Celtic Illumination, part 108, Lost
In this part of the world there is an urban myth, connected to the armed forces, where people would whisper the warning, ‘Never volunteer for anything.’ I however would advocate the exact opposite. Volunteer for everything. I once had to act as a casualty for a course of baby pilots who were in the field being taught survival skills. They had gone foraging for food and I was placed in some scrub alongside the path they would return along. A parachute had been laid out and I had been given a false arm, well, half an arm really, connected to a pump I controlled with my hidden arm, that would splurt blood out though the protruding bone.
They would have to build a stretcher and use whatever they had with them to patch me up and get me off the hill. One chap stood back and said “Why don’t we call mountain rescue?” He was advised where to go and in short sharp jerky movements. Not by me, may I add, but by the supervising staff. They managed to build a stretcher and carry me back to their camp. It was the final exercise in their week long course. They had been promised a cooked meal on completion.
I was invited to join the training staff who sat, inside a tent drinking beer, watching the students. A staff member came out to the waiting, hungry, students with an old potato sack that was moving. He dumped out four live chickens and said, “Gentleman, your lunch.” It was such a laugh watching them chase the scattering chickens but even more so to see the team work come into play. One held the body, one the head and another hacked away at the neck, with the sharpest stone they could find, to try and despatch the poor chicken.
One job we would often be asked to do would be to position ourselves in cover, to observe aircrew who would be dumped in the wild and would have to recover themselves. The head of the pilot training school was a stickler for aircrew to carry the correct equipment at all times, so as you would walk from the operations room, to an aircraft, you would be taken away, put into a helicopter and dumped in the wilderness. No problem if you had the correct equipment. One fellow actually sat on a rock and began to shout ‘help.’ The best one I ever saw got up, looked about and then wandered off. He found a road and walked along till he came to a pub. He telephoned Valley and asked for a driver to be sent out to collect him. He then negotiated credit with the landlord and spent an enjoyable afternoon drinking beer.
Another time I volunteered was when 22 squadron rang and asked for a volunteer. I was at the head of the queue before anyone had time to think. I had to go and get on the ferry to Dublin. Occasionally 22 squadron would have to lift casualties off ships or smaller vessels and so would practise when they could. The guys on the ferry were marvellous and before I was winched off they had suggested that any time I wanted to travel home to Ireland I was welcome to use their ship, free of charge.
The next day I was on my way to Dublin and home for a few days. I hadn’t bothered going through the normal channels to get security clearance, they were all probably very busy so there was no point in annoying anyone. As usual I had a great time and was surprised on my return to see Louis waiting for me in one of the team land rovers. The team had been called out twenty minutes before and Louis knew I was coming in on that boat so came to get me; he had even collected my kit from my room.
That was a very gloomy call out as it was an elderly gentleman who had gone for a walk with his dog. He had been reported missing and we were informed that as he hadn’t taken his medication he may be disorientated. A large police team joined us and we scoured the countryside for the poor fellow. We found his dog guarding the body and I have to admit I found it very sad indeed.
We considered ourselves very lucky on mountain rescue because we were paid more money than any comparable rank in the real air force. We didn’t actually get paid more, we just didn’t get charged for anything. Our accommodation was regarded as being substandard which we laughed at, as it was far superior to anything on camp and we didn’t pay for food as we were constantly in the field. One day we were told that the AOC was coming to investigate the team to consider if we deserved danger money.
We were going to have to put a display on for the AOC. A suitable cliff face was chosen and we were told that two people would bring a casualty, on a stretcher, down the cliff face. Another half a dozen troops would abseil either side of the stretcher to provide assistance if necessary. The remainder of the team would spread themselves out and look busy. The AOC would be flown out in a 22 squadron helicopter and observe the exercise from two hundred and fifty feet.
Docker was volunteered to be the casualty and two guys, one of whom was Rick Mewes, were detailed to guide the stretcher down. I was one of the abseilers. This wasn’t the sort of thing you see on American movies where twenty SWAT men abseil down the side of a building. With the stretcher at the bottom of the cliff we would need men to carry it over to the helicopter where Docker would be winched up and taken away. It wasn’t just us being assessed as 22 Squadron were being considered for the extra payments as well.
This took on the same formality as a standard military parade and the day before the AOC’s visit we went out and inspected the cliff, abseiling down it a few times, to ensure we were all very familiar with the rock face. On the day itself we positioned ourselves in good time and on the nod from Jack began to get into position. Once we could actually see a helicopter in the distance and were told that it was the one we were waiting for, we swung into action. Well; when I say ‘we’ swung into action, all of us began to descend, apart from the stretcher, which was now stuck.
Harsh words were spoken and there was a great rush as three or four of us scarpered over to break it free and allow it to finally begin its descent. I often wondered what explanation would have been to the AOC. Thankfully we got to the base of the cliff without further incident and six of us lifted Docker and the stretcher and yomped across the boggy ground to the waiting winch cable. It was as we attached it that Docker wished us all a lovely day and expressed hope that clearing away all the equipment wouldn’t be too arduous, he would be thinking about us, as he expected to be enjoying a hot cup of coffee in a soft armchair in the section house.
Paddy Cross raised his arm in the air to indicate to the crew of the helicopter that they could begin to lift away. As the stretcher lifted off the ground we were amazed to see Paddy lash out with his boot and kick one handle of the stretcher, which sent it into a spin. We all collapsed into a heap laughing as the helicopter, gaining height and flying away along the valley, had Docker, on the stretcher, imitating the rotor blades by swinging round and round as they went.
It was a few days later when I was in my room and Rick Mewes knocked at the door. “Jack wants you in his office,” he said, before moving on. I went into the corridor and shouted after him. “What for?” Rick shrugged his shoulders, but said. “I’m not sure, but I think it’s about some sort of detachment.”
I couldn’t contain myself. Bruce had just been sent to the Pyrenees, a combined forces unit was looking for volunteers to tackle Everest. The possibilities were endless and exciting. My secret hopes were that I would be sent to the Far East. My favourite film was Lawrence of Arabia and I so wanted to get into the desert and experience some of the adventures Pib would often tell us about.
I presented myself before Jack who handed me a piece of paper. It was a standard memo.
I read it then looked at Jack. Jack shrugged his shoulders. I was being sent to Cranwell for three months. Cranwell, in Lincolnshire, was the officer training school. I wasn’t being sent there to become an officer. I wasn’t even being sent there on rescue related duties. I was being sent there as a fecking assistant air traffic controller.