PC 71 Shared Experiences


Apart from a couple of hours in 2006 I hadn’t seen him since July 1967 when together we had marched up the steps of the Old Building at Sandhurst, he commissioned into the Royal Glosters and me into the Royal Regiment of Artillery. Having re-established contact a year or so ago, he and his wife came to stay the other week.

There is a temptation to go down the familiar route, whenever you meet a friend from long ago: “Do you remember so and so?” “No? Well let me tell you, I met him again in …….” We didn’t, thankfully, but at some point in our evening together he recollected the shared experience of being one of the officer cadets on the parade ground at the military academy. The sense of pride, of belonging, of collective consciousness ……. as one thousand young men, at the start of their adult lives, came to ‘Attention!’ as one. I mentioned this experience in PC 25 ‘A Voice’, back in November 2014; clearly I was not the only one to remember it.

Sovereign Parade 1967

March Past at RMAS 1967

He had occasionally commented on a PC. “I suppose since Sandhurst we knew you were full of sh*t ….. but I love reading your PCs. It amazes me how you can make something seemingly so mundane into a really interesting read.” Or “You know you are a very weird person, but I did enjoy your latest muse ….. you lovely nutter!”  Others of you might share his sentiments?!

Do you know, Celina, we had this obstacle course to do, a major team competition, and one of the major obstacles was a 10 feet (3.5m) brick wall. Getting 6 people over it, with all their kit and rifles etc, required a huge amount of team work, understanding and technique.” And the physically stronger ones helped the weaker members of the team, I thought, because in other situations and faced with different obstacles it could easily be the other way around. In real life there will always be those who think about finding a ladder, hiring a crane, building a scaffold …….. but back then time was of the essence. I’ve thought subsequently, is this ‘wall’ a metaphor for life, that to get on, to achieve, to succeed, it’s best to do it with others (actually a ten foot wall is impossible to get over without help)?

We didn’t talk much about other aspects of our two years together, didn’t mention the granite-faced Sergeant Cameron of the Scots Guards who threatened to rip your arm off for some inadequacy on the drill square, of the first field exercise in December called appropriately Gravedigger, or indeed of the miles we walked over the Brecon Beacons in South Wales – in all weathers, but being together it was if we had met last week, with no 49 years in between!

You see it in programmes about recruits for the police, for students at University, for those who want to join one of the military services; a shared experience, often one involving adversity, mental or physical challenge, will unite those students, developing a corporate purpose, a sense of collective responsibility. The schools and universities in the UK often have a Combined Cadet Force, a quasi-military organisation that helps individuals develop into mature adults and my chum had had a huge hand in bringing the national structure into the C21st. Wonderfully he confirmed that the change these units make in individuals and the values they instil underline their importance, just as the experiences we had so many years ago did. Good to hear! Of course there are those who lead naturally and those who follow, either out of curiosity or duty. Putting individuals through tough training will always bring out the best in people and that knowledge and experience will travel with them their whole life.

During the course of our twenty four hours together the subject of sailing came up and I recounted a tale of my own experience, one that is as fresh today as it was 37 years ago. The two of us hadn’t shared this particular experience, but those who did will remember it for the rest of their lives, I think? A tour of the D-Day WW2 battlefields in Normandy was bookended by sailing out and back to the UK on a 43ft yacht. Our return was slightly delayed by a gale in The Channel, and it wasn’t until 0215 that we left Trouville, just South of Le Havre. Mooring in France often involves an anchor and, as we left the harbour, the crew struggled to fit it into its stowage up in the bow. With reefed sails we cleared the immediate breakwater and set a course for the Isle of Wight; it was still blowing hard from the north east and a lot of spray came over the bow. Down to leeward was Arromanches, a shallow and rock-strewn coast.


Trouville sur mer

Trouville sur Mer is on the coast almost due south of Le Havre

I was just about to give the helm to another crew member when one of the women called from below, to say that there was a lot of water over the cabin floor!! Rushing below, I saw that the whole of the floor was awash. We started pumping! Everyone looked at me, as skipper, to think/say/act! My brain went into overdrive: Think! Think! Think! I checked our position on the chart, told the man on the helm to heave to, and thought about life jackets and how the life raft was stowed. Why were we taking on water? Where was it coming in? Two of us went up to the bow, to check the anchor stowage. It was in a bad place and a bad design; if you got it slightly wrong …. water came in. And so it was! Refitted snuggly we were watertight. Relief all around!! Hours later the wind died away completely and we motored into The Solent and moored up.

Most of my character-building experiences seem to have been during my military service but that character has, in the main, allowed me to cope with the obstacles of life when they’ve appear. Funnily enough I overheard the team leader of the guys who delivered the large fridge freezer a fortnight ago tell a junior member: “Obstacles? Just work your way around them” and I was reminded of Ernie Zelinksi. In his book “The Joy of Not Working” he says of obstacles and creative people:

They realise many new obstacles will appear regularly, but they also realise there is a way to overcome virtually all obstacles. When one appears, creative people will figure out a way to eliminate it. If they can’t get over it, they will go under it. If they can’t go under it, they will go around it. If they can’t go around it, they will go through it. With all these options, there is no need to worry about obstacles.”

I think he’s right! Oh! And it’s great to relive our shared experiences with chums.

Richard 29th May 2016                                        richardyates24@gmail.com

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