Thingamajic : An Old Air Force Story

 

Nearly eight months after India kicked out Portuguese dictator Salazar’s horde from Goa in December 1961, a still jubilant VK Krishna Menon had visited our Air Force Station in Bangalore, a training school for technical airmen. Though the ‘armed action’ against Goa was only a little harder than swatting a fly for the Indian military, Krishna Menon derived much glory from it, and, though a ‘Madrasi’, (a derisive term for all South Indians then) he won a Lok Sabha seat from the heart of Bombay. He was greeted and feted in our Station, and, like the long-winded speaker that he was, Menon chose to address officers and men together and invited questions from men. Some said later that Menon showed disrespect to the wide  distinction between officers and other ranks because he was a Communist.

The glory for Menon was to last but little more than a few months after he regaled us with his eloquence. India lost the border war – a series of skirmishes –  to the Chinese by Novemeber 1962. The public, the media and politicians called for Menon’s blood. Menon finally resigned; Nehru heaved a sigh when his old faithful friend eased himself out taking all the blame.

YB Chavan, variously described as the Strongman, Lion of Bombay (not yet renamed Mumbai) and Modern Shivaji, took over the mantle of the Defence Minister. On a whirl-wind tour he planned through the military stations of India to boost morale, someone must have sounded him about our training school down South.

I was undergoing conversion from Wireless Operator to Wireless Mechanic in the technical training school.  I made friends with two seniors who were, like me, great radio enthusiasts and, with me, made up the sole members of the Station Radio Club.  Corporal Varghese, by the relative elegance of his rank, was the gang’s leading light. The second one, Leading Aircraftsman Samir Ghosh was undergoing conversion to Radar Mechanic, which was then a fancy and mysterious trade, and the third, a mere underdog, was Aircraftman Class I – myself. We assembled stereo amplifiers and radios in the cobweb-filled room called Radio club which provided two desks, a few stools and a couple of soldering irons. Although for all other resources we had to fend for ourselves, when completed, most of our productions were taken by one or another officer or a Warrant Officer who wielded power. The things  that were not whisked away were added to the ‘Radio Club inventory.’  From among us, Varghese alone managed to spirit away a stereo where it graced a corner beside his bed in the forty-bed staff billet.

Whether it was Corporal Varghese or the underdog me who unearthed an article in a magazine ‘Electronics For you’ shall forever remain an unresolved question. The magazine was a wireless enthusiast’s Bible for hobbyists in those primitive days of Electronics. International communication passed through manual switchboards; wait for new technology was long; the alternative communication was through Morse code which needed transcription by clever operators. The cutting-edge technology of the time – teleprinters – were just making their appearance. India was supposed to be neutral in the ongoing cold war, but we got Time and Life magazines, Flight Safety and Automobile Quarterly, all of them arriving a few months late, graced our reading room. Russian publications were banned. Hence technology, as it was our wont to say, travelled by bullock cart from the technically enlightened West to Mother India which boasted of spiritual enlightenment that couldn’t light anything more than an oil lamp.

The gem of the article we discovered in Electronics For You  described a circuit that would respond to a hand-clap or any other high-decibel sound. With the circuit, promised the article, you could remotely switch on any device by clapping your hands or making some other sound. You could switch on your bedroom light by clapping your hands, or turn on the radio by shouting at it.  Such a remote control seemed cutting-edge. Or so we felt. Things like infra-red remote control, Bluetooth or AirDrop were not dreamed of even in Palo-Alto in 1962.

Varghese, being a Corporal and on the permanent staff, had some access to resources. So he strategized and procured most of the things required for our pirated invention – two vacuum tubes – barrel-shaped little lamps with a network of rolled-up little wires and grilles inside, with eight-pin bases, and a few carbon resistors and condensers. Vacuum tubes, like dinosaurs, were fossilised within a couple of decades later with the proliferation of transistors and integrated circuits, but in 1962 they were still the rage; those fragile glass tubes (summarily known as valves) built the foundation of electronics.   Varghese  also managed to bring with him a relay that once was part of a High-Frequency transmitter which had, in any case, been cannibalised to the skin. Air Force, justified Varghese, sustained itself by cannibalisation of parts. I guess it still does.

