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Used to work for AVIVA offshoring IT to India.  Now retired through ill health, writing my life story as a series of blogs chronologically from birth to current time.  At www.jw-alifeofsurprises.blogspot.com

Thursday, 9 September 2010

A punch to the head never hurt anyone (thats a lie)! - 1981

Early mornings and late nights were the order of the day for the young gaggle of newcomers to Chepstow’s Army Apprentices College. As a “shower of shit” (our new group name given to us by anyone senior), we attempted and failed to comply with any order in the first week, beyond that of the “down and give me twenty press-ups” variety. The typical agenda for any day during our new starter term consisted of: -

Up at 0600, wash and shave (something I was new to – the shaving bit and would fail miserably at to my cost), dress in work dress, which consisted of Lightweight trousers, Shirt, Jumper, Puttees and DMS boots and a beret with Royal Engineers Cap Badge and then await room inspection which usually came around 0700. If the weather was hot, we would eagerly await the notice on Orders, (a list of do’s, don’ts and general information posted each day in the company office), that said that Shirt sleeves was the order of dress the next day and onwards until rescinded. Most of the Lieutenants assigned to the Platoons were women army (WRAC) officers. Each Lieutenant would appear, ably supported by the Platoon Sergeant, a Corporal and the Apprentice Company Sergeant Major. They would inspect every aspect of the block of dormitories including the outside areas surrounding it. Each platoon would be assigned an outside area to clean, (picking up cigarette butts and litter) along with a communal area of the block, such as stairwell, lobby, stairs etc. The corridors leading to the rooms and the toilets were assigned on a rotation to a troop within each platoon. So on any given day the Apprentice Sgt’s and Apprentice Corporals would have us outside and inside cleaning to a shine anything and everything. Sweeping concrete steps, mopping and wax polishing lino floors, scrubbing the stairs with hand held brushes, soap and water, dusting any surface, cleaning sinks and toilets (where a toothbrush would be employed to remove particularly irksome pieces of detritus that had attached itself like a limpet to toilet bowl), these tasks were all carried out par excellence’ we thought, but were always found to be far below the expected standards. The result being that the cleaners of the offending area were subject to at the minimum, being screamed at and told to redo the job, and at worst, involving the former and latter, with the added enjoyment of appearing at the company offices for additional punishment during the evening. This was even before the room inspection itself and the ripping apart of one’s own bed space.

There were no carpets, only lino, everywhere. Lino that had a wonderful ability to attract scuff marks from Black DMS boots and boot polish and repel any attempt to remove those marks for a good half hour. This culminated in hours spent mopping, waxing and buffing the floors. The buffers, large heavily weighted iron blocks attached to broom handles, that had a polishing surface on the base, would be employed for hours on end, moving up, down and across corridors and bed spaces (under beds especially) to create a glare that caused passing birds to hit buildings, so distracted were they. Anyone who ventured out of the room and down the corridor, whilst another chap was perfecting his floors gleam was either an idiot or me! DMS boots had a particularly heavy tread and this would imprint itself on the floor, so the idea would be that buffing was left as the last job before inspection. The bed space held a large number of opportunities for one to be caught out and reprimanded. We each had a tall, double door wardrobe, with a high shelf across the top, shelves to the left side and hanging space to the right. In addition a blanket chest was provided to hold only army issue equipment, with a bed side locker and a lockable shelf no bigger than a shoebox in the wardrobe for personal affects. All could be opened for inspection, although the shoe box tended to be left alone, if locked. If no lock was on it, it would be opened, as no lock meant an invitation extended to those inspecting! We also had a steel frame, steel sprung single bed, an over bed fluorescent light fixed to the wall, a light switch and a pin board. All areas would be swept for dust, which in those early weeks was always found. The main problem with inspections was that if you had to appear in the offices in the evenings as you failed that days review, you would be given cleaning tasks around the camp, you therefore lost valuable spit and polish time on your own tasks and bed space and so invariably failed the following day, and were back at the office that night. Soon a vicious cycle of restrictions crept into place as you failed to complete all tasks required of you. This quickly identified you as a likely problem to others, including your room colleagues, as they would be punished if your space failed inspection as well, (all for one, one for all etc). The likely cumulative effect being that I would eventually end up on a charge.

