TTGU, Ep. 1, Ch. 1 – For Queen & Country
It was on Thursday, 2nd April, 1959 that I grew up. The moment the train chugged its way out of Wolverhampton Low Level station was the moment when I took on the responsibilities of adulthood.
There are few other people who can be so precise about such an event. Most folk become mature – or whatever the word is – over a period of time. But I had left the comfort-zone of a loving little family and taken on the task of running my own life.
It came as a surprise to me, even though my family and I knew that two years National Service would come upon me sometime after I reached the age of eighteen. The accepted “coming-of-age “ was at twenty-one back then.
At eighteen, then, the only thing which moved me towards those inevitable two years was that I had a letter from some big-wig or other telling me to report for my Medical Examination. It was to be at Stoke-on-Trent, the HQ of The North Staffordshire Regiment. A train had taken me there, too. I hardly remember that journey, but the place to which I had to report (military jargon was creeping into my vocabulary already!) seemed easy enough to find.
There were men wandering round in long white coats when I got to the place, and a big bunch of Midland lads of my own age waiting to be told that they were fit enough to serve Her Majesty. The wisecrack which Kenneth Connor makes in one of the Carry On films applied: “If you’ve got two of everything you should have two of, you’re in.”
We had to strip to the waist ready to be prodded by the medical staff. We were allowed to put our jackets on to hide our bare torsos while sitting around for our turn. They checked our eyesight while we waited and, if you could see the wall upon which the test-chart was hung, you were deemed to have perfect vision.
When I was told to stand up and take off my jacket, the medic was taken aback. “What a magnificent chest!” he exclaimed and invited his colleagues to come and have a look. I don’t think any of them was effeminate, but my few years of weightlifting and body-building seemed to have impressed them all!
We were each given a bottle and told: “Fill it”. They did not tell us with what to fill it, but we seemed to guess correctly. One of the examinees assured us that, if we couldn’t fill it, they’d give us a little yellow tablet and we’d be able to fill lots of bottles then.
All of us were told that we’d passed and, therefore, fit for the Services. We would get our calling-up papers “in due course”. We left the building, and I don’t think I ever met any of my fellow examinees again. I don’t remember my train journey home, but Mom was waiting when I got back to hear a complete run down on what had happened and to find out if I’d passed as fit for call-up. She was relieved that I was fit, but dismayed that I would leave home for a couple of years to serve The Queen. My medical status was A1.
And then the waiting began. I had, since leaving school, felt drawn to a career in the Police Force. I went to Wolverhampton Police Station and made enquiries about how I could join.
“Have you done your National Service yet?”
“Then come back and see us when you have, OK?”
But I never went back.
I was still blowing trumpet with The Stomping Stevedores and wandering home from gigs or practices quite late at night. Bob Hayward, our pianist, had managed to wangle out of doing his National Service (mainly because there was no guarantee that he’d be assigned to the RAF which was what he’d have liked). He claimed some sort of physical weakness and a bit of a depressive nature. His father, one of the bosses atButlers’ Brewery, had influence and Bob got away with it.
Mom referred to Bob as “a conshie” from that time. That was still a great insult and a hang-over from two World Wars, of course.
My nineteenth birthday came. Still no calling-up papers. They were slowing down the call-up for some reason, and Mom hoped that it would be stopped altogether before I was sent for. Time passed. Then, one day whilst in the office at Stafford Road Factory, she phoned me.
In all my life I had never known her to use a phone. She would have had to walk a few hundred yards down to the call-box at the top of Leicester Street to do so. So I knew it was important. I can here her words now.
“What have, Mom?” I asked worriedly.
“Your calling up papers . . . “ and, though they were addressed to me, she had opened them and gave me all the details – or as much of them as she could before the pips went.
I read the full instructions when I got home from work. Mom was all of a jitter and Dad, when he got home, took the news in the quiet manner in which he always behaved. All our relatives had been told that “our Keith’s got his calling-up papers” as soon as Mom had put down the phone.
My papers told me when I should report to barracks near Aldershot, and what I needed to take with me: basically a shaving-kit, a few toiletries and my calling-up papers. Any civvie clothes I wore on my journey down would be sent back home once my uniform had been issued.
A few weeks later, I was on my way carrying the smallest size of suitcase imaginable and a grease-proof packet of cheese and Marmite sandwiches. Mom did her best to hide her panic as we said goodbye. She stood on our front-step and waved to me all the way up the road until I was out of sight.
I walked to the Brewery to say my goodbyes to Dad. He was summoned to the posh wrought-iron main-gates and we found it difficult to know what to say. After a few, brief moments, he shook hands with me and burst into tears. “Goodbye, son, and good luck” was all he said.
Those tears I understood. I knew in that moment how much my Dad loved me. And I knew that this parting brought back his memories of his own Dad going off to war in 1916 and dying in the trenches in 1917,
I walked on in serious thought to Wolverhampton Low Level Station, handed my travel-warrant to the booking-clerk, took my ticket and went to the platform to await my train.
* * * * *