After 31 years of being AWOL, I
wondered if I would be welcomed back into the fold by the brothers I had walked
away from on 3rd May 1973, I also wondered how many days would I get
for this, when I had seven for being one day in 1972.
The answer was a resounding yes, especially when I met many of them in
the bar of the Bull Hotel, Gerrards Cross (I don’t remember Gerrard, which is
probably why he is cross!) and it looked as though they were still propping up
the NAAFI bar where I had left them all those lifetimes ago.
I was so petrified that I would
not recognise any of them, I copied the pictures from the ‘Mug Shots’ page
on Bob Rodham’s web site. Armed
with this, I tried to study what name went with what wrinkled face and secretly
hoping that I was not the only one with an exploding waistline, boy was I
The scene was set in this posh
hotel (being from Wales, we are not used to roofs, doors and windows –
especially as those bloody kids up the street keep nicking the bleeding things)
as I wandered in to a sea of cries of “get the beer in Taff” and when I did,
all they kept saying was “it’s taken him 31 years to get the round in”. I felt at ease, when I should have been at attention,
especially since the Wing Commander had not arrived in his car with a pennant
The greeting that welcomed me
and every subsequent arrival was phenomenal and soon I was transferred back to
the days of my misspent youth, fighting the senior entry on the stairwell,
bumpering the floors and escaping from the block during the Saturday morning kit
inspection. Life was much simpler
then, when you were shouted at if you did something wrong, you got shouted at if
you did something right and you got shouted out if your name was Wilson or if
there was a ‘y’ in the day.
It was especially nice to see
the ladies in the lives of my fellow apprentices and it surprised me how many
had married early in life, especially after the lives they led as 16/17 year
olds. I was married at 20 because I
was out of the RAF and had nothing to do, so I don’t know what their excuses
Many of the reprobates had been
in the bar for hours before I got there, the same ones who were always in the
bar hours before me at Halton. Jock
Strachan, being jock, ensured he was at the bar first by getting there
twenty-four hours before the rest of us and like always, he remained there
twenty-four hours after we had all returned home.
We finally settled into our room
for the evening, where a sumptuous buffet had been set up but due to the loud
music from the disco, it was impossible to have conversations with anyone unless
you shouted in their ear. Typical
of the old age, they always complain about the music being too loud!
After a bright and early
breakfast (for most of us), we trooped off in convoy to RAF Halton, where we
were met by a frantic, scurrying chap called Min (minimum to those who don’t
know him). Min’s enthusiasm for
all things RAF Halton was infectious and after the obligatory team photograph at
the apprentice monument (at this point there were still a couple of absentees
yet to arrive), we set off for a trek up the hill of infamy (that DI always had
it in for me) at about 120 paces an hour. This mere stroll for a 16 year old
became a feat of endurance for the pack of middle aged ex apprentices.
We crossed the main Halton road
without ‘Daleks’, outriders or even orange armbands, (we certainly know how
to live life in the fast lane) with the only sound coming as a wheeze from the
hyper inflating chest of these soon-to-be geriatrics, the clip clop of Dick
Bothamley’s Zimmer frame and the rattle of Ken Ryan’s false teeth, as we
crossed the main le mans race course.
It was strange for me not to
carry up a bass drum up the hill, now I carry a bass tum and look like I did
with that retched drum in front of me. Memories
started flooding in as we crawled up the hill with the imaginary skirl of the
bagpipes wafting in an around us on the breeze (quite poetic for a fat Welshman)
and Phil Jones still out of step after thirty-one years of practice.
Luckily, oxygen was provided at
the top of the hill and we entered the RAF Halton museum, which in our day stood
as the boxing gym and the place where Mick Stelmach got his cauliflower arse and
where my boyish good looks were lost forever and despite searching at the back
of the museum, I still could not find them.
The museum brought back calls of
“do you remember doing that”, “my bed pack stayed like that for two
years” and “no-one could bull shoes like Pink Panther”.
The smell of nostalgia mixed with the smell of lingering horse liniment
from the boxing days and all that was mixed in with the smell of bull shit, as
tales of individual brilliance/bravery/drinking or fighting skills reverberated
around the building.
Min told us that the new airman
in 2004 dines in 5* messes but so did we as young and impressionable lads,
eating the very best burnt bacon and rubbery fried eggs, in a building that was
last painted by Pontius Pilot when he was a first year Mech apprentice.
The leisurely stroll back down
the hill still found Phil Jones still out of step as we headed to St George’s
church for the dedication ceremony with the station padre, who was able to carry
us through a simple but memorable service.
Dave Squires read the sermon with his usual panache and Ian Hovey gave a
truly brilliant synopsis of what life was like as a 16 year old in 1971 and his
colourful words wafted of Brut, sta-pressed trousers, Crombie coats, Ben Sherman
Members of the entry had paid
for a window to be placed at St Georges’ that depicted the entry crest,
showing a scorpion crawling through the apprentice wheel, with the motto of
“small but deadly” referring to the 98 that joined in 1971 and the 48 that
passed out in 1973. The artistry
for the window was supplied by another ex apprentice, Ron
?? (213, 214 & 215 entries – it’s a long story), who had
travelled from Germany with Keith Godden for this re-union but that distance was
surpassed by Paul Hayworth, who with his lovely wife had travelled from Calgary,
Canada and I thought three hours from Swansea was a long way.
The re-union finished as it had
started, in a bar but this time it was in the RAFA club on the airfield, where
we reminisced about the mad professor’s flight of fantasy that turned out to
be the Gossamer Jupiter flown by Flt Lt John Potter and the only difference from
the previous evening was that most were drinking soft drinks. Even Jock Strachan was drinking water, which must be a date
to go down in the annals of 223 folklore and a date that those of us that saw
it, will be able to say that “we were there”.
The success of the whole weekend
was down to two major factors. The
first was due to the extraordinary bond of brotherhood that all members of 223
entry share. A bond that has kept them together despite the miles and years.
The second and definitely the most important, is the outstanding work
that Bob Rodham has ploughed into finding us and bringing us closer together by
his web site, telephone calls and e-mails that constantly bombard us into
submission. Without him, 223 entry
would only be a fond but distant memory of the landlords of Wendover, who became
rich on our benevolence, and in the dark and fear scarred minds of those who
tried to mould the raw 16 year olds into worthy members of the Royal Air Force.
I salute you all and hope that
the blood, sweat and tears that Bob has shed in search for his ‘holy grail’
will ensure that we remain close as the friends we once were in the heady days
of T Rex, Triple A barley wine, the shoulder of mutton pub, massed visits to
London and Wing Commander Don Tanner’s attempts to look cool. God bless you all.
Aka Fat Taff