Sunday, 9 October 2016

Seeing the humour in a blurry world

Seeing the humour in a blurry world

It has been a few weeks since I had the chance to write the next chapter of my blog. I have been very busy getting the next issue of Ireland’s Military Story out and planning the one after that again. I thought a bit of humour would be nice to lighten things up a bit. As I explained in earlier chapters, at the time my vision started to go I was a member of the Irish Air Corps. To be precise, I was in training with the 58th Apprentice Class in Baldonnel. Now military humour is a lot different than that in civilian life. Banter, slagging and pranks are pretty much the order of the day, or at least that’s the way it was back in the mid 1990’s. At times the slagging can go to an entirely different level. So, when I reported back to the lads and told them I was starting to lose my sight, with the possibility of going completely blind, their natural reaction was to take the total piss. Militaries around the world are all the same. Everything is turned into a joke or slag. When you’re not being slagged you know there is something wrong.

(As some of the class are still serving no names will be used in this chapter)

The jokes and slags started within seconds of the lad’s finding out in Baldonnel. ‘You could get a cute dog. Think of the girls (I think back then ‘birds’ was the phrase used) you could pull’, or ‘Get a cane and you will get away with whacking the legs off everyone’ or ‘let’s get him blind drunk’. That was day one.

Let me introduce you to the 58th Apprentice Class. Our class was made up of 29 guys from all over the country. There were originally 30 but one had gone off to be a pilot in the real world by this time. In some way it was like living with a bunch of mad geniuses. In theory we were being trained to fix aircraft, however, these were guys who wanted to take things apart; as in everything literally got taken apart.

It’s like this. One evening you may be in your room reading a book.  Suddenly a load BANG and all the lights go out. A small bit of commotion, laughter and someone saying ‘I’m ok’. For the craic the lads had been playing with a fuse box or live electric wires. Not an uncommon occurrence.

Then there was the time when guys started to buy their first cars. Naturally these new babies were cared for as if they were their first born. And of course the cars had to be taken apart. How else would you be able to clean behind the dashboard? It was not uncommon to open your door to what sounded like thunder and discover four apprentices rolling a set of alloyed wheels down the corridor, walk into a bedroom that looked more like an engine shop, or an apprentice taking a shower with his car engine in order to clean it. This was all very much the norm. Believe it or not no aircraft have ever been harmed in the making of an apprentice.

The majority of daily slagging and pranks is censored, but a few little stories I’m sure can be allowed. The common day to day stuff was just like any work place environment. Guys got slagged over where they were from or if they had red hair for example. You can fill in the blanks. Then there was always the day to day military slagging. For example if an army soldier was in camp (someone who didn’t’ go through the Air Corps) they were called Rock Apes or Dump Rocks. The term actually comes from the British Military stationed on Gibraltar. Heh it works. And if members of the Naval Service were in camp, an apprentice, I’ve no idea who, would shout out in a Popeye voice, ‘Well blow me down’, and finish with the chuckle Popeye did.

Pranks and messing was just routine. Headdress going missing or name tags being switched was standard. Something that most people would not be expecting is to come back to find their room completely stripped. All that would be remaining was the sockets on the wall. While that apprentice had been in the gym or out on leave for the evening six or seven guys would have gone in (broke in) and taken the whole room apart and reassembled the room somewhere else right down to a pencil at angle on the desk. When I mean stripped I mean carpet tiles, wardrobe, presses (If things had been screwed to the wall, well they no longer were). The room could be reassembled anywhere from one of the landings in another part of the apprentice hostel or the green in front of the officer’s mess. When you saw this done and complete it was actually very impressive. In the middle of the officer’s green a perfect room was laid out on carpet tiles, the bed as it had been, posters and mirrors hanging from trees. Thankfully the officers always saw the funny side. We even got commissioned to play a few pranks on some cadets. But that’s another story.

Another favourite was the shuffling of cars. As I said earlier, by year two, guys had started to buy their own cars. Everyone was given a parking space. In the morning though we’d come down to find someone’s car sandwiched in between two other cars and right up against a wall or in the middle of eight cars, or the wheels gone, or wheels switched onto another car. Now when I mean sandwiched I mean door to door or bumper to bumper. As it turns out most cars can be lifted and moved by six Air Corps apprentices. It sometimes took more than a day to find the owners of the other vehicles as they may have been on guard duty or the like.

For some reason when it came to inspection everything was always back to the way it was meant to be. Amazing really. There was always those few seconds when it looked like the sergeant or officer was going to touch the wet paint or lift up a ceiling tile. It’s a good thing there were no phones or facebook back then.

