We were in basic training for a month, at times it seemed endless, at others it passed quickly. How we felt was a barometer of what was happening, how interested we were or what Chalky White was putting us through in the rain.. A week to ten days before our departure we had a celebration of sorts, which involved blanket tossing. Some poor specimen would be persuaded or shanghaied into getting into a standard Navy issue blanket and then about six of his classmates would start counting, heaving the blanket on each count and then, when three was reached. throwing him up in the air. Inevitably it was my turn and they threw me so high I could see over the roof of the cabins. I made the mistake of telling them so and that was my downfall – from a great, actually an even greater, height.
An error in communication was hardly surprising with that lot who, out of reach of authority, rarely stopped talking. One of the group suggested they should count to four but only those in his immediate vicinity heard him so the bulk of the tossers were counting to three. I described an arc, a parabola? – Who cares? I was still seeing over the roofs, but landed on my hand, feet away from the blanket. There was a tiny amount of consternation, mostly ensuring none of the blanket tossers were held responsible. I assumed I had an acute sprain. I thought I should report to the Sick Bay and have it attended to. This prompted advice and discussion, mostly on how I should relate the incident in case it would affect my pension, some on denying any direct responsibility, but there was very little talk of how hurt I was.
I went to the Sick Bay and on the way concocted a story about tripping over a kerb. In hindsight this was stupid as any Sickbay Attendant would probably consider you can’t break anything just tripping and so he would take my word for it that it was a sprain, wrap it in lead solution and send me on my way, which indeed was what happened. For the next week or ten days I endured my sprain until it was time to go on draft at which time I was presented to a Surgeon Commander who made me have an X-ray and the result showed I had multiple fractures with torn ligaments. It was a well autographed, plaster cast which weighed me down on my way to Newcastle upon Tyne.
The Newcastle Period I had made some good friends among the Geordies in our class even before we knew our next posting, so I was luckier than most. Sent to Newcastle I had my feet metaphorically under a number of tables even before we had arrived – which was obviously a great asset. It is a cliché but nonetheless a truism that the Northumberland and Durham people are the salt of the earth, shining examples of the widely held theory that those who have suffered deprivation not only help one another but can be generous to a fault. As an immigrant, I couple the Northern Irish in the same category. To make the point about the Northumbrians, one night I had been to a dance and had taken a young woman home afterwards. I had missed the last tram back into Newcastle and started back following the tram tracks as a guide until I arrived at a set of points, a fork, and then I was completely foxed as to which line led to the City Centre. I noticed there was a light in the downstairs window of one of the houses near the junction and rang the bell. I explained my dilemma to the man who opened the door, he said it was miles into Newcastle, invited me in for a cup of tea and, when he had given me the once-over, suggested I doss down on his couch until the first tram at about five or six next morning. In fact his wife gave me breakfast before sending me on my way. That was not an isolated case, a number of my friends had other experiences equally open handed, equally trusting, I think it is inbred.
Permanently broke, permanently hungry, we worked long hours. Lectures went on after the evening meal, we attended evening classes for metal work and electrical practicals; then there were parades and we had menial duties connected with Rutherford College where we were being taught, with little time for socialising, just an hour or two here and there, and Sundays. At night the four of us, the Geordies, who lived at home, and myself would walk back from class into town singing in harmony, eating chip butties covered in salt and mustard to make them seem like sausages, generally relaxing after a day’s study, before going home to do more homework. In one of the streets there was an optician’s shop with a tortoise in the window wearing tortoiseshell spectacles as an advertisement. One of our group thought the tortoise looked like me and after a lot of persuasion the others agreed and I was called Torty for the time I was in Newcastle, not only by them, but everyone they came in contact with who also knew me. I had no say in the matter.