Ghosh, being a Leading Aircraftsman good at workshop practices fashioned a six-inch wide rectangular plastic board and drilled the necessary number of holes for passing wires through. He expertly drilled precise holes for the eight-pin vacuum tube sockets as well, and I, being the lowly worker in the gang, threaded wires and smaller components through those holes and soldered connections on the other side according to the circuit diagram.  Since we needed a microphone to make the device work, Varghese sounded the officer in charge of the signal section who showed only vague interest in the project. Nonetheless The Sig-O, a Flight Lieutenant, lent us, after receiving signatures from all three of us, a  microphone and a small motor that we needed to demonstrate how it worked. The last of the connections was soldered, the   vacuum tubes were put into the eight-hole sockets. The arrangement was to be powered from the mains through a pair of wires that led away from our plastic board.  Varghese inserted those wires, their end insulations nibbled  off with teeth,  into a wall socket. The vacuum tubes blinked, and when Varghese shouted into the microphone, the motor jumped into action and  fell off the table. Hurray, the contraption worked. Thankfully, the fall did no damage to the motor.

When he heard of the success of our experiment the Flight Lieutenant Sig-O with an engineering degree under his belt got enthused. He invited the senior officers of the training unit to watch a demonstration. The normally grouchy Senior Admin Officer (SAd O publicly referred to as the Essaydo – as in dead-as-the-dodo – and privately known among the ranks as the Sad Officer), smiled and invited the Unit Commander, a Wing Commander.   The Wing-Co was visibly  impressed and congratulated the Sig-O while we three looked on as the humble labour force who only acted as per the instructions. Nobody considered any incidental contribution of the  Corporal and the two trainees of any significance.

Wing-Co had a great idea. “Can we use this Thingamajig to open a curtain by clapping hands?”

“We can do one better, Sir,” said Corporal Varghese, audaciously out of turn, but hoping to get into the spotlight. “We can make it open by saying aloud OPEN!. Then if we say CLOSE!, it will close.”

The Sig-O gave Varghese a withering look for speaking out of turn – not through proper channel, which ought to have been through him. Flight Lieutenants ranked several ranks and class above a mere Corporal – a Non-commissioned officer – who  was only to be seen in the presence of commissioned officers, not heard unless asked. Anyway, the Sig-O wasn’t willing to share the spotlight with a lowly corporal.

“We can make it open by saying OPEN. Then if we say CLOSE, it will close,” the Sig-O parroted as if the idea came from himself.

The Wing-Co, being am engineer himself who was to retire many years later as Air Vice Marshall, was not fooled.

“Even if you say OPEN  the second time, it will close. It just needs some sound, right?”

He directed the question at the Sig-O who looked at Corporal Varghese.

Varghese, who was sulking, did not answer for the legitimate reason that he was not asked. The silence was deafening.

“Yes, Sir, whatever you might say into the mike, once it is open, it will close. Works like a toggle switch,” I said. I only meant to relieve the tension. The signal officer, the Corporal and the Leading aircraftsman gave me progressively harder withering looks.

“That’s true, Sir,” Said the Sig-O, this time letting go of the proper-channel protocol. I noticed that he heaved an almost imperceptible sigh.

“We could use the Thingamajig to impress the visiting VIP, the Defence Minister,” suggested the Wing-Co with a smile.

That was when we insignificant ranker-trainees learnt for certain that the great YB Chavan was to visit our school. That was also the time when the Voice-operated control, designed by an anonymous guy, published in a little-known magazine named Electronics For you, dug out and put into life by three airmen of progressively less significant ranks, came to be officially christened as the Thingamajig, forever to be known by that name

“We will put a curtain at the guardroom gate, Sir,” said the SAd-O brightly.

“Not a bad idea,” said Wing-Co  the Unit Commander,  which further heartened the SAd-O. While casually strolling back to his office, the Wing-Co turned around and said : “Make one more Thingamajig for standby. You can’t trust one of that kind to work when you most need it.”

