The military mind discovers Milton
In the summer of 1947, when I was eighteen, I was conscripted into the Royal Air Force. During initial training (boot camp) we were asked for our occupational preference; lorry driver sounded fine to me. I had no ambition other than to pass the next two years in peace, since my
employers continued my civilian pay and promotions. During National Service I earned more than most NCOs.
We took aptitude tests en masse, the results were reviewed individually, and our occupations in the service of His Majesty were established. On the spatial relations part of the aptitude test I had answered all choices except one which I couldn’t [quoteright]fathom out. This worried me in case they wouldn’t let me be a lorry driver. It turned out to be a novelty for the sergeant arranging the job placements to see almost all the questions correctly answered, and he was happy to discuss what the book said was the right answer for the one I’d missed.
He then delivered the verdict. “You’ll make a fine Radio Mechanic, Gregson.” I think they were short of radio mechanics that week. My protestations that I didn’t know the difference between DC and AC were to no avail. “Don’t worry lad, we’ll teach you.” And so they did.
I was now an “erk,” Air Force vernacular for an aircraftsman. I was posted to RAF Yatesbury, Number 2 Radio Training School, to become a radio mechanic. Yatesbury is on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire in the southwest part of England, well secluded from the distractions of civilization. The nearest collection of habitations is the village of Calne, famous throughout England as the manufacturing home of Harris’ sausages. Guess what we had for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. One of us scrupulously measured and recorded in a notebook at each meal the length of all the sausages he consumed. At the end of the course he announced he had eaten enough sausages to reach between the stumps of a cricket pitch, i.e. a tenth of a furlong. [a furlong is 220 yards -TW]
The CO. recognized that his path to glory lay in cranking out qualified radio mechanics, not in running an obedience training school. Our studies were disturbed as little as possible by parades, extra duties, or fatigue parties. Thus number 2 Radio Training School was not unlike being in the sixth form of a public school full of high-spirited youngsters asked to cram for England. We enjoyed the place, and worked diligently in class all day and in our huts each night, for twelve weeks.
The huts were poorly heated. In 1947 England suffered a severe fuel shortage. Extra-curricular activities included learning to install a 5-watt light bulb in a tin can as a substitute hot water bottle. One enterprising erk learned enough Ohm’s Law to remove the carbon rods from two flashlight batteries, mount them six inches apart in wood, float the wood in a fire bucket, connect the tops of the rods to the power supply and get shaving water very quickly. The rest of us learned how to replace the fuses with big English copper pennies.
If we dressed sloppily the NCOs would roar at us from a distance, but it was understood by all parties concerned to be kindly meant and for our own good. We were rather like children enjoying being chased by adults.
During the war Yatesbury had been an operational flying base. The immense parade ground was originally a runway for bomber aircraft. There were four “wings” of trainees, a thousand in each wing. There was another wing of permanent staff to run the place, Admin, catering, MT, etc.
Each of the four wings had one cookhouse and one mess hall. We were allowed one hour for lunch. We would take our cutlery and mugs to morning class. When the noon bells sounded we ran to the mess hall at top speed to join the queue. One thousand hungry teenagers would form a line in about two minutes. If you dawdled, you found yourself behind nine hundred and ninety nine others. Speed, as they say, was of the essence: second helpings went only to the swift. World foot race records were broken daily.
Occasionally a wing would hold morning get-togethers called “parades” for such quaint purposes as watching somebody hoist an ensign up a flagpole. Assembled in ranks of three, phalanx after phalanx, a wing of a thousand erks occupied an insignificant part of the enormous parade ground. In winter the winds came whistling to us across Salisbury Plain unhindered by any obstacle other than the monoliths at Avebury and Stonehenge. “Lazy” winds we called them, because they went through you instead of around you. Parades were not normally popular entertainment.
Bon-vivant PAUL GREGSON has recently moved to new digs in Campbell, California, and has taken up "scientific" backyard barbecuing. He brings to this effort all his skills as a programmer, not to mention a keen interest in creative marinades.
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