Thursday, June 17, 2010

A day with the army.


Today was the Knowledge College's annual rewards trip to the Catterick Army base for the third and last of their open days this year. Attentive readers may remember that last year's trip was somewhat wet. This year the sun shone all day. (Yes, even in the north of England.) Our four coachloads of the-best-behaved-all-year set off for a fun packed day. I even decided to wear shorts, although I needed to issue sunglasses for those poor souls who would catch the full glare of reflected sunlight from my very pale and sun-starved legs.

As I walked down the corridor to the meeting point I followed two girls in full school uniform.

"Why are all these kids out of uniform?" Bethany shrieked to her friend. (She only does one volume.)

"It's a reward trip for good behaviour."

"Why wasn't I invited?"

"The clue's in the name."

The North Yorkshire countryside is gorgeous at this time of year and my colleague Rachel and I were very conscious that we were probably going to have the best day of the school year and we were being paid for the privilege. (Following last year's trip Jagtar and I were not allocated to the same coach.) We couldn't help wondering what life was like back at the Titanic without our finest and best (staff, of course) to moderate the behaviour of the rest.

"Sir. Will there be toilets here."

"No Emily, we're in the army now. You have to use a bush."

On arrival we waited in the coach for the formalities to be completed.

"That soldier's cute." (from somewhere behind me).

"Which one?"

"The one with the green beret and camouflage combats."

Jagtar, Tim and I found each other. They got the laughter about my legs over and done with and we set off, having released our charges into the tender care of Her Majesty's forces. Two minutes later Jagtar and I had managed the obstacle course of some orange tape marking the entrance but Tim was nowhere in sight. He caught us up.

"You'll have to keep up Tim. This is the army. We can't afford to hang about for stragglers. You'll compromise our operational efficiency."
We passed the usual band of furtive teenage smokers - none of our kids was there - and then the serried ranks of portaloos where a relieved (in every sense) Emily was emerging.

One of the first tents we passed caught my attention because of the sound of brass band music. As a brass player, I can never pass a brass band and I stood in the entrance of the tent listening to a beautifully rendered piece of music. There were fifty or so seats set out for the audience and exactly none of them was occupied. How dispiriting for them. Teenagers eh? Musical Philistines. (Please don't tell me how cultured the Philistines actually were. It's a turn of phrase. Get over it.) I was approached by an officer with a hopeful look on his face bordering on desperation.

"Are you a musician?"

"Yes, I play the Euphonium." There is a strong chance I was the only person he had spoken to in the whole three days of the event. Five minutes later - "Don't dawdle. You'll compromise our operational efficiency" Thanks Tim. I don't think there's ever any need for sarcasm - I was released with a smart corporate briefcase containing brochures, a C.D. a key ring, various pens and a military band arm band. A result I felt. I bet you haven't got one of these Tim.

When I caught them up Jagtar was reading his meal token: "Real adventure for real appetite."

"It'll be bush tucker." I told Tim.

We availed ourselves of the complimentary tea in the teachers' tent and went outside for the first arena display. It was an artillery display. A lot of men were running around pretending to shoot each other. Several took a dive and lay there in the sun. Call me a cynic but I used to do that when I was seven and I wasn't sure that it was entirely helpful for the baddies to be wearing tea towels on their heads either. An orange flare was set off.

"Orange. That's so last year's colour." noted a passing girl. Call me a cynic again but I don't think she was fully entering into the spirit of the occasion. Tim had a brainwave for future trips.

"Instead of bringing four coachloads of our best, why don't we bring a coachload of our worst and then we can turn this display into a firing squad."

We began to compile a list.

We wandered the displays. Arriving at the Royal Engineers tent we saw a jeep with its bonnet up and engine revealed.

"You could have done with this lot Jagtar when your car broke down.....because you'd run out of petrol."

At every display we were engaged in discussion by army personnel. I say we. I mean me. It was gratifying to feel that of the three of us I was perceived as the grown up. Grey hair clearly adds gravitas. A silly hat on the other hand, Jagtar, adds nothing.

As we toured around, the compare in the main arena was trying to drum up enthusiasm. We could hear it over the loudspeaker system. He was flogging a dead horse.

