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A Shout From The Attic: The High Jump

...In all my attempts at the high jump I barely left a mark, unless you count the time when two triangular tubes of aluminium were tied in the middle with string to make a longer bar, and as I sailed – I use the word in its loosest sense – across it I caught the seat of my flimsy PT shorts on the end of the top tube and suffered a 'wardrobe malfunction.'...

But the highest Ronnie Bray ever jumped was when he trod on something squishy during his Army service in Cyprus.

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

I read a story about slithery creatures that reminded me of my athletic days when at the Mormon Church's annual sports day I always entered the high jump. This was in the days before the Fosbury Flop, when the 'scissors' was de rigueur for the event. I don't want to give the impression that I was an accomplished athlete, because I wasn't. I was, however, a trier who participated for the sheer fun of it rather than in the hope that I would outjump those better able and prepared than myself.

In all my attempts at the high jump I barely left a mark, unless you count the time when two triangular tubes of aluminium were tied in the middle with string to make a longer bar, and as I sailed – I use the word in its loosest sense – across it I caught the seat of my flimsy PT shorts on the end of the top tube and suffered a 'wardrobe malfunction.' It is a pity I didn't win because I could have used the laurels to cover my embarrassment. I didn’t even get recognition for walking backwards all the way to the changing rooms, but all that is beside the point which is to tell you of the highest I ever jumped in my life.

Through a combination of the misfortunes and mangling that fate provides to those not fit to be let out without an attendant, a strait-waistcoat, and lots of pills, I was, through the ruthless disfavour I attracted from Field Marshal-to-be, but then Captain, Nigel Bagnall, assigned to take a trade test during my military service when I was attached to the Green Howards in Cyprus in the days before I had learned how awful run on sentences are and how frustrating they are for editors and others who understand grammar and its dos and do nots.

Bagnall didn’t like me, and the dislike was mutual and open, although not an equal contest as the balance of power was against me. He sought to discomfort me by questioning my ability as a vehicle mechanic class III. Notwithstanding that, on one of my annual references just above where he had previously recorded his impression of me as “a rather cheeky individual,” he wrote, “I am not qualified to comment on his technical abilities, but the company transport goes which speaks for itself.

Yet I could not fault him for his doubts because I also entertained serious misgivings about my technical ability. So, I was ordered to go to the REME establishment in Larnaca to see if I was up to snuff. Perhaps he had forgotten the trade test I had voluntarily taken in Ægypt to see if I could advance to Vehicle Mechanic A II, where they had said I was adequate as a VM A III.

I arrived at the Corps workshops and discovered that I was not only not expected but that I could not have taken the trade test if I had been because the workshop that was to apply my incompetence test was being stripped down and loaded on to a convoy of RASC lorries in preparation for its move to new premises at Dhekelia Bay. I was looked at by a series of people of various ranks and dispositions and hastily assigned picket duties in an abandoned tannery that the tanners had abandoned long ago. The stench was indescribable. It was a racing certainty to clear your sinuses and those of your long-dead forbears as well.

In true Tommy fashion I passed my time dawdling about the place trying to look intelligent, ready to challenge intruders, none of whom ever put in an appearance. I magnified my duties by testing the fire extinguishers to see if they worked. They did, but only on the test, after which, being exhausted, they worked no more. Fortunately there was nothing to burn and nothing to burn it with. Cable Street, Larnaca, where the old tannery was located, was abandoned. I was too young and innocent to comprehend that I had been put in a safe place where I could do no harm.

I assumed the task of picking several colonies of ticks from the ears and skin of a patient and uncomplaining dog that adopted me. Although I had had no formal training in tick removal I developed a technique that was satisfactory to the dog. There was a medical room on the site whose door was not secure. Using borrowed surgical instruments I picked the bloodsuckers from the grateful canine.

Thus passed my days; a lazy mix of idleness and veterinary practice interspersed with extinguishing imaginary fires and musing aloud whether George ‘Dhigenis’ Grivas and his EOKA terrorists were planning to attack the tannery and hold me to ransom and if so for how much and whether anyone would take the trouble to pay up.

Into this semi-idyllic existence came another stream of fate, this as a result of my having ignored a soldier's Lex Principium: "Never volunteer." In a rush of rashness that afflicts the pathologically insouciant I had put my name down for the Green Howards Open Boxing Tournament. I was called back from the REME one day to take my punishment. I will pass swiftly over the details of my bout in which I met and learned a remarkable degree of respect for Drummer Bousefield, and remark only that when it was time for my discharge, one of my references stated, "His sporting activities have been confined to boxing, which he does wholeheartedly but with little skill."

Having laid about my opponent for almost three rounds with the thumb sides of my fists, I awoke next morning with hands that could not fasten buttons. They were so painful that I could hold nothing but my breath. I joined the line of sick, lame, and lazy to see the Medical Officer, an official employed by the Army to pretend to be a doctor of medicine, and was sent to the British Military Hospital in Nicosia, which pretended to be a hospital, and had my hands x-rayed. There were no breaks, but a lot of joint and soft tissue damage.

I knew it wasn’t a real hospital because I was later admitted with tonsillitis and the ward full of men, some of whom had life threatening injuries were ordered to “lie at attention” when another person pretending to be a doctor did his daily rounds.

For my damaged thumbs, I was prescribed deep-heat treatment twice a week, for which I had to return to the BMH. Consequently the trade test was put on hold and so, it seems, was I. Two weeks later I was still with the REME in Larnaca when they were ordered to quit the tannery and move to newly constructed palatial barracks at Dhekelia to service a new REME workshop that had no smells, no ticks, and lots of new fire extinguishers.

Twice a week a truck would pull up outside my barracks and toot the horn. I climbed in the back with other patients and rolled into Nicosia for treatment, then rolled back to Dhekelia. The REME was a gracious host. The Commanding Officer was a Major Bray. He made me by turns a Regimental Policeman, Telephone Exchange Operator, Building Manager/Supervisor, and towards the end of my stay he let me work on small engines in the workshop proper. The trade test was forgotten, but I got my pay with the rest of the men every Wednesday.

I stayed with the REME for the remainder of my active service, over six months, and was recalled to the Green Howards three short and happy days before I flew back to England, Aldershot, and demob!

None of that has anything to do with what I’m getting at, which is that the new barracks at Dhekelia were on an eminence above Dhekelia Bay, which was reached by a steep decline covered with big rocks, tall grass, and small shrubs.

Coming back up the hillside one day after a splash in the unbelievably blue Mediterranean waters, I rounded a rock and felt something squishy give way under my foot. It was a large snake. My stepping on it had torn some of the skin from its back. My victim darted into the more dense part of the scrubland as fast as its little legs could carry exactly one thousandth of a second after I made my move. But while my fanged companion bulleted laterally; I rocketed vertically, achieving a height that made my nose bleed. It was the highest I ever jumped in my life, and I did it from a standing start.

I tried to get it recorded as a world record, but was refused on grounds that there was no provision for athletic records set with the assistance of a witting or unwitting serpent.


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