Monday, 29 November 2010

Lies, damned lies and grasshoppers

At school we had a CCF, Combined Cadet Force, a throwback to pre-First World War militarism. On Thursday afternoons everyone had to change into military uniform and play at soldiers. There was an army section and a much smaller RAF section. Both were officered by teachers who were so inclined, while lads who enjoyed that kind of thing provided the NCOs to bawl commands and stamp booted feet and find fault with gaiters imperfectly clarted with a sort of khaki mud called blanco.

The RAF section was looked after, incongruously, by an ex-Royal Navy sub-lieutenant, Mr Blee. Outside of Thursday afternoons, Mr Blee taught music. He and I got on well. After a year in the army section learning basic square-bashing drill I asked to be transferred to the RAF section. I was marched into the presence of the CO, Major Hawke, who taught maths when not in uniform. The following interview* took place, as near as I can remember it:

Cpl Harmer (whom I sat next to in Latin and sometimes allowed to copy my work): Detail, halt. Salute the officer.

Major Hawke:
At ease, soldier. What do you want, what's-your-name, Willie Wormy?

I'd like to join the RAF Section, Sir.

Major Hawke:
Oh yes? Nancy boy, are you?

Me (not really knowing at fourteen what a nancy boy was, but having my suspicions):
I don't think so, Sir. But my uncle was a distinguished RAF officer. And I'm interested, Sir.

Sub-Lieutenant Blee:
What better reason?

Major Hawke:
Take him away, Lieutenant Blee. We want men in the army, not your bloody pint-sized musicians. Request granted. Dismiss.

Cpl Harmer:
Detail, 'shun. Salute the officer. About turn. Quick march, left, right, left, right.

Parents paid good money for this sort of education. Well, some did: I won a scholarship to this place, with funds provided by a cathedral foundation, so I suppose it came free.

In the RAF section some sort of introduction to flying was provided by the Grasshopper. The Grasshopper was a skeletal glider, only to be used on windless days. The unfortunate chosen to 'pilot' it strapped himself on to a plank just forward of the wings. Each foot rested on a pedal, hands clasped a joystick. Clamps prevented all movement of the controls except one, a trigger to release the anchor that held the glider in its corner of the playing field.

Once the pilot was installed an immense bungee rope was attached in a V to a hook somewhere about the nose, like a catapult, or those rubber bands we used to flick pellets with. Two groups of cadets, like tug-of-war teams, spread outwards from the glider, took up the bungee, taking care to stand behind it, and on the order marched forward. When the sweating grunts had marched far enough and had created enough tension, the pilot was ordered to release the anchor and the grunts to drop the bungee.

At this point the Grasshopper lurched forward a few yards, sliding on its runner like a grass ski, and came to a halt. Other non-bungee erks were instructed to run alongside the wing-tips and to hold them up when the apparatus slid to a halt, to prevent damage to the mountings when it tilted over.

I resent the implication of the photo above. It is clearly false. Never to my knowledge did the Grasshopper ever leave the ground.

On one glorious occasion - I wasn't present, unfortunately - the officer commanding failed to instruct the heaving erks to take station behind the bungee rather than in front.

I was never in much sympathy with the CCF. I fiercely resisted promotion out of the ranks to lance-corporal, let alone corporal or sergeant. So did the authorities.

* I've lifted this dialogue from an earlier blog incarnation.

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