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A Shout From The Attic: In The Footsteps Of A Hero

...I boarded ship with a sense of triumph: happy to escape the mind-numbing ennui of the compound. The Empire Shelter was tidy, small, and functional, but big enough to swallow several hundred squaddies as we wheeled out of the harbour, churned through the muddy waters of the delta, and throbbed northwards through the postcard-blue waters of the Mediterranean toward Cyprus...

But Ronnie Bray soon discovered that he was no sailor.

To read earlier episodes of Ronnie's autobiography please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/a_shout_from_the_attic/

I was raised in post-Victorian England and infused with the belief that Britannia ruled the waves. In concert with this, I harboured a boyhood dream to be a sailor, visit exotic places, and have the time of my life. Out of my dark moments, I was quite jaunty, which was a prerequisite for a life following in the footsteps of courageous seafarers.

When I left school, I got my first job in Sykes and Tunnicliffe’s mill at Almondbury. I was an assistant to Vincent, the weaving shed foreman. He was a nice patient man who took pains to teach me all that the job involved.

After three months, I foolishly believed that I had learned everything and quit the job. I went to the Labour Exchange where I told the interviewer that I had an inspired vocation to be in the navy. He was unimpressed, told me to grow up, and directed me to the Co-operative Wholesale Society as a driver’s mate, delivering groceries.

My vocation as a mariner went into hibernation in some dim and neglected corner of my mind. Of course, wanting to feel the wind and spray in my face was mere romantic whimsy, but I had fooled myself into believing otherwise. Unfortunately, a chance event revived the lifeless aspiration, and as it thrust it before my face shouted, “This is what you want?” This challenge taught me an important lesson.

In 1952, I enlisted in the Army. In April 1954, I flew to Egypt to maintain British and international interests in the Canal Zone. At the beginning of August that year, having secured the Suez Canal, at least temporarily, I was transferred, along with those of the Green Howards who were not taking part in the amphibious landing, to Cyprus. From the Suez Garrison, we drove alongside the canal to Port Said, and waited to embark on the Royal Navy corvette, Empire Shelter. We had nothing to do but eat, wait, and complain, in the furnace of Egypt until our hegira.

I thought nothing could be worse than languishing in the sterile confinement of that place. I was wrong. Now so close to following in the footsteps of Drake, Raleigh, and Nelson, if I had known what lay ahead, I would have wandered off into the desert in the footsteps of Joseph and lost myself among the pyramids. Success in life depends on following the right hero!

This spell of enforced idleness was broken, and before the blood-red rim of the sun cleared the shimmering horizon, we were hurriedly taken to the dockside. I boarded ship with a sense of triumph: happy to escape the mind-numbing ennui of the compound. The Empire Shelter was tidy, small, and functional, but big enough to swallow several hundred squaddies as we wheeled out of the harbour, churned through the muddy waters of the delta, and throbbed northwards through the postcard-blue waters of the Mediterranean toward Cyprus.

My triumphalism was premature. I was rescued from a friendly bear, only to be devoured by a hostile lion. The boredom of dusty, lazy days of the transit camp was ended, but the elation of escaping was transformed into terror as the Empire Shelter cleared Egyptian waters.

They fed us as soon as we were under way, crowding us into the mess deck, two levels below the main deck. The food was plentiful, and we fell upon it with enthusiasm. Then, with time on our hands, we trickled to our bunks.

I had never seen a clinometer before, but as I lay on my bunk to rest, it kept vigil from the bulkhead a few feet before me. I am not putting all the responsibility on the clinometer, but I warrant it did not help. In a short time, the ship was rolling recklessly, and the four-foot long pointer quivered as the bulkhead danced this way and that, marking off alarming degrees creating unusual sensations in my abdomen and throat. Red alert!

When it became impossible to tell which was moving most violently, the ship or the contents of my stomach, I made my choking way upstairs to find the latrine. I remained in the cubicle for several hours, notwithstanding being ordered out several times by a disembodied authoritarian voice. I was not fit to be anywhere but exactly where I was. They would have had to shoot me to get me out, and that would have been a blessed release!

After three hours, I emerged and lay on the hot steel deck, endeavouring not to give what little remained of my meal to the fishes. There I passed the night, moving only when we steamed into sight of Famagusta. In the lee of its ancient walls, ablaze with the day’s first brilliance, I scrambled downstairs, turned down a fulsome and detailed invitation to breakfast from grinning comrades, collected my kit bag, and dragged it up on deck.

Although I had lain in the shadow of death for twenty-four hours, I felt better the moment I trod in the footsteps of Othello. I walked down the gangplank and onto terra firma, striding away from the dockside without looking back at either the Empire Shelter, or at my fancy of following in the wake of Nelson. That fancy was down at the bottom of the deep blue sea with my dinner.

That I have learned some of life’s lessons slowly is true, and some lessons I have yet to learn, but one thing I quickly learned during my brief naval career is that when the Psalmist wrote:

Hope deferred maketh the heart sick,

He was not necessarily speaking the truth. My heart was fine as long as its hope of a life on the ocean wave was deferred. It was the realisation of that hope that made me sick. And that brings me to the point of all this which is, when we place our trust in our own uninspired hopes rather than discover what it is that God wants us to do, we are bound to be disappointed. But when we follow in the footsteps of Jesus, we can not fail.

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