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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

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Stupidity, Strippers and Sign Writing - 1982

The famous philosopher Forrest Gump once posited that “Stupid is as stupid does”. During my lifetime I’ve seen, I’ve done, some stupid things. Whilst at Chepstow, I witnessed possibly one of the more extreme examples of stupidity that, were YouTube around, would have been ranked up there for hits with “Charlie Bit Me”! The winter of 1982/3 down in south Wales was a beauty, loads of snow and really cold. Our military leaders saw this as a chance for us to experience Arctic Warfare, by taking us up to Sennybridge in the Brecon Beacons and force marching us around for a few days. Our kit was not the most waterproof and thus we suffered from horribly cracked feet and cold aches as the gear was never going to dry out under a tarpaulin overnight. The exercise resembled orienteering, in so far as we were given maps and compasses and sent on our way to locate various items placed about the moors. It was not that bad actually, not until we arrived at the SAS Training assault course, whose obstacles were located in a series of ditches and ponds and consisted of long concrete tunnels half or fully submerged in water, through which we had to go. I was a little claustrophobic but not excessively so and made my way through these gamely.

It was the snow and ice, freezing wind and desperate cold that pissed me off. I am and always have been a summer man, hate the winter, love the summer, rather too hot than cold me! We completed the exercise and headed back to Chepstow, only to find that the camp was some feet under a blanket of snow. Fair enough, I like a bit of snow, in fact the more the better, as the odd flake or two tends to turn to slush too soon and is crap, so if its got to be winter, then bloody snow properly or don’t bother. My brothers in arms were ecstatic and did not hesitate to get involved in snowball fights and the like. One evening, with a gale blowing outside, the snow was banking up against the rear of our building. Our block was three stories high and the back of it looked across a small grass area, which then dropped away through trees towards the River Wye and the trade shops. Two blocks were on our side of the quadrangle, end on end and the grassy area was level with the buildings, then banked up some 10 feet out and then flattened out again as it approached the trees.

The snow was drifting and laying very thickly between the building and the banking and presented an opportunity that one of our number found hard to resist. A Scottish lad from Glasgow had decided that it would be a “clever” idea to leap from the secondary storey window into the snow drift. The first we knew of it was a loud cheer reverberating around the block as he landed successfully and headed back in for another try. Not to be outdone, a few others had a go and were successful, insofar as they did not hurt themselves. The Scot then decided he would leap from the third storey and we gathered at windows alongside and below as he summoned the courage to leap, egged on both those behind. Off he went and through some miracle landed again in a deep drift.

By now, the block next to ours had woken up to the commotion and one or two of them had come into our block to watch, with one of them leaping out after the Scottish lad from the third floor. He then returned to his own block and tried the same feat from their third floor, only to find upon landing that there wasn’t a drift below him, the ground was flat and he snapped both femurs quite nicely. So nicely, that they were compound fractures. Amid the fracas that followed as the guard was called out, ambulances ordered and the poor sod whisked off to Newport Hospital, the evening's stuntmen skulked off, assuming they had escaped sanction, but the following morning their names were called and they were all charged.

Stupidity amongst young men with too much time on their hands is one thing, but the ineptitude of leaders to foresee the impact of poor decision making is quite another.

The Saturday night disco’s were always popular with the lads and the NAAFI, in partnership with the camp had a committee, which organised events such as movie nights, the disco’s and matches between our Pool and Darts Teams and local Public Houses and Clubs. Our Apprentice Regimental Sergeant Major (RSM), the most senior ranking apprentice, was on the committee, as were other apprentices and “grown up” Sergeants and Officers. They had all obviously had a combined brain fart during one meeting, as in their “wisdom” they decided the apprentices would enjoy an evening of “adult” entertainment. They went ahead and booked a “blue” comedian and a selection of strippers and sold tickets to the evening, which I believe was held on a week night.

Due to my ongoing battle with authority, I was without the funds required, i.e. I was skint through being fined; and so did not go. But, as with all such things, where things go wrong and unplanned events take place, the grapevine shall provide and so it was that the following morning, stories circulated around the camp as to what happened that evening. Instead of the expected "subtle titillation" and gentle banter that accompanies such evenings, the strippers were rather too enthusiastic and fellated a young apprentice right in front of everyone else.  Then continued to enter into the swing of things providing "hand shandy's" to any youngster brave enough to drop his grots and take to the stage (and there were quite a few takers apparently). It was even muted that a couple of lads got to park their bikes backstage after the show.

