TTGU, Episode 1, Chapter 11.

TTGU, Ep. 1, Ch. 11 – Passing Out

     Sometime in June, 1959, the companies based at our Training Camp took part in what we were assured by our officers and NCOs was a very important parade.   We were to go to a massive, fully grassed field near to Aldershot to celebrate The Queen’s Official Birthday.   So we practiced for a few weeks before.

Every regiment in the British Army took part in that Parade.   We had to fall in, march off in column-of-route, do a circuit of the parade-ground (parade-field?), do a smart eyes-right as we passed the saluting-base, and march away to be dismissed, get into the backs of our 3-ton lorries and be taken back to our camp.

So we did it just for Her Majesty, whose place was taken by an Army brigadier, and our march-past included fixed bayonets and looking very proud.   The brigadier saluted each regiment as it passed the base.   The Queen must have been having a party at Buckingham Palace or something or we felt sure she would have turned up in person.

The only thing I remember of that parade, apart from the marching in perfect step to a military-band, was caused by the heat of the day.   On that open ground, the sweat poured off us.   Highly-polished bayonets were everywhere.   We had spent a lot of time standing to attention.

Suddenly, in the ranks of the regiment lined up in front of us – the Royal Artillery, I think – a soldier collapsed.   As he did so, his face somehow came into contact with his newly-sharpened bayonet.   He was quickly stretchered off, blood streaming from the big gash on his face.   I’m sure he would have borne the scar from that day for the rest of his life – and that National Serviceman did it for Queen and Country.

A few weeks after that, it would be our passing-out parade, we now being fully-trained warriors.   But first came the important matter of postings.

(In fact, our passing-out parade was such a non-event after the Queen’s Birthday one that it isn’t worth mentioning.)

Britain still ruled the world in those days.   We had an Empire and interfered in a lot of other countries.   We’d had troops in Korea and Suez and Cyprus, and there were still plenty of far away places with strange sounding names where we could be sent for the rest of our National Service careers: Solihull, Manorbier, Kilmarnock.   The list seemed endless.

Our company was paraded in front of the main office of the camp and a little, rather effeminate sergeant came out.   He told us that most of us would be posted in Great Britain.   You could hear the group-sigh go out!

Then he said:  “But we’d like some volunteers.   And you’re all nice boys . . .” here he smiled prettily at us, “so, when I name the places on my list, I’d like volunteers to step forward.”

I had enjoyed my Army career from the start.   Like other lads, I hoped there would be a chance to see a bit of the world.   So I listened carefully.

“Of course, it could be only places like Edinburgh or Caterick,” he smiled again, “but here we go.  Christmas Island, anyone?”

We weren’t quite sure where that was.   But it sounded pleasant and Roy Sheppard stepped briskly forward.

“Brave lad,” fluttered the sergeant.   “Number?   Rank?   Name?”

And Roy – a married man – was assigned to go to that little island somewhere in the South Atlantic.

“Now then – we have three postings in Hong Kong and two postings in Malaya.   Who wants to go and get some sun?”

Four of us stepped forward.   I really fancied Hong Kong having seen exotic pictures of the place in books I’d borrowed from the library.   Another lad wanted Hong Kong, too, and the other two lads volunteered for Malaya.

“One more for Hong Kong.   Come on, boys.   Just one more volunteer?”

Nobody moved.   This would have to be “A volunteer, please, you’ll do” situation beloved of NCOs everywhere

He looked along our ranks.   “What about you, Hitchen?”

Pete Hitchen was a bit of a big girl’s blouse.   He was totally out of place in the Army having been a junior-clerk in a shoe-shop in civvie-street.

“What’s to keep you in this country, Hitchen?”

Flustered, Hitchen burst out:  “Well, I’ve got an auntie up North!”

It took a while for the laughter in the ranks to subside.   Then, Private Peter Hitchen found that he had volunteered to be posted to Hong Kong.

We were all dismissed after being told that those going abroad should report of the Company Quarter-Master’s Stores the next morning at nine o’ clock prompt.   The six volunteers were there on the dot, excited to be going abroad at Her Majesty’s expense.   We never found out why Roy Sheppard had volunteered to be totally away from his wife back in Sheffield for most of two years.

Our gear for foreign lands was issued and we went back with it to our billet.   The rest of the day for we brave volunteers was our own.   When the rest of our comrades came back from marching up and down, we had a surprise.

Uniforms for soldiers in Hong Kong were khaki-drill.   Those for Malaya were olive-green-drill.   We who’d volunteered for Hong Kong had been given olive-green uniforms (known thereafter as OGs).   There must have been some mistake.

The Army never admitted mistakes.   When we went down to the QM Stores next morning, we were told that, yes, the three of us issued with OGs would be going to Malaya and the other two, with their KDs, were off to Hong Kong.

