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Bill's Travels

Discussion in 'General Chat' started by BillB, Jan 27, 2009.

  1. BillB

    BillB Type 2 · Well-Known Member

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    In response to overwhelming popular demand (well, two people at least) I have finally found the time to write as promised. Life has been a bit hectic this week with a dental appointment, blood test, endocrinologist visit, driving my wife to the ophthalmologist, and finally making the arrangements to pick up the new car (Thursday morning).
    I decided to start way back in the hope that it will explain why I have always had this insatiable curiosity about the world. I don't know why, but it's always been that way so maybe the clues lie in my early life.
    Can anyone here remember where they were on night of 18/19 April 1941? I can. I was in an Anderson shelter in the garden of our home in Dinsdale Road, Blackheath. Why does that night particularly stay in my memory, when it was little different from many nights before it? Well, it was the night prior to my birthday and my parents had gone to some considerable trouble to find some of the ingredients for a birthday party for a 4-year-old. It was also the night I received a birthday present from Adolf Hitler, courtesy of the Luftwaffe. It hit the corner of the house and detonated. Now, we could hear that bomb coming, it sounded different from the others that were dropping further away. The one that's coming for you really does sound different, believe me. The shelter shook, rubble rained down on it and we had to wait until the all clear sounded to go and see what was left of our home.
    When we crawled out at the first touch of daylight we reckoned we were comparatively lucky. The house was a wreck, but parts of it were not too badly damaged. We had to find somewhere else to live, of course. I can remember my parents digging the Sunday joint out of the rubble and cleaning the brick dust off it. Food was too precious to let it go to waste. My mother's canary had been blown off his perch and we found him on the living room wall - in slices. Too small to eat, though.
    This was a terrible blow to my parents as they lost a lot of their household goods and furniture. My father had been out of work for several years during the depression years of the '30s and they were just beginning to rebuild their lives when most of what they had achieved was destroyed overnight. I remember the couch had a slash across one of the arms, and that couch was still in service in the late '50s.
    We turned up on my paternal grandparents' doorstep where they put us up until another house could be rented.
    Our next house was large for only three of us, but shortly after we moved in my father was called up and spent the next 4 years in the Royal Navy.
    My mother's parents and all her brothers and sisters moved in with us as they lived in a particularly unsalubrious part of Greenwich. My mother's sister had been left a widow with 4 young daughters after her husband died of tuberculosis. For some reason which I can't fathom, and I can't ask because everyone who knew has since died, she was evacuated to a small cottage about three miles outside Builth Wells. My grandmother went down to visit her, taking me along as it was reckoned the Luftwaffe would be a bit scarce in South Wales. The cottage itself was about as primitive as they come. There was no running water and no electricity or gas. Us kids used to hump a tin bath down to the river, fill it up with water and hump it back up the hill. For cooking and heating we used wood from the woodlands that surrounded the house.
    At one point my mother even arranged for me to be evacuated to the area and billeted on a family who had several other evacuees staying with them. She dropped me off there one Saturday afternoon but I didn't think much of that idea and kicked up such a fuss that they asked me if I could find my mother. I'd have told them I could swim the Atlantic if it got me back with my family, so they let me go off and find her. There would be screams of outrage nowadays at someone letting a 5-year-old out into the middle of town. But I knew my mother would be getting the bus back to the cottage so I headed for the bus station. My mother was sitting on the bus and was not best pleased to see a little ragamuffin standing on the pavement and gazing up at her pugnaciously through the window. That was the end of my evacuation for that year.
     
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    #1 BillB, Jan 27, 2009 at 4:47 PM
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  2. BillB

    BillB Type 2 · Well-Known Member

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    Many thanks for those kind comments. It's almost worth developing diabetes just to meet such nice people. Yes, Suzi, I've reached the age where I'm given the senior's discount without having to ask for it. As for the last time I was asked to prove my age to buy a bottle of whisky, why even Tesco hasn't tried it on lately.
    Anyway, onwards and upwards. My grandmother was a Kentish girl and even now I'm finding more and more about her as an absolute rebel for her times. Imagine, in Victorian times, she left home to live with a man outside of marriage, by whom she had two children. She then went on to marry my grandfather by whom she had another 8 live births and 6 miscarriages. My grandfather was a cruel, drunken good-for-nothing who would drink all his wages on Friday nights so that his family had nothing for the rest of the week. My grandmother was no stranger to the pawn shop, where she used to pawn my grandfather's best suit until she could get enough money out of him to redeem the pledge. He would also beat my grandmother and the children regularly, simply because he was a black-hearted villain.
    So my grandmother happened upon a way of getting most of her family out of London for a few weeks, which would also put some money into the family coffers. We became hop pickers in Faversham. I can't deny that the Faversham locals regarded us with contempt mixed with loathing. They regarded us as the biggest thieves in Christendom. And it may be that some pickers were lightfingered, but most of them were like us - if my mother had caught me helping myself to something that wasn't mine she would have tanned the hide off me.
    So we all trooped down to Faversham by train with the baskets to put the hops in containing our dixies and billy cans, bedsheets, cups, plates and cutlery. Our accommodation was primitive: tin-roofed huts with a wooden platform filling two-thirds of each hut. There was a goodly pile of straw which we stuffed into bags we had made by sewing sheets together - these were our mattresses. Outside we made up our fireplace with any bricks or stones that we could find. Every morning a couple of farm hands came round with a tractor containing great bales of firewood (called, amusingly, faggots) which were tossed outside each hut. All our cooking was done over an open fire and us kids used to sit around the embers in the evenings, trying to smoke dried hop bines and telling each other the most outrageous lies.
    One day, alone near the huts, I looked up at the sky just at the exact moment a plane flew into a barrage balloon that had shed its mooring and was floating across the late summer sky. The resulting explosion was spectacular, as the balloons were filled with hydrogen. I was only five but most of the younger kids set off in all directions hoping to find a bit of aircraft. To this day I have never known whether it was a British or a German pilot who died in that explosion.
    My job during the three weeks we were there was to make the tea at lunchtime and carry it down to the hopfields. All my aunts would make sandwiches for lunch but they really liked a hot cup of tea so I used to go back to the huts, light the fire, boil the water, chuck in a few spoonfuls of tea, some sugar and some milk and carry it back to the fields. After that I was free to do pretty much as I pleased. I filled my time by wandering through the woods, picking blackberries or hunting for field mushrooms. I was quite overwhelmed one day when I found a gigantic specimen about a foot across. I presented it to my grandmother with a conceited air - nobody had ever seen a mushroom this big. It was too big for the frying pan so we had to cut it into smaller pieces. Not only was it delicious, but none of us suffered any dire consequences. I've still got a good eye for a mushroom to this day.
    I used to be filled with impatience when summer came around, itching for the departure to the Kentish hopfields. And there was an added bonus - we could sleep all night long without being disturbed by the air raid siren and having to get dressed to rush down to the shelter.
    Next time: So I said to Einstein, "No, Albert, I think you'll find that it's E=mc squared, not cubed."
     
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  3. BillB

    BillB Type 2 · Well-Known Member

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    I'm quite overwhelmed by the response to my memories. I never dreamed anyone would find my life interesting, but I have to confess that I'm glad to be proved wrong. Thank you, everyone.
    My next big journey was to Suffolk in 1944 when I was 7. Once again I was being evacuated as the V1s were dropping thick and fast on London. Or was my mother glad to see the back of me? I was never quite sure.
    After all the bureaucratic rigmarole was finished I was taken to a nearby school where I was given a packed lunch and packed onto a doubledecker bus and driven to what I now know was Liverpool Street Station. We were herded aboard a train and carried off. When we disembarked I had no idea where we were but a group of us were put aboard another bus and taken to a school hall where we waited while various people called in to collect a child or two. Finally I was left there with just one other boy and I began to feel like the last puppy in the pet shop window. Various women kept telling me that Mrs Chapman would be along shortly, and sure enough she turned up just as the sun was setting. She led us off on a short walk to the farm cottage she shared with her husband. I also found out that I was in Suffolk, in a village called Wangford. Mr Chapman was the cowman on a nearby farm and my first impression as we reached the cottage in the twilight was the overwhelming smell of sweet peas which bathed the area. The farmer had planted a field of sweet peas as a seed crop. Ever since then the smell of sweet peas transports me back to that evening and the curiosity I felt about what my new kind of life held.
    I fitted into life as an evacuee quite smoothly. The Chapmans were kind and caring people who fed us well, kept us clean, gave us a fair amount of freedom and made us behave like fairly civilised children. Within their sight, of course. Out of it we were as wild as any bunch of 7 year olds let loose in the countryside. The Chapmans also took us to Southwold for the day, a journey that seemed enormous at the time but I later discovered was a very short drive away. The beach was covered in anti-invasion structures and barbed wire. We were able to stroll along the upper stretch of shingle.
    It was almost time to bring in the wheat crop and us kids were allowed to go along to the field to be cut that day where the farm hands would give us stout pieces of wood and tell us, "As we begin to cut the wheat the rabbits will start to run, so you give 'em a whack with that piece of wood and we'll have 'em for tea." Now it's in the nature of things that rabbits run faster than little boys, so although we spent all day yelling blue murder as we chased them about the fields. I have to confess that no rabbit fell victim to any of us. The farmhands would sit in the shade at lunchtime, sharing their sandwiches with us and letting us drink from their tea canisters. Damp with sweat and covered in dust and chaff as we were, we had a wonderful time.
    In the evenings they used to let me sit on the back of the giant shire horse who pulled the hay wain. His back was broader than my legs were long so my legs stuck out at ridiculous angles My job, supposedly, was to guide the horse, known as Old Bill (I was known as Young Bill), back to the barn where he was stabled. In fact, Bill knew his way home better than I did and plodded his usual route, whatever I did to try to change his path.
    The school we went to when the summer holidays ended was a small, two roomed establishment. Assignment to classes was by a sophisticated system - big kids in the big room, small kids in the small room. I was a very advanced reader for my age so my life in this rural seat of education was smooth. The people of that area were so kind to us all that later on I read some of the tales recounted by other evacuees about the cruelty and bad treatment they experienced that even today I find it hard to believe that people could be so cruel to little kids who had been separated from their families and never knew if they would have a family to go back to after the war.
    Situated thickly around us were the US Air Force bomber bases from where the daylight raids on Germany were flown. The bombers taking off was a spectacle that always stopped us in our tracks to watch. We became expert aircraft spotters as the Liberators and Flying Fortresses formed up above our heads with their escorts of Mustangs and the twin-bodied Lockheed Lightning. We also saw them on their return, streaming smoke, parts of wings and tails missing, coming down without landing gear. Whenever I read nowadays of footballers or athletes being described as heroes in the newspapers I want to shout at them, "No, those men in their smoking bombers were heroes, ordinary men carrying out extraordinary acts of heroism, day after day in hell."
    As a result of our geographical situation we began to experience what we thought we had left behind - the drone of V1s and the shattering explosions that followed shortly after their engines cut out. They became so frequent that finally it was decided that I may as well go back to London so after a while I found myself waiting expectantly in front of the Chapmans' house when finally a lorry pulled up and my father climbed out, resplendent in his Royal Navy uniform. The truck went on down the road, turned around and came back to pick us up to carry us back to London. Typical of the spirit of the times: the lorry driver had picked my Dad up hitchhiking and had gone out of his way to give him a lift and then to drive us to our home.
    Many years later I passed by Wangford, so I turned off the A12 and found the cottage where the Chapman's had lived. The well was still in the garden and the fields were still full of ripening wheat. Our school was no longer a school but had been transformed into a restaurant called Bunter's. No rationing there.
     
