One morning Roley took me aside. ‘Look here, Chicko, he said, ‘I know another girl who would help with the sewing. ‘Who’s that?’
‘Ah, ha! said he. I thought, ‘So that’s how the wind lies, but I asked no more questions and he brought her along. Now there were four of us in our island plane factory, and the sheer pleasure of craftsmanship, of using hand and eye, was a revelation to me. It was hard but interesting work, which made one’s appetite keen for everything. How craftsmen and artisans are to be envied.
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We were ready to start doping, and life became more strenuous because of the hours I spent thinking at the end of the day’s work. With no previous experience, I had to plan every operation in advance. I knew nothing about doping, and it would be serious if I spoiled a fabric wing cover. The wings had to have three coats of red dope, followed by five coats of aluminium dope. Besides a right way to dope and a right consistency of dope to use, the temperature must be 70° F. while the dope was put on. Did that mean it must be 70° all the time while the dope was drying? With winter approaching, it did not often reach 70°, even at midday with the doors closed. In the morning we would watch the thermometers: one read 4° higher than the other, and we promptly discarded the one with the lower reading. As soon as the thermometer reached 70°, coats, brushes, and dope began to fly in all directions.
The first wing was not a complete success. One panel, especially, was so baggy that I tried to take a tuck in the slack of it, doping another piece of fabric over the scar. The wing had a gaunt look, like a half-starved mongrel with its ribs showing. Something had gone wrong.
A wireless message from Sydney solved the puzzle; the dope-resisting paint had been omitted. The fabric had stuck to every rib, instead of drawing tight over the whole wing like a drum skin. It was a relief to know that the mistake was not more serious, and as the fabric could not be taken off once it had been doped, we went ahead and finished it, making the best job we could. What arguments we had about doping that wing! Everybody helped – Frank, whose idea was to slap it on good and hearty, with the biggest brush he could find; Charlie Retmock who made me think of ‘Gert Jan Ridd in Lorna Doone, and who painted steadily and ponderously, as if the wing were a barn door; young Stan, the postmaster and Minnie’s brother, who dashed it on with furious abandon and energy; young Tom, the island buck, who used small strokes with a flourish and who did not exceed the speed limit, even when no island damsel was framed in the doorway. They had different views on how to dope, but they were all agreed on one point, that I was a poor hand at it.
‘Here! cried Frank, pointing to a rib I had taped the day before, ‘you can’t do that sort of work here, you know!’
‘No, I say, Chicko, Roley added, ‘you can’t go to Sydney and have them think that that is the sort of work we do at Lord Howe Island.’
‘We wouldn’t mind, said Frank, ‘if they knew that it was your work; but of course, after one look at you, they are bound to realise we have done all the important work on the plane. Frank had offered to do all the doping for me. He didn’t want any pay, he said, but would like my old altimeter. I told him that it had never worked when I needed it, even before its bathe in the sea; but that seemed to make him keener to have it; perhaps he thought it would be a suitable alarm clock for him.