In which we have served - part five

National service: I had originally signed on for three years but it transpired that in applying for aircrew and a short service commission I had re-signed for four. Anyway I had served two years and a half when came my posting from Full Sutton to R.A.F. Valley, which was and still is on the Isle of Anglesey (North Wales). Of course I have no idea why my senior aircraftman skills, such as they were, were needed on the Goblin engined, twin boomed Vampire fighters at Valley rather than the Rolls-Royce Merlin engined Meteors at Full Sutton. Perhaps my feud with Ingles the cook and/or my passion for that lovely young lady called Joan had travelled the Masonic line between my commanding officer and my father in distant Singapore. If so, they succeeded in killing the problem of Ingles - but my posting to distant parts merely fanned the flames of that young love.

When Joan died after thirty four more years I found in her things a ribbon-tied bundle of the letters I wrote to her from my new quarters at Valley, sometimes two or three a week and invariably on light blue Basildon Bond notepaper. (By the way, instead of the traditional R.A.F. Nissen hut, you may imagine my surprise and delight upon finding that Valley boasted a tiny room, hardly bigger than a broom cupboard per each of us. I vividly recall the hours I spent in there writing, reading and re-reading our so-frequent exchanges of correspondence. And 'cooking' beans on toast on my home made gas ring.) Anyway after Joan died I took my letters to her and her letters to me - which I had also kept throughout the years - and burned them in the back garden; not without tears, for smoke gets in your eyes, doesn't it? At any rate I wanted no other eyes to read my turgid, not to say sometimes erotic phrases to Joan, nor to see her more practical, definitely less erotic but no less loving phrases to me.

I recall that first summer at Valley, much redolent of those Battle of Britain news flashes that sometimes get re-shown on TV. You know, young men in flying kit lounging about, reading and sleeping on sunlit grassland waiting for the scramble - the call to arms? For me Valley was idyllic apart from the lack of Joan - and I remedied that by hithing or taking several trains to York whenever I could get a 48 hours pass. And of course there was our never to be forgotten holiday in the Scottish seaside town of Ayr. More of that later. But we had good quarters, great food, good friends, all-night card gambling sessions, forays into nearby Holyhead, long solo walks along Angelsea's empty beaches and, as I say, laying on green grass watching Vampires doing their aerobatic thing way up in the skies.

And then, ugly reality. The drone of a Goblin jet engine suddenly stops. We all sit up, look up, saying nothing, just watching. I hold my breath, remembering the pilot who'd told me, grinning, before taking me off on a trip in a dual seater; "This Vamp has the glide path of a bloody house brick. God help us if we have a fucking flame out." (engine failure). In a strange and total silence the fighter that lazy afternoon describes a perfect downwards parabola. No sign of any ejector seat. A ridiculously small thud. End of.

That's when I volunteered for the Mountain Rescue. I had been a keen potholer at Full Sutton, relishing the sessions camped out on (mainly Derbyshire) hillsides, washing in streams and cooking breakfast on kerosine fires before plunging lightly clad into the cold wet bowels of the earth; descending and wriggling through seemingly impossible cracks and crevices deep, deep down. I can still feel the weight of all the mountain on my chest. Amazing it is, the sound of one's own fast-beating heart! Although we had a senior NCO in the group I often took the lead. Then there was that time when, after several hours underground we had reached an impasse, the pot ending in a pool of water shimmering still and black in my head-lamp. "That's it," said the sergeant. "Back up."Of course I had to argue the point; "Sarge. I reckon if we duck down under, after a few feet it'll come up the other side.""That's fucking bollocks, Fritz." was his response. I don't care to remind myself of what happened next even after all this time. Suffice to say it was the second near-death experience of my young life. And not just mine.

Climbing with the Mountain Rescue was a different thing if in genesis much the same. Anything for adventure. Soon after I joined up, at R.A.F. St Athan, I and my friend would go climbing on so-called sports day afternoons. We were climbing a sea-side cliff - in gym shoes and of course without ropes -  when we came to a very difficult bit. Suddenly his voice, calm and quiet, right alongside me. "I'm going'" he announced. I glanced sideways, saw him peel off, heard him hit the bouldered beach twenty or thirty feet below. Galvanised into action and girdled with fear I managed to reach the top, ran to a farmhouse to raise the alarm. He was rescued before the rising tide engulfed him but at least he lived. I visited him in sick quarters, bandaged, much splinted and plaster-cast but still managing a grin. Then for me the inevitable stern reprimand from the C.O. Anyway, that experience lived on in me. Forty years later I managed to get myself into a position on a Gairloch cliff-face where I could simply go neither up nor down. St Athan was right there in my head. I was literally paralysed with fear. My youngest son came to the rescue, a fifteen year old scrambling about on the rockface like some young ibex.

Back to R.A.F. Valley's Mountain Rescue, the many climbs in Snowdonia and my night school efforts to learn the basics of journalism; to winning the cost of my wedding suit in a last game of brag before the appointed day of my discharge (honourable I may add!) from the Royal Air Force. Then back to York, marriage, money, the lack of it and the gaining of it, eventually to the mortgage and the necessary moderation in all things ... Dull? No. I may have lost a family when I was eleven but I had gained another when I was nineteen - and then set about making one of my (our) very own.

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