TTGU, Ep. 2, Chapter 25 – Going Home
It seemed to come so soon that time for me to get packed and ready to go home.
I had settled in so well to Army life and had even considered – as my demob drew near – signing on! I’d even gone into the Company Office and asked about becoming a Regular. Even CSM Ampleford knew how to handle my enquiry (perhaps it was laid down somewhere in Queen’s Regulations).
Quietly (quietly – Ampie?!), he explained that a lot of lads felt like signing on at the end of their National Service and a few of them were right for the job. On the other hand, most of them just didn’t want to leave their mates and wanted to stay on because the whole of their existence was orderly, bound by solid rules.
He explained that I would only be able to stay in Malaya a little while longer, anyway, Regular or not. I could end up being posted anywhere, “even Birmingham” he joked. That joke – which surprised me for Ampie was not the most humourous of men – changed my mind. He added that I should go back to Blighty, see how I felt then, and re-join the mob if I wanted to.
That was the end of me wanting to sign on.
Geordie Armstrong had signed on. He had been a devout National Serviceman and longed to be back in the North-East, and his demob date was very, very close. He pulled my leg something awful about him going home and me having to stay behind for a while.
Geordie had been courting a QA called Barbara who was stationed near KL. She said she would marry him if he signed on, so he did. As soon as Geordie had become a Regular soldier, she jilted him.
I did not need to pull his leg when my demob date was imminent – we both knew of the mistake he’d made.
Many of my comrades-in-arms had already gone home with the usual drunken parties and rude shouts of farewell as they were driven off the camp. They were strange partings. And my circle of close mates had realised that, once back in civvie-street, we would have very little in common, so we decided not to meet up after demob. Nor did we ever do so.
Well, not on purpose. When we had the taxi-firm, “Cornflake’s Cabs” in Aberystwyth some thirty years after I was demobbed, a couple of old dears who worked up at the University nattered on about a new cook who’d come to work up there. The called him “Mr. Wagland”. Dickie Wagland, one of the lads in Barrack Room 10, had been a cook on our camp.
I asked them if they knew his first name. They thought it was Richard. I reasoned that there would not be many Richard “Dickie” Waglands about, and sent him a message via the ladies: “Jazzer says do you remember Barrack Room 10?”
Sure enough, it turned out to be my old mate Dickie Wagland! We met up a couple of times and chatted about old times and what we’d done since. He’d married and had four children. Then, one evening, he walked into a pub and saw his current partner and fell instantly in love. They had lived together ever since – and this partner was a man!
It’s a funny old world. And I’ve never gone into a pub without Rosie ever since – just in case!
But the decision among my Army pals not to meet up was sound. Dickie and I had nothing in common, no spark of friendship. It was thirty years on, of course, but I suppose it would have been the same had we all kept in touch: the lads would have dropped out of the group and gone their separate ways. It had been the Army which gave us so much in common and so many mutual interests.
As the time slipped away, I wandered round KL and bought presents to take home. Apart from photos, I have but one souvenir of my Malayan Days: a small snake-knife which I bought in case I was bitten. Allegedly, one could slit one’s skin open where the venomous snake had bitten and suck the poison out before it did damage. That was OK if it was on an arm or a leg but, if it bit your bottom, you found out who your friends really were . . .
About this time, Sergeant-Major Ampleford sent for me to see him immediately in the Company Office. I was sure he’d got me – at last – on some minor military offence. I went in. He looked at me, opened his desk drawer, took out a small package and slung it at me.
“There’s your medal, Stevenson. Now **** off.”
What a wonderful ceremony!
I had written masses of letters to Mom and Dad. When Mom died, I found a handbag of hers full of them. I have kept it ever since, but never read the letters. Maybe they will be historic documents one day – or revelations about me, my military career and my general immaturity of those days.
Mom, and sometimes Dad, replied, always encouraging, always reminding me of things back home.
I’d written regularly to Pat, too, the girl who’d said she’d wait for me and to whom I was “unofficially engaged”. Her replies were scant and brief.
Some soldiers would get “Dear John” letters. These were so-called because a song of that name (sung by Kay Starr, I think) had been popular a few years back. It concerned a soldier whose girl-friend jilted him by post when he was serving abroad. The song began “Dear John . . . “ and ended “. . . and I’m marrying your brother, Dear John.”
Even married men would get Dear Johns. They were allowed a few days compassionate leave and flown home. One can only imagine what they did when they got there.
These Dear Johns would often be posted on the Company notice-board. That was, perhaps, to show that the soldier didn’t really care and that his girl-friend was a nasty piece of work. But I know some of those lads cried themselves to sleep.
And, within only a month or so of me leaving for my journey from Malaya to home, Pat wrote me a Dear John. It had no effect on me at all. I knew that we’d only been friends. But I wrote back to say I would go and see her when I returned. And, when Mac Houston went home a week or two before me, I gave him another letter to take with him to post to her with a British stamp and which said I would be seeing her shortly. Bet that had an odd effect on her!
As our demobs drew nearer, Mac and I had handed over our radio-station to three lads who said they were interested. Two of them wanted to be technical engineers – on that equipment?! The third wanted to be a DJ. He was a Brummie. They called him “Brummie”. He spoke like a Brummie. And his voice was as dull as ditchwater. We knew the station would not, could not, survive, but we had no alternative.