Have a stand-by, was one of the profound principles of the Air Force. Stand-by for the VIP Viscount aircraft that was to fly the Prime Minister. Stand-by pilot for the Pilot who would fly the Prime Minister.  Stand-by Super Constellation to pick up the President if his special Air India flight got stranded in some god-forsaken place. Stand-by for the only communication equipment mounted in the Dakota aircraft. Stand-by for airmen assigned guard duty.

We had no resources for a second thingamajig, but the Unit Commander’s was an order. Since the SAd-O had access to resources, he gracioulsy sanctioned 200 rupees from Station Contingency Fund and granted us the use of  a jeep to go to the City Market where they sold radio parts. Thus I had my first proud jeep-ride, Ghosh said it was his second, but Varghese, being a Corporal with eight years service, boasted he could even drive the jeep himself, at which the Anglo-Indian driver LAC Jonathan Jones guffawed.

We bought at the City Market all that was needed for one hundred and seventy four Rupees including a printed circuit board with copper-clad connections on a glass-epoxy board for the same circuit that we had always believed was our own secret baby. The salesman at the City Market told us the circuit was very popular among radio enthusiasts in Bangalore; that was why he got the printed circuit board (a novelty then) designed and manufactured. With the balance of twenty six Rupees, we healed the wounds of our pride with coffee and potato-vadas for all including the driver who asked why we looked peeved, but was given no clue. That half the electronic hobbyists in town were making voice-operated things like bedroom lights, radios and even a garage door should, we decided, forever remain a secret in Air Force records as FOEO- For Our Eyes Only.

We returned none too pleased, but since the bigwigs had come into picture and  the show had to go on, I soldered the connections into the fine pre-printed board where the relay and other components stood firm and more stable than on the crude prototype we had made before, and it worked.

Now was the time to set up things at the Station’s gate where Thingamajig could demonstrate its miracle, out in public, not in the hidden-away radio club. That burden of arranging things shifted to the SAd-O.  SAd or not, the Squadron Leader was a capable officer.

His  nickname, The SAd Officer was in bad taste; he had every reason to be a happy officer. It was he who handled all the resources in the Station while the Accounts Officer had the role of a mere bank cashier.  The local Military Engineering Service, MES, reported to the SAd-O.  On his command two eight-foot long GI  poles were secured and put up at the main gate, twenty feet apart, and cemented firmly to the ground on either side. The hand-operated boom at the gate that normally blocked intrusion without permission was raised. The DSC – Defence Service Corps Jawan (an old man)  – whose job it was to operate the boom on order was given furlough for the day.  The boom stood at an angle like one of the cranes at a sea-port.   A  horizontal GI pipe was screwed on to the top of the poles, creating what looked like a very broad door-frame.  Blue (Air Force colour, if you didn’t know) velvet sheet was procured, made into two curtains ten-foot wide each and got stitched to size by the tailor-shop contractor of the Station.  It was attached to hooks suspended from the parallel beam.  Varghese was called in to design and wire the setup; Ghosh made suggestions, and I stood on a stool to thread the wires  through the loops atop the curtain and connect them to the fine  circuit board. Our own cruder prototype was relegated to stand-by; but not even the Sig-O with an engineering degree noticed the difference.  The microphone, a large silvery commercial variety – last used when the vociferous  Krishna Menon addressed officers and men six months before – was connected and slung unobtrusively in a corner.

We faced a new problem. The guard room, a kiosk with little more than enough space for a police corporal to sit at a small desk with a telephone and a couple of registers on top of it ,  had no electric socket to power the Thingamajig when it was installed at the gate. The only technical device in the whole vicinity was a glaring hundred-watt  electric bulb that hung from the ceiling of the guardroom. Ghosh pointed at the bulb. Varghese got the hint and ran to the signal section. The Flight Lieutenant, still sulking, told him to go tell the SAd-O. The Sad-O called the MES. A plumber from MES brought a bakelite contraption called adapter that could be screwed into the lamp holder.  The adapter had a lamp holder of its own with two sockets protruding on either side. I screwed on  the adapter to the lamp holder in the guardroom, chewed off an inch of insulation from each wire, connected them to the plug we had bought, and shoved it to the ‘female’ sockets on the suspended adapter.

