I never much enjoyed my grammar school days, and when the opportunity came to escape the drudgery, I grabbed it with both hands; I was like a thirsty man being offered a cold pint of Guinness on a hot summer day. My new-found freedom was delicious.
Before long, I started to study towards an initial Quantity Surveyor qualification, via a correspondence course with the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS). I was enthusiastic about the subjects and I was free to proceed at my own pace. If I was not ready to take the exam the next year, then the year after or whenever. And in the meantime, I was supporting myself and contributing something to my parent’s household. I was quite content.
And my evenings and weekends were filled with sports, music and girls.
At work, my colleagues rented the gymnasium at the Intermediate School in Coleraine for one night a week, to play indoor football. And in the summer months, we participated in a team in the local works league. Through the winter months, I played rugby with the Coleraine II team, and in my last summer, with the Coleraine Cricket Club.
Soon after finishing school, I joined Bill McKeown’s group, playing drums. We were five – piano, saxophone, guitar, drums and singer. We played at hotels around the north Antrim coast and even had a six week summer season at the Lismara hotel in Portrush, playing six nights a week. I earned much more drumming than at Quantity Surveying, but unless one has real talent, music was not steady work.
When I could, I used to go to one of the local dance halls on a Saturday night: to the Arcadia in Portrush, the Strand in Portstewart, the Boat House in Coleraine and sometimes further afield. If a girl let me walk her back to her house, I almost always managed to miss the last bus, and had a long walk home, often in diabolic weather. It once happened to me in Ballymena, some thirty miles away. I walked several miles before I managed to thumb a lift home.
The last time I saw my mother, not long before she died, she told me that she had never fallen asleep until she knew that I was safely home. I was never aware of my having caused her sleepless nights.
It was Raymond de Zeeuw who had given me the idea of a career in Quantity Surveying. Knowing that he was the leader of the Ballywillan Lifeboys, I offered to help him in any way that I could. They met every Saturday morning. The Lifeboys were the junior branch of the Boy’s Brigade, as the Cub Scouts were the junior branch of the Boy Scouts.
So I taught the boys much of the military discipline that I had learned at Army Cadets. And at the end of the year, they demonstrated their coordinated marching capability in front of their parents and friends at the annual ‘demonstration’. They were brilliant.
I organized football games outside the Church Hall, before and after the formal Lifeboy agenda. We even had a ‘match’ with Portrush Primary School. We lost, but it was great fun.
Raymond once organized an early-summer cruise on Lough Neagh and many of the boys came along.
The photographs were taken by Raymond de Zeeuw, the leader, and it was Josephine Dallas who recently sent them to me, along with the names of the boys.
By now, most, if not all of the boys will be collecting their pensions, some with families and some perhaps with grandchildren. Sadly, two of them have passed on: Alan Cunningham some years ago, and Archie McNeill, within the past two weeks. They have passed much too soon.
In a field beside Ballywillan Church, one beautiful mid-summer evening, I organized an extra-curricular football game. As usual, Raymond led one side and I led the other. Somehow, I managed to slice my knee open on a sharp stone or a piece of glass and ended up needing several stitches. I still have the scar.
That proved to be my last involvement with the Lifeboys, for soon after, I left for Canada on what has turned out to be the first stage of a journey without end.
I have never lost my taste of freedom.