Celtic Illumination, part 81, One lump or two?
It was no surprise that I was standing in front of the boss the next morning; however I was given the benefit of the doubt. I would have preferred six, three minute, rounds in the station gym. I would be representing air traffic on any parades or guard duties over the next six months. I wasn’t worried in the least, for getting a stamp of approval, as I had, from the SWO was as close to a ‘get out of jail free’ card as one could get. Of course it wouldn’t be recognised by the air traffic controllers who were far too busy polishing each other’s belt buckles. Every time the guardroom requested men for a parade, or some form of guard duty, the bad boys were sent. On reflection they were very similar to the thuggish priests at Violent Hell, for they didn’t have an ounce of sense or initiative between them.
If I was detailed for a parade my friend Louis Henry would make sure that he acquired a new uniform for me so that I wouldn’t stand out as the sack of shit I normally was. Once we were told that we would have to provide a guard of honour for Princess Margaret. The air force did have a permanent guard for big parades and functions; these were the Queens Colour Squadron who were taken from the royal air force regiment.
Members of the royal air force regiment were people who wanted to be soldiers but couldn’t get into the army, for one reason or another. They guarded airfields and surface to air rocket installations. Quite a lot of them enjoyed the synchronised shouting out loud, standing still and walking forward in big groups, so they formed the Queens Colour Squadron. In their defence I have to say that they were famed for their ceremonial drill, which would be carried out without a word of command. However, when the Queens Colour Squadron would be mentioned, I would often think of a bunch of chaps, in combat fatigues, all siting at desks, with crayons, colouring in books and their tongues firmly jammed between their teeth, as they gave spot the dog a nice brown furry coat. I think the name they were commonly referred to would give away their perceived standing within the air force, and that name was Rock Apes.
Unfortunately, for this parade, all the rock apes were busy screaming ‘stand still!’ at each other while guarding something very important. I wandered off to the guardroom to see Louis. Many people would give the guard room a wide berth, but as it was almost my second place of residence I wasn’t afraid of it any more. Louis informed me that my uniform was sorted and gave me the info for the parade that evening. We were to line the entrance road to the camp, at ten yard intervals; we would all be in best uniform and carry weapons.
I could see that the air force would be going into overdrive, as this was getting close to a full on parade. There was only one niggling little point I had with it and that was that it was to be at eleven o clock at night. That evening we all gathered at six o clock in a hanger and had a practice drill. We then were marched over to the armoury where we all drew arms. Now, no, stop it, we didn’t copy the rock apes and start drawing pictures of guns, we each withdrew a weapon and bayonet from the armoury.
Bayonets were horrible things, very long and very sharp. Bayonets also had a self-sharpening feature, so every time it was replaced in its scabbard, it honed itself to precision. I remember my first briefing on the bayonet, as the instructor pointed out that the grooves on the bayonet were to encourage and enable the blood to escape and flow freely, when you stuck it in some horrible enemy person, and don’t forget to twist, as you remove it. Of course this was only a parade, but with fixed bayonets, you were aware if the chap behind you was a tish overambitious, or fainted, one of your ears might disappear. And the more ambidextrously challenged would often spear their hat on the present arms.
We were taken back to the hangar, and probably because it was after a long working day, the SWO was quite gentle with us, in fact rather than do the old tallest on the left, shortest on the right, and associated synchronised counting out loud; he arranged us into two lines and marched us out that way. The road had already been marked out by the SWO with his pace stick so there was a little chalk mark for each of us to stand on and guard.
We marched along the road and he positioned us, in a very informal way, and with us all positioned he began to bring us to attention and present arms as he regulated his voice to determine at what level he would have to start screaming at. This was Valley in North Welsh Wales. Five hundred yards away was the Irish Sea; famed for its winds, on the other side was the Snowdonia mountain range, famed for its rain storms. At about half past eleven it started to rain. By midnight it was torrential, however this was the military. We stood and stood and we all made sure that our very own little chalk mark was properly guarded. At about half past midnight, in gale force winds and rain, two black limousines cruised past with Princess Margaret as pissed as a fart, and dry as a bone.
The SWO wasn’t impressed but he never made any comment. We disbanded, handed our weapons in and sloped off to our billets to wring out our uniforms and prepare for the following day.
I was still being given the worst jobs and the worst shifts in air traffic control. Perhaps the worst job, or at least the one considered to be the most demeaning, would be the tea boy. I suppose these days they would call it duty canteen management. This was almost a minor punishment for being a minute or two late for work, for being scruffy, for answering back, for making a mistake. All of these would be rewarded with a week, or two, of being tea boy. Here you would go around the tower making tea and coffee for everyone.
Most people were happy to have a ‘NATO standard’ tea or coffee, that would be a cup of tea or coffee, with milk and two sugars. Others would have more specific demands and would crow to high heaven if you got it wrong, so the humiliation was made public.
We were given rations from the mess and we also had a fund to provide extras but we used loose tea leaves rather than tea bags. This of course involved a tea strainer, which stopped the leaves going into the cup. One day I was tea boy, I know, go figure, and I had a made a big pot of tea. I couldn’t find the tea strainer anywhere so saw a scouring pad in the sink. These were small green fibrous scouring pads for cleaning pots and pans and the more use they had, the more debris became entangled in the little green fibres.
The one I saw wasn’t too bad, there were a few flecks of porridge, or something, in it but it would do the job I had planned for it as it was now going to be my tea strainer. I was only pouring the third cup or so when the Satco walked in amazed at what I was doing. Had I known that he would ban me from ever making another cup of tea or coffee again at Valley I would have used the scouring pad the day I arrived.
So I was Bessie mates with the SWO, well; not really, one of his men, and I had been banned from making brews for air traffic control. I was the scruffiest oik on the squadron and I couldn’t really see any future for myself in that place. It was a Friday night and I was on shift with a couple of fellows, one of whom was a dour Scot called Jim Matthie. Jim was a tall thin lad with a fat moustache that covered his whole mouth. It was the wee small hours of the morning and Jim and I were chatting.
We called this ‘pulling up a sandbag’, when chaps, and sometimes chapesses, would sit about and tell stories, pull up a sandbag and make yourself comfortable. I told Jim my tale of woe and wondered out loud what I was going to do, for if I was given any more fecking parades. or stupid weekend night shifts, I was going to hit someone. I wouldn’t, I was just trying to verbalise my frustration in a way that Jim could understand.
“You know what you want to do?” sighed Jim, as he licked the edge of the cigarette paper on the rollie he was making.
“What’s that?” I asked, waiting for the punch line, which of course would be gut-busting and hilarious.
“You should volunteer for dangerous duties.”
It wasn’t the answer I was expecting, but you know, after quite an informative chat with Jim, first thing Monday morning I did.