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    #3 BillB, Feb 2, 2009 at 8:07 AM
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  4. BillB

    BillB Type 2 · Well-Known Member

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    Love hearing your comments. Don't forget to remind me if I get to be a bore.
    Looking back on those wartime years I'm surprised that so many of us kids survived. We were a far greater danger to ourselves than the Luftwaffe ever was. London became a giant adventure playground for us, which was different every morning. The streets that we normally used to walk to school would often be completely closed off due to bomb damage or some of the houses would be in ruins. A bunch of us came upon a house one day that had had the front wall blown out. Well, this was too great an opportunity for a bunch of nosy kids to pass up so we climbed in and began exploring. Suddenly, an army officer appeared and in the poshest accent he could muster yelled, "Oh, looting, eh?" Now even at that young age I knew what looting was and that wasn't on our minds. You just didn't knick stuff from bombed houses as it could be your family tomorrow. We stammered out that we weren't looting but the jumped up little twerp made us come out and I think he was going to call the police. I'm willing to bet he was an insignificant insurance clerk in civvy street and his commission was the high point of his life. We all did a runner.
    Another time a group of us had gone into a bombed house only to find the stairs had been burned away, leaving only charred stubs sticking out of the wall. We all climbed up the stubs, spreadeagled against the wall and shuffling slowly upwards. If any of us had fallen we'd have been quite severely injured as our landing ground would have been a pile of rubble. One of my friends there was called Bobby and for some reason known only to kids he was carrying a bicycle tyre he had found. One of the other kids grabbed the tyre and dropped it out of the upstairs window. Bobby went down to get it and the other kid picked up a brick and hung out of the window. I yelled out to Bobby to watch out but he couldn't have heard me. I don't think the other kid deliberately dropped the brick on Bobby's head, I think the idea was to make him jump by dropping it close to him, but the brick actually landed smack on top of Bobby's head. He went down, out cold and bleeding profusely. We all climbed down the stubs again and went out the back to find Bobby still unconscious. After a bit of discussion it was decided that we should take him home but as he couldn't walk we would have to carry him. We each took an arm or a leg and carried him to his home, leaving a trail of blood along the way. Fortunately, he only lived about a hundred yards away so we quickly arrived on his doorstep. None of us wanted to face his mother so we did what any self-respecting kid would: we rang the doorbell - and ran away. I steered clear of his mother for weeks after that. Bobby immediately contracted scarlet fever so he was off school for quite some time. Whether the scarlet fever was helped along by having a brick dropped on his head I don't know. But Bobby grew into a well-built lad who worked on the Thames and he won the Doggett's Coat and Badge. He also went on to serve Her Majesty the Queen as Queen's Bargemaster for a considerable period of time. He has also published a thriller. Pretty good for a lad who was knocked cold by a brick dropped on his head.
    In school, whenever the air raid sirens sounded we used to troop down to the cellars where the teachers organised singsongs. One of the boys in my class knew the lyrics to just about every popular song ever written and it was his job to egg us on when we faltered.
    When my mother's family moved in with us the Anderson shelter in the garden was way too small and we were lucky enough to find bunks in the communal shelter that had been dug in a nearby Naval cemetery. These communal shelters were proof against virtually anything except a direct hit on the entrance. We used to troop along there in the early evening, carrying our blankets and sheets and all the important papers in the family, such as birth and marriage certificates, insurance policies, National Savings bank books, etc. The local air raid warden used to come around with an urn and would serve us cocoa at night (tuppence a cup) and tea in the morning (a penny a cup).
    Sometimes the sirens would sound before we were ready and there would be a whirlwind of activity as kids were wrapped up, the mothers hastily sliding them into siren suits or other warm clothing. My grandfather had been buried alive in the trenches in WW1 and he couldn't bear going into a shelter so he used to tie pieces of carpet around his legs and body and sleep under a tree in Greenwich Park. He was also bald and so touchy about it that he wouldn't go out without his trilby. One evening when the siren sounded there was the usual pandemonium and to top it all my grandfather couldn't find his hat. Not even the Luftwaffe could make him go out without his trilby and this particular evening he couldn't find it. He rampaged around, swearing and cursing. My uncle, who was only 9 years older than me, was sitting on a chair lacing his boots up. It wasn't until he stood up that the trilby hat was found. My grandfather had put it down on a chair and my uncle had been sitting on it.
    That same uncle later witnessed one of the first V1s to come over. He thought it was an aircraft that had been damaged as its engine was stuttering and flames were coming out the back. We soon found out what it was. As soon as that peculiar stuttering growl could be heard everybody stopped what they were doing and just stood there listening. If it passed overhead everybody relaxed and carried on. Some other poor soul was going to cop it. If the engine cut out we knew that it was going to come down in a few seconds so everybody dived for cover - under the stairs, under the table, behind the couch. There wasn't enough time to do anything else.
    When the V2s started landing, it was almost the straw that broke the camel's back. Londoners, who had defied the worst the Luftwaffe could do, began to feel demoralised. The Allied armies were pushing across Europe, the Allied air forces ranged almost unhindered across the continent, but they couldn't stop these hellish rockets. They travelled so fast, faster than sound, that the first you knew was the explosion. A few seconds later you would hear the noise of it descending. The government was so worried about these weapons that at first they tried to pass them off as gas main explosions.
    I remember once when a V2 landed not far away, I was out with a couple of friends. Not long after the explosion ambulances starting hurtling past carrying the victims to hospital. When the ambulances proved insufficient for the numbers, the injured were loaded onto flat bed vans and cars to be driven to the hospital. One van that went by had somebody in the back who must have had most of his skin blown off as he or she was covered in lint and bandages and blood was oozing out everywhere.
    For entertainment in those days we used to listen to the radio every evening. Shows such as Tommy Handley's ITMA, Happidrome, Worker's Playtime, and the big bands kept us glued to the wireless. We had three cinemas locally, the programme changing every week and my family dropped into a routine of going to see a film on Monday and Tuesday evenings, and then again on Friday evenings. I think it was determined by the radio schedules at first.
    It was at the cinema that the newsreels showed us the liberation of the concentration camps. I honestly do not know if the allied governments knew what was going on in Nazi Germany, but the ordinary people certainly didn't. I still remember the horrified silence in which we watched these newsreels. That alone made us realise that what we had suffered was insignificant compared to what the Jews and the other victims of Nazism had experienced. Somehow, it made us feel as if the last six years had been worth it.
    But even after the Nazis surrendered and Hitler had committed suicide in May 1945, the war in the Pacific against the Japanese was still continuing. My father, whose ship had been torpedoed off the Normandy beaches in August 1944 was transferred to an aircraft carrier which then headed off to the Far East. Nobody was looking forward to an invasion of Japan as they were as fanatical in their way as the Nazis. I've read projections for the proposed invasion that predicted a death toll in the millions. When the atom bombs were dropped, we all heaved a sigh of relief. It seemed that all our menfolk would be coming home, except for one of my uncles who died in Syria. Another uncle was taken prisoner by the Japanese and he survived, though he was in a terrible condition. He had been forced to work in a coalmine and his teeth were knocked out by a guard who felt he wasn't working fast enough. All the rest came home safely. The one who had fought at Arnhem, the one who had commanded a landing barge at D-Day. In fact, all the men in the family who were over 18. Even my second youngest uncle, just 18 and newly called up, survived the accident on VE Night when he and a bunch of his buddies went out and got paralytically drunk and was hit by a car as he staggered back to camp. That would have been too ironical.
     
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    #4 BillB, Feb 5, 2009 at 4:27 PM
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  5. BillB

