For some of us, the early days in Germany were strange. The days had flown by since our arrival, and we were to find out if the administration was as good as the move over. The first monthly bank payments were due in the German bank accounts – it was the last working Friday of the month.
The Regimental Pay Office had been making casual payments and, cashing UK cheques for the first few weeks. To the relief of the Paymaster and, I have to say, most of us, the majority of the accounts were credited without a hitch and, the few problems were quickly rectified.
In the UK, the Midland Bank had been chosen by the regiment to handle the massive number of accounts, but in Dortmund, the task went to the Commerzbank. The choice was left open to all personnel which bank they used. Those of us who knew no better went with the Pay Office recommendation.
Some of the guys with experience of serving in Germany signed up with the Dresdner Bank, others with the Volksbank, and still others with the Sparkasse. I was happy to have my money going somewhere, but I took a precaution.
I requested 70% of my pay went into my new account with the Commerzbank but, the remainder was paid into my Midland Bank account in Shoeburyness. It was an idea which came to me the week before leaving the UK. Time would tell if I’d done the right thing.
The cellar rooms under the SHQ offices were designated as the place to build a Squadron bar. Until the work started, we were given permission to use it in the way soldiers had become accustomed over the years.
I learned, to the average squaddie the ingredients were simple. A bar required a location, sufficient alcohol, some like-minded mates, and somebody to control any cash-flow. Optional extras were the inclusion of a roof, some upturned crates as seats and, crates used as tables if the deluxe version was sought.
Daniel Downes was the clerk from SHQ, and he volunteered to be the first barman. In the early days, this entailed him being supplied with funds from the SSM to buy stock. It was then up to Daniel to make sure he ended the week with enough cash for what he’d sold. He was also responsible for keeping the main cellar clean and tidy.
For a young lad like me, there was a lot to discover about life in Germany, and I’d only heard about a tiny percentage. There were horror stories about guys turning to alcohol right away, so I avoided it on most nights. I’d been a member of the weekend crowd in the UK, but I wasn’t sure if I’d survive it in Germany.
To cut down my time in the impromptu bar in the cellar, I went to the Globe cinema in camp a couple of nights a week. Ash and Jeff were of the same mind as me, and we would go together. The cinema was small and, the movies weren’t bad. The key thing was the avoidance of drinking all night, every night.
I liked the cinema because it might be showing a recent release or something which appealed due to its popularity. We were delighted to watch ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’, which was the first of Clint Eastwood’s famous ‘spaghetti’ westerns. It was about three years old, but a great movie.
I’d been in Dortmund for over a month, but hadn’t dared go downtown. I was wary, having seen the condition of the guys returning from the town over the weekends. I kept my fears to myself. I’d know when the time was right.
I stayed in the room on some nights. To keep me occupied, I would draw, write letters home, listen to music, or visit one of the other guys for a chat. On one occasion after seeing a movie, I went to the NAAFI with Ash and Jeff.
The topic of pirate radio stations was raised, which had long been an interest of mine. It was an area of common ground because Ash and Jeff were heavily into pirate radio stations and, the freedom they represented. Ash had a dream of one day broadcasting a pirate radio show. He was such a good man I found it hard to believe he’d do anything to knock officialdom.
My 19th birthday arrived and, was to prove a day I’d remember. I spent the morning at work getting on with routine jobs on the detachment. I considered treating myself to a visit to Dortmund – mainly because I figured a Monday would be a quieter evening. I was still worried about getting into a regular, heavy drinking habit.
I’d been writing to Louise at least twice a week since my earliest days in Dortmund, but I’d only received one letter each fortnight. I continued to tell myself there would be a good reason. There was a good reason and, a letter of explanation arrived.
The letter took up a standard writing pad page, and was dated Monday 23rd August, so even the well-meaning mother had difficulty getting it posted straight away. The message was short and sharp. We picked up our mail at the parade before lunch-break, so I had been sitting on my bed reading.
“I cannot fucking believe it,” I said and, stood to move to the window.