Now all this might be seen (and could have been taken) as mere boisterousness, to be dealt with by the Leadership with a quick slap behind the ear and a “think about it lad”, had not the strippers decided that the story presented an opportunity to earn additional £’s by selling their stories to the Sun Newspaper (the UK’s biggest selling daily paper). So a few days later the front page (no less!) carried a headline along the lines of, “Army pays strippers to service boy soldiers” and went on to tell of the nights events from the strippers point of view, embellished with tales of young, randy soldiers, “forcing” the women to perform “lewd and disgraceful acts” in front of a howling mob, baying for more! All true I promise you, and it carried on into the weekend’s papers as well, with questions raised at the highest levels as to the appropriateness of such “entertainment”.

The fallout meant that the Apprentice RSM was sadly demoted to Apprentice CSM, another CSM promoted to RSM in his place. The sad thing was that as App RSM, you lead the Passing Out Parade for your intake group which is an immensely proud moment for those in that position. I think a few others got a slapped wrist, but the App RSM took the brunt of it.

So, there are two examples of stupidity for you, to go along with my own, just by way of checks and balances.

Back home, Mum was getting along a little better and she and my sister were sending me regular food parcels! Very kind of them to, although I think they thought I was serving in a war zone judging by the amount of food and goodies sent to me, which always included a box of Chocolate Cupcakes, which were then, a firm favourite of mine. In the summer of 1982, a few months before I left Chepstow, there was an Open Day, with the local civilian population, parents and families of apprentices coming from all over the UK as well. My Mum, Sister and brother Julian decided they would come down from Norwich, so I booked them into the Castle Hotel in Chepstow, as it looked half decent, was bang in the town centre and on the bus route to camp. They travelled down the day before and amid torrential rain, found their way to the hotel. The hotel had some rooms with Bay windows which looked out onto the main street.

During the evening, the rain came into their room in a line between the bay window and the main room, much like a waterfall only not where you’d want a waterfall. The room was cold and soaking wet, but there was nowhere else to go, so they stuck it out until morning, but I heard all about it the next day and the Hotel staff behaved as if this was the norm and that just made them feel all the more terrible. I was really pleased that they had travelled down to see the world I was working and living in, my only real memory of it though is that I had to salute one of the officers as we walked together through the camp, down to the trade shops.

More Stupidity –
The final few months at Chepstow proved very eventful as John Steed, Rick Manning and I were firmly of the mind that there had to be an easy way to gain a qualification in Painting and Decorating and set about investigating the possibilities. The last module involved sign-writing and was a culmination of all we had learned to date. We were given a board, one inch thick, six feet high and four feet wide. On one side was a false door frame and window frame, to be painted, against a colour scheme of our own design. On the reverse was a smooth panel, which had to be prepared to a glass like finish, and then have sign written on it the words, “Army Apprentices College” and “Royal Engineers”. The sign writing had to be designed by hand, had to reflect specific styles and required hours of work, using tracing paper and various other materials to transfer the design from paper onto the panel. An old example of this work was stood in the corner of the room and it seemed the most natural thing to trace the old version onto paper and transfer it on to our boards. In other words, cheat.
Besides, I was busy of an evening, as were the others, smoking and drinking tea, dancing at the disco etc.

The strange thing is that it did not occur to my simplistic mind, that it was cheating, and so I never felt I was doing anything underhand at all. That’s me being a numbnuts again. One has to consider that the final article had to be spot on; we still had to prepare the piece, paint it and show all the skills our colleagues showed, except we did not have the design elements. Come the marking, Sgt Honess looked at mine and the others and held my tracing paper against first my work, then Ricks and then John’s, and guess what? They each matched my trace and that of the example board. When asked why I had done it, I offered the explanation that I was using my “engineer’s initiative” (a watch word in the regiment). It was a glib and immediately regretted remark and showed no respect for the regiment nor those who had worked so hard for their qualification.

Looking back, I should have been (we should have been) made an example of, but, for some reason, we were marked fairly and passed, with the design elements marks not included. We were all charged and I served the last 4 days Restriction of Privileges of my 69 days in total and was fined £60. We also got a smack in the mouth from Q Cadre for our troubles.

So, I was about to enter that last few weeks of my time at Chepstow. We had a new Drill Sergeant, Sgt Cameron, to lead us through and lead us he did. The last few weeks would finally make me grow up, stand up and mature, again through an act of ignoring an order.

1 comment:

  1. Just like a good Beachley boy.
    Myself 58A Beachley/Chepstow