent him to the Middle East. We listened with special attention as he told us about how after fourteen years in Kuwait he had to leave, shitting bricks, on the day of the invasion.

They say that after retirement comes a crisis. On the day that he retired, David went to Germany with his good friend Ian Whittle, son of Sir Frank Whittle the inventor of the jet engine, to buy himself a light plane. After that, he came to live in Spain (in a house in the mountains without a phone line), he dismantled the plane and took two years to re-build it as The Commander. A few months ago he completed the circumnavigation of Spain with it.

“Now I'm thinking of buying a boat, but before that I want to spend a bit of time in the Sahara,” he told us.

“In the Sahara? But aren't things a bit fucked up over there?” said Antonio.

“Life is for living; if you crash, pick up the pieces and start again.”

I have tattooed that phrase on my brain by repeating it so often in my mind. The day I forget it I am sure something horrible will happen to me.

After a leisurely lunch we went to the beach to enjoy the sun. We didn't have much time because we had to return in good light (David still didn't know how to fly in the dark). We sprawled on the sand and talked about girls. David was a widower; his wife had died of cancer some years ago. That cut him up badly at the time. He then put the pieces together again.


We landed in Axarquia at twilight. In the hanger, Margaret, David's lovely companion, was waiting with nice cold beers. We called a toast and sat down to drink by the last rays of the sun.

Sitting in the hangar, the minutes passed slowly. Taking a look at The Commander, I couldn't help thinking about myself, about how at my barely thirty years of age I sometimes feel old, done, spent, unable to take off. How ridiculous! The next time I feel like that I will pull myself apart and rebuilt myself piece by piece: here a bit of sun, there a bit of sand, a coat of salty breeze and sea mist, a blue evening spiced with good memories.

We drank slowly as the night fell around us. The sky slowly filled with stars, the cicadas began their timid songs, and life started anew.

The horizon fused into the dusk.

To David Peckam, Antonio Maldonado and Toni Gutiérrez.
With them it is easy to face the future.

Espero que mi versión ha capturado un poco el espiritu del original.


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