My mother, Willie, was always inventive and resourceful and was consequently a horder. Unfortunately she passed the latter tendency on to me and I own a choked workshop to prove it. It was my first scout camp, I had only left the Cubs and been promoted to the Scouts in the late Autumn and here it was Summer, and I was off on the ‘great adventure’. My grandmother had come up with an army kit bag and I was provided with a printed sheet in that greenish-blue ink which had been rolled off from a sheet of impregnated gelatine, the forerunner of the Roneo, the photocopier and the Fax machine. It was slow, messy and prone to human error, but useful, and I suppose, at the time, quite a wonder in its way. On the list was all I had to provide.
I remember the tarry smell of the kit bag, war issue to Sonny, my uncle. There was all the fuss about knives and forks, the enamel mug and plate, and the blankets to sleep in, held by huge safety pins – there were no sleeping bags at our level in those days. The first time I came across a sleeping bag was in 1946 when a cotton liner was de rigueur in the Northern Ireland Youth Hostel Association.
On the day we set off in a lorry, hired from a local merchant, it was very hot. Unfortunately the canvas cover of the lorry was in place and as the mudguard of one of the rear wheels was rubbing on the tyre, we were all ill from rubber fumes. What with the repair to the mudguard and the repair to the passengers, we arrived at the camp site very late and as there was no time to initiate the novices in camp craft, we were relegated to digging the latrine while the more experienced members of the party set up camp, and the tents in particular, as quickly as possible – WW1 bell tents, a real thing of the past. The tents were a great source of fun if you were the perpetrator and annoyance if you were on the receiving end. We all slept, feet to the pole, so our heads and faces were positioned under the triangular segments of the canvas, at the edge. If it had been raining and was still raining, and one ran a finger down the segment, and stopped just above the head of a sleeping comrade, it temporarily ruined the waterproof characteristics of the canvas and would drip, very nicely, inside the tent from where the finger had stopped.
We had had tea, our patois for the evening meal, and the younger members were glad to get to bed, it had been a disappointing and gruelling day. I was still hungry – I was always still hungry – so, with the aid of a torch I searched my kit bag and, low and behold, kind considerate Willie had put a jar of peeled almonds in my kit bag. Greed brought on by hunger made me put a handful in my mouth and I hardly munched before swallowing. It was therefore a moment or two before I discovered the supposed almonds were, in fact, little pieces of soap, those annoying little pieces that fill the soap dish, too small to hold comfortably, about the size of a good almond. It was barely light when I was introduced to the horrors of the scout latrine, with its single pole suspended across a most unpleasant chasm, but the alternative was unthinkable. I later discovered that Willie, the resourceful, had included the almonds for putting in a punched baked bean tin, to shake in the washing-up water to make suds. Unfortunately she had forgotten to include the instructions.
The Bee Sting On another occasion we went to Battle – the place not a fight – near Hastings, 1066 country, and camped in a field next to the one in which we were told Harold had lost an eye and subsequently his life. Relishing stuff for young scouts! We ate on a long trestle table beneath a colossal oak which could well have sheltered Harold, and as ever, there was one among us who had an immense appetite and an even greater aquisitiveness – a long word for a long arm – if it was on the table he could reach it and would. He had a propensity for looking round him while eating – possibly to miss nothing, but this proved his downfall and near death. He was on his Xth bread and jam, we fared well but simply. Suddenly his head stopped rotating and he let out a screech that was deafening. Authority in the form of the Scout Master and the Cub Mistress rushed, as you can imagine. He had bitten a bee and it had bitten him back, or rather stung him on the tongue. There was no panic, rather controlled energy at high speed. We had a truck cart – also WW1 vintage, which we regularly pulled apart and assembled to get it into lorries. Fortunately it was assembled. Tubby was bundled into the cart and about six of us ran, pushing and towing him across the fields to the town to find a doctor. – and how we ran, because we were expecting Tubby to choke to death in front of us at any minute. I think his parents collected him after that, but he was not the only Tubby I encountered as I shall relate another day.