One of the greatest ‘life lessons’ I received happened to me between the ages of eighteen and twenty – it was the two years I spent in the armed forces as a conscripted National Serviceman. I was still a British Citizen in those days and the powers that be installed me in the Royal Air Force, something no National Serviceman has any choice over. But I decided to get on with it even though I was about half way through an apprenticeship as a Graphic Designer!
This all started sixty three years ago, when virtually every young man was called up in an occupation of National importance, except those unfit or who deferred their conscription because of what I was doing – an apprenticeship. Yes, I could have postponed my service because of my employment, but I worked out that early service was going to cost me much less than the deferment would, so I thought I might as well get it over and done with straight away.
In retrospect, and at that time, National Service was about the best thing that happened to me, and to thousands of other young people like me I am sure. I learned a whole lot of life skills while I was there, skills that remained valuable to me right up to the present time. During my eight weeks ‘square-bashing’ I learned all about discipline, something rather brutally hammered into us by the drill instructors. It is the most basic, and yet the most important skill any serviceman needs to be familiar with, he needs to respond instantly to any command, without hesitation or argument, and even in civilian life discipline is worthwhile, as is respect! When you live in a comparatively small billet, with maybe twelve other men, it’s vital that you respect each other’s living space, their points of view and their privacy when they need it. We were also made to keep our billet tidy, beds properly made, floor polished and kit on display, all for the common good of everyone living there and to maintain that all important discipline. I’m afraid discipline, respect and tidiness are three skills that are noticeably non-existent in some of today’s young people!
Apart from these important basics, I learned to do precision drill, alongside about forty comrades. Very smart we were too, after eight weeks of drill practice – the attached photo of my platoon on our passing-out parade shows what I mean. I am the bloke on the extreme right of the picture, just about to march out of sight! We were taught how to fire, clean and maintain a rifle and a Bren gun, not things I’m frequently called on to do nowadays, but it did teach us the importance of looking after any equipment you are in charge of, whether it’s a typewriter, a paint brush or a fishing net.
I, and my billet mates also discovered what a hard slog it was, working on ‘fatigues’; which meant, among other things, scrubbing baking trays in the cook-house or cleaning toilets in the billets. Performing those arduous duties we began to understand what our mothers had been putting up with on our behalf, for the previous eighteen years!
But at the end of the eight weeks I was certainly as fit as I had ever been in my life, if not fitter; and I have never managed to attain such health ever since, because the discipline is much more lax at home than it is in the services! And for the rest of my two years, which were served in a delightful part of England near Salcombe in South Devon, I worked as a radar operator and had a great life. I made many friends, quite a few of whom I am still in contact with to this day, and literally stopped being a boy and became a man. It’s a period of my life about which I have no regrets, only thankfulness that I was fit enough to be able to enjoy so many opportunities to enjoy life and visit new places.
Do you think our youth could benefit from learning the same lessons I did in the Air Force?
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