    BillB Type 2 · Well-Known Member

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    Yes, we had it tough but it didn't seem so at the time. We were just playing the hand that life dealt us. There were also a lot of people who had it a lot worse than we did. And fortunately the concept of political correctness hadn't been formulated then - it would have been laughed to death. It's only the poor old lefties who were marooned high and dry when the Soviet Union collapsed who have turned to PC attitudes. I suppose they had to or admit that everything they believed in was a total, murderous fraud.
    With the end of the war life became a lot calmer. We could sleep in our own beds and know that we wouldn't be disturbed. My father came home from the Royal Navy in February 1946 and went back to his job at Woolwich Arsenal. He worked shifts, horrible hours, 6 days consecutively then got a day off. The British government, displaying its habitual paltriness when it came to the armed forces sent my father home with a gratuity of £60 and a cheap suit, as they did thousands of others.
    In 1948 I sat the 11+ and passed, duly attending the local grammar school. Such a shame that these schools no longer exist as the one I attended opened up my mind to all kinds of things that I wouldn't normally come into contact with. I read Galsworthy, Dickens, HG Wells, Shakespeare and other literary giants; learnt to appreciate composers from Beethoven to Gershwin; became aquainted with the intricacies of French and German grammar; and came to understand the joys of the English language.
    I also admit that too often I allowed my laziness to come between me and my studies. Thus I was not the most distinguished student in the language classes. But one thing did attract me - our German teacher organised a trip to Germany each year and when I was 15 I badgered my parents into paying for the trip. This they agreed to, provided I got some kind of job and earned the pocket money I would need. I was able to get a paper round at a nearby newspaper shop. Now one of the peculiarities of Greenwich is that it is bisected by the main road to Woolwich. The area between the main road and the Thames was poor and working class. The part that stretched southwards towards Blackheath was definitely the wealthy area. I got the wealthy area on my round. What a bunch of moaners they turned out to be. I used to be in the shop by 6 am and out on my round by 6.15. They complained that they wanted their papers earlier, even though the law said that youngsters of my age couldn't start work until 7. Come Christmas, who got the biggest tips? The kids who delivered to the poorer area. Where were my moaning customers? Nowhere in evidence until Christmas was well and truly over. I've had an antipathy to tightwads ever since. :lol:
    And so it came to pass that one day in June I turned up at Lee Green with my bag in hand, joined the rest of the school group on the bus and we headed off to Dover. On arrival in Ostende we transferred to the railway and woke up the next morning in Basle, Switzerland. After spending the day in Basle a bus took us to Kandern in the Black Forest where we stayed in the first of the youth hostels that were to host us for the two weeks. Because of a mixup in the bookings, this farm cum hostel had no rooms for us the first night so we had to sleep on hay in the barn. Like all kids of that age we regarded it as more of an adventure than a misfortune.
    This trip took us northwards, roughly following the Rhine, stopping in Heidelberg, St Goar and the last couple of days in Brussels.
    This was my first trip outside of the UK and I loved every minute of it. It didn't bother me that just 7 years previously Germany had been regarded by us as the Devil's playground. The Germans we met didn't seem too different from our own countrymen and was the first taste I had of how completely the German nation had thrown out their belief in National Socialism and embraced democracy.
    At the end of the next year I left school and worked at (ironically for someone to be diagnosed years later as diabetic) the Albion Sugar Company in Woolwich but after two months of hell there I left and went to work at the Molassine Company close to Blackwall Tunnel. After a few months I realised that I wasn't cut out to be a laboratory assistant and managed to get an apprenticeship at a small printers in Hither Green Lane. This was to be one of the happiest periods of my professional life as I was adept at learning typesetting skills and the owner was one of the nîcest men you could ever work for. Simultaneously, I studied at the London School of Arts and Crafts. One of the alumni of this institution was Humphrey Littleton, though a few years prior to me. National Service was looming as I approached the age of 18 but as an apprentice I applied for and was granted a deferment.
    During my apprenticeship I fell under the spell of Gene Krupa, one of the great jazz drummers and it seemed like such a fantastic thing to be able to do that I saved up and bought myself a drum set, much to my parents' irritation, taught myself the rudiments of percussion and spent many evenings hanging around the jazz clubs of Sarf London. A while later I linked up with a pianist named Pete and we formed a duo, sometimes adding a vocalist and a bass player and made the weekends hideous in a number of pubs.
    With the additional money I earned as an alleged musician I bought myself an aqualung and joined the British Sub-Aqua Club. I had seen the films of Jacques Cousteau and Hans Haas and thought that to be able to explore the undersea world would be an adventure of the first order.
    More about that next.
     
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    #5 BillB, Feb 9, 2009 at 4:01 PM
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  6. BillB

    BillB Type 2 · Well-Known Member

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    I'm keeping my eye on that *+!^^ autocomplete this time.
    My journeys in my early teen years were mostly on family summer holidays. Our first holiday after the war was in 1949 - a week at Pontin's holiday camp at Sand Bay, Weston-super-Mare. We visited Cheddar Gorge, Wells Cathedral and other beauty spots in the West Country. I fell in love with that area very quickly and still enjoy visiting it if we're passing that way. The next year we went to another Pontin's camp - this time at Bracklesham Bay in Sussex. I know holiday camps have fallen out of fashion now and they were regarded as a "regimented" holiday by those who had never been, but if you didn't have a great deal of money they were excellent value. Three meals a day (good quality meals at that) and entertainment in the evenings. There were other activities if you wanted to join or you could go your own way. As a 12 year old I thought I'd arrived in heaven.
    Once I'd started at the grammar school my mother wouldn't let me take the first week or so of the school off to go hop picking so that part of my life came to an end. My grandmother still went down to Faversham, and sometimes I would cycle there from South London for a long weekend.
    Later in the '50s, my underwater exploration ambitions took me into training to become a scuba diver. After initial training in the swimming pool I moved on to what was called then Laughing Water, a lake with a restaurant overlooking it. It is now called The Inn on the Lake and can be found on the M2. Having achieved the required results in the lake, I was invited to join a group on a diving holiday in Guernsey. This sounded great to me so without hesitation I said yes.
    What a wonderful fortnight that turned out to be. 1959 was one of those beautiful summers that you remember all your life. We had balmy weather every single day and the diving was fantastic. Towards the end of the second week I made three dives just south of St Peter Port which set my personal best. 145 feet. I was enchanted by the sea bed there, covered in scallops which took off like flying castanets when my shadow passed over them. The rocks were thickly grown with sea siphons and gorgonia, a fan-like coral growth. As there wasn't a decompression chamber handy, we had to make extra sure that we didn't overstay our time at those depths, and I survived to proudly enter the details of those dives into my log book.
    A few months before we left for Guernsey I had met a girl I quickly came to think was the love of my life. Unfortunately, she didn't feel the same about me and went back to her previous boyfriend. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise as, left to my own devices, I asked out a pretty girl who was a friend of my mate's fiancee. A month or so of her company showed me that she was a very lovable person and as it turns out we'll be celebrating our 48th wedding anniversary in November this year.
    Shortly after returning from Guernsey I received notice that I had to go for my National Service medical. I passed A1, and I knew that that dread envelope would be plopping through the letterbox in a few weeks' time.
     
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  7. BillB

    BillB Type 2 · Well-Known Member

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    Yes, the Bracklesham Bay holiday camp is still there - or it was 10-12 years ago when we were passing that way. We didn't go in, just had a noss around from the outside and it certainly seems to have changed over the years.
    So in 1959 I had just met my future wife and had returned from a skin diving holiday in Guernsey when that dreaded envelope landed on the doormat, the one that invited me to turn up at RAF Cardington and they would make me a bone fide AC2. Since the alternative was a term in the jug I duly turned up. I'll never forget the date, Monday, 14 September, 1959. National Service was winding down at that point and nobody was quite sure what to do with us. We were marched around for more medical tests, issued with uniforms and the rest of the kit, webbing, small pack, etc., at a rather leisurely pace. Then on Friday an NCO turned up in the hall where I was taking some kind of instruction and called my name. It seems out of the whole intake I was the one selected to go to RAF Bridgnorth in Shropshire. Now this was bad news as there were two camps for basic training, Bridgnorth and Wilmslow in Cheshire. Wilmslow was known to be winding down and quite an easy-going place while Bridgnorth was known as a bullsh*t camp. As a consequence I had to rush back to the billet, cram all my gear into my kitbag and hurtle down to the bottom of the camp where they were holding a train for me. Everybody else was already on it. Embarrassing.
    When we arrived at Bridgnorth we were picked up in lorries and driven to the RAF station. The lorries pulled up out ouside some huts and suddenly the evening air was rent by the screams of "Get out of those *§!°?=%&* lorries, you idle bunch." The screams were emanating from two corporals. I have never since seen 40 men get out of a lorry in 2 seconds flat. We were lined up and assigned to our huts where we were lectured on conduct in the huts and what to do when an officer or an NCO entered the billet.We were then left to sort ourselves out and put our kit into our cupboards.
    The next morning we were awoken at an unearthly hour, marched down for breakfast, then marched back and given more instruction. At midday we were free, comparatively. We had been warned to get the "pimples" off the toecaps of our boots, polish out the pits in our brasses and shine up our brass buttons and cap badges. My brasses were particularly badly pitted so I had to spend the rest of the weekend rubbing away with Brasso and cardboard until my fingers were blistered.
    Come Monday morning our torture began in earnest. We learnt that our two corporals were totally different. One was National Serviceman who was actually a Senior Aircraftman but had been given the rank of corporal because he was a drill instructor. He was a hateful personality with small, piggy eyes and seemed to hate everybody. The other was a regular, a genuine corporal and was much more tolerant. He didn't make our lives any worse than he had to once we were off the parade square. A couple of weeks later another corporal joined us. He was a pretty decent chap, a member of the RAF Regiment.
    After four weeks of marching, rifle drill, rifle and bren gun practice, gas chamber experiences, bayonet practice, we were allowed to go home for 36 hours. This meant that we left camp at midday on Saturday and had to be back by midnight on Sunday. The coach fare to London was £1 4s. so guess what we National Servicemen were paid? Right first time - £1 4s. My girlfriend was quite taken aback to find a uniformed stranger on her doorstep halfway through Saturday evening but it was good to see her. She had faithfully written to me every day and that had certainly helped to make the time tolerable.
    On return it was only another four weeks before we had our passing out parade, as genuine airmen.
    The food at Bridgnorth was pretty bad so I suppose the idea was to teach us that anywhere else could only be an improvement.
    There was one day when the food was pretty good and that, by pure coincidence, was the day I and a couple of my hutmates were down for cookhouse fatigues. Another airmen and myself were assigned to what was without doubt the most horrible job in the kitchens. We were assigned to the pan room. This was the area where the cooking pans were cleaned off and returned. The food was baked onto the pans so hard that it took real elbow grease to get them clean - and woe betide you if there was a speck of dirt on them. The only advantage was that we were allowed to eat first - on the principle, I suppose, that nobody would feel like eating after cleaning pans for hours on end. To our delight the corporal chef told us to go and help ourselves to lunch. As it happened the lunch that day was fish and chips with trifle for dessert. As it was before anybody else had arrived, the fish and chips were freshly made and the trifle was pretty good. We helped ourselves to 4 pieces of fish each, an enormous pile of chips and about a ton and a half of trifle. That was the best meal I had in the whole two months at Bridgnorth and we ate the lot.
    One of the tasks was to choose what job we wanted to do after basic training. There weren't too many choices for us as the best jobs were reserved for regulars. If I remember rightly the only options were aerial erector, mechanic or typist. I didn't fancy becoming an aerial erector as it seemed to me that you would have to work at considerable distances above the ground and I wasn't about to die for my country on 24 shillings a week. Storeman sounded dull, although it could have been a cushy job, I suppose. So as I was a typesetter and the Monotype keyboard was the same as a typewriter, I volunteered for typist. I was the only man in our intake to volunteer for the job as everybody seemed to think it was a bit of a poofy pastime. However, a friend who had completed his NS as a typist advised me that it was a good job once you got into it, so the rest of my companions at the typing training school were assigned against their collective will.
    The next stop was RAF Hereford at Credenhill where the air force promised to make me into a touch typist in 3 months.
    This wasn't a bad number as all the bull of basic training was left behind and we started our training to become touch typists and admin assistants. The food was a great deal better as Hereford was not only the admin school but also the cookery school where RAF cooks were trained. Whatever they did the food was mostly okay. And when it wasn't we ate their mistakes anyway.
     