“This will do,” said Varghese.

“Yes, that will do” said the Sig-O in the voice that befitted his authority. He naturally figured that it would be he who would be called upon to explain the Thingamajig to the VIP when he descended on the Station in all his Defence Ministerial glory.

Many trials were held. Each time someone said OPEN loud enough, the curtains parted. A CLOSE! call closed them together. It occurred to nobody to try shouting OPEN a second time. In any case, it didn’t matter. The VIP wouldn’t have a chance to learn that  a second OPEN command could also close the curtains

There was still a week to go. When the Sad-O, the Sig-O and the Wing-Co, not to forget a Flight Sergeant who was the expert Senior NCO of wireless training section certified that all was well, the curtains were removed, Thingamajig and its humble stand-by were safely stored away in the SAd-O’s private cupboard lest someone fiddled with it, and the preparation for the VIP Inspection got underway.

During the next week, office walls received a fresh coat of paint; plants in the garden outside the main offices were pruned; some plants were added and some transported to lesser places. Hedges abruptly sprouted pansies and mini-daisies; clusters of yellow marigolds appeared in the CO’s garden. Pots were painted with red-mud paint.  In offices that mattered, Krishna Menon’s photos that graced the walls were unceremoniously brought down and replaced with those of the visiting dignitary – YB Chavan – to beam between a smiling Mahatma Gandhi and frowning Nehru. A truck with a long trailer honoured with the name of Queen Mary moved around, placing   potted bougainvilleas pruned into the shape of domes, rose plants with flowers  that were as large as  heavy weight Ingemar Johansson’s fists interspersed with golden and purple Dahliahs at equal intervals, all  on red-mud painted pots, stood in single files on either side of the road.

The VIP, they said, would arrive at 11 AM sharp. By 6 AM on the day of the Inspection, when we presented ourselves at the gate as per the order to install the Thingamagic once again, the roads within the Station and the one outside that led to  the civilian public road shone like onyx with freshly laid and dried bitumen. A welcome arch in the name of the visiting dignitary stood mounted above the curtain frame at the gate. Broad white lines were painted in the middle of the road as if it were a runway. Where the road to the Air Force Station parted ways with the civilian highway, a white rotunda appeared as if from nowhere; a police Sergeant in white regalia, white gloves and white anklets stood practising traffic direction. There was much sprucing up going on in the broad square within, where stood the proud flag mast, the Air Force Ensign, with the National flag at the top and the Air Force Roundel below, already unfurled and hoisted at sunrise.  It lay limp, but occasionally woke up like a Member of Parliament in session and waved.

First the SAd-O came along on his scooter and ordered the yellow boom with the STOP sign raised. The DSC guard was dispensed with. Two Corporals, picked for their height and good physique, armed with polished 303-rifles were installed on both sides. They promptly presented arms to the SAd-officer who returned the compliment with a tardy salute.

The installation was better than before, the microphone was better hidden, the circuit board, secured in a cardboard box, found its place on the policeman’s desk.  The power cable, which was now more reliable with  a plug  at its end, was shoved into the adapter plug on the lamp holder. Varghese said be careful, the power is ON, I said never mind, I could handle even 2000 volts.

When done, the SAd-O stood in the middle of the curtain and called out OPEN, a little louder than necessary, and the curtains promptly parted. As was the drill, he said CLOSE and they obediently glided in together and nearly snapped shut.

A few instructor-officers, even a couple of Warrant Officers and the Flight Sergeant, coming in for the VIP Inspection, all in their fine uniforms with colourful medals adorning their breasts,  got down from their respective scooters and bicycles at the gate and stared at the fancy blue velvet blocking their way. When the Thingamajic was explained, they spoke the OPEN! mantra and passed through, mightily impressed at the ultra-modern technology.

