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And Another Thing...: Plus ça Change - But The Coffee's Better Now

...Within minutes I had been ushered inside, 'processed', relieved of my camera and the contents of my pockets and invited to wait in a cell while the officer of the day was summoned...

Arthur Loosley recalls the day years ago when he visited an American air force base in Britain, contrasting it with a recent visit to a British military establishment.

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I enjoyed an excellent cup of cappuccino recently in an unexpected place - the Naafi at a UK military base.

This was not the Naafi I remember from my two-year stint of national service in the RAF, but that was more than 50 years ago and many things have changed since then. No longer a wooden shuttered hatch with a tea urn, a plate of iced buns and a few curled-up sandwiches; this was 21st century cafeteria style, as good as any found in the smart coffee shops which have sprung up in so many of our high streets in recent years.

Getting into the base was easier than I expected in these high security days, although the man in the guardroom had to struggle to assert his superiority over the new digital security system before it could be persuaded to issue me with a temporary and totally unrecognizable photo ID card, but it was easier than my attempt to get into a USAF base where a court martial was being held in the early days of the cold war.

'What's in your bag?' the fearsome looking guy at the guardhouse asked me.

'Oh, just a camera,' I replied.

Within minutes I had been ushered inside, 'processed', relieved of my camera and the contents of my pockets and invited to wait in a cell while the officer of the day was summoned.

He was a very pleasant fellow, and listened with polite amusement when I explained that as US bases in the UK are subject to American law, and that US law permits photography in courtrooms, I felt sure I would be welcome.

It was a feeble attempt, but a hungry freelance will try anything.

I spent the rest of the day under open arrest in the custody of the padre, who gave me tour of the base, bought me a good lunch and taught me to play shuffleboard. He even allowed me a brief glimpse through the glass windowed entrance of the room where the court martial was in progress. I think that was just to tease me!

I was quite sorry when he received the message that the case was over and no longer a target for my prying eyes, and I could be escorted back to the guardhouse to sign for the return of 'prisoners property' before being deported to England, just outside the gate.

It had been an entertaining day, even though my original mission had to be aborted.

My more recent adventure was very different. It was at the invitation of a Falklands veteran who has been helping us at Felixstowe museum by providing photographs, documents and other artefacts for an exhibition to mark the 25th anniversary of that war, in which many local service personnel were involved.

He had served with the Parachute Regiment and brought back a soldier's eye view of the conflict in an album of more than 100 photographs taken not by the press corps but by men who were there to fight and die. Some of them I wished I had not seen, but I accepted the opportunity to digitise the entire collection to preserve the historic images at the museum for future historians to rediscover and perhaps, one day, learn something from them. . . Perhaps!

Our business done, a short tour of the base brought back more memories, but the war machines were different. Not the jet fighters, primitive by modern standards, on which I worked half a century ago, but state-of-the-art hardware that I am probably not allowed to mention. There were not many people about, because most of the troops normally based there are in Iraq or Afghanistan. Those I did meet looked very young. Come to think of it, so did I when I was in uniform! It was a long time ago.

Back in the NAAFI after the tour, we relaxed and swapped tales of military life in two different eras over a cup of coffee. The coffee was different too: it was Starbucks!

Notwithstanding my reservations about the coffee giant's business ethics, which have driven down the price paid to the native producers while enhancing its own profits, I was happy to see how well the British Army boys are looked after at their home base, even if the nation can't afford to equip them adequately when serving on the front line.

I came away with mixed emotions - memories of a different age and the realization of how little has changed.


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