"Come on now. Let's have a Mexican wave. You start in this corner. Go. Yeah. No. Look, you're supposed to join in next. Let's try again. Go. Oh dear, the fat kid missed it."

We passed a dizzying array of military hardware and some awesome vehicles. We wandered over to a table not swarming with kids pointing things at each other and shouting " BANG!" We were able to look at some high-tech vision equipment. Jagtar examined his view intently before putting his hand down on the table. There was an explosion nearby.

"Look, I'll only tell you this one more time, Jagtar. Don't touch anything that looks like a red button!"

We moseyed on, passing the Intelligence Corps tent. It was empty. It was, one felt, a bad omen.

We climbed into a strange looking humveetype thingy. We were instantly at home. Ah, boys and our toys. Tim and Jagtar looked the part: ("Don't touch ANY red buttons.") I was just pleased to take the weight off my feet for a bit. The squaddie in charge told us that this vehicle was deployed to "... do the analysement ..." of soil and air samples where there had been suspected nuclear, biological or chemical activity. "It was widely used in Iraq." He told us proudly.

Hmmm...yes, now, about that. Should we tell him?

I was aware that there were an increasing number of passing salmon-pink children. Also, I felt, so not this year's colour. I soon spotted one of ours. A lovely girl with sandy coloured hair.

"Have you got any sun screen Alex?"

"I have, Sir."

"Are you wearing it?"

"No."

There's something about the teenage mind there. I just can't put my finger on it.....

"I don't know how you recognise these kids" said Jagtar.

"I know. It must be confusing for you. All us white people look the same."

"I was thinking more of the daubed green and brown war paint they're wearing."

I look again.

"I hope they're applying it themselves." said Tim as several girls sauntered by with their upper chest area liberally covered with large green hand-prints.

We passed a Gatling gun. Is that a verb? To gattle? Suggestions on a postcard.

We headed towards the lunch tent, stopping only to allow me to play to my military strength - the placing of country names on a fuzzy-felt world map. They tried to catch me out with North Korea. Amateurs.

She didn't have a place name for every country.

"Where's Estonia?" I asked innocently.

"There." she said confidently, pointing at Belarus.

I fear for the future.

Lunch was a triumph of field catering. What a feast! I had a chicken korma and a large piece of chocolate gateaux. When I came back from a surprisingly pleasant portaloo, Jagtar was on his fourth piece of gateaux. The poor lad: she clearly doesn't feed him properly.

"Anyone here from Newcastle?" (over the speaker system). A ragged cheer in response. "Ah, well, there aren't so many cars being broken into while your here then."

"Imagine" said Tim "that we were drugged by the meal and woke up to discover we'd taken the King's shilling. What would we do?"

I looked at my friends, both of whom work out - and it shows - and felt suddenly sad. As it happens we all harboured a sneaking wish that we had signed up when we were younger. Tim and Jagtar teach I.T. It's hard to imagine the army couldn't find a role for them in Tim's scenario.

"You could be Padre." Jagtar consoled me. Actually, I couldn't because I'm too old although that is a role I hanker after. All was not lost, however. Later on a Colonel, no less, in the careers tent told me the back way in.

"Join the Territorial Army. They're crying out for chaplains."

Ah, just the small ongoing problem of my not actually having been ordained yet.

We stood around gazing skywards waiting for the parachute drop while the poor compare exhausted his repertoire of time-filling details about altitude, body position, speed and cloud cover.

And then we saw them, smoke flares showing their descent pattern. It was, indeed, an object lesson in how to do it. Every one of the six touched down on the target cross in the centre of the arena. It was just magic. Unfortunately the motorcycle display team that followed was not. I don't doubt that they were skilled, don't get me wrong but, call me a cynic if you must, I couldn't actually work out the practical application to military life in Helmand Province of eight guys hanging off one motorcycle at the same time.

"Sorry Tim?"

Six guys and two girls. I stand corrected.

And then home, with Rachel and I sharing a bowl of strawberries as we sped through the lush countryside in the sunshine. It really doesn't get much better than this. And only three weeks before Tim, Jagtar and I can go to Lightwater Valley on the Year 10 end of year trip.

Teaching? It's a man's job if you're tough enough!