It's 3am and I don't feel the least bit dopey though I've been on duty since six o'clock. I tramped up to the tech site early to help the other mechanic, Dave, track down a reported intermittent fault plaguing the standby transmitter. Intermittent faults can be a bastard; the only sure way of eliminating them is a time-consuming systematic checkout of circuits. By the time we'd located the cause of this elusive malfunction supper was ready. When we tossed up for turns as relief operator, unlucky me gets landed with the middle watch from 1.30am on.
Curling under a blanket for a brief kip, I'm shaken awake a mere instant after my head hits the pillow. A grinning Arthur Cox, the operator sharing the watch, hands me a mug of hot black coffee as a peace offering. "All quiet so far," he calls as I stumble outside for a quick leak, and after due contemplation of the night sky with its spread of unfamiliar constellations, I return to find him already stretched out, unconscious, on the bed.
I focus my muddled thoughts on routine checks, settling down before the set sipping my drink, dumbly gazing at the glowing screen set in a facade of flicking meters, indicator lights, and a multiplicity of knobs and switches. Valve-cooling fans hiss, shudder and moan; relays and contacts chatter and click in ordered sequence; overhead the persistent hum of the extractor fans rises in pitch to a sporadic howl of indignant protest at the invading backdraft of hill-top breezes. I don the headphones to muffle the din.
Operating this GEE equipment isn't a job calling for much initiative. On aircraft detection gear the operator has to be alert for new echoes appearing with each sweep of the beam around the screen display, to plot and check known echoes. On this navigational set-up it's largely a matter of keeping an eye on pulses from the master and slave stations displayed on the screen, of ensuring they're locked in position, making quick adjustments should they start to drift along the trace.
It borders on the monotonous. You can write letters or read between times on the small desk fronting the set, but if you do succumb to boredom and doze off, sooner or later a harsh dah-di-dah-dit-dah rasps in your ears to jerk you awake—our contact with Purandhar Fort station is the morse key: a relentless master.
Still, I enjoy being on duty at night. Back in Blighty it's spring, here it's the hot season. During the day the transmitter hut is a furnace, heat beating down from the sun-baked iron roof, extractor fans useless when the outside temperature rises to the 90s. Sweat runs into smarting eyes as you bend over the set; tiny mango flies hovering at nose tip become irritating out-of-focus jigging black dots.
Absentmindedly you scratch prickly-heat bumps raw or flap a futile hand at flying bloodsuckers attracted by the trickling perspiration on your back. But at night all that changes. A welcome breeze stirs and cools the air over the hills; at last the roof fans can do their job efficiently, keep the temperature in the hut at an equable level. There's an absence of airborne pests. It's bliss to feel fresh and cool.... real cool. This, plus all the black coffee, contributes to a state of wakefulness.
The room looks a tip. The units of the standby set we've been probing are still in disarray on the workbench, with a jumble of tools and test gear. On a shelf along the opposite wall a few well-read paperbacks and out-of-date British newspapers are scattered next to the electric heater and a kettle topped up with water ready to brew more coffee so I can rouse Dave with the good news that it's his turn to take over. A pile of plates and cutlery with the remains of our suppers is festooned with empty K-ration coffee packs.
A foraging mouse appears at the aerial-feeder duct in the roof over the shelf, its nose twitching in the direction of the grease-congealed crockery. I scrape my sandals over the floor to scare it off, but it holds its ground, fixing me with a beady stare as it debates whether to risk a quick dash to the tempting plates. I flick a match in its direction. It skips nimbly to one side, smartly fields the wooden splint, disappears back up the duct with its booty.
Seconds tick away into minutes... minutes yawn into hours. It's not so bad when the spare set's functional. Unofficially, it's a good shortwave receiver, though the wavebands are usually cluttered with a cacophony of American radio hams when all you want is the solace of a BBC station.
Last time I listened in, we had an entertaining spell eavesdropping on a guy in Manila sharing spicy details of his love life with a ham in San Francisco, lost him, then picked up a loudmouth in the vicinity of Michigan, boasting of his output strength—"Yeah, ten watts: least that's what it ses on the licence... haw-haw-haw!"—and claiming to have picked up a bomber station transmitting from Rangoon. Pity we couldn't transmit to let him know that he was being received loud and clear by the GEE station at Pokhari ghat, in the middle of nowhere, India.
In the middle of nowhere... well, the story goes that the ideal site chosen by the boffins for this radar station proved to be completely inaccessible, that we're now esconced on the second-best choice, somewhere in the wilderness of the Koringi range, north of Poona. Large-scale maps are not available so I've still not sorted out the exact location. It's probably an official secret anyway.
We've visited Manchar, a populated spot to the west, foraged east as far as the huddle of buildings that's Bhimashankar, and regularly run our water bowser south to suck up supplies from pools that could be the dried-up bed of the Bhima river. And that's as close as I can get a fix.
The local part of the road—well, dirt track, to be accurate—was scraped specially to reach our hill site. It merges into what, with more justification, may be termed a road, which then traverses five ghats, winding tortuously in the process, doubling back on itself occasionally, so that the sense of direction becomes confused. Yet there are no practical problems getting to Poona.
You just follow the road down, grinding through dirt and potholes, until you come out on the Bombay-Poona road, turn left, and there's a clear run through to the RAF supply depot. Easy. Or it would be if our clapped-out transport wasn't forever breaking down. ■
© Harry Turner, 2005.