Now no one was safe with this bunch. Everyone got it. One year we were on Summer Camp and were getting a tour of caves in Kerry. The poor tour guide at the end was subjected to one of our class getting down on his knee and singing the Righteous Brothers - Lost That Loving Feeling from Top Gun. So imagine one apprentice on his knee signing ‘Baby, baby, I get down on my knees for you’ to a pretty tour guide, with 50 others all doing backing vocals. Needless to say she went somewhat red.  That was the kind of mischief this bunch got up to. And that was without alcohol taken.

When my sight started going bad and I was in and out of hospital you knew you were in good bands when everyone started taking the piss out of you. On one trip to the Curragh military hospital the wards were full of guys getting medicals for overseas. In a sea of green I kind of stood out being the only one in a blue uniform. Outnumbered 100 to 1 the Air Corps lost the slagging match that day. ‘Here to get your wings clipped’, ‘Thunderbirds are Go’ was thrown at me from all corners of the ward. If smart phones and facebook existed back then, you’d have seen 100 soldiers getting selfies taken wearing my blue Air Corps forage cap. (The Air Corps had only the year before switched from a green uniform to a blue one. So it was still very much a novelty to the rest of the Army.)

‘Where you heading?’ I asked. ‘Lebanon for six months,’ was the reply, ‘What about you?’ they asked, ‘Heading to Bricin’s next,’ I said. ‘Good God he’ll never be seen again,’ they all laughed. It was all in jest of course.  (St. Bricin’s Hospital was the other military hospital in Dublin. The joke was if you went in there with a cold you’d come out with your leg in a cast).

Back in Baldonnel the sympathy lasted around an hour. Once they discovered I couldn’t see clearly beyond the length of my hand the slagging started. Out of the blue something would be thrown at you and naturally you’d look around to see where it came from and by whom. I could make out a blue blur and someone giggling but that was about it. They’d be gone before you’d know it. From around camp you’d get a random shout ‘Hey Wes, can you see me’. When I’d answer with their name they realised I knew who they were by the sound of their voice. Guys then started changing their accent. It came to a point where the culprits were anyone in blue.

On more than one occasion the lads thought it would be hilarious if they thought me how to drive. I had never learned how to drive. In the evening around the aerodrome we’d head off. Not on the runway just in case you were wondering. There’s a road beside the runway and the guys did ensure me that is what we were on. The car was always packed as the lads got a great kick out of directing me around camp. Like Raleigh driving. In 200m turn right. Turn now now now!

It wasn’t just the lads who got involved in this kind of craic. The NCO’s and officers from our unit all joined in. And sure why not if you can’t laugh. At the end of third year we were in Ballymullen Barracks, Tralee, Co. Kerry, for Summer Camp. In this case the drivers thought it would be great craic to teach me to drive the Nissan Patrol. Somewhat different than driving a car. Not that I could do that well either. I’d only had a few Raleigh lessons around Baldonnel. One or two sharp turns and I nearly overturned the jeep. Ooops. For some reason the guys kept directing me into the middle of a football match. Me in a jeep in the middle of a pitch didn’t stop them from playing though. They all just laughed and kicked the ball over the jeep. The next day we got caught starting up the Civil Defence Green Goddess fire engine. We weren’t going to leave camp I swear.

There were a few other things the lad’s thought were funny too, but those stories are heavily censored. Put it to you this way, bringing a blind man to a strip club was a waste of their money, not mine. ‘No guys you really don’t have to describe what’s going on thanks’. Naked ladies dancing really does not have the same impact when it is being described to you in a manly Cork or Offaly accent. You can fill in the descriptions of the performances yourself. Funny times though.

At the end of the apprenticeship there is a graduation ceremony. Unfortunately for me I didn’t’ get to graduate with them. But to make me feel part of the day and one of them, I was presented with a very special certificate that evening – the Stevie Wonder Award. I suppose when you think of it not every blind person gets one of these, so I’ve a feeling it is a very unique achievement. I think it should be a national holiday.

The citation reads as follows:

‘We appreciate you vision of our organisation. In recognition of your valuable views and insights during your apprenticeship training we gladly present this certificate of award.’

The award was kindly sponsored by Specsavers.

Now I’m sure people who work in HR are reading this going ‘what the.’, and might be thinking it’s all very insensitive. But you have to remember the military world is a different place all together. It was all a bit of craic. In many ways we’ve gone too PC these days but that’s a matter of opinion. What’s important here is the immediate group around me all carried on as normal. For me it was a good environment to be in when life presented me with one of its many challenges. My experience with the civilian world at the time was not the same. And it’s not to say it was all fun and games or this type of craic would work for everyone. But for me they were good times and you have to see the humour in hard times too. Laughing is a great healer.