Burma - Lighting Up Time, by Gerry Catling (1954)

I am probably one of the few people who took up smoking cigars for health and hygiene reasons. As I light up a modest cigarillo after dinner, the aroma reminds me of the first cigar I ever smoked. It was in a small, hot, humid, dimly lit office at Mingladon airport in Rangoon. It was 1954, six years after Burma’s independence, the first of many postings in countries that had recently gained their freedom from British rule. I was beginning to reassess in my own mind several of the aspects of relations and attitudes between former colonial peoples and the representatives of those who had recently been their rulers.

However, such thoughts were far from my mind on the night when I started my very first watch as a BOAC duty officer. The airport buildings consisted of a series of huts left over from the war. No aircraft were expected to land or take off, in fact, nothing much was due to happen at all. The only reason for my presence, in my starched white uniform, was to ‘flight watch’ the overflying Lockheed Constellation service from London to Sydney. Rather inconsiderately from my viewpoint, it was scheduled to overfly Rangoon at about three a.m. My function was to check that a navigational report was received from it every hour, send it a weather forecast by radio and monitor its progress.

The heady feeling of responsibility and anticipated excitement of my first duty watch began to evaporate rapidly after the first hour or so. It was the monsoon season and vivid flashes of lightning illuminated the towering cumulo-nimbus clouds. The thunder crashed and rolled in a continuous barrage of noise, and the rain fell in what seemed a solid wall of water, raging into the overflowing drainage ditches. The storm provided an entertaining and exciting firework display; however, less welcome was the desire of every mosquito from Rangoon to Mandalay to seek shelter in my office, and the feeding frenzy with which they attacked my face, arms and legs. The bites began to itch and erupt into painful red bumps, which I tried not to scratch, as this would only have made the discomfort worse. Gloomy thoughts entered my mind of other young men who had ventured into other tropical parts only to be cut down by disease and pestilence. I began to fear that I would have galloping malaria by the end of my shift.

It was time for the overflying aircraft’s next position report. I pictured the passengers 18,000 feet overhead, buffeted a bit by the storm, but nevertheless enjoying their champagne, smoked salmon, and after dinner liqueurs, before dozing to the reassuring drone of the four engines, anticipating a leisurely day at the Raffles Hotel, sipping Singapore Slings before lunch. With a very stiff upper lip, caused more by the mosquito bites than the fortitude (by now in distinctly short supply) that my English heritage was supposed to provide, I made my way to the stuffy cupboard down the corridor, known rather grandly as the Radio Office. Here the lone Burmese radio operator, dressed in longhi and sandals, was listening through his earphones to the crackling static for my aircraft position report. He nodded politely, and while I stood there scratching from time to time I noticed that his ‘cupboard’ was mercifully free from mosquitoes. He passed me the position report, which showed that the aircraft was on schedule. Then he reached into his drawer and handed me a large black cheroot, about six inches long and half an inch thick. He said nothing and returned to listening to his static.

I thanked him and returned to my office, contemplating another two hours of misery from my tormentors before I could go back to my bungalow for a shower and breakfast and find something – anything - to soothe my bites. I looked at the cheroot with considerable misgiving – it looked exceedingly potent – but in desperation I lit up. The smoke was surprisingly mellow, fragrant and soothing. I blew a few puffs around me experimentally, and to my surprise and satisfaction, my attackers folded their wings and crashed to the floor. Their colleagues were still coming through the door, but immediately turned round and flew off in search of easier prey.

From then on, every time I was on night duty, one of these ancient wonders of slow burning pest control would last me for about six hours. I was rarely if ever bitten again by anything during my overseas career. If I had any humanitarian medals to give out, that radio operator would be at the top of my list. I have smoked cigars ever since, but none with the satisfaction of that first Burmese cheroot. The only drawback is that these days I find that it limits the circle of one’s friends, and even these tend to pour scorn on my assertion that I only smoke cigars for sound therapeutic reasons.

I subsequently took 50 cheroots back to the UK, where a suspicious customs officer impounded them for testing. Next day customs actually called me and invited me to collect my cheroots. There were only 40 in the box; there were no mosquitoes in the office but I thought I could detect a faint lingering aroma of Burma around… I signed for 50 cheroots without comment and left quickly before somebody decided that further ‘testing’ was required.

BOAC Lockheed Constellation G-ANNT 'Buckingham'

Image: constellation

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