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    #7 BillB, Feb 17, 2009 at 5:32 PM
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  8. BillB

    BillB Type 2 · Well-Known Member

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    Among my memories of RAF Hereford two stand out. The first was the heating in the billets, which was by a stove at each end. Anyone who has seen Arnold Wesker's play "Chips with Everything" will recognise the following, but it is true, so our experience wasn't unique. Each hut received a ration of coal but in the winter of 1959/60 the weather turned bitterly cold and we ran out of coal. The only way we could get some was to steal it, so another fellow and myself volunteered to take the metal bin down to the boiler house and help ourselves to some of the coal that was piled outside it. We knew we'd be for the high jump if we were caught so we made our way down to the boiler house by the darkest and most surreptitious route we could find. We then began loading coal into the bin, a large container like your average dustbin only bigger. It came up to chest height on the average male. We had to do this one piece of coal at a time to minimise the noise. When we had filled the bin we picked it up to carry it back. Well, that was the idea, but it was so heavy that we couldn't budge it so we had to start unloading it, again one piece at a time, until it was light enough for us to be able to carry it back. I made sure the stoves glowed red hot for the rest of the evening.
    The second one happened one lunchtime when we had finished our morning's exercises at the typewriter and were lined up outside to be marched back to our billet. For some reason the instructor chose me to march the others back so I duly did my thing, shouting, "Squad. By the right, quick march." So we all started off in fine style. We came to a junction and I managed to give the right order to get them all to turn left at the same time. Then to my horror I saw an officer up ahead chatting to a sergeant at the side of the road. Why did it have to bappen to me? As we approached I put on my best voice and bellowed, " Squad. Eyes left." The one mistake I made was that the officer was standing on the right. I swivelled my head to the right and saluted and breathed a sigh of relief as the other fellows saved my bacon by totally ignoring my order and all turning their heads to the right. The officer barely noticed us, just giving a perfunctory salute in return.
    At the end of the three month course we were invited to submit our requests for a permanent posting. It didn't seem to matter what you asked for, you got what the Air Force decided they needed. I put in for RAF Kidbrooke in South London, and thinking I would get some diving in exotic locations for an overseas posting I asked for Malta, Gibraltar or Hong Kong. Another final test was the education test which we all had to sit. Now I'm not sure how it happened but I scored 98%. And I was annoyed at myself because I would have got 100% except for a stupid mistake where I fell into the trap of finding one error in a sentence and not realising that just this once they had inserted two and I let the word "luxurious" pass when it should have been corrected to "luxuriant". I think it was because of this score that I was chosen to be sent to the Air Ministry in London. While others were being sent to hellholes like Aden or Christmas Island I got the cushy billet, typing out court martial transcripts. Our station for sleeping was RAF Northolt, but as my home was considerably closer I requested, and was given, permission to sleep out and draw ration allowance. We didn't even have to wear uniform. National Servicemen had a phrase to describe people like me - we were "jammy b*st*rds". And I enjoyed every minute of it.
     
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  9. BillB

    BillB Type 2 · Well-Known Member

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    While I was working as a National Serviceman in Tavistock Square, I took part in the biggest underwater search ever undertaken up to that time. A little girl named Brenda Nash went missing on her way home from the Girl Guides. For a while there was absolutely no trace of her so the police asked the British Sub-Aqua Club if their divers could help search the flooded gravel pits on what had been the old Heston Airdrome. The police hadn't organised their own underwater search teams at that time.
    A bunch of us turned up and were assigned a stretch of water to search which we did by stretching a rope across it while two men walked slowly forward while us divers held on to the rope with one hand and felt our way with the other. We didn't find any trace of the little girl, just plenty of old junk - bedsteads, bicycles, mattresses, etc.
    Next morning I arrived at the office to find that I was the centre of attention. My photo was in every newspaper, and I hadn't had the faintest idea. I hadn't bought a paper on the way to work that day. However, I was always in the background. The photographers all focussed on a slim young girl in a skin tight wet suit - and I always seemed to be in the background. It taught me a thing or two about newspapers. If they aren't sensationalising a story they'll trivialise it. But I enjoyed my 5 minutes of fame.
    At work, because we were working from tapes which the court shorthand writers dictated from their shorthand note of the court martial, we became phenomenally fast as typists. I was approaching 90 words per minute after six months of this work. I thought I had a pretty good idea of what was what as a 22-year-old who had been an enthusiastic amateur gynecologist, but some of the trials we typed out were enough to make your hair stand on end. I was considerably wiser by the time I was demobbed, believe me.
    During the remaining 19 months of my service I climbed the promotion ladder. Starting out as an AC2, the lowest form of air force life, I became AC1, then Leading Aircraftman (a two-bladed propellor on the sleeve) and then I took the exam and passed to become a Senior Aircraftman (a 3-bladed propellor). I didn't do this because I was ambitious for an air force career but because each step brought a pay rise with it.
    Eventually, the day dawned when I turned up at RAF Kenley in Surrey to hand in all my kit, including the brasses I had worked my fingers to blisters to perfect and I was once again a civilian.
    Shortly after demob I was offered a job at a printing firm in Colchester, so my girlfriend, now my fiancee, and I got married and moved to wildest Essex. We lived in a furnished flat, which was dingy, dark and depressing. My wife became pregnant and we found ourselves as poor as church mice. One doesn't become rich as an SAC in the air force, and my wife had only worked for a short time before we married. Our first son was born in Colchester and we bought a small bungalow in Stanway, an area close to Colchester. I can't say that Colchester was heaven on earth for us and we moved into our bungalow about 5 months before the bitterly cold winter of 1962-63 hit us. It started snowing on Boxing Day and the snow was still on the ground in March. We were so hard up that we could afford to heat only one room, the living room, and we took to sleeping in there, along with our baby son just so we wouldn't freeze.
    It just seemed that we couldn't keep our heads above water. When I first moved to Colchester the Lewisham tax office said they had sent my file to Colchester. The Colchester tax office said they hadn't received it. The result was that I was paying the maximum tax possible - I had the code number E- which stood for emergency. This meant that I had no allowances whatsoever. A grateful nation...and all that .
    I was working seven days a week, 12 hours a day and we still had problems. When we bought the bungalow the rates were quoted as £18 a year. By the time we moved in they were raised to £9 a quarter - effectively doubling them.
    My one consolation was that my wife never complained and our son was the happiest baby I had ever seen. He smiled at everything that was going on around him and seemed to have a particular attachment to me.
    Early in 1963, for a number of reasons, personal and financial, we moved back to London where I got a job working for a leading legal publisher. I stayed there for nearly a year and then saw an ad for printers with multiple skills to work on the US military newspaper Stars and Stripes. I applied, was accepted and a few weeks later I was boarding a Trans World Airlines Boeing 707 to Germany - my very first flight despite two years in the Royal Air Force.
     
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  10. BillB

    BillB Type 2 · Well-Known Member

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    I'm going to take a short deviation today as we received some great news this morning. Our friends in California suggested that we do a house swap in the summer, but we had to wait a while as it was necessary for them to consult their financial adviser to see if it would feasible given the current climate for investments. A couple of weeks ago they Skyped us to say that the summer trip was on, so we quickly arranged dates for them to come to us and for us to fly to California. The plan is that they would fly into Frankfurt at the end of May and we would go to pick them up. We would stay with them here for about 10 days, showing them the local area and familiarising them with our house and all its systems and the car. We would then fly to California. While they were here their son and his Mexican wife would come over to spend a couple of weeks. We would return towards the end of July and spend more time with them here. They have booked their flights and as soon as their flight details were definite, we made our bookings. We were able to use our air miles to upgrade and on the return flight we have seats on the upper deck. We've never been up there before and I've always been curious what a flight in that luxurious area would be like. :D
    This morning when I switched my computer on we found an email from our Californian friends. They are friends with a couple who live in New Hampshire and they want to visit Europe but can't make it in the summer with our Cal. friends, so they were wondering if we would be interested in doing a house swap with them in the autumn, either this year or the next. Now we had been doing some research on a trip for the September/October period. So far we had considered the Sorrento area in Italy, India or New York. A New England fall was high on our wish list, and here it was dropping into our laps. We sent back an email saying yes so fast that I'm surprised our keyboard didn't melt. We're now waiting for them to Skype us so that we can make some firm arrangments and book the flights. My bank manager is going to hate me.
     
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  11. BillB

    BillB Type 2 · Well-Known Member

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    Moving to Germany to work changed the whole course of our lives. And I was to spend an exciting 9 years working on this American military newspaper.
    I thought the flight was wonderful, my first time higher than the ball on top of St Paul's cathedral dome. I was even impressed with the food, which was breakfast with scrambled eggs and link sausages. When we landed at Frankfurt I pinned the identity badge I'd been sent to my lapel and carried my bag into the concourse to be met by a representative from the newspaper's personnel department. In short order he had transported me to the headquarters at Darmstadt, a short drive from the airport, showed me my room in the Bachelor Officer Quarter, introduced me around the offices and showed me where I would be working. By 3 in the afternoon I was free for the day so with my newly issued military ID in hand, I took the tram up to Darmstadt to try to find something to eat. This wasn't easy in those days before fast food outlets as people ate at mealtimes and rarely in-between. At 4 p.m. all hell broke loose as I discovered that Germans started work early and finished early - in other words the rush hour began at 4.
    Giving up on the food idea I went back to the newspaper where I sat in my room and wondered what to do about food as I was now starving. A knock at the door saved my stomach from eating itself. A Scot who had a room on the floor below introduced himself and suggested I might like to go to the Press Club, which I discovered was just a couple of hundreds yards away. Once there I ordered a t-bone steak, chips and salad. The steak was the biggest I'd ever seen, so big that it overhung the platter and the chips were piled on top. Once that had been polished off and followed by a couple of Heinekens I was well set up.
    Learning the job was not that difficult, nor was learning to adjust my body clock to allow for the shifts we worked - 6.30 am to 3 p.m. or 3.30 p,m to midnight. It was a busy time because I had to find somewhere for us to live, buy a car, get myself acclimatised to living in Germany, and get the arrangements for our furniture to be shipped underway.
    I found an apartment in a village not far from the paper but the drawback was that it wasn't quite finished. I brought my wife and son over for them to live in the Bachelor Officer Quarter with me until we could move in. It took longer than we expected and we lived there, against the rules, for a month.
    But soon enough we settled in and were treated most kindly by our German neighbours - I thought it was very magnanimous of them as it had been the RAF that flattened Darmstadt a mere 15 years before.
    Our son, then two and a half years old, was a very sociable child and was soon playing outside with the other kids. He learnt German alongside English and never mixed the two up. Within a couple of months he was totally fluent and was indistinguishable from the German kids he spent his time with. Even today, Germans can't tell whether he is a German who speaks fluent English or if he's English and speaks fluent German.
    We also bought a second-hand Chevrolet Corvair (which I've told about in another thread) and began exploring the area. If we drove to Heidelberg the Odenwald (Odin's Forest) lay just to the east and we spent a lot of time driving around this fascinating area. There's an area called the Felsenmeer (Sea of Rock), where the Romans used to cut the rock to make the pillars they used so freely in their architecture. There is still a column there, cut but abandoned when the Roman Empire fell.
    Since my days off came in the middle of the week we were able to spend them driving further and further on our days out. We hit the nearby cities Mainz, Wiesbaden and Frankfurt and on other occasions drove down to the Black Forest.
    We spent our holidays exploring Austria, northern Italy and Switzerland. We crossed the border and drove to Strasbourg where we stocked up on pate de foie gras.
    After a year I took stock and grew disgusted at myself. We had lived in Germany for a whole year and I barely spoke a word of German. I signed on at the local Berlitz school and went to night school for 18 months in total. By good fortune I made friends with a Croation fellow named Zlatko. Now I didn't speak a word of Serbo-Croat and he didn't speak a word of English so we were forced to communicate in the language we had just been learning. A better way of making sure you remember what you've just learnt I've yet to find.
    Two years after our arrival we decided that our son needed a sibling. My wife had been an only child and was adamant that she didn't want our son to be an only child. As a result our second son was born in the US Army hospital in Frankfurt.
     
