When I reached the ripe old age of fifteen, I signed up for the Air Cadets. The “Spacers” are esssentially a youth organisation run by the British Royal Air Force to get kids interested in planes, flying and the military life, in the hope that they’d sign up for a career. They let us have real uniforms, free flying and gliding lessons, and if we were really, really good, guns.
We had our own drill hall in the centre of Henley-on-Thames, which we were forced to share with the army cadets, a bunch of long-armed mono-browed trogoldytes with all the intelligence of a bread roll. The Drill Hall used to be the town’s police station. The old cells for housing prisoners were still there and were used as stock cupboards; you could lock people in for a laugh and leave them there the whole night, their screams echoing down long, abandoned corridors, falling of deaf ears.
The commanding officer was a crumbling old relic of the old-style air force. He had actually served with my grandfather during World War II, and spent many happy years dropping red hot British steel onto the Bosch, and as far as he was concerned, he was still doing it. Only from behind a desk hundreds of miles and four decades away from the action.
But the guy who really ran the show was Warrant Officer Simmons. He was old-school RAF too, with a huge handle-bar moustache and was rock-hard. Strict wasn’t the word of it. If your hair was too long, your uniform was wrong or if your boots were dirty you were for the high jump. But he was one of the lads too, keep on his right side and he was a pleasure to be with. He taught us swear-words and insults we never knew existed. He taught us how to make the officer’s lives hell with “saluting traps”, and he also taught me how to shoot the bollocks off a fly from three hundred yards. Hero.
Walker's ape-shit moment of glory
Every other weekend we’d pile into an RAF bus and head up to the air station at Benson where we’d shoot at things. The only problem was the weaponry. They were old Lee Enfield rifles which had (and I’m not kidding here) seen action in the trenches of World War One. They was absolutely no subtlety about them - they went off like a cannon and kicked like a mule, and you’dbe nursing a brusied shoulder at the end of the day. I saw with my own eyes a particularly stupid kid from Slough squadron (and Jaysus, did they have some thickies) trying to hold the weapon in front of him like a pistol. His first and last shot of the day caused a recoil which broke his nose. How we laughed.
All that was to change in the early 80’s. The British armed forces were to switch over to the much-maligned SA-80 rifle, a weedy little thing made out of plastic, tinfoil and lego bricks. This left them with a huge pile of unwanted L1A1 Self Loading Rifles and ammo. Good idea - give ‘em to the cadets. So they did. It was a massacre. I shot off so many rounds in a two month period, I actually qualified as an RAF marksman, along with quite a number of my comrades. But, typically, there would be a price to pay...
The SLR is semi-automatic. Instead of creating a bastard great explosion and a donkey-kick like the old weapons, it used the gases to eject the old cartridge and load the next one. All you’ve got to do it pull the trigger and rat-a-tat-a-tat, you get and impressive shower of empty shells flying out like the scene at the end of Rambo II. A twenty-round magazine would disappear in seconds and then they’d let us have another go. Smashing.
Cadet Hawkins, bless him, tried his hardest, but the words “safety catch” and “assualt with a deadly weapon” were a foreign concept to him. He was only about four foot something, and the rifle was only slightly smaller than he was. He lived in the local boarding school for “problem” children, mainly beacuse his parents were sick to death of him trying to kill them. We named this school, rather cruelly, The Blob Farm as they kept sending us recruits on the misunderstanding that we were the thicko army cadets. Now, it turned out, it was our turn to feel the wrath of Hawkins.
“HAWKINS!” bellowed Simmons “POINT YOUR WEAPON DOWN THE RANGE!”
“What’s that sir?” he said, swinging round, the lethal end sweeping an arc in front of a terrified crowd of spectators, who, as a man, dived for cover.
I remember the next comment clearly as if it was only yesterday. “HOLY FUCKING CHRIST! HE’S TRYING TO KILL US!”
Hawkins turned full circle, and just in time too. His finger tightened round the trigger and a hail of bullets ripped up the range, shooting up turf, stones, bits of wood, anything in its deadly path. One bullet had ricocheted off something solid (and yes, they really do go pyang-whoo-whoo-whooo like they do in the movies) and thudded into the wall inches away from where Phil’s head had been moments earlier. I am reliably informed that he “shat his pants”. Join the club, mate.
The firing stopped. Empty cartridges tinkled onto concrete. There was a deathly silence. The smoke cleared, and we all staggered to our feet in a daze. Out of twenty rounds, nineteen had flown off to all corners of the range and back again. The twentieth had scored a perfect bulls-eye on the target. Hawkins put his weapon down and shrugged.
Simmons went volcanic. Gentlemen, welcome to Swearing 101.
The funny thing was, not long before this little episode, a fellow spacer called Sargeant Marcus Sargeant had taken a potshot at the Queen during the Trooping of the Colour, and got himself banged up for five years for treason. After that, they decided we couldn’t be trusted with firearms, and they wouldn’t let us have guns for AGES. Not real ones, anyway.