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Open Features: The Bystander

“A teenage life more than half a century ago presented clean cut options. Some of my classmates chose drink and boys. Most of us followed the activities of earlier generations,’’ writes Jean Cowgill.

Guides or the Girls Friendly Society were obvious choices. However, my best friend, Ann, had her heart set on becoming a nurse so our only option was to enrol as cadets with the St John’s Ambulance Brigade. Don’t ask me why I went along. At thirteen or fourteen one gets sucked into strange activities; at least it wasn’t drugs.

A Masonic lodge, off Bradford Road in Dewsbury, was the venue. Of course we lesser mortals only got as far as the public meeting room. The interior was, and remains, a mystery. Gender, invitation and inclination precluded my membership in later life. The badge of the S.J.A.B. seemed not unlike the symbol over the main door. Later on I discovered a link between St John and the Knight’s Templar so perhaps the choice of building was appropriate.

I remember wearing a grey, unforgiving uniform which included elastic cuffs that threatened the circulation of my upper arms. A broad belt, with a snake buckle, divided the dress at an approximate waist level. Most of we cadets resembled sacks of potatoes. Within the organisation there was a strict hierarchy. Ann and I never achieved anything beyond the basic level although a couple of girls became helpers at outdoor meetings. We longed, in vain, for visits to rugby league or even Huddersfield Town F.C.

Our leader, Miss Dowson, was a tall, emaciated individual with a tremulous voice. She blushed easily. In profile she resembled a turkey. Her anecdotes were delivered as though they were religious tomes. Did you know that drinking from a medicine bottle instead of measuring the correct dosage could result in death? She appeared to have little control over the group but muddled through. At the beginning of each session we were ‘on parade’. This involved shuffling about and measuring the distance from the person on the left as though we were in the army. The highlight of the evening was being let loose on the bandages.

We learned to name and identify their myriad shapes. The injured parties, on whom we practiced, resembled Egyptian mummies by the end of the session. When I watch football matches today I remember these activities and the fun we had with head bandages. Fortunately I have hardly ever needed to put these far away skills to real use. Last week I performed essential first aid on my wooden prop. Alas, she had been ailing. Over many years gales had tossed her to the path with gay abandon. Her rift had reached critical proportions. Using strong tape I bandaged her in the required manner with each circumvolution covering two thirds of the previous one.
Half way through the Thursday night proceedings a raffle was held in aid of the S.J.A.B. In over two years I did not win a prize although at times the group numbered but six. This helped me formulate my misgivings on gambling. I did not take a high moral stance rather I became disenchanted at throwing my money away.

Why were the classes held? There was little prospect of any of us girls being able to save a life – even though we practiced artificial respiration. Fortunately mouth to mouth resuscitation had yet to be conceived. Two conflicting methods were in vogue and I have been confused for fifty odd years. I remember thinking one of them was connected to a Swedish woman, Olgar Neilson, but I may have got that wrong.

After an initial burst of enthusiasm my interest was sustained by thought of copying Jesus. A worthy endeavour I’m sure you’ll agree. I wasn’t thinking of the story of Lazarus. Not even in my most egocentric moment did I consider bringing someone back to life. The Good Samaritan hit the spot with me. Apparently the worst crime was to be a mere bystander and not able to help. This term was used most weeks by the venerable Miss Dowson. The Samaritan elbowed all the bystanders out of the way and performed heroic feats. Armed with my triangular bandage maybe I could rush forward and save lives.

Ann became a nursing cadet and pursued a worthwhile career at Leeds General Infirmary. In true Mills and Boon style she married a doctor. They went to Canada and produced four boys whom I imagine became ice-hockey players. Ann was undoubtedly the ‘Good Samaritan’. I, on the other hand, continued my ham-fisted existence. Apart from the clothes prop, I have saved no lives. I am the perpetual bystander.


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