It seems like a very long time ago that I was in the army. That’s because it was. I joined in September 1985 and left ten and a half years later, at the age of 27.
Considering that it was a job that I left over 15 years ago, it continues to inform my life and occupy my thoughts more than it probably should. This is mainly because I had such a laugh being a soldier.
That’s not to say I didn’t take the job seriously (sometimes). I was never, in British Army parlance, a dreg, slug, leg-iron, waste-of-rations or oxygen thief. I passed the courses they put me on. I got promoted roughly in line with the average. I never got into much trouble, apart from a bit of standard, drunken tomfoolery in the early part of my service.
It’s just that, with the passage of time, I seem to have screened out all the shit bits of being a squaddie and I’m left with a skewed memory that suggests that I spent 10 and a half years, on the floor, helpless with laughter. If I really try hard I can recall some of the bad times, like being very, very cold, on exercise in the middle of nowhere as a recruit. I was lying next to another lad, both of us 16, guarding our comrades while they slept. I’ve never been as cold, before or since, my teeth chattering so hard that one of the Sergeants had to come over and tell me to, ‘shut the fuck up.’
There! I’ve done it again! It sounds funny now, but I wasn’t laughing then. I thought I was going to freeze to death. So did the lad next to me. He asked me quite seriously, ‘What would happen if we just ran off?’
Like members of the emergency services or people who do jobs where hardship and exposure to danger is a feature, the soldier’s ability to winkle out nuggets of humour in the darkest of circumstances is essential to maintaining some sort of mental stability. Almost everyone I knew in the army would go to elaborate lengths to be cheerful in adversity, with some displaying a superhuman ability to be un-pissoffable. These guys were worth their weight in gold. I can remember standing on the top of a hill on Aldershot training area, having been last to get to the top on what felt like the 50th ascent, whilst being screamed at by the instructors. I was given a water bottle by someone who looked more knackered than me. Whilst I was guzzling the water, dreading what was to come next on our beasting, he started laughing at the situation.
“Look at the fucking state of us, Charlie. All this and pay as well!!”
Despite my exhaustion, I joined in the laughter. I knew that he was referring to a famous recruiting video, where a rotund Sergeant salutes the camera, implying that service itself was reward enough, but to top it all, the army were that charitable, that they’d give you money too.
Though nothing like today, where your signature will guarantee you a posting to somewhere dangerous, the British Army of the 1980s had its own perils. Everyone was convinced that at some point, millions of bloodthirsty Russian soldiers would pour into Western Europe and lay waste to everything before them. Of course, it turned out that this wasn’t entirely accurate and the annual Moscow, show-of-strength parades were a little bit rose tinted. The reality was that some of the Warsaw Pact fighting units were armed with only cardboard tanks and cooking apple ammo.
If you went to Northern Ireland, there were some people who would attempt to ventilate you or make your car jump thirty feet into the air.
But none of this stopped us smiling and I think this is why my time in the forces lingers and will always linger in my memory. The intensity of the relationships formed in hard times and the determination to take the piss as a defence against discomfort is something I’ve found impossible to replicate since.
At least once or twice during my working day, something will remind me of a cutting comment delivered with all the subtlety of a Harpo Marx expression.
I went to a church a few weeks ago, to attend a friend’s wedding. As we entered the building, I hesitated for a fraction of a second, thinking about removing headgear I hadn’t worn for decades. When I was in the army, we had to go to church quite a lot, particularly at the Army Apprentices College. One of the lads was a bit slow to remove his beret as he went in. The Sergeant at the door spotted him and shouted at parade ground volume.
“Smith!!! Take your hat off in the House of the Lord, you cunt!!”