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  12. BillB

    BillB Type 2 · Well-Known Member

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    Thanks, Suzi. My philosophy is that we only pass this way once so I'm going to make the most of it while I'm here. I don't believe in reincarnation (sorry if I've narked any Buddhists on the forum) so I don't think I'm going to get a second chance.
    The Americans we worked with showed us Brits quite a bit of kindness. Not long after I'd started work there Sir Winston Churchill died and was given a state funeral. The shift foreman gave all us Brits time off to go over to the Press Club and watch the funeral which was being shown in its entirety on German TV. Very thoughtful of him, we all thought.
    One of the benefits we had was access to the PX and the Commissary. This reduced our outgoings considerably as the prices there were rock bottom. A pack of 20 cigarettes cost 10 cents, a bottle of whisky $2. When I left Britain I had been earning £14 a week gross, at Stars and Stripes I started on the equivalent of £33 a week gross. We went from poverty to riches overnight.
    There were other benefits as well. The US Forces ran a train every night from Frankfurt to Berlin. This was specified in the 4 Power treaty signed at the end of WW2 and as the Russians were such awkward so and so's, the Americans ran the train whether there was anything to go on it or not. As a result any of us could have a free sleeping ccompartment to Berlin and back, as long as we filled out our application forms correctly. This was essential as the Russians would refuse passage through their part of Germany if so much as a comma was out of place.
    I filled in the forms (correctly) and we subsequently turned up Frankfurt main station with our kids in tow and settled into our compartment for the overnight journey. During the night, after we had settled down to sleep, the train stopped at the EastGermany/West Germany border. I slipped out of my bunk and went and stood in the corridor to watch proceedings. There were wire fences sealing off the line on which our train ran, Russian soldiers marched up and down with sub-machine guns and the Russian officer collected all the forms and the passports of passengers and laboriously compared each form with each passport. I had left the sliding door of our compartment slightly open and my eldest son put his head out and informed me that he needed to go to the loo. Remembering all the injunctions on British trains about not using the loo while the train is in the station, I told him he would have to wait a few minutes. I could imagine the Russian reaction to somebody on an American train using the loo in their station. I had visions of my 5-year-old starting WW3. After a couple of minutes he told me it was getting desperate. I urged him to wait a little longer. Finally, utter desperation in his voice he told me that he really had to go. At that moment, the American MP at the end of the corridor told me it would be all right to take him to the loo. I did. The Russians didn't notice.
    In Berlin we stayed at the American officers' hotel, called the Columbus Club, just by the Berlin Airlift memorial. We got a family room for the grand total of $5 a night. We walked for miles around Berlin, used the U-Bahn to get around and took a bus tour of West and East Berlin. I cannot begin to describe the ugliness of the Berlin wall. This monstrosity was put up to keep East Berliners from escaping to the west, though the Communist government maintained that it was to stop the Westerners from going into their part of Germany. I never heard of anyone trying to flee to the East, but many thousands tried to escape to the West. The wall, ugly enough in itself, was just the first barrier to would-be escapees. Secondly, it was bordered by a corridor that was sealed off by barbed wire fencing. The ground was sown with anti-personnel mines and there were automatic machine guns that fired at any movement. There were high watchtowers manned by Volkspolizei (Vopos) armed with automatic weapons. On one occasion an East German named Peter Fechter tried to get through the wall and was shot by the guards, but not killed. He was left hanging in the wire, bleeding to death. He took a long time to die and hours after he passed away, they came and took his body away. That ended any leanings I had had towards socialism.
    After covering the West Berlin part of the tour, we pulled up at the famous Checkpoint Charlie. Our driver stayed on board but our tour guide had to leave and was replaced by an East German one. We all had to get out of the bus and show our papers. They had mirrors on wheels which they slid under the bus to see if anyone was being smuggled in by hanging on the underside. Sometimes the passengers had to wipe their feet on mats provided by the peace-loving Communists so as to wipe decadent Western dust off their shoes to stop them treading it into the pristine Workers' Paradise.
    East Berlin proved to be a shabby place, run down, the buildings still bearing bullet holes and damage from the war years over 20 years before. There were a few places of interest, though Hitler's bunker had been destroyed and covered up so all we saw was grassy hump. We were taken to the Russian war cemetery, where we spent a rather long time, shown the facade of the Comic Opera theatre and one or two other similar buildings and then it was back to Checkpoint Charlie. I was relieved to get back into the West as the East was terribly depressing.
    Our overnight train journey back to Frankfurt was uneventful.
    There was a joke that ordinary East Germans used to tell concerning their President, named Honecker. It seems that Honecker woke up one morning, saw the sun rising and said, "Good morning, Mr Sun" "Good morning, Mr Honecker," said the sun, and Honecker went back to sleep. He woke in the afternoon, saw the sun was still shining and said, "Good afternoon, Mr Sun," to which the sun replied, "Good afternoon, Mr Honecker." Honecker rolled over and went back to sleep. He woke again in the evening, and saw the sun was just about to set. "Good evening, Mr Sun," Honecker said. "Up yours, Honecker," the sun said. "I'm in the west now."
     
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  13. BillB

    BillB Type 2 · Well-Known Member

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    I did start jotting down some notes a good few years ago, calling it "Dancing with headhunters", an experience which was one of the highlights of my travelling life. I did it as something that might interest my children and grandchildren after I had walked the heavenly plank off the ship of life.
    As for my memory, Sue, I confess that in certain circumstances I have a photographic memory. I can remember not only films I watched in my childhood, but in which cinema I saw them and where I was sitting. Now for some odd reason which I don't pretend to comprehend this didn't serve me well when I was sitting exams. Maybe the photographic memory only came into play when I was interested. At school I didn't have much interest in history, geography or the sciences and was a pretty dismal student. On the other hand, when I studied German and French it all came back to me when I lived, first, in Germany then in Luxembourg. When I left school one of the thoughts that crossed my mind as I walked through the gates for the last time was that never again would I have to struggle with the cases in German - Nominative, Accusative, Dative and Genitive. 11 years later I was living in Germany.
    And now now it's redfaced confession time. I mentioned earlier that we had been invited to swap homes for a couple of months with friends of friends in New Hampshire. We have now discovered they live in Massachussetts. Talk about getting excited about a holiday when you don't know where you're going. :oops:
    Some coincidences are quite spooky, aren't they, Sue. Watching Churchill's funeral on TV the very day I wrote about it here must have sent a shiver down your spine. Several times I have thought about a film from the '40s or '50s which I hadn't thought about for donkeys' years and found it was showing on TV a couple of days later.
     
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  14. BillB

    BillB Type 2 · Well-Known Member

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    I realised this morning that I had overlooked one of the most fascinating conversations of my life in 1959. A Polish-born fellow joined the diving club where I was a member, and one evening in the pub after diving training he told me about his life and how he ended up living in Britain. His father had been an officer in the Polish regular army, and when Poland was occupied by the Nazis his father escaped to Britain where he became a member of the Free Polish Army.
    At the end of the war Poland was "liberated" by the Red Army. In short order Poland became a satellite of Soviet Russia with a puppet Communist government set up by the Russians. The Russians also clamped down on "intellectuals", educated people who could be a threat to the Communist regime, which Poles did not wholeheartedly support. The term intellectuals included writers, journalists, lawyers, army officers, etc., in other words. Henryk's father had not returned to Poland so his family was seized by the Russians and transported to a labour camp in Siberia. The Russians' plan was to force these absentee intellectuals to return to save their families. When this did not work the Russians forced them to buy their families back. Few of the Poles in Britain were wealthy so collecting the money from expatriate Poles and sympathisers took several years.
    So Henryk found himself with his mother and younger sister prisoners in a labour camp. I remember clearly him saying that most Westerners thought of these Gulags as vast camps surrounded by barbed wire, but there were no fences around them, he told me. There was absolutely no point in escaping as you could walk for a thousand miles in any direction and still have another thousand to walk before you reached anywhere. Before that you would have either starved to death or been eaten by wild animals.
    His mother was put to work digging up potatoes, but the children did not have to work. Henryk used to spend his days fishing in a nearby river to supplement their diet as the food was of very bad quality and the rations were small. His mother used to collect a few potatoes and hide them in the fields, leaving some of the foliage in a position she would recognise later, when she returned in the evening. Had she been caught, he told me, she would have been very severely punished.
    After a couple of years his family's turn came up for being bought back and they were transported across Russia to what is now Israel, where they had to wait for visas to enter Britain. He attended a military academy while he was in Jerusalem. The state of Israel had not yet been established so there was a lot of tension between the British authorities, the Jewish population and the Arab population.
    Eventually, they were given permission to travel to Britain, arriving in 1947 to be reunited with his father, the first time they had seen him since 1939.
     
