"Dear Mum" Chapter 1
My uncle was a big influence during my childhood. He was my hero and was always driving around in small, open, MGs. He was very practical and I thought, could fix anything. At that time I suppose there was not very much around that he could not mend as he had the run of my Grandfather’s workshop and things were not very high tech. in those days. My Grandfather was the village carpenter, plumber, joiner and general artisan. He was one of the first in the village to have a car, so he must have been fairly successful.
Benhall, in Suffolk, was and is a small country village with only a few hundred inhabitants. Passing through it was the main London to Yarmouth road, which mercifully bypassed the village during the early nineties. It has, like so many other little villages in rural England, been adversely affected by the coming of the motor car, even in the tiny lanes; too many cars are competing for the limited space available.
My parents were the products of a War liaison that was doomed to failure, I am afraid. She was a country girl and my father was born and brought up in Liverpool. He was in the Lancashire Regiment and was stationed in East Anglia in the early war years. Later he was to go to Burma and after the war they found out that they were not able to live in the other’s environment and separated. By then I had a young brother of about five and I was about ten and a country boy myself. We saw my father from time to time, but it was Uncle Charlie to whom I looked for inspiration.
Chief Tech. Charles Edmunds talked much about the Royal Air Force. He had been an Airframe Fitter during the war, stationed in Malta, for a time he actually worked on Faith, Hope & Charity, the famous Gloucester Gladiator trio based there. He married a Naafi Driver, a bit later in life and so he was a bachelor when I was growing up. I used to “help” him with work on his cars and he taught me a lot about "Engineering". He used to take me to his Station when he was stationed in Suffolk, near home. I decided that I wanted to be a Pilot after sitting in a RAF Martlesham Meteor one weekend. This desire stayed with me all my schooldays and if anyone asked me what I was going to do when I left school, I always said that I was going to join the RAF.
When I was sixteen I discovered, - or maybe Uncle Charlie told me, that I could go for Aircrew Pre-selection. This was carried out at RAF Hornchurch in Essex and involved a stay of three days. This was quite a big thing for me, as I had never been away from home before and with much trepidation, I reported to the pre-selection centre with about 20 other hopefuls. The first day was taken up with a medical. Two of our numbers were taken off, presumably to hospital, with TB. This really surprised me and I awaited my results anxiously.
They said I was a bit short sighted, which had never occurred to me and that I was six feet three inches, tall and still growing. I suspected that this was true, but as the limit for Aircrew categories was six feet three, I hoped that I would not grow any more. I started smoking when I was thirteen, as I was a bit self-conscious of being so much taller than all my friends and I had been told that it stunted growth. It never worked for me and it took me until I was over forty before I finally shook off the habit, by which time I had stabilised at six feet four. As I was sort of borderline on the medical, they said that they would let me continue and so, with considerably fewer applicants, we went on to the next stages.
I am sure I did well on the next set of tests. They were all about co-ordination and a bit like the games I liked at the fairgrounds, where you had to drive this car model along a winding road on a drum. There were more sophisticated tests than this, - with a big screen and a seat in front of it. We had to try and keep a spot on the screen, in a central square, by means of a joystick and foot pedals, while it was being deflected all over it. With a lot more confidence, I went on to the final day, which was Leadership and Moral Fibre. I can’t remember if it was actually called this, but that was what it was all about.
There were interviews, during which, we were put into hypothetical situations and asked to make and justify decisions about these situations. Then the interviewers pointed out what was wrong with our decisions and tried to break our resolve. It was very revealing. The situations were impossible ones, there were no right answers, but they were not testing for answers, more our commitment to them.
After this, in turn, we all played the part of the leader. There were only about ten of us by this time. The group was given an assignment that had to be carried out, involving equipment and obstacles. The temporary leader had to decide on the solutions to the problems that were presented and convince the group that they were right, subsequently leading them to the successful conclusion. All the time there were officers with clipboards taking notes and listening to the conversations. We met with very mixed results. My task was to get some long poles and rope together with all the members of the group across an imaginary river. The poles were not quite long enough to make a simple bridge and the ropes were not long enough to swing across on. However we did quite well and at the end we had to abandon only a couple of pieces of the equipment. All the men got across, which I had already decided was the most important thing.
All the tasks were similar, but not exactly so and one poor leader ended up with three members (and himself) swinging wildly halfway over the obstacle, on a short plank, suspended on a rope, with the rest shouting advice. None of this proved practical and when the time ran out, they all collapsed thankfully into the “ravine”.