Fourteen

I am obliged to Mr. Keith Garrett, a poet, for finding, and apparently reading, this blog. I think he must be the first. How the attention of an actual poet might have been attracted to Peckhamian goose ravings I’m not so certain, but he’s most welcome.

He has done a poem about being thirteen, with which I can’t really argue because it is clearly about the evanescence of youth. However, my own recollections are slightly different.

When I was thirteen I was drafted into the Combined Cadet Force, which made an enormous difference to my school career.

If one happens to be a short-arsed scholar life at an Army school, even if one is of an Army family, is not so much fun. Very large and not very bright people keep mistaking one for the ball, or for some other childish plaything, and become troublesome when their amusements are thwarted.

I was a loathsome-looking soldier because Army kit comes in three sizes: Large, Too Large, and Far Too Large, and even Regimental Sergeant-Major Lambert, who competed fiercely with my own grandfather for the title of ‘kindest RSM in the British Army’ could see little in my appearance on parade other than ‘a sackful of shit, tied up careless’.

At the age of fourteen I went to camp (it was at Crowborough) and for the first time fired a live round from a Rifle, Short, Magazine, Lee-Enfield, No. 4. It went into a Figure 11 at 100 yards. So did the next. In fact, all of them did, as they did at longer ranges. The first shot, perhaps owing to nerves, was slightly out, but none of the others were; at the first attempt I had scored 99%, one point from a ‘possible’.

In the butts the RSM had to be helped to a chair and fanned with pieces of cardboard until he recovered from the shock. Company Sergeant-Major Owen, who rather fancied himself as a rifleman, never forgave me, and made my life something of a misery at every opportunity thereafter.

Major Pitman, whom we never tired of reminding that he resembled Klaus Fuchs, noticed that I was not the only horrid little oik who could shoot; there were several others entitled to the precious crowned rifle on the red ground, though only I was Contingent Fullbore Rifle Champion. He formed us into a squad of what our American cousins call ‘designated marksmen’, the RSM having insisted that there was no place in the contingent for snipers. Since at that time the establishment thought it might need us we didn’t do much chocolate soldiering, and generally looked like something disagreeable out of the arse end of Vietnam, cunningly camouflaged with heavy encrustations of rifle badges. This squad duly scared the moustaches off a succession of visiting Generals, to the Major’s intense satisfaction.

Such an Arthurian performance, coupled with the general supposition that anyone in the CCF might well have a live round or two in his pocket, led to something of a change in my fortunes, if only when I was in Army, rather than school, uniform. It’s quite amazing how polite people become when they suspect that you might be able to kill them out of hand at 600 yards.

And so I don’t need to write a poem about being fourteen, because it was written for me long ago, supposedly by one Major-General Rupertus, US Marine Corps:

This is my rifle. There are many like it – but this one is mine.

lee-enfield_no_4_mk_i_28194329_-_am-032027

[Wikimedia Commons]

 

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