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    #14 BillB, Mar 9, 2009 at 1:29 PM
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  15. BillB

    BillB Type 2 · Well-Known Member

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    It's my wife's birthday the day after tomorrow so we're off to Alsace to celebrate. It's only a couple of hours' drive from here but we love it there. Although the hotel does have internet access and we're taking our laptop it may be a few days before I get back online.
    Back to the original purpose of this thread. One of the illuminating things about working on a newspaper is that when you have a bunch of people whose work is the English language, you get a much better class of repartee. I've always admired people with the ability to come up with a witty phrase without a pause. I can usually think of one two days after I needed it. A couple of the best: the management put up a poster in the entranceway with the slogan "Avoid unnecessary waste." To which someone had added, "As opposed to necessary waste." Another sign posted in the production department read, "Germany has xxxxx square kilometres. What are you trying to do - heat all of them? Close the windows." Another unseen hand added on the bottom, "And choke!"
    The best verbal one was aimed at the production manager, named Elmer. Now, everyone hated Elmer, which probably went with the job, but may also have been partly due to the brown suits he always wore. One evening, a writer named Don was sitting in the sports department with his back to the door, editing a piece of copy. That day, among the office supplies sent from the US was a box of felt tip pens, the first anyone had ever seen. Elmer was delighted with them and walked into the sports department, leant over Don's shoulder and drew a large X on the back of his hand. Don didn't look up, he didn't even stop writing, and I suppose he knew it was Elmer from the brown sleeve. He didn't miss a beat, just said, "Elmer, that must be the first time you've ever single-crossed anybody."
    Another sports writer named George had some literary pretensions and every now and again his stories would descend into purple prose. One evening in the Press Club George was having a beer and chatting with a fellow from the newsroom. "You know, George," said the newsman. "There's a word you keep using and I wish you wouldn't." "Oh," said George. "Which word is that?" "The adjective," came the reply.
    Back to the travels. One year we decided to try a skiing holiday and thought that booking it with a German travel firm would be the wisest course, so we collected some brochures and chose a holiday in the highest village in Romania, Predeal in the Carpathians. None of us had ever skied before and we were looking forward to a holiday with a difference. We spent the first night in Bucuresti but my wife was ill with flu and around 7 in the evening her throat began to close up to the extent that she couldn't even swallow her saliva. I had to go down to Reception and ask for a doctor, who turned up very quickly. He took one look down her throat, pulled a face and began writing a prescription. I rushed out to get it filled, found a pharmacy not far from the hotel and rushed back with the medication. I dosed my wife up and got her settled for the night, put the two boys to bed as they were exhausted and went down for dinner.
    The next day we drove out to Predeal, past the Ploesti oilfields, and checked into our hotel, which looked to me as if it had once been some wealthy person's hunting lodge. Our oldest son came down with an ear infection the next day so we had to get him into the village to the Polyclinic. The doctor asked if he was able to swallow tablets, to which we answered yes. He was 7 at the time. When we collected the tablets they were big enough to treat a horse. It took a lot of work to break them up and get him to swallow them. The doctor had said that his eardrum would probably burst to release the buildup of pus, but it would heal up of itself, which it duly did.
    Romania, even in those days before Ceaucescu became a total monster, was quite a dismal place, although with the oilfields it should have been fairly prosperous. The problem was that the Russians bought the entire output and set the price themselves. The villages were poverty-stricken, with no pavements, just dirt and mud. The houses were little more than wooden shacks, with the curtains, when they had them, usually nailed above the windows. But in each village there was a magnificent brick-built building with signs proclaiming that this was the Communist Party headquarters for the village, or the area or for the region.
    We went to the town of Brasov, which was drab and depressing to buy some duty-free cigarettes (I used to smoke in those days). It was a relief to get back to the hotel.
    The landscape, however, was dazzlingly beautiful. We didn't see a cloud in the sky for the whole two weeks so the views of the mountains took our breath away. My wife didn't feel up to skiing lessons so she looked after the boys while I started on the nursery slope. On the second day, I dragged myself up the slope, panting and exhausted and thought, "This is ridiculous. I'm working harder now than I do at work," and promptly quit the lessons. We spent the rest of our time there going for walks in the woods, taking our sons sledding and generally relaxing. One day we went into the forest behind the hotel, climbed the hill and emerged on a small plateau. The mountain dropped away and we could see for mile after mile. The blue sky reflected in the deep snow, creating blue shadows and we all stood there, totally entranced. There was a little cafe nearby and we went in for some hot drinks. That outstandingly beautiful scene has stayed in my memory ever since.
    One of the sounds I had never heard before was a regular feature when we were outside. You could hear wolves howling morning, noon and night. And in the next village a bear, awakening from his hibernation, stumbled down the main street. As it was strictly forbidden to kill a bear, all the villagers could do was usher the bear along through the village and back into the forest.
    We found Romania interesting, but not really a place for a happy holiday. On our last weekend there we went into the bar for a drink in the evening to find it closed down. It was the barman's weekend off, so he went home on the Friday morning and he wasn't replaced. For the entire weekend the après ski evenings were non-existent.Could you imagine that happening in Switzerland?
     
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    #15 BillB, Mar 10, 2009 at 12:22 PM
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  16. BillB

    BillB Type 2 · Well-Known Member

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    There were an awful lot of us evacuated, Viv. Many came back home within a short period, some stayed for years, some were treated kindly, as I was, and some were treated to the most unspeakable abuse. I read a book about evacuees a little while ago called, "No time to say goodbye." Well worth a read if you're interested in finding out more about that period.
    One of the driving forces behind my urge to see the world was simply food. I enjoy good food, but I don't need vast quantities, I'm happy with a reasonable portion of nicely-cooked food. I'm not snobbish about food, either. I enjoy sausage, egg, chips and beans as much as magret de canard. This might be surprising considering I was brought up in the dark days of British culinary arts, which demanded that food, whatever it was, had to be cooked into a mush. I've never been able to track down why several generations of British cooks thought that massacring the ingredients of any dish was the correct way to produce healthy, nourishing meals. Vegetables were particularly abused, with cabbage being boiled for 30 minutes or more until it was a stinking sulphurous mush that made the whole house reek for days. My mother-in-law, to the end of her days, would boil cauliflower for 30 or 40 minutes, then throw the saucepan's entire contents into a colander. What did not run out through the holes was mashed to a pulp and didn't resemble anything at all when dumped onto a plate.
    Of course, you have to remember that during the war years and for a good time afterwards the food that was available was of a poor quality. In other times this would have inspired cooks to overcome the limitations of their ingredients, but not then.
    School dinners were a particular torment for me, as I loathed boiled cabbage, and that was the vegetable of choice for whoever drew up the menus in those days. I used to advance hesitantly down the line while a group of women threw the contents of their bowls onto your plate. "No cabbage, thank you," I would say, putting a heartrending note into my voice. "You've got to have it," the old harridan in charge of the green pulp would cackle, and sadistically dump a particularly large dollop on my plate. There was a boy named Charlie who loved cabbage (I can't imagine why) and I used to save him a seat next to me and ply him with my helping. When he wasn't there, I'd be stuck. I'd take my plate to the waste point and another old harridan would point at my cabbage and say, "What are you leaving that for?" and I would reply, "I don't like cabbage." "Then what did you take it for?" she would demand. And so I learnt the intricacies of Catch 22 at a very young age.
    My mother had a similar attitude. "Eat that cabbage," she would bark at me. "I don't like it," I would say, laying on the pathos a bit heavily. "It's good for you," she would say. "Eat it." One day she forced me to put it into my mouth, and my stomach started heaving immediately. Being as crafty as the next kid I started retching theatrically and then, not purely involuntarily, I threw up on the table. My mother never again put one shred of cabbage on my plate.
    Not until I was approaching my 20s was I taken to a Chinese restaurant for the very first time. A friend of mine from the diving club invited a group of us over to the East End one Saturday evening for dinner in a Chinese restaurant. This was a revelation to me. I suddenly realised that food could not only look colourful and appetising but taste delicious because the vegetables were lightly stir-fried and still retained all their flavours and crunch. I never looked back after that. I took to eating regularly in Chinese restaurants, whenever I could afford it, even though my family and most other people I knew thought that I was mad. Most British people of that period were vastly suspicious of foreign food, and eating Chinese food made me almost beyond the pale. They regaled me with horrific tales of what went into Chinese dishes, although I tried explaining that you can see and taste Kit-e-Kat on a plate, however it's cooked. To no avail. I was regarded as slightly insane, or to put it in the local idiom, I was a bit doolally, and funny with my food.
    When we moved to Germany I found that I enjoyed many German dishes, except for the dreaded sauerkraut. I don't care how it's disguised, if it's cooked cabbage, there's no way it goes into my digestive tract.
    German cuisine has had a lot of influences, such as goulash from Hungary, schnitzel from Austria, cevapcici from the former Yugoslavia, without mentioning their own immense variety of sausage.
    My wife and I hesitated over Indian restaurants for many years as we had no idea what to order until, finally, we entered one, explained that we had never eaten Indian food before and left it to the owner to choose our meal. And he served us a feast that hooked us permanently. If only I still had all the money I've spent in ethnic restaurants I'd be a very wealthy man.
    The result has been, however, that wherever we are, I'll give the local food a try. And I'm still alive to prove that it's not a bad philosophy when it comes to filling your face.
     
