No I haven't taken up Latin studies! Per Ardua ad Astra is the motto of the Royal Air Force and roughly translated means "Through Adversity to the Stars". It was as a 16 year old I "joined up" in early February 1980 and set off for my basic training at RAF Swinderby, near Lincoln.
RAF Swinderby was built just before WWII and came under the control of Bomber Command, but in 1964, the year after I was born, it turned it's attention to recruit training. It was immortalised in film in 1987 when several scenes from Full Metal Jacket were filmed there, but sadly it was closed and put up for sale in 1995. What remains now is a shadow of its former self, with nature over growing most of the buildings in the last 15 years and the rest being vandalised or broken into by people stealing whatever was left behind.
I have long asked the question: why did I join up? I was only in for the 6 weeks of basic training, the reason why I left we will get to later. As a child I had suffered, if that is the right word, at the hands of my stepfather, who would find the smallest of excuses to regularly beat me. It seemed that my world was filled with bullies at school and bullies at home. Maybe this is why I have turned my attention to writing and telling imaginary stories, as a way of creating my own safe world. However, that is another blog, for another day, perhaps. To answer the question, why did I join up, I think it is possible that as a young boy I convinced myself that the beatings were my fault and that somehow, joining the RAF would make my stepfather proud of me, as he had been in the RAF in the 50's.
Whatever the reason, on 5 February off I went by train from Edinburgh, to the nearest town to RAF Swinderby, Lincoln. From the second we arrived it felt like I was a new arrival in Shawshank, being herded from one place to another, gathering first uniforms, gym kit, bedding, then eating utensils etc etc. By mid afternoon our heads were shaved to a number 2 and we were assigned a bunk within one of the squadrons buildings. All recruits were divided into sections within the squadron, which are called flights, and I was in flight 7.
We were given two types of uniform: our regular uniforms, that we would wear on a daily basis, and our "number 1" uniform, which consisted of the very smart, almost suit-like jacket and trousers, and best of all, a peak cap. I loved this peaked cap and cherished it my entire time there.
There was one other item you were given, and on no account should you ever forget it. Each recruit was assigned a unique number that would stay with you for your entire RAF career, and beyond. 30 years later I can still remember mine: F8192112. At the same time we had received our training manuals and had to sign the Official Secrets Act.
The first period of training concentrated on fitness and was relentless, with no break for the first two weeks. At that point you were allowed home for a weekend. It was too far to travel for me and for several other recruits, so we remained on the base and would visit the local town of Lincoln. We had to wear civilian clothes as the locals were not very tolerant of us RAF types, but even in "civvys" it was very easy to spot us out of a crowd. I recall one incident when we spotted a guy with a ferocious Alsatian dog in a doorway, his owner struggling to keep it under control. Only when we passed nearby and he asked us for our ID that we realised he was Military Police and there for our protection! Our other source of entertainment was on the base at the station bar and my biggest memory from there was reaching my 17th birthday, being made tremendously drunk and Blondie's Atomic playing on the juke box.
The following weeks were filled with theory training and exams, which you had to pass at a minimum of 70% or you were discharged, and Self Loading Rifle (SLR) training. This was a formidable piece of kit and had just been introduced, firing a 7.62mm bullet. I was always uneasy carrying, loading and firing this gun as I was under no illusion it's purpose. That said, I gained a marksman ranking, the highest in my flight.
As the weeks progressed I made friends with another recruit, and to protect the innocent I'll call him John. Like me he had been bullied in his childhood, but I had come to RAF Swinderby as a young pretender, never letting on my bruised past. John however, brought it all with him and sadly, and much to the contrary of what people think of the armed forces, he was picked on by other recruits in the flight. I had an added advantage apparently, that of my Scottish accent. Our Corporal was also Scottish and immediately gave us a reputation that we lived in caves with gas light and ate raw meat every day. It's only a guess but I reckon this helped enormously and gave me a reputation, though unfounded, of being a bit of a nutter.
One weekend the bullying of John was brought to a head: he had remained behind whilst everyone else headed home for the weekend. He was deeply upset by what was happening to him and I left him crying in the bathroom one morning. This bathroom was huge, and along one wall were 30 or so hand basins. All of a sudden I heard the most tremendous crashing sounds coming from the bathroom and returned to find John had taken a fire extinguisher to virtually all the basins and smashed them. For that burst of frustration he found himself in jail for three days. But worse was to come and something no one could have foreseen.
Part of our regular fitness training was to run 10 miles. The final mile was along a runway, which always seemed far longer than it was. I had just reached the finishing line, exhausted, when I turned to see John further up the runway stop and drop onto his knees, also exhausted but not at the finish line. The PTi's (Physical Training Instructors) were a tough bunch and immediately ran to John and it appeared from my vantage that they were kicking him, forcing him onto his feet. He ran another 20 metres or so and stopped again, onto his knees. He obviously heard the footsteps of the PTi's approaching from behind and launched himself up onto his feet as fast as he could, but, he only went a few more metres and collapsed, face down, not moving. The PTi's on reaching him then ran to the field telephone and an ambulance came and took him to hospital.
During lunch an announcement was made that all recruits from every flight were to assemble outside station cinema in our number 1 uniforms. It was an impressive sight, but the smiles disappeared as the Squadron Leader announced John had died as a result of a brain hemorrhage. We were visibly angry, and for the rest of the day they drilled us hard, keeping us occupied. But they had to let us go at some point and as soon as they did it was a sight to see many young men charging round to the houses of the PTi's, that, as far as we were concerned, had caused the death of John. That, at the time, was a knee jerk reaction, of course. We were angry. I'm not saying that the PTi's treatment of him caused his demise, but he certainly panicked on hearing their approach and rose to his feet quickly enough for a weakness in his brain to rupture.
They were gone. Everything. Furniture, belongings, cars, you name it. Unless we had gone to the wrong location, but we were pretty sure.
I for one was furious, and decided right there and then that I could not belong to such an organisation that could covered up such a tragedy. We weren't even allowed to write about it in letters home or, worst still, we were not allowed to go to the funeral. And so I left on 14 March 1980, discharged with an "exemplary" character.
30 years on and I still remember him. When I think of all that I have achieved in the last thirty years. Years that he never had.
I should always remember his story each time I'm facing adversity. I may not reach the stars but at least I still have a chance.