Monday, 6 September 2010

My friend Chaz, who was on my intake as an Army Apprentice back in 1967, gave me the prompt that I needed to cover some brief memories of our times in Harrogate.
I knew him as Charlie back then, a dead skinny lad from Perth, the drill sergeant would always take the piss out of his accent because it was 'posh'. At the time that meant nothing to me, he sounded exactly the same as Roy from Arbroath and Fitz from Dundee. I hadn't travelled yet so there was just English and Scottish accents; though Geordie Lee added a new dimension that non of us could understand. Now I can stand in a bar anywhere and when a Scotsman speaks, I can tell you where he is from within 20 miles. (Well maybe 100!)

We were all just totally confused kids from all over the UK who were all there for very different reasons.
First term was terrible, because even though I was up for leaving home, this was in some ways worse. After the turmoil of the first day, I went to sleep that night and slept very well. Of course when I gradually started to awake next morning, I thought I was at home. That was until our Sergeant burst in  at 6 a.m. and walked down the room turning our steel frame beds over on top of us, whilst screaming at the top of his voice, "You're not at home now, I am your new Mother, welcome to hell!" I left out some words there! The following morning we were all stood by our beds before he even got to the door. 24105078....we soon all became numbers as they started to 'pasteurise' our minds.

Recruit Squadron was not an easy time, some dropped out, some went absent and I was one of them. I headed for London, not for any other reason than it was big, so they would stand less chance of finding me. I was there for two weeks and because I had money, I gained friends fast. As the money ran out, so did the friends and eventually, when I was hungry, dirty and tired enough, the Army faded back into my mind, as not that bad a place after all. I went back, got a weeks detention and a weeks loss of pay, and (nearly) all was forgiven.

The best shot in the College was automatically the captain of the rifle team. It didn't seem to cause a problem when I joined as the only member of recruit squadron, after all I was 15 and had never held a rifle. The captain then was a Sergeant in senior term who, though he seemed to like me, was soon going to be my worst enemy. At the first monthly shoot off to decide captain over 2 targets, on the first target I shot a 99 and he shot 100. It must have unnerved him and it certainly surprised me. On the second target, he shot 98 and I shot 100. I was appointed captain but it was like a curse, because nobody would do what I said anyway so the team fell into disarray. To save the day, they changed the rules so that no new recruit could become captain ever again! I went on to win lots of medals and cups, even representing the British Army against the USA at Bisley. The USA won that day which was disappointing, but we were just soldiers with a rifle each. They turned up dressed like aliens with special jackets, adorned with pulleys and winches that held their rifle in place like a scaffolding. They had the latest telescopic sights developed by NASSA, and I suspect they could have sat on a road drill and still hit the target centre every shot.

The discus was my athletics speciality and I won the gold medal every year for 3 years. They said it was gold but it soon rubbed off. I won not through strength, because there were far bigger and more muscular lads, but my technique seemed to work well. It was a lesson in life that I was to return to many times in the future. I also loved running and was good at the long distance stuff. I was a bit like Forrest Gump, I could just run and run and never get tired; I amazed myself! I didn't really hack it as a Radio Tech, I hated it and the trade aspect of my Army life started to fade as I started spending more time involved in athletics, shooting and eventually music. If you represented your Regiment at anything, you could almost decide your own weekly timetable, as both Chaz and I found out.

Even though I hated smoking it became my first step into extortion and the exploitation of addicts. We got paid monthly and if you didn't smoke, you had plenty of money. £3-15/- a week in total, which was about 30 weeks pocket money before I left home. I baby sat for a Major and his wife who would always say, before they left, "just help yourself to fags, they're in the silver box on the table". I used to take about 60 every time, they must have thought I chain smoked throughout the evening. I lit one just before they came back so the smell would still be in the air, but they must have wondered what happened to the butts. Back at barracks, smokers would take one of these in return for three back on pay day, and on the day before pay day you could get up to ten cigs back for just one. Every pay day I would end up with hundreds of cigs which I then sold on for cash, about double the price nearer the middle of the month.

Looking back on my time at that place, it would have been better if I had a girlfriend. I still hadn't had sex, though it had been offered to me in various guises! I was very frustrated but didn't know what that feeling was at the time. They say that there was something put in our tea to stop us staining the sheets; well they must have missed my cup every time! The only women we ever saw were officers wives, girls who worked in the canteen or the old ladies in the WRVS. The officers wives were well watched and never left unattended, the girls in the canteen had more of us after them than a queen bee, so even the WRVS seemed a cool place to hang out! But no, I didn't!