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    #16 BillB, Mar 15, 2009 at 4:31 PM
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  17. BillB

    BillB Type 2 · Well-Known Member

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    We travelled widely while we were living in Germany. I have an Austrian friend who lives in Innsbruck and we drove down to see him many times.He used to take a few days' holiday when we arrived and we would take off. One time we headed for Berchtesgaden in southeast Bavaria as I had always wanted to see Hitler's Alpine residence, the Eagle's Nest. It was a longish drive from the Tyrol to Berchtesgaden as there was no motorway, but it was amazingly picturesque as we drove through the mountains. When we arrived in the town of Berchtesgaden the first thing we did was go to the tourist office to buy tickets for the bus up to the Eagle's Nest. It wasn't possible today, we were told, as there had been so much rain that it had caused a rock fall on to the road. But you can walk up there, the helpful German told us. I asked how long it would take. I was told it would be about an hour. I had a wife who was 7 months pregnant, and a 4-year-old son so we decided to pass on that one, buying tickets for a tour of the salt mines instead. The first thing you did at the mine was dress in overalls, replicas of what the miners wore, and don a belt with a leather sheet that covered your kidneys and protected them from the damp (!). We rode a little railway that we all sat astride through a lengthy tunnel and then arrived at an open area where the descent into the mine began. There was a slide that miners actually used to get to work, and we were expected to ride down it. My wife declined on the grounds of her advanced pregnancy and chose to walk down instead. Our son was agog at the sight of that slide so I decided to go down with him as he was bouncing around with anticipation. We got to the bottom without incident, accompanied by my Austrian friend. My wife came down the steps and tripped near the bottom. I don't think she saw the irony of the situation, though it wasn't a serious incident.
    I had always thought that salt mines contained the salt in deposits, but it turned out that the salt was embedded in the rock. What they did was dig out a chamber, flood it with water and leave it for a year or two. After a sufficient time had passed they pumped the water up to the surface and let it evaporate in the sun. The salt was left behind as a deposit which was refined and then packaged. To this day I haven't made it to the Eagle's Nest.
    Another trip we made with our friend was to Lake Garda. We took the motorway through the Brenner Pass and then, on our friend's directions we left the highway at the last exit before the italian border. A very short drive brought us to the village of Trins which, our friend informed us, was where the film The Last Valley starring Michael Caine and Omar Sharrif had been shot. The administration for the shoot had ordered all their office equipment and supplies from the company our friend worked for, so he had often watched the shooting of the film.
    After that we continued on and drove down the east side of Lake Garda to Lazise. A colleague had recommended a hotel called Casa Mia nearby so we enquired there and they had rooms so we checked in. The US Army had a recreation area close by where we could laze in the sun, go waterskiing, swim, play tennis and all at no cost. We could get light lunches there as well as they had a snack bar serving hamburgers, sandwiches, etc. We drove out to Verona one day and visited the Roman amphitheatre where they were setting up for the opera festival, and we found the balcony that is supposed to be the one where Juliet appears and says, "Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo." I believe it was the residence of the Capulet family during their feud with the Montagus.
    This was our first proper introduction to Italian food and it was so varied and interesting that we have been lovers of Italian cuisine ever since.
    Every year my parents came over to spend their holidays with us so one year I suggested that we take a package trip with them to Yugoslavia. They agreed so I made the bookings with a German tour company and we all duly flew off to the town of Porec on the Istrian peninsula. This was the first package tour I had ever been on and was much better than their reputation would have had you believe. For anyone in need of a laugh, we paid £37 a head for the flights, hotel and full board. The sun shone all day long, the sea was warm and there were plenty of interesting tours. The food was pretty good, too.
    We took a bus to the Postojna caves, a fascinating experience, and another day visited the Lipizzaner breeding farm. This is where those gorgeous white horses which perform at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna are bred. Incredible though it sounds, these horses are born black and gradually turn white. We were told that 1 in a thousand is born white and stays white and 1 in a thousand is born black and stays black. The boys had a wonderful time feeding sugar lumps to the hugely pregnant mares.
    A feature of the Istrian Peninsula is a long inlet known as Lim Fjord. We took a boat ride from Porec one day which took us down this "fjord". When we disembarked we found some brightly coloured huts which they told us had been the Viking village in the film The Long Ships, starring Richard Widmark. It seemed that all our trips took us to film locations.
    We enjoyed our stay in Yugoslavia so much that we were to return several times, but with the aim of getting to know what the real Yugoslavs were like, not just the hotel workers.
     
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  18. BillB

    BillB Type 2 · Well-Known Member

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    I think I should follow my wife's suggestion and fill in a couple of gaps. She is of the opinion that I've omitted a couple of interesting tales.
    In 1942, when I was a few months short of my 5th birthday I came down with a really severe case of whooping cough. I was barely aware of it, but my mother was pregnant with my younger brother and it was decided by the medical people involved that I should be banged up in hospital until I was no longer infectious for fear of passing it on to the imminent baby. But nobody bothered to tell me about it.
    Our local baker used to sell trifles made in open-topped waxed cartons, to which I was rather partial. One day my mother bought me two, an event unheard of in the annals of the family. That evening, she gave them to me at teatime and I just started digging into the first one when there was a knock at the door. An ambulanceman was there and in short order I was dressed in a hooded dressing gown and whisked off in the ambulance to the nearest isolation hospital, the Brook Hospital, leaving my two trifles behind.
    Nobody ever explained to me why I had been taken away from my family; I suppose nobody wanted to upset me, but what they actually did was even more upsetting. I was there for a little over three months and never once had a visitor. I never really understood why I was there because apart from the occasional paroxysm of coughing I was a normal, lively child. But I was as resilient as any other kid and soon settled down with the other youngsters on the ward to make the nurses' work even more difficult by our sheer mischievousness. They took it good humouredly, except for one redheaded nurse who was a real grump, of whom we were very wary.
    At the end of the ward was a set of double doors that opened onto a balcony and when nobody was looking we used to sneak out there and watch the army recruits training on the patch of ground behind the hospital where it was setup for bayonet practice. Little did I know as we watched them lunging at the stuffed sacks that served as enemy soldiers that in the future I'd be doing exactly the same thing myself.
    One of the things we used to do to make life hard for the nurses was to wait until the ward had been settled down for the night and the duty nurse was sitting at her desk at the end of the ward then one of us would jump up, switch the reading lamp above our beds on and then immediately off and then slide back into bed. The poor nurse could see what we were doing but couldn't tell which of us it was. She would come down to our end of the ward, tell us off and order us to stay in bed and go to sleep. We would wait until she had settled down at her desk again and then a different kid would do exactly the same thing. We did this for as long as we dared before the nurse really went ballistic. All this time the air raids were occurring and the sirens would sound night after night. The wards were all blacked out every evening.
    After more than three months the day came when I was dressed up in clothes that I presume my mother had brought for me and led to the hospital lobby. My hair had grown down almost to my shoulders and it was topped by what my family called a Burglar Bill hat. My mother was waiting for me and told me that I had a little brother. I pulled a face. I had made up my mind that a sister was what I wanted.
    (Added by Jackie (Mrs. Bill!) To this day, I cannot believe the cruelty of this episode in Bill's life. He seems very philosophical about it, but I still get mad every time I think about it. I can, at a stretch, understand his mother not wanting to pass on the infection to a new baby, but not one of his many aunts and uncles visited him.)
    After that my mother would occasionally buy me a trifle for tea, but she never again bought me two. I mourned the loss of those trifles for several years afterwards.
    Another tale that went down in family history concerned the uncle who was 9 years older than I was. The house we all lived in didn't have a bathroom, so kids had a bath in a tin bath in the kitchen. Adults used to go down to Greenwich Baths and use the slipper baths. At this particular time my grandfather was working as a nightwatchman on a building site and it was usual for the nightwatchman to have a brazier of glowing coke going all night long. My grandfather used to take along some kind of meat - sausages, chops or steak and cook it over the brazier during the night.
    My uncle was off to the slipper baths so he picked up his packet of soap and face flannel and set off for the baths. When he got into the bath he opened up the paper to find, not soap and flannel, but two pork chops. My grandfather opened up his packet of pork chops at around midnight to find that his dinner was a flannel and a bar of Lifebuoy toilet soap. To say that he was not best pleased is a serious understatement.
    And finally I should tell about the time I decided that a frog would be my ideal companion. This was just after the war had finished but the emergency water tanks that had been built on bombed sites hadn't yet been knocked down. Their original purpose was to act as additional sources of water for the fire brigade when the incendiaries were dropping. When the war ended they were drained, but there always remained a foot or so of water in the bottom. One of my classmates told me once, after we had climbed up and were sitting astride the wall, that a frog lived in a corner of the tank. I took this in and the idea of having my own frog began to grow on me, so one drizzly day I donned my Wellington boots and my Burberry raincoat and took myself off to the water tank. I climbed over the wall and let myself down into the water. Now, over time the tank had been used as a bit of a rubbish dump so there were all kinds of junk in there. I had a good fish around in the severely polluted water but could find no trace of the frog. Finally I decided it was time to give up the search and go home for tea.
    That was the moment I realised that the walls were smooth and I couldn't climb upwards. I made a couple of attempts but to no avail and then, highly embarrassed, I was reduced to calling for help.
    After a few minutes, a kid from my class put his head over the wall and I told him that I was stuck and couldn't get out. He scuttled off and returned quickly with a man in tow. The man climbed over the wall, quickly hauled me out and then took me to his home. His wife dried me off, dressed me in her grownup son's woollen sweaters and socks, wrapped me in a snuggly blanket and sat me in front of the fire with a cup of hot chocolate. I was expecting a real rollocking from everybody involved, but I was treated like a shipwreck survivor. I was almost tempted to ask if they would like to adopt me. My mother wasn't too happy about it, though, when my rescuer took me home.
     
