WE WERE probably all virgins, even though we were eighteen. It was a more innocent age, and of course you didn’t “become a man” until you were twenty-one. Though at eighteen you could still be called up to fight for your country and, presumably, die for it too. In fact, nearly four hundred of us National Service men did in places like Korea and Malaya.
National Service, universal conscription of all young men, began in 1947, two years after World War II ended. The reasons were only too apparent. There was Germany to be occupied with 100,000 troops, and Austria too. In the Middle East, there was Palestine to be policed, Aden to be protected, the Suez Canal Zone to be held down—as well as Cyprus, Singapore, Hong Kong, and a chain of lesser military bases. At first it was for a period of one year, but financial crises, the advent of the Cold War, and the Malaya emergency had led to the National Service Amendment Act in December 1948, increasing the period of service to eighteen months.
Not that we understood the background to any of this at that time, except perhaps for a few “barrack-room lawyers.” Certainly all we knew in 1951 was that we were here for a year and a half and it was going to be hell. Basic training (what the Americans call “Boot Camp”) was just that. Sergeants, corporals, lance corporals shouting at you, nose to nose so that your face was covered with flying spittle, if you walked when you should be running, stepped on the grass if you should be on the parade ground, allowed your shoulders to droop, swung your arms too high—or not high enough—if you had too little or too much blanco on your belt and webbing, had a fingerprint on your brass or couldn’t see your face in the toecaps of your boots, which were probably the wrong size and rubbed sore places on your heels and eventually caused blisters.
But that was for six weeks, and, unbelievably, it passed.
I was in the Royal Air force. Aircraftsman 2nd class Michael Duggan—the lowest of the low, a sprog, AC2 plonk, but learning. In an excess of zeal, or probably because I couldn’t stand much more of the training camp at RAF Wilmslow, I put down for “Overseas.” Someone afterwards told me that that was the best way of ensuring that I remained in England—and so I did.
After square bashing, I was trained as an RTO (Radio Telephone Operator) and later added Direction Finder/Bomb Plotter, which meant that I supposedly knew how to speak on the RT to aircraft and also had memorized the alphabet letter identification names. In those days we Brits had our own system, which started “Abel, Baker, Charlie, Dog, Easy, Fox…,” though later we adopted the American “Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot.” My first posting was RAF Bawtry, not far from Doncaster, but for a nesh Southerner like myself, it seemed not far from the Arctic Circle.
It was a bitterly cold Saturday evening, and there were apparently only two of us deposited on Doncaster Station off the London train, bewildered, slightly frightened, I suspect—I know I was, chilled to the marrow after the warmth of the train, waiting, not sure what to do next. We had our haversacks on our backs, and those huge white rucksacks, which contained everything we owned, on our shoulders, with a blue stripe at the bottom and our name and number stenciled on the side.
The other lad was taller than me, dark hair, what I could see of it under his beret, a frown on his face. I went up to him.
“Are you for Bawtry?” I asked.
His face cleared. He smiled. I decided he had a nice face. “Have you come to take us to the camp?”
I owned up that I was in the same position as he was, and we sat down together on a railway trolley, two orphans of the storm. We waited for something to happen, something maybe better than the driving rain with flakes of snow in it, which was what we were being dealt with at the moment. Maybe.
“Michael Duggan,” I said.
“Jim Ross,” he said. “You talk funny, kinda posh.”
I sighed inwardly. He had me there. Product of a middle-class family and brought up in a middle-class suburb of North London and a minor public school, I thought I talked the same way as everyone else. Certainly the same as the announcers on the wireless. But once in the RAF, I’d realized I didn’t. I talked “posh,” and to escape teasing, I knew I’d have to change. I thought I’d managed to get some of it out already. One thing I decided to introduce was the use of the words “fuck” and “fucking,” which seemed to be the passwords for most of my peers, verb, adjective, and exclamation. But I knew I was still slightly self-conscious about them and sounded like it. My curses didn’t slip out with the practiced fluency of my compatriots’.
I attacked. “You talk funny too,” I said. “Where do you come from?”
“Nottingham,” he said. “The town with three girls to every one lad.”
“Fucking lucky,” I said, but I knew it sounded wrong.
He nodded and pulled his greatcoat tighter around him. “We’re gonna fuckin’ freeze soon,” he said. It came out all right with him.
But we were suddenly saved when a shout came from along the platform. “Oi, you fuckin’ sprogs. I’m not fuckin’ waiting ’ere all fuckin’ night.” A corporal, twin chevrons on his arms, appeared under the lamplight. He used his words all right too.
We followed him out of the station. A small lorry was outside. Sitting at the wheel was a sergeant tapping irritably on the dashboard. The corporal got in beside him, and we climbed into the back. We seemed to be the only passengers. The lorry started with a jolt, and Jim and I fell together in a huddle on the floor.
Ten minutes later we drew up at the gate of the camp. The sergeant called us down and we stood, our uniforms covered in dust from the floor of the lorry, at attention. He looked us up and down, obviously not liking what he saw.
“Disgusting,” he said at last. “Next time I see you I want you to be fucking spotless. What do I want you to be?”
