TTGU, Episode 1, Chapter 5.

TTGU, Ch. 5 – Day To Day Duties

     My most important day-to-day duty was to write home as I’d promised Mom.   In return for my daily chore, she would send a big box of goodies each couple of weeks because she thought they wouldn’t feed us properly.

I’d palled up with a few lads by then, mainly Billy Heeps, Kenny Forbes and Glyndwr Taylor – two Edinburgh Scots and a Welshman from Skewen.   We shared anything we were sent from home, and sat around in the evenings when all our chores were completed (in the proper military manner) and talked about our civvie lives and many other things.

The seeming closeness of we four caused the rest of the platoon to be a little envious, especially as we shared chocolate biscuits or whatever.   They nicknamed us ‘The Brotherhood’.

Once, Roy Barham said to me:  “You buy your friends, you do.   The Brotherhood only want you for those food-parcels.”   Jealousy manifests itself in many ways.

We four always welcomed intelligent conversation, so other lads joined us from time to time.   Johnny Paterson, a Glaswegian, was a regular sitter-in.   Naturally, the Scots and the Welshman took the mic out of me for being English.   I always played the upper-class twit and told them their place as colonials.   Once, I insulted the whole Scottish nation with some sort of quip and, laughingly, Johnny leapt upon me, held me down and threatened to rub the well-buttered crust of bread he’d scrounged for somewhere in my face.   He would let me off this terrible punishment only if I admitted that the Scots were a fine bunch of people.   So, of course, he had no alternative but to smear my features good and proper.

“Knocker” Berridge was a politely spoken Brummie who chatted with us.   He’d been a university student and had waived his right not to be called up because he wanted to enjoy a couple of years away from the scholastic life.   Soon, with his education and manner of speaking, he would be wearing a red ribbon on his battle-dress (“B.D.”) denoting that he was officer material.   He took our ribbing about his exalted status with great good humour.

I had soon found out that the English class-system persisted in the Army.   Those who spoke Standard Received English and “talked posh” were commissioned officers.   Those who had regional accents were classed as Other Ranks, even though they, too, may have had excellent educations.  

We fooled around a lot when off-duty, but there was work to be done first.   I was so glad that Mom’s training had made me the only lad in a platoon of thirty who could sew, use a flat-iron and darn socks.   That last skill was necessary in those days of woollen socks and general thrift.   So I made a good few bob from pressing BDs on a regular basis and sewing on the occasional button and darning the odd sock.

Our uniforms and boots were always made ready – and as near enough to what the Army deemed perfection – for the morning’s soldiering.   We blancoed our webbing which comprised a pair of puttees and a brass-clipped belt.   I was no good at “bulling” boots.   Their toe-caps and heels had to be covered with a layer of melted black polish, then, by spitting on them and rubbing with a yellow duster, made to gleam like new paint.   So I bartered my ironing skills for someone’s “bulling” abilities.   Later, I would compose love-letters for some of them.

Though I was not then, nor have I ever become, someone who enjoys the macho-masculine group company, I felt very much at ease with and part of this “band of brothers”.   The back-slapping matey-ness of it all was, in the main, quite enjoyable.

Preparing for the morrow done, we would play illegal card-games or tell jokes or sing often-vulgar songs or nip across to the Sally Ann hut which was within our Company lines.   We could get snacks and cups of tea there very cheaply.   The Sally Ann (Salvation Army) ran these little places to provide what they felt was a decent atmosphere for young men.   There, they allowed no smoking, no alcohol, no swearing, no singing of rude songs and, in fact, none of the normal things which young men did.

The not-so-young lady who ran the place was a real misery.   The out-of-tune piano in the hut could only be played for hymns.   She forbade any hint of pop-music whenever some lad who could tickle the ivories sat down to play.    Naturally, and not within her hearing, we would take the mic out of her.

More often, though, we would go down into the main camp and enjoy an evening in the NAAFI.   There was a juke-box amid the smoky, alcohol-happy atmosphere.   And the girls behind the counter were local lassies who were chatted up by every soldier on the camp.

One evening, after a session in the NAAFI, one of my comrades offered me a cigarette.   I had never smoked until then, not even a quick, secret drag as an experiment.   He was insistent:  “Come on – you’re in the Army now:  you’re a real man”.

I took the fag, a Wills’ Woodbine.   He helped me light it.   I inhaled the smoke.   My head whirled a little.   And from that moment I was addicted.   Next day, I bought my first packet of five Woodies and carried on being a smoker for the next few years, ending up smoking sixty ciggies a day.

The evening joint labours included the cleaning, of course.   One evening, I was doing my share by crawling along the barrack-room floor ensuring that there was a straight edge to the wax polish along the centre boards.   Yes, really:  the Army had ideas of perfection in all things.   Suddenly, Ernie Christie – an easy-going but rather tough Lancastrian – jumped on my back.   It was done as a bit of fun, but its suddenness made me go into defensive mode.   Using a variation on the jiu-jitsu moves Dad had taught me, I threw Ernie off.

Bang!   He landed on his back on the wooden floor.   A silence fell on the billet.   He lay there, immobile, for a few moments, eyes closed.   I leapt to my feet, full of apologies.   He opened his eyes, began to laugh and I helped him to his feet.   He insisted on apologising to me.   Then the wheals along his back-bone made by the hard contact with the floor were noticed.   I’ll bet the scars never healed and still feel bad about it.

Then somebody yelled that there was a mark on our highly-polished centre strip.   Ernie and I shook hands and everybody joined in the re-polishing exercise.

But that silly incident – together with my then-muscular, body-builder’s frame – made my reputation as someone with whom you did not tangle.   Me!   The shy lad who wouldn’t have said “boo” to a goose when at school or since.

That piece of floor was badly treated a week or so later.   “NAAFI Taffy” Lewis gained a reputation for never joining the rest of us in bulling up the billet.   We got fed up of his skiving, and one evening we all demanded that he helped.   He lay on his “pit” (bed) and pleaded illness of some kind.   As a group, and without discussion, we decided he was lying and acted as one man

Picking him up, we carried him to the bathroom where some of us restrained him while others filled the bath with cold water.   Then, with all due ceremony, we chucked him in and left him there.   We went back to the billet.

A few minutes later, the door crashed open and in ran Lewis with a fire-bucket full of water.   Swearing loudly, he threw the water right down the centre of the recently polished centre strip.

With no anger or violence, we encouraged him to mop up the wet with his own towel and clothing and re-polish it all on his own.   He did so obediently.   It took him ages.   But from that time, he played his part in the responsibilities of cleaning the billet.

There were other “characters” in our squad.   Kenny Holt who kidded us all that he had a girl-friend back home and referred to her in his broad Lancashire accent as “my woman”;  Johnny Whelan who tried to convert us to the joys of Morris Dancing;  “Scrubber” Green who seemed to have a police-record;  David Aitcheson who, even when the hot May sun beat down on the drill-square, would not remove his shirt and vest like the rest of us when ordered to do so;  Pete Spinks, a bloke taller than even my nearly six foot two inches, and big with it;  Laurie Bellis and Roy Sheppard, married men who resented being away from their wives;  Peter Scutts, who was so quiet and seemingly shy that nobody ever noticed him;  Ian Machin and John (I forget his surname) who were university graduates who wanted to be teachers and who held long conversations with each other in which the rest of us were intellectually unable to join.

These, and a few others whose names I have quite forgotten, were the lads with whom I associated in the early days of my real adulthood.   These were the comrades who gave me “the bumps” when I was the first one of us to have a birthday.   That was on my twentieth birthday, a couple of weeks after becoming a National Serviceman.

* * * * *

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