When Keeffey Came Marching Home
It was fifty years ago today that I left the British Army.
I have a piece of paper (somewhere) which gives the reason for my demob after two years National Service as “His services are no longer required”. And my final medical report graded me A2 (‘cos my eyes had deteriorated from squinting too much in the Malayan sunshine).
I had spent nearly all of those two years on Active Service in the campaign against terrorists in Malaya – though please to call that nation Malaysia these days. It is a campaign which is rarely mentioned anywhere now, because we – the British – won our jungle war and it was overshadowed by the Yanks losing theirs in Vietnam.
I remember my demob day in a series of short “memory video clips”. There was some paperwork to fiddle with at the Training Depot in the morning; a looking around at the new intake of ‘sprogs’ as they tried to march in step to the drill-square (and shouting “Get some in!” at them in the time-honoured manner); and being asked by two lads who were being demobbed and had hired a car to drive to Stoke-on-Trent if I’d like a lift to Wolverhampton.
I had a free railway ticket, courtesy Her Majesty, in my wallet. But, after two years of Army transport, I paid the lads a couple of bob, loaded my case (and my best Army boots) in the boot, and off we went.
Before that day, I had not met those two lads. I cannot now remember their names or what they looked like.
It was a long journey from the Aldershot area, and there were no Motorways back then. But we joked and swapped our National Service experiences and the trip seemed to take but a little time; we didn’t even stop for a pee.
They dropped me off by Christ Church by Five-Ways Island at the top of Dunstall Road. It was late evening and the mist covering Whitmore Reans – the area of Wolverhampton where I had been born and raised – was augmented by the smoke of all the coal-fires of the terraced-houses and by whatever the local Black Country factories were burning.
I left my best boots in the car and didn’t realise that until they’d driven off. I doubt very much if I would have worn them in civvy-street, anyway.
For a moment, I recall, I stood on the corner by the church (which has been replaced by a mosque now) just getting my mind used to the fact that I was home. It was an odd moment. I had felt genuine loss when I looked back at my old camp over the tailgate of the Army lorry which took us “demob-happy” lads to Kuala Lumpur railway-station, and realised that I would never be part of the ridiculously stable Army life again. I feel that loss even as I write this.
The Army had been my growing-up period. I date my manhood from 2nd April, 1959 and the moment I got onto the train at Wolverhampton Low Level Station on the first leg of my journey to become a soldier.
Anyway, the moment standing on that corner passed. The shops at the top of Dunstall Road had not altered. I walked down Dunstall Road at a sort of slow-march. The mist masked the curve of the street and the weak street-lamps did not really illuminate our house.
A light was on in the front-room – a most unusual thing: we used to go up the entry and in by the back door, the front-room being kept for any posh visitors who might turn up. The landlord was about the only one of these we ever had.
Nobody was about in the street, and I could see it hadn’t changed at all in the two years I’d been away. As I reached the house, I made to turn up the entry as usual. But the front-door opened and there was Mom, all smiles and tears insisting I came in that way. We hugged and she kissed me.
In the living-room, I shook hands with Dad. “Welcome home, son,” he said.
From that moment, I was a civilian; and from that moment, Mom started to tell me what I should and should not do! It would have been just like old times except I was now a grown man – and Mom hadn’t seen that process happen. So, within a short space of time, we would learn how to live at ease with each other (though I sought her advice on most things until the day she died).
Mom and Dad and I chatted away until late. Mom made cups of tea which did not taste like the Army tea, but I was polite about them.
And so to bed. In the morning, a new period of my life would begin.