Taking Off

July 9, 2016


I had always thought that we, as members of the Airborne Brigade, shipped out to Northern Ireland in support of the civil powers, in 1968, but apparently it was in the late summer of 1969 according to Google. So much for memory.
We left Southampton by sea, aboard the Sir Galahad, later achieving renown when she was attacked, set on fire and sunk by Argentinean aircraft in the Falklands war. We had a rough crossing. A staff sergeant circulated with a huge jar of what we were told were sea sickness pills but, as we didn’t relish becoming sea sick, we refused them. Disembarking at Belfast docks we were ferried by coach to a disused civilian aerodrome called Long Kesh. Much later this would become the site for the infamous ‘H’ Blocks of the Maze prison.
For accomodation we were assigned two dilapidated and abandoned semi-detached cottages at the side of the over-grown airfield. We used two canopies from three-ton Bedfords to cover the gaping holes in the roofs. Behind the houses were two barns or byers, the onetime home of long-gone cattle. We cleaned and scrubbed them for use as a recreation room and one of the lads, named Adrian, who was artistic by nature and a gifted painter, decorated the walls with representations of horses’ heads using black and white paint, which was all that was available.
He also did a series of funny caricatures that almost everyone thought captured the spirit, and the vanity, of the person displayed. Needless to say, I thought mine lacked veracity and frankly missed the genuine essence of my personality. For an indeterminable and totally unconnected reason Adrian wound up getting all the rotten clean up jobs around the place for a while.
At the end of the airfield, next to the Maze Racecourse, was the Maze public house which was a popular place for the locals to partake of an aperitif or six prior to dinner. My outstanding memory while at the bar there was, while feeling expansive and full of bonhomie, after several Guinness and a couple of Maundy’s, saying to a little Irishman waiting to be served, “So, what’s all trouble about over here, Paddy?” and he replied, without even looking at me, “Bastards like you calling us Paddy.”
Much of the time we were on the streets of Belfast patrolling the Catholic areas to protect the inhabitants from sectarian violence. At first we were welcome but as time progressed things cooled due to the IRA’s dislike of anything British and passing out the word to deter fraternization. So, distribution of pots of tea and potato scones, handed out at 3 am by little old ladies grateful for our presence, soon ended.
When we were not on duty in deepest darkest Belfast we devised our own entertainment. We had two shotguns and used to shoot rabbits to supplement our dry rations. However, due to duty commitments, we could only do this at night and found that the ideal equipment was a land rover, glaring headlights, a shotgun and the shooter perched on the roof with his feet resting on the bonnet (hood).
Jim the Pig and I used to do this frequently — until the accident.
In explanation, I should say Jim acquired the epithet ‘Pig’ not because of ugliness, he was quite a personable guy, or a slovenly nature, nor because of a brutal temperament but due to his habit of saving all his loose change, for the next binge, in a porcelain piggy bank.
One night we set off, with me at the wheel and James on the roof of the Rover armed with one of the guns. The idea was to belt full speed down the runway, with no lights, then suddenly switch them on to mesmerize the rabbits nibbling at the weeds growing through the tarmac. For some reason I almost missed the patch where the bunnies were usually the most numerous and suddenly applied the brakes. The depression in the canvas above my head suddenly levelled out as Jimmy went airborne and I remember admiring his presence of mind, as in preparation for landing, at approximately twenty feet above my head, he reminded himself by hollering “Safety catch.”

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