Mirth and Woe: On Exercise
As regular readers of these stories will know, I spent my teenage years as a member of the Air Cadets. We were essentially a bunch of spotty urchins roped into playing soldiers in the hope that at least a few of us might actually join the armed forces at some stage. Some of us did, some of us nearly did, and some were put off the military life for ever.
We were given guns, planes and loads of interesting stuff to do, and, as luck would have it, some of my most mirth-and-woeful memories were on Air Training Corps events, mostly involving unintentional nudity.
They were such good times that when I got too old to be a Cadet, I asked them if I could rejoin as an instructor. And the fools said 'yes'.
As a civilian instructor it was a completely different kettle of fish. I was, it turned out, expected to act like an adult, wear a suit, and certainly not hang around in the Other Ranks' canteen throwing penny chews as hard as I could at my mates. Mates who had to call me 'Sir' and stand up when I entered the room.
Worse, instead of going to the rifle range and firing off hundreds of rounds of ammunition at paper targets and any object we might have "accidentally" left in the butts, I had to sit and watch while some spotty cadet blazed away with the RAF's surplus shooters, having the time of his little life.
I also got an armband bearing the word "Instructor", which I never wore.
Clearly sensing the end of a golden age of skiving and cocking about, I decided to give it one final throw of the dice while my application for the Royal Corps of Signals went through the works. The squadron was to go on a weekend exercise in a large sea of mud just outside Aldershot, where we were to shoot at things and then blow them up.
Being an instructor and have a certain amount of expertise in this area, I was to 'supervise' one of the patrols, and be in charge of their health, safety and general blowing things up. I was given a cap gun, and told to guard it with my life.
I fired off all the caps within two minutes and dropped it in the lake.
We trudged off into the mire, map in hand to find our campsite. Somewhere, in an ocean of trees, we dropped our packs, rations and pretend shooters and found where we were to be sleeping for the next two nights.
It was a large hole in the ground.
In fact, it was a large hole in the ground that was slowly filling with water. We baled it out, put down a floor of sorts and added a couple of groundsheets for a roof, and it was a regular home-from-home. A home-from-home that was dark, stank of dead things, and was slowly filling up with water. And I was to share it with six other people for the next - oh God - how long? Three days.
We doled out the ration packs - all slightly out-of-date gear the grown-up armed forces didn't want any more, containing the obligatory years-old packet of Spangles.
This was supplemented, unsurprisingly, by our own stuff blagged from the tuck shop and unguarded parental kitchen cupboards. Boys will be boys, so, by-and-large, there were lots and lots of sweets, and cripplingly large quantities of Asda own-brand cola-flavoured drink. And Jez brought meat. Lots and lots of meat.
"Good God, Jezzer. Are you sure you've brought enough?" I asked as packet upon packet of sausages, bacon, kidneys and a pound of liver fell out of his rucksack. He was either planning to be incredibly hungry over the weekend, or he had recently murdered somebody to death and was getting rid of the evidence in the only way he knew.
"Oh, I'll be alright," he replied. It was all on the short-dated shelf at the supermarket."
"When was that, then?"
It was Friday.
We then did what any group of young men would in the circumstances. We got together as much flammable material as we could and set fire to it. Then, we put our food on sticks and cooked it. Cooked it until it was dead.
Jezzer's suspiciously out-of-date pork products still looked horribly pink.
"You're supposed to cook them longer than that, dude"
"Ah, I'll be fine. No worries. I like me food rare."
You can tell exactly where this is leading. It was only a matter of time and place.
And so, my leader's radio set crackled into life, and we arranged a rendezvous. A rendezvous where the several patrols on the exercise would accidentally-on-purpose meet up and kick the living shit out of each other. No cadet exercise is complete without one of these encounters, and hardly anyone gets killed.
We trudged through the mud in the rain, further and further away from our lovely fire and only slightly damp sleeping bags, for a meeting with the leather boots and fists of the opposition. All were quiet, brooding, hoping that they might escape with their face and/or clothing, the silence only broken by a hissed "It's left here, you Gaylord" as we struggled to find the RV point.
And then, the flare went up. We were there, and so was everybody else.
All tactics went down the toilet and it was just: "CH-AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARGE!"
We legged it. Legged it across 100 energy-sapping yards of ankle deep mud, dodging flares fired at us in a way that would immediately invalidate the warranty. Your glorious leader, pensioned off from the joys of cadetting, sidled away from the action, slipping into the background like a short, round Harry Flashman, fully expecting everybody else to get hurt.
Jez, fuelled by extra pork rations, reached the enemy lines first, and unleashed a dreadful chemical weapon.
"Yaaaaaaaaaaaarch!" he went as a flare fired into the cloud-speckled Hampshire sky by Flt Lt Elphinstone revealed a scene straight out of Hell's foulest pits.
"Yaaaaaaaaaaaarch!" Right into a hedge. A hedge full of cadets.
There was a cry of surprise and alarm: "You... you... you utter CUNT!"
And: "You bastard! It's sausages!"
"Yaaaaaaaaaaaarch!" he continued, making sure everybody got some in the kind of spray normally seen coming from the back of a farmer's muck-spreader.
And, speaking of which: "I've shit meself."
The worst news of all. It was only Friday evening. We had a stenchy Jezzer living with us in a hole in the ground until Sunday.
"How much have you shit yourself?"
"All of it. And it's in my boots."
We were not, I am pleased to say, the only patrol to suffer minor disaster that evening. As the battle wound down and Flt Lt Elphinstone fired off his last flare, barely over the heads of the struggling masses, one of our particularly observant youngsters approached our glorious leader with a more-than-pertinant question:
"Mr Elphinstone, sir?"
"Yes Sergeant Walker!" he barked.
"You know you were firing off the flares like that, sir?"
"Yes, Sergeant, I was. I've got a mate in the RAF Regiment who..."
"Isn't that your tent, sir?", he asked, pointing to a particularly excitable fire in the middle distance.
I never did join the Army in the end. The excitement, I feared, might have been fatal.