I was searching in the attic of our house for something to stow odd items tidily in our motor caravan when I came across my old RAF kitbag. (For those who haven’t seen one the Serviceman’s kitbag was a strong canvas cylinder with one end closed and the other secured by a flap and a ring of brass eyelets threaded with a short length of rope). It was the main item of luggage in which to pack the RAF kit that had to be carried when the owner was travelling. It was cheap to produce, simple and practical. Mine often doubled as a pillow on those long train journeys we had to make. Packing it needed a great deal of patience but with practice it could be done.
What memories flooded back as I sat there in the near darkness. I felt the stiff coarse texture of canvas with my RAF number stencilled across proclaiming that I was no longer a name – just Number 2449273 and I had started my National Service in October 1949.
I was transported back to Padgate. A world of damp and cold. A world of screaming Drill Instructor Corporals who ranked several steps above any god we worshipped. I felt again the hard boots crashing down on the parade ground, smelled the smell of brass metal polish and the blanco with which we had to put on the webbing straps of our uniform. The odour of the floor polish with which the lino of our living hut had to be glossed until “ I can see my face in it” to quote our ramrod stiff backed Corporal. I remembered too the RAF meals which were only eaten when the pangs of hunger overcame the revulsion of food that I would have not have given to my dog. (It was said that the food was alright until the cooks got their hands on it).
Six weeks of hard drill training, loss of liberty and instant obedience to orders did a lot to change this arrogant, self centred young man. He came to accept that the world didn’t revolve around him.
As the packed days wore on pain was replaced by pride as our Flight progressed from a bewildered set of youths to a co-ordinated body of smartly uniformed airmen responding as one to the commands of the drill sergeant on the parade ground. We came from all corners of the British Isles and all walks of life. Some were apprentices and University students whose National Service had been deferred so that they could complete their studies but most eighteen year olds like me.
National Service was a mixing pot that gave us all the valuable experience of learning how others lived. I rather wish that my own son had benefited by Recruit Basic Training at Padgate .
“Are you alright up there? You’ve been a long time” My wife’s voice came up through the attic hatchway ending my reverie and bringing me back to 2006. Yes, the kitbag is back in use after all these years stuffed with spare bedding in the motor caravan. I’m sure I will think of my RAF days again when I’m on holiday.