A VIP visit in an Air Force unit is called inspection. Inspection always necessitated a kit-layout in the billets of airmen. The idea, no doubt borrowed from the Army, was to show that the men were properly kitted and fighting-fit. Airmen-trainees cut grass outside their billets, pruned hedges and cleaned the windows and wiped the ceilings to clear cob-webs. Then they spread the best regulation bed-sheets on their charpoys with their dinner plates at the centre, a mess-tin (which they never used), the cutlery (which they proudly used and pretended they had been using cutlery all along in their lives) and a few other knick-knacks on the bed. The boots were polished like tinted Ray-ban glasses and placed atop the standard blue wooden kit-box. Although a visiting VIP seldom took a second look at the strange display, the unit discipline officer, a warrant officer who wore stiffly starched uniform and never walked but always marched like a one-man parade,  took note of the boots which were not polished well enough and the displays that were deficient in kits. He gave a list of the defaulters to the Adjutant who usually let it lie and rot in his tray except when he had no better job to do.

But the kit lay-out was important for all men under the rank of Sergeant. Varghese was only a Corporal though not a trainee, Ghosh and I were mere insignificant labour class, who could be officers’ orderlies and be washing their wives’ clothes  if we were in the Army.

By 9:30 that fine morning, the entire drill, meticulously planned, was rehearsed. The VIP’s car would be stopped six  steps away from the gate. The place where the front wheels of the car should rest was marked with white powder and shown to the driver who would, accompanied by the Station Commander (a Group Captain four ranks above an army Captain and yet whispered simply as Groupie among lesser beings) would pick up the Minister from the HAL tarmac and bring him in.  As the car approached the station’s gate, the two police sergeants on white regalia atop blue -and-black motorcycles would flare away to the sides. The driver, a Sergeant with VIP experience and several rows of medals on his chest would stop the car exactly as directed, and get out quickly, open the door and salute. First would emerge the Station Commander (the Groupie), and would wait, with a courteous bow, for the slightly  bulky VIP to squeeze himself out. The security jeep that followed the VIP car would stop, and Wing-Co the Unit Commander would jump out and move forward to the curtained gate, acknowledge the Groupie, but salute and receive the Defence Minister, and with just a few words, explain the automatic curtain opener made by the research-and-development section of the Station. The smart corporals will present arms with their rifles.  The Station Commander, (Groupie for Group Captain) would request the great man, in whispers, to order the curtain to open. When he obliges the curtain would open, and a thoroughly impressed VIP would walk through to be surprised and overjoyed to be presented arms and a guard of honour by a contingent of the pick of trainees, commanded by the Equipment officer who was the fairest looking person apart from the unit commander himself.  The DM would walk along the Groupie who slow-marched along the length of the guard of honour where the eyes of the men would dutifully follow the dignitary. At the end of the line, the Equipment Officer would salute and smartly withdraw, and the DM  would step on to a red carpet that was rolled out all the way to the Station Headquarters where there would be a briefing and tea and biscuits with the option of hot samosas if the VIP chose to be a glutton.

The rehearsal was conducted four times – once by the SAd-O standing in for the VIP, then the Unit Commander (Wng-Co) obliging, and finally the Station Commander (Groupie) doing a trial run without losing his dignity under his peak-cap lined with golden laurels. At every trial, the corporal-guards presented arms, the curtains obediently parted and then, on the second voice cue,  closed. On one of the rehearsals, the corporal near the hidden microphone clicked his heels too loud, and the curtains opened. It was decided that the heels will be brought together without a click; it was firmly made clear that no one should make a loud noise when the VIP was in the process of negotiating the area lest the curtains closed in on his voluminous belly. The parade commander, a Flight Lieutenant from the Equipment Section, was also given to understand that he shouldn’t shout his command to the Guard-of-honour parade till the VIP was well past the curtain into the square.

The signal officer, I suspect, expected a Vishisht Seva Medal after the VIP expressed his appreciation and congratulated all the officers involved. The SAd-O no doubt decided to let in that the idea originated from him. Varghese, Ghosh and I stood to a side, behind the curtain, ready to pounce into action if any ‘snag’ occurred and hoping that some of the shavings of the congratulatory actions and expressions would fall on us like coloured confetti.

At 10:45 AM, as the tension was nearing its peak and one expected to hear the warning horn from round the corner any time and for the escorting motorcycles to thrust into sight, the SAd-O noticed us three airmen, no doubt a bloody disgrace, and suspicious motives, to be standing around in the haloed surroundings.