Roy Murray, Charlie Dowie, Edwin Dear, Graham Hopper, Bill Ives, Gerard Vincent, Gordon Lee, have I missed someone from our room? I am in touch with Chaz and Roy now and we have a few reunions behind us, next one on 9th May in Harrogate. Bill came on board recently and we have another 8 or so from other squadrons. I often wonder where the others all got to.

There were no mobile phones so the queue for the pay-phone was very long every evening. Not a problem for me because nobody I knew had a phone to take my calls to anyway! I wrote letters home occasionally and got letters back, mainly from my Mum. I pretended they were from my girlfriend as there was a suspicion that I might be queer, and you could be anything but that in those days! My Dad wrote to me once sending me a little share of a small pools win; the gesture meant more to me than the money at the time.

We were given our 'Utes' when we arrived at camp; cutlery that we took to the cook house where we had 3 meals a day, and a choice of courses. I had never seen anything like it though the lads from posher homes thought it was a bit 'yuk' us council estate lads saw it as a daily banquet. However, I had my knife stolen, but when I politely reported it, I was told in torrent of abuse that I would just have to use my f'ing fork. Well for 6 months I ate with only my fork and became an absolute expert at eating anything, after I had sharpened one edge of the fork on the kerb to make a keen cutting edge. When I was finally allowed a knife again, I found it awkward to use and still hold a fork in my right hand even today. Well, only when I'm eating!

As budding Technicians I remember some of the experiments that we tried, just to test out our new acquired theories. Like the TV we dropped from 3 floors up onto the concrete path. As it hit the ground, the whole thing disintegrated, but not the tube. It bounced back into the air and imploded only when it had reached a height of about 20 feet. I'm not sure who that TV belonged to, but as long as they were in a term at least a year below you, you could do anything without fear of reprisal.
Then there was the sixpence that we put in the light socket, before putting the bulb back in place. The idea was that when the lads in that room came back and turned the light on, it would make the bulb pop. That sounded too feeble, but what would happen if we replaced the fuse wire at the end of the corridor with a nail. What would happen then? Well we simply didn't know, but we were all up for finding out. Sure enough, the unsuspecting lower term returned after a night out and clicked on the light switch. It was fireworks! There was a humming sound and then the cable between the light switch and the fuse box started to crackle and burn off the wall, all the way down the corridor. The whole camp was plunged into darkness, and as we learnt later, a larger fuse switch had tripped at the main supply to the barracks. Before the emergency electrician arrived, we removed the coin, replaced the bulb and wrenched the welded nail from the fuse box. He sat there for hours trying to figure out what had happened, as we all looked on, knowing that we could never tell.

I think it was the remembrance parade at the cenotaph in Harrogate town centre that caused me the most stress out of what I considered a harmless act. At the beginning of the 2 minutes silence, I felt some wind, working it's way through my lower abdomen. You know that feeling you get about a minute before you have to fart? I was trying to decide how to make it silent. Hands were out of the question, one was holding a rifle, the other clenched by my side. My feet were both together and even though I tried to bow my legs, to try and part my cheeks just enough, it simply wasn't going to work. It was at about 90 seconds that the unmistakeable sound whistled through the otherwise silent air, on that crisp winter morning. There was a flurry of giggles from the crowd and even some other soldiers, but the damage had been done. Whoever had done this had disgraced the British Army!
They tried the simple approach and just asked who had done it, but nobody owned up. They knew it had come from a certain area by questioning each soldier individually, but they just couldn't pin it down. I considered owning up, but became too engrossed in the investigation, not really believing what was going on. Had I insulted thousands of young men and women who had died in two world wars? The Royal Family make a good enough job of that by wearing a chest full of medals each at the parade in London every year. I think that our fallen heroes would have approved of what I had done, and be laughing their pants off as the Army's Special Investigation Branch did a reconstruction of the whole parade back at camp. Trying to get to the 'bottom' of this vile incident, as was reported in the Newspaper later that week. I never admitted it to anyone, and I made sure I took part in all the conspiracy theories, so as not to draw attention to myself.

There are a thousand memories I took from my days as a young soldier, probably 50-50 as to good and bad. It had to be done, I had nowhere else to go at the time, but I know that all my friends from back then would agree on one thing. They would like to do it all again, knowing what they know now!!!

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