‘You have three weeks to cure him!’ said my doctor. He was referring me urgently, by telephone, to a local physiotherapist.
I had been suffering for a few days from what I thought must be sciatica which, on this morning, had suddenly become much worse. I was almost unable to stand and had to be ferried in the car by my wife to see the GP. I stumbled into his surgery.
‘What have you done?’ he asked.
‘I didn’t do anything, it just came on last weekend and it’s getting worse.’
He had to help me to get up onto his examination bench. He poked and prodded.
‘Not sciatica!’ he said.
‘The trouble is,’ I said, as he pushed painfully in with his thumbs, ‘I have to attend and speak at a conference in the USA in three weeks. I can’t miss it. My flight is booked and paid for. I can’t drop out now.’
He decided a physiotherapist was my only hope and he phoned then and there, which was very good of him, bypassing all the usual procedures.
She too prodded and poked and pushed with her thumbs. After a while I staggered out to my patiently waiting wife and the car with some exercises to do and another string of appointments ahead. Over the remaining days the physiotherapist tried massage, more exercises, heat treatment and some sort of electric machine that buzzed but which I never properly understood. It did seem to help, but not very much.
When the day of departure came I could sit and with an effort stand up, unaided. I was able to hobble short distances slowly and carefully, step by step on level ground, with some pain.
This was before the new Adelaide airport terminal was built. Walking across the tarmac and getting up those damned stairs into the back end of the aircraft was an agonising struggle. The rest of the unpleasant journey need not be described.
The venue was at a place called Harris Hill, a short distance outside the city of Elmira in up-state New York. The hotel I was booked into was named after Mark Twain, who, they assured me, had written some of his works in the town. There is a small summer house, carefully preserved, where he is said to have worked.
My visit had nothing whatever to do with him but I wondered what he might have said, wittily, if he had seen me.
On Harris Hill is a famous gliding site, in constant use since the early thirties. There is a fine glider museum there, backed and managed by a learned society. This was their annual conference and celebration. They had invited me as a guest speaker with expertise in our specialised aspect of aviation history, the development of the sport of soaring in gliders. I hoped I would not be required to stand up to speak. I expected there would be a small audience, about twenty people, many of whom I knew quite well, all a bit crazy like myself. They would probably know as much as I did or more, especially about the American aspect of things. With luck, we might all sit round informally in comfortable armchairs with coffee or even wine, as in some of the more friendly academic seminars I had attended.
I was greeted on arrival by Ginny Schweizer. As I staggered to meet her and shake her hand, I was shocked to see that she was having as much difficulty walking as I was. When she saw me, she sympathised and explained that she had suffered a nearly fatal accident some thirty years before. She had been like this ever since, but getting worse now as she aged.
There is, as they say, always someone worse off than oneself.
Paul Schweizer, her husband, was the President and doyen of the society. He was a hero of mine, having started flying in his teens. He and his two brothers built a glider secretly in a barn near their home; secretly because their father would not allow them even to have bicycles. Bicycles were so dangerous.
The three brothers now had a large factory producing gliders but also building crop spraying aircraft, surveillance planes for the coastguards and, increasingly, helicopters. The Schweizer Aircraft Company had become a very big deal.
Ginny explained that Paul would introduce me to the members. Everything I had requested in the way of board to scribble on, a projector and screen for pictures, was ready. We would be meeting in the lecture theatre. Lecture theatre?
‘How many will be in the audience?’ I asked, nervously.
‘Over a hundred paid up and registered, and the weather isn’t good for flying so there will be more coming in off the airfield, unofficially.’
Paul was waiting at the door. He saw me limping. I explained my predicament.
‘That makes two of us,’ he said. ‘I had a knee replacement operation a few days ago. It is still very sore. Well, it is time we started, we had better get on with it.’
Ginny had been right, the hall was packed; standing room only for late arrivals. She led the way, haltingly, to take her seat at the table on the platform. Paul followed slowly, limping badly, and sat heavily and presidentially. I fumbled my way after him, and flopped into my seat. There was dead silence for a moment. Three apparent cripples had staggered onto the stage. I had the dreadful idea that everyone would think I had deliberately parodied the Schweizers.
There was a roar of laughter and a round of applause.
Fortunately, when Paul stepped forward to do the introduction, they understood. There was more applause. I got up and began my talk.
I spoke most of the time to the various pictures I showed on the screen. I moved to and fro, twisting around, pointing and gesturing. I realised only later, all this went without a twinge. To judge from the questions that followed, my part in the proceedings went down well and I had stood and moved painlessly for the whole session. I was cured!
I left the stage walking normally. I needed no help to clamber into a cockpit afterwards when everything, including the weather, brightened up.