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A Shout From The Attic: When I Am In The South Lands

...At some unearthly hour, a monster entered our barrack room where twenty of us lay deep in the arms of Morpheus. The noise he made was straight from the realm of Satan. Unnerved and terrified we leaped and somersaulted from our beds in various stages of consciousness, to discover the genesis of our discomfiture. It was – strike a minor discord - the Drill Sergeant!...

Ronnie Bray recalls his early days in the Army.

To read earlier chapters in Ronnie's life story please visit http://www.openwriting.com/archives/a_shout_from_the_attic/

The journey to Blandford in Dorset to join the REME training battalion, was the longest I had ever taken. Steam trains were characteristically smelly and given to putting cinders into the eyes of those who, as I did, looked out through carriage windows. They were slow by today’s standards, but usually reliable and always got you there in the end. An Army lorry met the train and transpoted we sorry band of brothers to the camp.

All I ever saw of Blandford town was what I saw when I arrived, and what I saw when I left about eight weeks later. I saw something of the surrounding countryside during exercises when we were being taught to judge range distance when firing weapons. Looking out over beautiful Devon was æsthetically satisfying to a town boy. The relentless sunshine helped, and in quiet moments, I could believe that even with a rifle in my hand and the sentence in my pay book that said, “Your weapons are given you to kill the enemy” that military life was a pastoral idyll.

My introduction to military life was misleading. At the camp we were met by a nice NCO, a lance-corporal, who humorously introduced us to enough of the place for us to conjecture we were in some kind of holiday camp. We collected our bedding, some uniform, a rifle and bayonet – what fun we had with those! – and managed to locate the dining room, and NAAFI canteen.

For almost two weeks we lazed about in the barrack room, fooled around with our rifles, stuck our bayonets into trees, came close to sticking each other on more than one occasion, ate well, and tried the exotica dished up in the NAAFI. If this was Army life, we said, we’d sign up for 22 years! Each day brought new recruits into our room, and our comradeship grew by leaps and bounds.

The New Dawn came the second Monday after I had arrived. At some unearthly hour, a monster entered our barrack room where twenty of us lay deep in the arms of Morpheus. The noise he made was straight from the realm of Satan. Unnerved and terrified we leaped and somersaulted from our beds in various stages of consciousness, to discover the genesis of our discomfiture. It was – strike a minor discord - the Drill Sergeant!

After an eirenic few days among the deadly warriors of the world’s finest fighting force, to be suddenly surrounded by this din and clatter was too much for our composure. We trembled, trying to make sense out of the assault on our sense, but could not. This was the army. The holiday was over. We were given some very terse but important instructions about our dress, our equipment, our daily schedule, how to breathe out and in, and the suchlike.

When I had first carried my bedding to the room on the first day, the corporal who led me there asked me if I knew how to make a bed.

“Of course I can make a bed” I replied, in tetchy good humour, surprised that he would even ask, having straightened my own blanket on my mattress all my remembered life.

“Make it, then!” he ordered. He watched with evident patience as I made my bed. When I had completed the job – I had never made a bed up with sheets and pillow cases in my life, but I knew what one looked like – he tore it to pieces. If I had been smarter, I would have been crushed, but I only rose to bemused.

He then gave me systematic and pointed instructions on making a bed Army style. Although I had slept in a bed most nights of my life – the memorable exceptions being the legendary clothes basket cradle, the dresser drawer, and the blanket sleeping-bag of my brief Scouting days – I had never actually made a proper one. At home, I had unruffled my blankets carelessly on the bare mattress without being introduced to sheets or pillow cases except in holiday boarding houses.

Now I was taught to stretch the sheets over the mattress and tuck in the corners of the blankets in a special way. The top blanket had to be stretched taut so that a coin dropped from a height would bounce a good part of the way back up. Now, I knew how to make a bed! I might have thought I had learned all necessary for a young would-be soldier, but worse – much worse was to come.

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