All this happened before 0700 and by 0800 you had to be outside on parade, so if you wanted breakfast, you had it either before 0700 or after inspection but before parade. Breakfast was a pain as well, as you had to carry your irons (knife, fork and spoon) and black plastic water canteen mug or green plastic mug to the cook house, grab a plate full of food, wolf it down and get back to the block, all in about ten minutes. If before 0700, you had better make sure you cleaned your irons and mug and they were placed in the locker, in the correct order or you were inviting dangerous repercussions. Breakfast was a great meal though. All the cooked food you could eat, plus cereals, toast, porridge etc. There would be boiled, fried, scrambled eggs, sausages, bacon, fried bread, black pudding, hash browns, baked beans, mushrooms, etc. Tea and coffee, plus juice and milk, although everyone avoided the juice as it was powdered and named “Screech”, as once drunk it made you screw your face up in a grimace, much in the same way the noise of someone running their nails down a blackboard would do. Once breakfast was over, it was back to the block, sort yourself out, quick polish of your boots and outside for a smoke before parade. Smoking was allowed in rooms and in certain areas outside, butt disposal was supposed to be the bins, and in fact we made work for ourselves by discarding them around the blocks for some reason, probably idiocy!

We’d form up in 3 lines, approximately 30 of us, would be called to attention and then stood at ease, until whoever was to inspect us appeared from the offices. The officer in question would walk up the front row looking at each soldiers dress, remarking to the sergeant accompanying them, on those soldiers who fell short of acceptable standards. The sergeant would then launch a tirade of invective, designed to make you feel small and inept in front of your colleagues, and culminating in press ups, at a minimum. If the failure in standards was spectacular (a slightly dirty boot, or double crease on your trousers!), the words “you are on charge” struck fear into you as the resultant appearance in front of the company commander would mean loss of salary or privileges (spare time). I was to become quite the star turn in terms of charges and intend to explore the impact of these in future blogs. Once inspected, we would be stood at ease and the day’s timetable would be covered in detail, to ensure no one was unaware of what was going to happen and more importantly what was going to be required of us. Everyday there would be some form of fitness work, which varied from Gym, to the Assault Course to road runs. The road runs were always carried out wearing a minimum of PT Vest, Lightweight Trousers, Puttees and DMS Boots. Most occasions we would be running to build up stamina to complete the Basic Fitness Test (BFT), which required all soldiers to run 1.5 miles in less than 13 minutes and 15 seconds. What tended to happen would be that the whole Platoon would run this distance as a squad, (lines of 3 abreast), then we’d continue to run the course again at our own pace, so we ran a total of 3 miles. Apart from the area directly surrounding the camp the terrain was fairly hilly; the further into the run, which was covered at a moderate pace, the more likely that the more unfit guys would start to flag. PTI’s (Physical Training Instructors) would run with us and would cajole and harass, in equal measure those flagging behind. More times than less, I usually measured up to the test, but on occasion would flag (beer induced) and had my fair share of abuse at the hands of the PTI’s.