“What the hell are you doing here now?” he asked in anger. “Get back to your billets and make sure your kit-layout is done properly.”

We hesitated, and the SAd-O said: “That’s an order.”

Peeved, humiliated and disheartened in the proportionate degree of those emotions, Corporal Varghese, LAC Ghosh and AC me walked, heads down, heart heavy, back to our billets.

“At the double!” roared the SAd-O from behind.

We walked briskly.

That, I believe, was when the SAd-O caught sight of a patch of yellow light coming out from the guardroom and marring the shimmering blue of a part of the curtain. The affected part looked a dull grey against the pristine sky-blue of the rest of the velvet fabric that sparkled in the white sunlight. Viewed from outside, it seemed  like a faint but big patch of stain on the curtain.

He looked at the police Corporal (AC2, just out of training, Acting-Unpaid) who had been standing in his starched uniform, white cross-belt holding a revolver that he barely knew to use in its holster, and a white peaked-cap with the ranker’s badge on it glistening like gold.

“Corporal, do you need that bloody light?”

The young man stiffened despite being stiff enough already. “No, Sir,” he said.

“Then switch it off,“ said the SAd-O: “It’s a bloody a distraction.”

“Yes, Sir,” said the young man. Though he did not quite catch the word ‘distraction’, he turned off the light and, along with it, the power to the overworked Thingamajig.

Next moment –  this is what the young police corporal told me –  the warning horn was heard. The VIP car with its Defence Minister’s flag and the glorious Ashoka lions on its bonnet turned in from the main road. The motorcycles flared out into the hedges. The VIP driver stopped the car at precisely the right spot, ran around and opened the door. The Group Captain gracefully and smartly came out; then did the Lion of Bombay, the Defence Minister, emerge with some effort. The Wing-Co alighted from the security jeep,  walked up smartly, saluted, and explained, as briefly as he could, how the Unit had researched and developed this amazing technical marvel. The two corporals, tall and muscular, presented arms without clicking their heels.

Mr. Chavan, always a little sceptical of our military services after the China debacle, walked up and said OPEN! As he was told.

The vacuum tubes, of course, had gone stone-dead. The blue curtains only swayed a little in the warm breeze.

“A little louder, Sir,” pleaded the SAd-Officer, now really feeling sad. His voice shook.

The Defence Minister, perceptibly annoyed, repeated the order to the Curtain to Open.

The curtains disobeyed the great man’s order. That their life-blood was not flowing through the wires from the light-switch, nobody had a clue.

The DM, famed for his quick anger looked at the Group Captain, who looked at the Wing Commander, who stared at the SAd Squadron Leader, who glowered at the Flight Lieutentant Sig-O who was till then hoping to lay a claim to the invention. He looked around to glower at the three bloody rankers who, he felt, had somehow let them all down with their technical wizardry. But they were nowhere.

The VIP smirked, parted the curtains with his own hands, and walked in.

The Guard of Honour went like clock-work, Present-arms was performed with 303 rifles hit smartly on their sides and the boots of sixty trainees clicked loud. Sixty pairs of eyes and sixty  necks swivelled to follow the DM as he moved slowly to keep with the Group Captain who slow-marched as per the procedure. The ceremony failed to impress the Minister after the opening fiasco with the curtains. He,  red-faced and  furious under a suspicion that the thing with the curtains could be a practical joke played on him,  was meekly escorted on the red carpet (which no longer seemed bright-red) to the  Station Commander’s office for tea before the ‘Inspection’.

The young police corporal, relieved and relaxed, switched on the light and sat down.

In a jiffy, power flowed to Thingamajig.

A pale and crest-fallen SAd-O and the even paler and crest-less Sig-O returned to the site of what they thought to be the graveyard of their prestige,  pride and  good annual recommendation.

“OPEN, You bloody curtain!” shouted the SAd-O, not even  bothering to get close enough to the gaily waving pieces of velvet or the microphone.

The tragic end of this story is: The curtains, grateful for the renewed supply of electricity,  parted gracefully.

 

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