Belfast, ’69 on, in order,The troubles, The Royal Marines

The number of ironic stories attributable to the heightened atmosphere of the ‘Troubles’ are legion, this is just another. While you read what follows, bear in mind, if you will, that I was originally English, also Protestant, ex- Navy and a civil servant working in sensitive areas, and if I had been needed at the time of Suez I would have held the temporary rank
of Commander.

It was just an ordinary day in the early 70’s, I was on my way home after taking site photographs and had finished late. It was well past lunch time, the day was fine and dry and I was in a good mood. Out into the road stepped a Royal Marine with his hand up, I was being stopped – an everyday occurrence. “Park over there,” he said pointing to the other side of the road, I complied. “Get out of the car and open the boot,” he continued. By now his companions were surrounding my car and pointing their rifle at me. Well, why not? They had to point somewhere. I opened the boot. Lying there were two expensive cameras, films, lenses of various sizes, and other equipment amounting to a tidy sum, even on the second-hand market. “Go and open the bonnet” He said, starting to rummage. I am sure that the stories I had heard about the proclivities of the Royal Marines, when I was a sailor, were totally apocryphal, slanderous in the extreme, and Marines are really loveable, almost to the degree of being cuddly – but – as I was on my own with no witnesses to confirm what I had started out with, just to be on the safe side, I refused, politely but firmly.

“I said, ‘open the bonnet'” He reiterated. “Of course I will,” I said quite reasonably, “when you’ve finished here.” While this was going on his colleague was in my car looking through my correspondence, and a friend drove past and waved to me and I waved back. The first soldier repeated himself and I refused, adding “I am supposed to be present when my car is being searched. When you have finished, I’ll lock the boot and then you can look in the bonnet.” The argument went on until he had finished, his companion was still going through the car.

The same friend drove up and wound down her car window. ” My God,” she said, “Are you still here?” and laughed at my wry expression, it had been a considerable time since she had last passed.. “You wouldn’t think,” I said, taking the opportunity to make a point, “that I’m one of the few English civil servants in this neck of the woods.” She laughed, shook her head and drove off. I opened the bonnet after locking the boot. The marine now went to look in there. I got into the car and switched on the radio. By this time the Marine’s colleague who had been reading my mail was on the radio to base, telling them that they had a desperate criminal with a car registration number of XXXXX.

However, that was not the final curtain, there were a couple of scenes still to run. The officious Marine, I thought of as ‘Chummy’, toured the district with three others of whom two were supposed to be stationed away from the searchers to cover them from other directions, but the dialogue between Chummy and me had been so interesting that one, who had been within earshot, had been edging closer and closer, abandoning his position in favour of the drama. At this juncture, probably bored to death, he decided to take a hand and as I sat tuning the car radio he stuck his rifle into my face and said “Get out!” I must admit I was taken aback. “Why, I?” asked, reasonably, “What now, all I’m doing is waiting for your mate to clear me as he will.” “Get out, or I’ll shoot!” he said this time. I think if there had been a witness I would have put him to the test to see if he really would, but one man on his own with no witnesses should never tempt fate. I got out. We had only been together for twenty minutes so I had not really had a chance to build any bridges, we still hated one another, even when I left.

That evening I was seated watching TV when I saw my beloved wife come in through the front door beckoning some men in camouflage to follow her. She stuck her head into the room and said, “I was sorry for these poor chaps, I’ve brought them in for coffee or a beer.” She wondered why I laughed, but she was too busy with her social duties to find out, she had four mouths to feed. That’s right, they were Royal Marines!

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