Back to the Island for the last few months.
Soon after I got back, more bombs went off. I can remember, like everyone on that island, sitting with my back to the bomb. They had a running commentary and we were told to shield our eyes. This time I left them open behind my cupped hands. As the flash went off, I could see through my hands like a red X-ray! I could see bones, big veins & the red of my blood. I think I felt the heat but turning round we could see this, now familiar, mushroom going up. One of the bombs had a worrying look, as the higher winds seemed to turn it towards us. The bang was more of a deep hard boom. The last one I saw was in September. It’s a sight you don’t forget. I never remember feeling worried. I was probably too trusting & naïve. I’m not sure the upper echelon really knew what they were doing. Theory? Yes. Reality … who knows!
Ray & I helped a couple of times with the fitting out of the church. They showed some wonderful films made in America, that used time-lapse photography to illustrate nature at its best. It was meant to lead you on to the conclusion that it must have been God’s work. I was an agnostic by then and it seemed a great leap of faith to assume this was the work of the dad of Jesus and slightly illogical too! I was finding it hard to get the point that nature producing a daffodil, must be connected with their particular god.
The one thing I miss from my time in the Raf is all those conversations with so many people with different life experiences. Older Officers & SNCOs, who went through a world war. Guys whose lifestyle and opinions were miles away from Moss Side Wesleyan Methodists. Just like all books, music & films, conversations were 90% meaningless drivel. The subjects discussed were vast & mainly either pointless, incorrect & just rumour. Such as: Arsenal Football Club, crabs the size of dinner plates because of the bombs radiation, how girls can’t get pregnant stood up against a wall, that there were still head hunters on the island of Savaii or that communism will be the saviour of man. So it went on & on but I think I learnt more about real life, in four years since leaving school than at any time at St. Margaret's. Without doubt, the acceleration in learning came in the forces. National service was good for me personally. Although I signed on for 12 years, it introduced me to a mix of people I would never have come across normally. For instance, I think it was on a night bind in the tower that a question of religion was raised because of the film we’d seen. One of the officers stayed very quiet until asked the specific question “What would you say to God, if you did meet him, Sir?” He hardly looked up but said “I’d ask him why he couldn’t pass on his ideas in a more coherent manner.” Brilliant! Was this the start of my atheism? Did it stem from a conversation had on a tropical island with a wide selection of people, while we were trying to help develop the nuclear bomb that could wipe out mankind.
It was around this time that I reckoned I was writing to twelve girls at once. NOTHING was more important than the mail plane. Our lives hung on every word. They were girls from home like Elizabeth, Diana & a lovely girl from Ayres Rd in Manchester. Girls who used to ask, on behalf of their friends, to have a pen pal. My locker was covered with photographs. Now I wasn't a weedy guy with the complexion of tissue paper. I wasn’t shy to send a picture, looking all crew cut & bronzed, I was pleased to send off such a good photograph! It all got a bit complicated, remembering what you had said to whom, but it was so good to hear from anyone! The Naafi must have made a fortune out of writing paper & envelopes. Thousands of men, 18 to 30, all corresponding to their women. The biro pen (or as the early see through ones were called, a Bic pen) were not common place & we all liked to write with fountain pens. Everyone had a bottle of dark blue Parkers Quink ink in his locker. We were even fussy about the kind of nib our pen had. (I favoured a medium italic. How sad is that?)
As the series of tests wound down, I remember a lot of the lads going back by boat. They either took it as a long holiday cruising home (I had my doubts about that!) or it was a pain, as there would be another three weeks before they saw their families. Christmas Island was an unaccompanied posting for one year. When I got to hear about my posting back home, I was quite surprised. My name came up on the list of repatriations earlier than expected. I’d only done about 9 months. Ray was stayed on to complete the full year. I knew we’d keep in touch. He reported that the Duke of Edinburgh came on a visit, after I left. He told me, they got real food at last but it didn’t last for long after he’d gone.
We spent hours painting our kitbags with symbols. I think mine was the bomb over the island. It got lost years ago in all the moves. I can remember shelling out a lot of money for a leather suitcase. I thought it would last me years. What I failed to realise was, it weighed a ton before I put anything inside it! It was a dreadful buy! In 1959, they hadn’t thought of putting wheels on cases. Plus the fact that the stitching rotted very quickly in the humidity!I did a bit of education. Passed R.A.F. part I. That’s about as hard as “Can you write your name in block capitals?" or "What’s the capital of England?” (If you said “E”, I think you got half a mark). We had lots of free time. I should have looked round the island more. I was dying to get back to England. With hindsight, I just didn’t appreciate or make more use of this unique experience.
The trip back home was different. It was not much of an adventure any more. There were no overnight stops. I wonder if that was because we flew off the hours, instead of against them on the outbound trip. We went via Canada; I think it was Vancouver & Ontario. All I can remember was, I wanted to get back home & the farther East I went the colder it got! I swear my hands chapped as I crossed to the terminal in Ontario. (These were the days of Shankies Pony to get from your aircraft to the warmth of indoors.) It was a nightmare dragging my kitbag & leather case from London to Manchester. As usual, I got a welcome from mum, and dad told me off for taking a taxi. Here I was home again from the other side of the world, completely knackered and loaded with money. There was no way I was going to struggle across the city & walk from the bus. I think it may have been then, I decided that I wasn’t going to live my dad’s idea of life anymore.My return to Great Britain was certainly different. I was tanned, had a crew cut & my pockets were full for a change. I was meant to visit a girl I had been writing to whilst on the island. No one had phones, letters took ages & anyway, a new girl friend distracted me as soon as I walked the old streets again. So I didn't go. I think she lived in London & was a cousin of one of the guys in the tent.
“South Pacific” was playing at the Gaumont cinema on Oxford road. I could afford to buy the tickets & look flash. My chat up lines, about just having come back from there, must have worked. Anyway, my success was much more likely to have been the tan & the money!
And so we leap forward 50 years! Its a wet evening in late August 2011 & my email shows a message from the long lost, guitar playing John Bender. It reads: "Last night on the BBC southern news programme there was an article about the Island. During the broadcast they showed a number of photos of various people of Grapple Z, including one of you two taken in our tent. You can imagine how surprised I was".
Well I didn't think it made sense either, so after a bit of detective work on the interwebthingy, I found it!
It was my old mate Ray Atkinson (described as "a Hampshire man") being interviewed about his time on the Island. And there he was, with his wife Anne outside their flat in Gosport. The pictures the BBC used, were the ones that I had given him years before. Once again we were all young lads in black & white.
Ironically, they faded out on a shot of me ... the only one with the cancer so far as I know.
See the news item by clicking here