That was a very sad parting, Mac going home. I went to KL station with him as I was going on demob leave up to Penang. “Just think,” he said. “In a few minutes there’ll be two trains leaving here in opposite directions. The two mates on ‘em will be going further and further away from each other. I’ll be home in a couple of days, and my pal Jazzer will still be defending the Empire.”
We went to our trains, shouted “Cheers” to each other and went our separate ways forever.
Then it was my turn. I was given permission to travel in civvies, having been held back – for my specialist skills! – from going home by ship a few weeks earlier. I was to fly home on a civilian airline.
I left the camp in a 3-tonner. There were some other lads with me and they were going home by ship. My emotions were, to say the least, mixed. I knew that I would never see this camp ever again. So I just sat there while the other still-military-clad travellers performed the age old demob-departure ceremony of peeing from the back of the lorry.
A few of my mates – Regulars mainly, including Geordie Armstrong – waved me off. I may have wished that Ampie had never talked me out of signing on. I can feel all sorts of poignant emotions as I write this.
I remember little about my journey to Singapore. The lads who were going home by ship went into other sleeping-compartments and I was left alone in mine. I slept pretty solidly and woke only to see dawn breaking over the straits between The Federation of Malaya and Singapore. I was collected at Singapore station and taken to catch my flight home on the superbly luxurious British Airways Britannia.
At the airport, for the first time in most of two years I met up with “Lanc” Artinstall and Pete Hitchen., the two lads from our training camp with whom I’d flown Out East. We did a bit of catching up, Lanc had matured appreciably, but Hitchen was still the softie he’d been in training. I suppose they may have noticed changes in me.
Luggage – including my trumpet – safely stored in the hold, we sat and waited for take-off. The civilian stewardesses looked wonderful after our diet of local beauties in Malaya and the few female soldiers we’d known. Of course, we chatted them up. A couple of the lads tried to touch them. The stewardesses were well versed in how to deal with those situations!
The only two things I recall about the actual flight home are stopping at Bombay, where lots of little local Indians seemed to swarm over our aircraft as we stretched our legs wandering over to the café for a cuppa; and Cyprus in the star-filled night where we could not get a decent cup of Turkish coffee but enjoyed chatting to the girls behind the counter.
I can’t remember where we landed, but Lanc, Hitchen and I took the train to our old camp. The porter helping us with our luggage mentioned that he didn’t expect us to tip him with posh gear we’d brought back with us. So I gave him a packet of biddies, rolled up tobacco leaves tied with red cotton which were cheap out there and which we smoked when our Army pay had run out. He didn’t seem too pleased.
We were officially documented, spent one night at the camp (it was pretty dull after Malaya), and were given our rail-tickets home before we put our heads down. A couple of the other now-demobbed lads were from Stoke-on-Trent and suggested that the three of us hired a car and drove home in style. I agreed, having a bit of cash from my “credits” – odd change kept by the Army each pay-day so that we could be paid in exact dollars. Credits could be used to pay for anything we broke or damaged whilst serving Queen & Country. I damaged nothing.
On the morning of 2nd April, 1961, then, the three of us stuffed our luggage into the boot of the hired car and one of the lads drove Northwards. I remember absolutely nothing about the trip.
It was dusk when they dropped me by Christ Church (which no longer stands by Five Ways Island). I had chosen to walk the last few hundred yards of my ten-thousand mile journey home. The street lights of Dunstall Road glowed pleasantly in the slight mist of the April evening. I realised as I more or less marched down the road that the mist was, in fact, the smoke of coal-fires, something I had forgotten since being away.
At the slight curve of the road, I could see Number 71, a light on in the front-room. I just didn’t know how to make my entrance. That brass-numbered old door had only been used for special visitors and Mom, Dad and I had always gone up the entry and in through the yard and back door.
But, that evening, I knocked on the front door. Mom instantly opened it, put her arms around me and led me in to see Dad who was sitting, as I’d always remembered him and still remember him, at the big table in the living-room smoking a Woodie. His greeting was simple and far less flamboyant than Mom’s: he and I shook hands as we had done the time I had seen him outside Butlers’ Brewery on the day I left home to join the Army.
Suddenly – and all too late – I realised that I’d left my beloved trumpet-cornet, with its superb “Kenny Baker” mouthpiece, in the boot of the hired car. The two Stoke lads would have discovered it when they got home. We had not known each other’s names, so they could not ever discover where I lived to return it, and I could not ever discover where they lived to go up and collect it.
I was home. The last couple of years were already fading into not-necessarily-accurate memories.
* * * * *
Here conclude my military memoirs. I have missed out lots of things – that is the nature of memory. I did not mention my demob medical when, though I still had two of everything I should have two of, I’d become very slightly short-sighted and my fitness downgraded to A2.
I trust I have not contravened The Official Secrets Act in any of these writings. Don’t want to be arrested and being branded a traitor! I wore the Queen’s uniform with a little pride . . . though it was a bit tight under the armpits, she and I having different measurements.
* * * *