Another favourite PT fitness exercise, which was designed as much to improve fitness as it was courage, was Milling. This resembled boxing in so far as gloves were worn, (16 ounce gloves), but that was it. The ring was formed by the soldiers standing in the shape of a square. To decide who would fight whom, we would line up, tallest to the shortest. The PTI then walked down the line, pairing the guys off and that was it, no head gear, gumshields or protection for your dangly bits! You walked to the centre of the ring, the PTI said “Mill” and until someone dropped you went at it. If you turned your back, the fight was stopped and restarted, if you tripped or failed to fight, the fight was stopped and restarted. If you refused to fight, (which I saw) the PTI would give you a slap, and you’d be charged, for refusing to soldier, (see explanation of this at the end of this blog). Sixty seconds of uncontrolled scrapping! There was no point in trying to “box” your way through, it was better to just launch yourself at the other guy and swing away. On one occasion I fought Morbid, the little bugger caught me a pearl of a shot and I went down. I came back up with lips like Bubba (in Forrest Gump), bleeding profusely and we went at it again. I ended up on my hands and knees, Morbid smacking the crap out of the back of my head. The PTI pulled him off, up I got and we went at it again. As soon as it was over, we shook hands, I was somewhat embarrassed, and Morbid was quite content. This link takes you to a video of Milling, in the Parachute regiment, they are protected better than we were, but it gives you some idea of Milling. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZgoP37DVNSs it does launch ok, if not just hit refresh!

One of the other fine examples of getting soldiers fit involved carrying a telegraph pole around on a run. The pole was some 20 feet long and painted red and white. It was too heavy to carry on your own, so one soldier stood at one end, another at the far end, the pole was lifted onto your shoulders and with the squad running alongside and behind you, off you went. Each pair would cover 200 to 300 metres, and then another pair would move in alongside, ease their shoulders under the pole and you would step away. No break of momentum was given nor allowed and woe betide anyone who dropped the pole as this resulted in screamed questions such as “why have you dropped the Queens telegraph pole” and “that pole has been in the army longer than you, pick it up you fucking Nancy”! Many times I saw guys reduced to tears, which only made things worse for them as they would be destroyed by the PTI’s verbally.

So what with all these things to enliven our days and cleaning our rooms and kit to entertain us of an evening, we looked jealously upon those who had moved beyond their first weeks and were allowed to use the bar and go to the disco on Saturday nights. I do not know whether it was because we were doing well (highly unlikely), or whether we had earned this for some other reason (nah!), or if this happened to everyone and we were made to feel we had done something to earn it (probably) but one afternoon, we were told that we were allowed to go to the bar that night! As we were all only 16 years old and the legal drinking age was 18, the Army had special dispensation in that we were allowed to drink beer at 16. No spirits were allowed I recall, nor wine, but who cared! The bar was in the NAAFI (Navy, Army, Air Force Institute) building, which contained a shop, a cafe (for toasties and other light snacks) and a bar running along one side of the dance floor area, in a separate room. I remember going in and ordering a pint of lager and sitting down with my mates and drinking it, treating it as a really big deal, which it was. We still weren’t allowed to go to the disco and looked enviously at those lads who made their way across camp each Saturday night. The army even transported women into camp by bus from Bristol, Chepstow and Newport. So we’d watch forlornly as these girls clambered off the coaches and went into the disco. Retiring to take a bath as quickly (!) as possible to burn up the testosterone these fleeting glimpses of womanhood generated. I think I could have won a medal for masturbation had it been an Olympic sport! I suspect that last sentence will generate plenty of “we always knew you were a wanker anyway JW”. I am just wondering who will be first. Thanks for reading.

UPDATE - Refusing to Soldier.  I promised to say what this mean't!  In essence, everytime you were given an order, you followed it.  This was whether the order made sense or not.  So, "Fight that person" (Milling) mean't get stuck in and do some damage.  Those who did not want to fight, for fear of damage to their body or reputation, were at first shouted at, then smacked about a bit, then if they carried on refusing, would be screamed at and threatened with a charge for refusing to soldier.  Another example would be where a soldier was constantly getting things wrong (not me for once, as i was too scared to refuse to soldier!), and ended up in a heap of blubbering jelly, termed as as a "Useless Specimen".  If the tormentor had any empathy, they would drag the individual away from the rest of us and offer support and encouragement and there were some who did do this.  However, if the tormentor was particularly vindicitive, then the soldier would be told he was refusing to soldier and would be charged.  The threat to charge a guy with Refusing to Soldier, usually was enough to sort then out, as if the charge progressed, it could escalate to the individual involved being kicked out of the Army.  Hope this helps. JW

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