“Fucking spotless, Sergeant,” said Jim and I together.
We showed him out ID cards. “3132849 AC2 Duggan,” I said.
“Oh, very lah di dah,” said the sergeant,
Jim introduced himself.
“Take ’em to the transit hut,” Sergeant said to the corporal. “They’ll have to stay there until Monday before I can get them booked in through admin. Show ’em where they can eat and get ’em out of my sight.” This last finished in a frightening roar.
The corporal took us off. “Don’t pay too much attention to Sergeant Bingham,” he said. “His bark’s worse than his bite, and he doesn’t like guard duty, especially on a Saturday night. I’ll show you where you can get a bite to eat and then take you to your quarters.”
He took us round to the back of the cookhouse, where two miserable-looking National Servicemen were peeling potatoes—obviously a punishment for some heinous wrong. The cook looked sour and disagreeable, but he provided us with some spam sandwiches and a mug of sweet tea. Then, as part of the punishment for the offenders, he pointedly showed them what he was doing and equally pointedly excluded them from the “treat” as he gave us (and the corporal) each a doughnut covered with sugar before we were dispatched to the transit hut.
It wasn’t, as it happened, a “hut” at all, but up a flight of steps to what once presumably had been the upstairs of a stable. Inside were two beds, one bigger than the other. There was a window that looked out onto the darkening sky. Two uncomfortable-looking wooden chairs were arranged against the wall. There was no heating and it was bitterly cold.
“Sorry about the lack of a stove,” said the corporal. “Can’t have one here, as the whole building is made of wood. Fire risk and all that. I suggest you both sleep in the big bed and use all the blankets. Top to tail, of course, and no larking about.” He winked at us. “I’ll collect you in the morning and take you to breakfast. The latrines are in the building opposite.”
He disappeared, his boots clunking down the wooden steps.
We sat on the bed and finished off the sandwiches and doughnuts.
“What did he mean ‘top to tail’?” I asked.
Jim grinned. “You know,” he said, though it was obvious that I didn’t. “We sleep at opposite ends, head to tail.”
“Your feet on my pillow?” I asked. “I’m not sure I’d like that. What if they stink?”
“He thinks it will stop us, er, doin’ things.” For the first time Jim looked a bit embarrassed.
Innocent as I was, I did have some idea of what “doing things” could constitute. “No chance of that,” I said with what I hoped was hearty sincerity. I’d never had a chance of “doing things” with anyone else, male or female, and the prospect was not altogether distasteful.
“Too right,” said Jim, equally convincing.
I peered out of the window. Snow was coming down thickly, almost obscuring the light of the solitary lamp by the road outside. “I don’t fancy going out in that to the bog,” I said, using another word I’d picked up along the way and which I felt more at home with. My parents, of course, would have used the word “toilet.”
Jim joined me at the window and stared out at the blizzard. “Nor me.”
Greatly daring, I hazarded, “I only want a piss. I’ll do it out of the window. No one will see.”
We opened the window, letting in a great blast of cold air and snowflakes. Then, together, we unbuttoned our trousers and pissed into the night, twin arcs blown this way and that by the wind.
“Christ,” said Jim when we had finished, “me todger’s frozen. And so am I. Let’s get to bed.”
We took the solitary blanket off the smaller bed and laid it onto the larger one. “We’ll skip the top to tail. Last one in’s a sissy.”
Even with that challenge, we didn’t exactly throw our uniforms in a heap. When there’s an inspection liable at any time of day and night, you don’t want your uniform looking like a crumpled shit bag. Uniforms, in the eyes of NCOs, are sacred things, and they have to be hung up, cosseted, and kept pristine. The dust on ours would have to wait until tomorrow, but folding trousers and hanging jackets carefully over the back of the chairs was an essential.
The RAF issued pajamas, so we both put them on, Jim keeping his underpants on, I noticed. I did the same. As I had stopped to see what he would be doing, I was last.
We huddled under the blankets, giggling, Jim poking me in the ribs and muttering, “Sissy”.
“Not,” I said. “I’m just polite. Wouldn’t keep a lady out of bed before I got in.”
“Who you calling a ‘lady’?”
“If the cap fits.”
We wrestled a bit, muttering alternately, “sissy” and “lady.” Then I felt something happening in my groin, and, not wishing Jim to know I was getting excited, and perhaps be accused of wanting to “do things,” I turned over so that my back was to him.
“I’m fuckin’ knackered,” I said, for once sounding as if I was getting it right. “See you in the morning.”
For a moment there was no sound or movement from Jim, and then I felt his body move toward mine, his front against my back. We seemed to fit well, he being slightly taller than I was. “Just for warmth,” he said, his breath against the back of my neck. “G’night, Mike.”
“Mike!” I felt as if I’d been accepted. His body was warm.
“G’night, Jim,” I said. “Sleep tight. Hope the fleas don’t bite.”
I wondered if I’d get to sleep with such an alien, though not unwelcome, presence in the bed with me, but I was tired. It had been a long day. The last thing I remembered was Jim’s arm coming over and holding me, his hand clenched against my chest.
Protected, I slept.