Reunion 2004

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 disappointed.

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 flying.

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 are.

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 shirts.

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.


Bob Wilson

Aka Fat Taff