It was September 1961 when I returned for my fourth year at C. A. I. I had already decided that I aspired to an army career, as an officer graduate from Sandhurst, in Surrey. The physical outdoor life, the sports, and the opportunities to travel very much appealed to me. I had already received a package of information from the recruitment office and in it was suggested that I join the local Army Cadet Force. One Friday evening in early September, I set off for the Territorial Army Barracks in Coleraine.
It was there that I met Captain Kitson, who was responsible for the local Army Cadet Force. I remember him as a slim and very well spoken man and I was immediately quite inspired by him. He noted all the necessary particulars and we agreed that I would return same time the following week to collect my uniform and join the Force.
My father was not greatly enthused by my career aspirations. He had survived seven years of war, had seen many of his friends die, and did not wish that life on his eldest son. He would have very much preferred my going to agricultural college and then joining him in his farming business. But as much as I loved the soil, the lure of travel and seeing the world prevailed. Dad reluctantly kept his peace.
The uniform consisted of everything except underwear, plus a beret, boots and a heavy greatcoat. that reached almost to my ankles. In cold wintry nights, the greatcoat was most appreciated. The shirt and trousers were made from a heavy khaki material that initially I found most itchy, but in time I became almost accustomed to it.
On my first full night at the barracks, we were lectured at length on the uniform, how to dress, what never to do, how to polish our boots and clean our brasses. we were warned that first thing, every night, we would be inspected and reprimanded if fault was found. Our Sergeant Major was a tough little Irishman, a long-serving soldier whom I shall call Jerry, for I cannot recall his full name. When not on duty, he was a chain-smoker and always stank of nicotine. He has an extremely loud and raucous voice and when he called ‘Atten shun’, windows in nearby houses rattled.
After inspection, we spent a lot of time on drill, eventually including a rifle. If you have ever observed a squad of soldiers on parade, performing complex manouvers, you perhaps can understand how much practice is required to train a group of individuals to act as one. And most evenings we moved to the rifle range to practice our shooting skills, using .22 rifles.
In the summer of 1962, we went to the Ballykinler Army Barracks, in County Down, about 12 kilometers SW of Downpatrick. We were met at the station in Belfast and taken in Army lorries to the camp. For a week we were treated as any other soldier, with all the disciplines and obligations. It was the first time that I had been away from home. I recall two memorable days.
The first was when we were taken in a truck and dropped off in the countryside, with maps, bivouacs, and enough food and water for a day. Our objective was to decide where we were and in 24 hours to find our way to a second pick-up point quite far away, on the other side of a lake. To complicate the mission, we were to leave no trace of our passing. Our officer, Captain Kitson accompanied us, but he made zero effort to influence our decision making. It was a character enhancing experience and we all learned a lot from having to disguise our overnight camp.
The second memorable day was when we were split into two platoons, one to defend a hill and the other to attack it. I was with the latter. We were armed with .22 rifles and a few blanks. We decided to have a frontal attack, with two of us, another guy and myself, crawling a long way through scrub to attack from the rear. Unfortunately, the defending force spotted the frontal attackers, some blanks were shot and the ‘attack’ was foiled.
On our last night at the camp, we went to Newcastle, the nearby beach resort. We had a few hours to ourselves. Most of us went up the mountain – Slieve Donnard; a few joined me in unsuccessfully looking for girls.
During the long summer break, something changed in me. I spent much of the holidays working on the farm, feeding and watering the livestock, clearing, cleaning, painting: I was already quite strong and could do most of a man’s work. In return, my father gave me gave me generous pocket money. Most evenings I went down to Portrush to meet and mingle with friends. The summer season was in full swing and there were lots of girls on holiday also wandering around. I relished my new-found freedom, to come and go as I pleased.
Eventually that summer I realized that I would have very little freedom to come and go if I were to join the army. Whether one agrees or not, orders have to be obeyed, without question. That would not be a problem if I agreed with the direction. But what if I didn’t? And I was reminded of the quote – ‘Lions led by donkeys’.
When September came around, I returned the uniform and resigned from the Army Cadets.
In 1985, some 23 years later, for one year I found myself living at Harvard Road in Sandhurst, and passing the military college every day.
What goes around, sometimes comes around…