And that was that.

For volunteering, we were given two weeks embarkation leave on top of the week we would have had just for passing out.   I’d worked out very quickly what I would do with all that free time.

With all my letter-writing to Liz Lechie for Billy Heeps and with us being mates, he invited me to his wedding which was planned for our passing-out leave.   So that was the first port of call.   It was a long, long train journey from London to Edinburgh, and we had to change at Preston and Carlisle.   We – Billy, me and Kenny Forbes – slept rather a lot on the way.

We got there late in the evening.   Kenny went off home, and Billy took me to the flat of his fiancée’s sister and her husband.   They were away, but I was trusted to sleep in the spare bedroom and had the flat to myself for the whole night.   I slept like a log in a non-Army bed with nobody round me snoring.

Suddenly, it was dawn and I was awakened by a beautiful blonde-haired, blue-eyed, smiling girl who swept into my room having let herself in.   I thought my luck had changed!

“You must be Jazzer.   I’m here to make you breakfast.   I’m Liz, Billy’s girl, by the way.”

She retained her bubbliness for all the years after that, despite personal difficulties.   And she cooked a massive great breakfast (including porridge, naturally).   Then, she called a taxi and we went to Billy’s parents’ house.

During that day – it was a Friday – I was treated like royalty and shown all the sights of Edinburgh.   It has remained a favourite city of mine ever since, one o’clock gun and all.   That evening, Liz had her hen-party and Billy and his mates had our stag-party.

Of course, the Scottish lads were disparaging when they discovered I was English, but I joked back that The Queen had sent me, a fine English gentleman, up there to teach the Scots how to use knives and forks.   It was a merry evening and one in which I discovered Scottish Heavy.   (I have used that “knives and forks” crack in all the years we’ve lived in Wales, and it’s all taken in jolly jest.)

Next morning, off to the church where the happy couple were married.   A lovely memory.   Then came the reception.   The Heavy still flowed as did good Scotch whiskey – though nobody seemed to get really legless.   And a kilted piper was there and played “Charlie Brown”, a rock ‘n’ roll hit of the day for The Coasters.   Rock ‘n’ roll on the pipes is an experience everyone should have!

Billy and Liz went off on honeymoon;  I was driven back to her sister’s flat to spend the night with the little family who lived there.   Next afternoon, bags packed, I headed for Edinburgh Waverley Station and started my journey home.

It was a horrible trip.   I changed trains easily enough at Carlisle, but Preston Station was awful.   I had three hours to wait for my connection.   It was in the middle of the night and there was no café open.   Railway station benches are no place to rest.   And I was “alone on that bare platform”.   I was so glad to get on the train and snuggle down for an hour or so.

The plan was that, though I’d already written to tell Mom and Dad I was going abroad, I needed to break the news to Mom again, face to face, and as best I could.   Goodness knows how she’d take it.   After that, using free passes to which I was still entitled from British Railways, I’d go down to Bexley or London and see Pat.   Then come back to Wolverhampton and spend time with Mom and Dad before going Out East.  Simple.

Mom hid her emotions pretty well knowing that her only child was going to go ten-thousand miles away from home for a very long time – and into an area where there was an anti-terrorist shooting-type war going on.   She insisted, though, that I write home every single day and I told her I would try.

Then down to see Pat.   We met in London and strolled along the Thames Embankment talking about my posting Out East.   She was quite impressed.

It was a recognised fact that every Serviceman going abroad who had a girl-friend would ask her to wait for him till he returned.   I didn’t really see Pat as a girl-friend, more like a friend who was a girl.   But recognised facts are recognised facts.

I approached the subject by mentioning that some of my mates were “unofficially engaged” to girls back home.   What a daft phrase that sounded, even then.   Then, pushing the subject a little further, I asked if we should get unofficially engaged.   To be officially engaged, I would have had to ask her father and go through the rigmarole of buying an engagement ring.   And she was only seventeen, so her father may well have said “no” to someone he didn’t know and who would be going abroad with immediate effect.

She said “Yes” and gave me a kiss.   We were “unofficially engaged” and she would wait for me.

When we parted, we kissed, and we promised to write every week while I was abroad.   So I went back to Wolverhampton to tell Mom and Dad that me and a girl they’d never met were “unofficially engaged” and that she was going to wait for me and we’d get properly engaged when I came back and eventually get married.

Dad smiled.   Mom took the news as well as a doting mother could, though she did mention that I’d be away for a very long time.

The time came for me to go back to camp and prepare for embarkation.   Mom cried a little, Dad shook hands, and off I went up Dunstall Road knowing that I would not see those familiar houses for a very, very long time.

* * * * *

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