When I was a youngster, I dreamed of having a ‘radio-control’ model aeroplane. At every chance, I would pore over well-thumbed magazine articles about how you could build your own ‘single-channel’ radio control transmitter, which, in conjunction with impossibly complex on-board gadgetry, including a well-wound rubber band to power the mechanism that changed the rudder setting, would allow you the merest smidgen of control of that wild, petrol-driven insect in the sky; impossibly at the mercy of the wind.
I did build one eventually. It crashed on its maiden flight – into a stone wall. By the time I could afford another one, the passion had worn off and other interests beckoned.
I was reminded of this simple but painful memory earlier this week by the flight of what I have come to think of as the orange aero-thingy. This device is the answer to fully exercising a collie dog – ours in particular. In my new career as dog-walker, I get lots of fresh air, and time to think. Collies need a lot of exercise, so we’re frequently to be found out there on the hills, in the early-ish morning, or just before sunset in the evening. Collies like to chase things; and to fetch, so we’ve experimented with things that fly, in one form or another.
The best one we’ve found cost 99 pence from a local shop and is a bit like an orange frisbee, but much more solid; and with cut-away sections, which are aerodynamic and give the device a considerable range, once you’ve mastered the technique. Our young collie, Tess’ favourite technique is when I run ahead of her, with her chasing, and release the orange aero-thingy with a fluid uncoiling of the spine and the full, whip-like action of my right arm. I nearly dislocated my entire back until I got the hang of it; but the results have been worth it; and I can now manage sixty or so metres on a good day and with the right wind.
To a collie, this is sheer delight, and it has worked wonders for her paw-eye coordination as she scans the skies, tracking its flight and narrowing in for the intercept and fetch, which she completes with a characteristic leap and lunge with that long nose; or snook, as we have come to call it . . .
The morning in question, Tess and I were having an extended walk up to Sizergh Castle, which is the only local spot you can (with a dog in tow) get a decent cup of coffee before lunch time. I had been experimenting with a more advanced technique of releasing the orange aero-thingy involving the insertion of two fingers into its inner gaps. This produces great power but had shown a tendency to be a bit wayward on take-off, so I needed the practice. Approaching Sizergh Castle through its open driveway, we moved off the tarmac and onto the extensive acres of grassland that line the approach. We tried several practice shots before I felt it was time to roll out the new technique, again. Then we gave it real go.
The orange aero-thingy actually hummed as it left my right hand, seemingly still accelerating into the cloudy sky at a great rate of knots. Tess, howling with delight, took off after it, and it was only when I noticed her trajectory veering off to the left that I realised we were in trouble. The orange aero-thingy came down from a great height at a suspicious angle and, gripped by a merciless breeze, much as my radio-controlled plane had done, all those years ago, plunged down towards one of Sizergh’s tall stone walls, which mark the boundary of the estate.
My reaction was very different to that of my childhood forbear. I danced in lip-straining anticipation, praying that it might just hit the top of the wall, thereby bouncing off and back into our field – the very opposite of my silent plea as a child who understood the interacting chemistry of laquered balsa wood and stone . . .
Perversely, and in true Sod’s Law fashion, our orange aero-thingy cleared the tall stone wall by about a foot. Plunging into the dark foliage beyond. Desperate not to lose this newly precious object, whose like we might never see, again, I ran towards the wall, keeping my eyes firmly on the point of disappearance and passing a startled Collie, en-route. And that’s when it became personal . . . because, suddenly I was a boy of twelve, again and looking at my devastated aircraft smashed against a similar stone wall.
Despite my advancing years, I have retained a certain degree of athleticism. No six foot stone wall was going to stop me recovering the prized orange aero-thingy. With the help of a couple of foot holds, I was up it; only to find that the upper reaches were very unstable and I was faced with a wobbling disaster. I managed to stabilise my position by crouching low, and peered over, into the dark green beyond . . .
Brambles – higher than the wall, dense and menacing as only the most virulent Cumbrian monsters can be. There was no chance of even locating the orange aero-thingy, let alone recovering it. For a second I wavered, then, with a mixture of expletives and a level of energy that surprised even Tess, I jumped back off the wall and made my way towards a fallen tree nearby. It was the work of a couple of minutes to break off a long branch. Then, still snarling, I scaled the wall, again, found a tentative perch and used the long branch to part the green spiked triffids.
There she was, stuck on the top of a small bush a few feet from the far side of the wall. Two pokes later, I had it hanging from the end of my recovery device. Now, all I had to do was survive the encounter and we could write it up in our memoirs . . .
We did, of course, survive – though I wouldn’t have wanted to jump off that wall a third time. Victorious, we continued on to our well-earned coffee and doggie treats at the castle tea-rooms. As we left the scene of the encounter, there were three of us: an eight-month old collie, reunited with her favourite toy; a sixty-one year old, delighted he could still spit on high stone walls; and a twelve year old, clutching the smashed parts of his birthday present – but smiling, triumphantly . . .
Model aeroplanes? You can keep ’em. Get yourself a dog and a orange aero-thingy, and reclaim your youth!