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  19. BillB

    BillB Type 2 · Well-Known Member

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    Aaarghh!! I composed a longish post and then when I clicked on "Submit" I got a screen saying I had to login. I thought I had. So I logged in again and found that all my hard work had vanished into cyberspace - never to be found again.
    Anyway, carry on regardless. Sue, what kind of eye op did you have? My brother had a very bad cast in his eye and had an operation when he was around 5 to tighten the muscles that hold the eye in place. It seems that after the operation he should have been given eye exercises but somehow this was overlooked so for the rest of his life he had visual difficulties in that eye. And why did you have to leave all your presents behind, Sue. Was that normal for the period? I haven't heard of that before.
    The year following our package tour to Yugoslavia my wife and I decided that we would like to see more of the country but to meet Yugoslavs in their everday lives, not just those who worked in hotels. I had read an article somewhere that if you wrote to the tourist office in the town you wished to visit they would fix you up with accommodation with a private family. We studied the map and decided that the coastal village of Sukosan, just south of Zadar, would suit us so we duly sent off the letter. We soon got a reply back inviting us to stay with a couple, named Pavic, who also had two boys, each a year younger than ours. We wrote back our acceptance and come May we set off from our home in Darmstadt.
    It was quite a drive - taking in Bavaria, Austria and then crossing over into Slovenia at Trieste. And Trieste was where we got lost. I pulled off the road at a junction where an Italian policeman was directing traffic and we began studying the map. We were completely flummoxed - we knew we had to drive to Rijeka in Croatia but there were absolutely no signs for the town. The policeman stopped the traffic, came over to us and asked if he could help. I explained our predicament in my almost nonexistent Italian. He beamed broadly and explained that in Italian the town was known as Fiume and those were the signs we should follow, obligingly pointing out the sign just down the road. We thanked him profusely and he went back to his work. When we were ready to move again, he stopped the traffic, waved us off and smiled as we all waved our hands out of the windows. What an ambassador for Italy, we thought.
    After that we found our way easily to Rijeka and started on the coast road south. We stopped for the night in a B&B which kept their own bees, so our breakfast toast was spread with as much honey as we could eat.
    The road to Zadar can be quite hair-raising as it follows the cliffs carved out by the sea and the wind. It swoops up and down, curving left and right, with often a sheer drop to the sea below on the right, and on the left a cliff that climbed sheer for hundreds of feet. In midafternoon the sky clouded over and it began to rain, softly at first and then torrentially. We were told that this was the first rain they had had for 3 months, so for a while the road surface was as slippery as a ski slope. We passed quite a few cars that had skidded into rocks on the roadside. All I could do was slow down drive ultra carefully.
    By 7 o'clock it began to get dark. We still had about an hour's drive and were lucky that the rain began to ease up. Shortly it stopped completely.
    When we reached Sukosan I got out the letter from the Pavic family and only then realised that as I had been writing to a Post Office Box, I had no idea where the house was. Sukosan on a dark, wet night was like a ghost town. We crossed the little village square diagonally and after a short while came to a bar that looked a lively place so I pulled over and went inside to ask if anyone knew Mr Pavic. Which Mr Pavic? I was asked. Oh, God, I was thinking. How many Mr Pavics could there be. It turned out quite a few, but when I said it was Ante Pavic the barkeeper broke out into a smile, called his daughter and told her to direct me to Mr Pavic's home. She walked in front of the car and I drove slowly behind, luckily for only a few hundred yards. We thanked the young girl and drove into the driveway she was indicating.
    The Pavics were getting worried as they thought something may have happened to us, and also had another worry. We were the first English guests they had ever had and they didn't speak much English and in addition they were also not sure what to serve us to eat. We solved those problems quickly enough by speaking German and eating whatever they served us.
    Our boys were exhausted after the long drive and were quickly fast asleep. We followed just after and were soon snuggled down and unconscious.
    The next morning turned out to be brilliantly sunny with spring flowers in bloom everywhere you looked. Our boys soon chummed up with the Pavic boys and despite being unable to speak each other's language got on well, frequently going down to the seashore to fish while we sat in the courtyard of the village post office which also served as a bar, sipping red wine and keeping an eye on them.
    Sukosan has grown quite a lot since those days (I had a look on Google Earth) but it was a lovely, quiet place back in the early '70s. We also made some fantastic excursions as the Pavics were generous with their advice on places to visit.
    One was an all-day boat trip around the Kornati Islands, strangely rounded islands worn smooth when the ice cap retreated at the end of the last ice age.
    As the trip had an early morning start, breakfast was served on the boat, including a hefty glass of slivovitz. The boys got a glass as well. If you've never tried slivovitz, take my word that it is an eaux de vie, distilled from plums, and it is very alcoholic. They each took one sip, pulled a face and gave their glasses to me. I was hoping that I'd be able to dispose discreetly of the two extra glasses overboard so as not to give offence, but there was no chance so I had to tackle all three. The result was that for the next two hours or so I was somewhat pie-eyed. The islands were beautiful and around midday the boat dropped anchor in a lovely little bay, more slivovitz was handed round (the boys smilingly declined this time). Suddenly a hatch opened and a little old lady climbed out and began giving us grilled trout with parsley potatoes. We hadn't even known she was there. After we had eaten, she collected up the dishes and vanished below, never to be seen again for the rest of the trip.
    In the centre of one of the islands was a lake. We were told that there was an underground fault that ran from the lake bed to the sea. As a result, when the sun evaporated the water in the lake, more ran in from the sea to fill it again. The water in the lake, because of this process, was almost as salty as the Dead Sea.
    On another day we drove south to the Krka Waterfall. We were astonished at such a powerful flow of water that was so little known outside of Yugoslavia. There was a path running down alongside the falls and we were able to study the roaring torrent from lots of different angles.
    Mr Pavic was the manager of 2 hotels in the area around Zadar, one of which was a nudist hotel. It was very new and he was proud to invite us along to have a look at it. My wife wasn't too keen on the idea of stripping off in the company of total strangers but we went along anyway. The hotel itself was a beautiful building and we were shown around, ending up in the bar with coffees. Finally I broached the subject which had me somewhat puzzled. If this was a nudist hotel, why was everyone fully dressed? They had all arrived late yesterday and no one wanted to be the first to strip off.
    We explored Zadar several times, and loved going there around 7 in the evening when all the townsfolk came out and strolled the streets, chatting with friends and neighbours. It created an atmosphere both fascinating and welcoming.
    One of the furthest trips we made was to Plitvice. For anyone who hasn't visited Plitvice, put it down as a must-see on your list of things to do. It's a national park of 16 lakes, each a different shade of blue, and each lower than the previous lake. Waterfalls and cascades take the water from the top lake to the next one down, and so on. It has to be one of the great wonders of the natural world. The park is also home to wolves, bears, deer and boar, as well as a great range of bird life.
    On another afternoon the Pavics invited us out to visit a plot of land they owned a couple of miles inland. When we got there we found the area was covered in cherry trees which were all fruiting copiously. We spent the afternoon climbing in the branches and collecting cherries by the kilo.
    We frequented many of the restaurants recommended by our hosts. One of the meals we really loved was Rockborers - a species of mussel which literally bored its way into rocks and stones, where it took refuge for the rest of its life. It's quite an expensive dish as those who collect them have to break open the stones to get at the mussels. You might call it labour intensive.
    One afternoon we were introduced to Mr Pavic's brother, who came for a visit. He had run away from home during WW2 to join Marshal Tito's Partisans. At the end of the war he elected to stay on in the army and when we met him had reached the rank of general. We spent a long time chatting about many things, not just the war. The general spoke excellent English and was full of interesting tales and anecdotes.
    We had had a wonderful couple of weeks and were sad to be leaving. I think the Pavic's were genuinely sorry that our holiday was at an end and it didn't take much to reserve two weeks the following year.
    When Tito died and the country descended into civil war we were so sorry. We had learnt to enjoy the exuberance of the Croatian people and the welcome they extended to us wherever we went. I hope the people we knew back then escaped without harm.
     
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  20. BillB

    BillB Type 2 · Well-Known Member

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    Towards the end of the ‘60s I was invited to write a monthly column for a magazine that was being established for GIs and their families. There wasn’t a conflict of interest for me as I was working as a printer on the paper and as a writer on a freelance basis for the magazine so I quickly said yes. I was now their Automobile Editor and I continued with this grandiloquent title until shortly after I moved to Luxembourg.
    I was invited to do road tests of new cars, which was a lot of fun, starting with the then new VW K70. I took the train to Wolfsburg, was treated like an honoured guest, given a tour of the production plant, treated to dinner and sent off with a lovely new car which I had for 2 weeks. The car itself was quite impressive with powerful brakes and excellent roadholding and I said so in my review. Pretty soon I found myself picking up a Porsche 911 T, a Mercedes Benz SEL280, and a VW-Porsche 914. I wrote stories about safe driving techniques on the autobahn, a racing driver school at the Nurburgring, the Monaco Grand Prix, demystifying the manufacture of tyres, and as many aspects of motoring as I could think of. The income wasn’t spectacular but the perks were good. And my family enjoyed the outings to car museums and other exhibitions.
    But more and more the US Department of the Army was talking about reducing their forces around the world. This was worrying as less troops, the fewer newspapers would be printed. And under the terms of the NATO Treaty which governed our employment, the British would be the first to go. Surprisingly, the Americans would have been next and the German employees would be the last.
    Around this time I saw an ad for freelance proofreaders to work at an international organization in Luxembourg. I sent my cv, thinking that working a couple of days a week would give us a cash cushion to return to Britain with if redundancies should be made. I didn’t hear anything for several months and had just about given up when I received a reply offering me a job. I called and asked how many days a week they would need and I was told it was full time work. Thinking it may be my escape route from possible redundancy we drove to Luxembourg City where I had a talk with the Deputy Director General of the printing and publishing unit. The pay would be better and there was an English-language school for the boys, on the other hand the post was freelance, meaning that I would be paid for the work I did but not for holidays and there was no health insurance. I would, however, be able to sit the exam for establishment as a permanent international civil servant. We had a wander around the city to get an idea of prices and the general cost of living, talked it over and decided to accept. The next day I gave in my notice at Stripes and within a couple of weeks we had moved to Luxembourg, living in a 3rd storey apartment.
    5 months later I was given a contract as a temporary official, meaning more security for the length of the contract, more benefits and a higher salary. To say it was a welcome step up would be something of an understatement. I entered the next competition to be organised, passed it and was given permanent status.
    However, the street where we lived was far too busy to let the boys out to play and they, being used to playing outside with other kids, slowly drove my wife bananas. A couple of months after I received my temporary contract my wife was invited to coffee with some other wives in the pretty little village of Bridel. As my wife admired the house and its quiet surroundings she bemoaned the fact that she could never let the boys out to play. Her hostess said that her family would soon be moving out and suggested that we ask the landlady if we could be the next tenants. We duly asked and within a couple of weeks we moved in.
    Bridel, it turned out, was a regular British colony and we soon got to meet our fellow expatriates. Pretty soon I was dragooned into becoming editor of the British Club’s monthly newsletter. I was also invited to help out with the local amateur dramatic group. Having no illusions about my acting ability I said I would help out backstage as a stagehand. One of my first tasks was to work in the production of Sweeney Todd, the non-musical version. I was Sweeney Todd’s chair puller and also I was also in charge of blood. I never cease to be amazed at the ingenuity of people engaged in a common enterprise – someone actually managed to find an antique barber’s chair. The set was built on two levels, with Todd’s barber shop situated on the upper level. It was impossible to create a chair that swivelled over backwards, as the actors objected to the idea of being thrown off the upper level to land on their heads so I mounted the chair on wheels, screwed a handle to the base and when each customer’s throat was cut I would pull the chair rapidly backwards. I thought that the chair would have to move swiftly or the whole point would be lost. It also meant, though, that having pulled the chair into motion I then had to stop it within about 18 inches. Failure to do so would have meant that the actor, the chair and I would tumble off the upper level and do ourselves considerable damage. Luckily, in both rehearsal and performance, the whole process went smoothly, though the director did remark that the actors’ screams as they went backwards sounded as if they were genuinely terrified. They probably were.
    The blood was another matter. Stage blood is made from a scarlet powder, known as Kensington Gore, which, when mixed with water, makes a very realistic substitute. In one scene, an actor is shot in the head. We fixed him up with a squirting ring, the kind that kids love, and I filled up the bulb with my homemade blood. I think I overdid it a bit by filling the bulb to its capacity. On the opening night, the actor was duly shot, clapped his hand to his face and sprayed blood in all directions. It even got into his mouth and ran down all over the white shirt he was wearing. It looked as if his head had exploded. We probably staged the goriest production of Sweeney Todd the world has ever seen. I became known as Luxembourg’s Sam Peckinpah.
     
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