Note: You can read part one of the author’s “I will never be a civilian” series here.
I was not doing too well at school, and although I was intelligent, I had trouble concentrating. I was always in trouble, mainly for being too boisterous. I was assessed as having a high IQ and was offered the chance for the state to pay for my education and go to a public school. It was a great opportunity, and I left for Kingham Hill—a school in Oxford.
As part of our curriculum at this school, we had to either attend the Combined Cadets Force or the air cadets. It was no contest for me; I was to become part of the CCF. I was extremely excited to be actually wearing a uniform for the first time and doing army things as part of my everyday school activities. You were considered slightly tougher if you went CCF. It was a big deal in the school, and if you did well, there would be some good trips to be had out of it. I was eager to impress, and I remember how nervous I was the first time I went to go get my uniform and bits and pieces from the school store. I was given a great big sack similar to the one my action man had come in all those years before. I wanted to empty it straight out on the floor and start sorting it out, but I had to wait until I got back to my dormitory. Because I joined halfway through the term, everyone else had theirs already and they were off doing things. One of the senior boys stayed behind with me because he was injured, and he showed me what to do with my stuff.
We tipped the bag out on my bed. It went everywhere—a sea of mess tins and clobber. It had an old, musty smell to it from when it had sat in the store. This smell is the same in army stores the world over. I had three uniforms: a barrack dress for drill; working dress for my time in camp; and my favorite, combats for exercise. I sorted it all out and put each uniform on a hanger. I had a set of boots that would do for all three activities. I had various belts and a beret. Once I had hung my kit up, we went and shaped my beret. We went into the shower room and he filled a sink with hot water. Once my beret was soaked, he wrung it out and stuck it on my head. I got it roughly how I wanted it before he put it in cold water.
To this day, I don’t know why, but this was how he did it. I wasn’t about to question him. Once we were finished, I placed my beret on the windowsill to dry. Next, he showed me how to polish my boots. These were going to take some time, so once he showed me the basics, he put them to one side and told me I was to work on them in my own time after school. Now was the fun part: It was time to put my webbing together and pack it. The webbing we had been issued was the old war-type stuff, before even the ’58 pattern. It was so used it was almost yellow. It was completely brittle and was hard to get onto the belt. We quite literally wrestled the stuff together before it was time for the senior to get back to his own block. Before everyone was back, I had tried everything on and was proper excited.
I fell in for the first time outside of the old school block. It was a large, scary-looking old school with towers and spires all over, like a Harry Potter set. We seemed to spend an age just standing there before someone actually took ownership and started barking at us. I tried to copy the others, but it wasn’t long before I was singled out and taken to one side with the others who were finding it hard. This annoyed me, as the others were now looking at guns, packing their webbing, or applying camo to their faces. It was a moment that stuck with me even to this day, and likely will until the cows come home.
I decided right there and then that drill was shit. Not just shit, really shit. When was I going to go stamping about on the battlefield? I needed to know about guns and hiding myself. Unfortunately, in the cadets, drill is the be-all and end-all. Furthermore, if you wanted to get along, you needed to excel at it or you never got picked for anything else. My first experience with the army nearly put me off forever because drill, to me, was just complete and utter BS. Nobody has ever persuaded me otherwise, either. Over the years, I’ve pulled endless stunts to get out of parades. I would sooner spend a year in a trench than an hour on a drill square.
I got thrown out of the school at Kingham after being bullied mercilessly for my social class. I was never going to be in the toff gang, and that was a simple fact. I ended up in full-time care and never attended school properly ever again. I did, however, manage to get a job teaching skiing on a dry slope. It was on a youth training scheme, but I didn’t mind. It was a great little job. The guy who ran the centre was an ex-Navy commander. He kept an eye on me, but could never offer me a full-time job as I had no quals. It was a shame, but he did convince me that there was more to the forces than just drill, and eventually, he took me to the careers office. He reignited my passion for the military, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Featured image courtesy of kinghamhill.org