In the room at the time were Alan and, Cpl Larry Pryor. Larry was one of the married guys. He’d come up to help Alan organise the buying of his first new car. At my outburst, they looked at each other and, then both looked at me.
“Is it a Dear John mate?” Larry asked.
“Yeah,” I murmured. I dropped the letter on my bed, to land beside the unopened birthday card from my mother. I stared out of the window. I had to stop the other two seeing how upset I was.
Larry was from Bearsden, not far from my family home. He had a young family and had a reputation for helping out younger guys like me when we had issues. It was all very well, hearing stories about how everybody went through these things, but why me?
“There’s only one way to deal with it, mate,” Larry said.
I took a deep breath and half turned.
“How?” I said. My brow was furrowed, and I was aware of my eyes filling. I turned to the window again.
“Put it up on the notice board.”
“Are you taking the piss?” I said, once again only half turning.
“Jim,” Larry said. “If you pin your letter on the notice board the lads will have a laugh about it and, the whole matter will become a joke.” He paused. “Trust me, mate, you’ll get over it more quickly.”
“You’re fucking serious –” I started, as Larry headed to the door. Alan had already stood and was on his way out.
“Don’t let her screw your life up Jim,” Larry said at the doorway. “You’re a young fella. Learn from it and, move on.” Both he and Alan left the room and, my tears flowed. I had 20 minutes to get my act together before going back to work.
At work in the afternoon, nothing was said, so I figured neither Alan nor Larry had told anybody about my news. I had to be grateful for small mercies.
When it came to tea-time and, all the single lads had left the block, I pinned the letter in a prominent position on the troop notice board downstairs. I didn't feel much like drawing, writing letters, or doing anything else, so I showered and waited until our cellar bar opened.
I had a birthday to celebrate, sorrows to drown and, self-control to test.
Instead of beer, I asked Daniel for a Bacardi and Coke. Unknown to me, when I ordered the drink, I got a double measure. It was one of those things which happened in units in Germany. A spirit was only served in a single if you asked for a single.
At this stage, our bar was still a cellar with a 6-foot folding table for the bar, and a bunch of odd chairs, stools and crates around the place. I’d heard we were waiting for permission to fit the place out as a proper bar, but for now, I wasn’t concerned.
I enjoyed the sweet taste of the spirit with the addition of coke. There were very few guys in, but I was pleased to see Sam and Chas, so I joined them.
Sam, my drinking buddy from many nights in Southend-on-Sea, had become a much more serious character. He’d decided to get married, so he was saving like crazy.
“Hi mate,” he said. “I hear things have gone tits-up with your lass.”
“Yeah, mate. Her tits are up alright, but with some other fucker.”
“Just let her go, Jim,” Chas said. He was a really nice guy and a fellow Glasgow man. “If you promise not to cry into your drink, I’ll get the next round.”
“It’s a deal,” I said. I laughed louder than necessary and, we started a session which would go on for the rest of the evening.
During the evening, a dozen lads came down into the bar and, made stupid comments about ditching girlfriends. It was better after a few drinks they agreed. I began to get over the initial shock.
Several of them admitted laughing when they read the letter on the notice board. As the evening continued, I began to crack jokes. Before I lost track of where I was, it struck me Larry had been right. I didn’t remember leaving the bar, but it was when Daniel was closing.
It wasn’t my intention, but I hit the bottle for a couple of weeks. All my spare time was spent getting drunk and, I was unaware of smoking an alarming amount. Cigarettes were king-size and cheap because they were duty-free.
I lost track of time. Every day after work I had a shower and, went down to the cellar for a few drinks. Sometimes I went for a meal first. I knew I had to eat, occasionally.
Whether it’s a young soldier or, his civilian equivalent there appears to be three main attitudes to a drinking problem. There are those who prefer to distance themselves, standing back and watching. Next, some people commiserate, perhaps sponging the odd drink. Finally, there are the few who want to help. They will try in vain to pull the drinker back onto the straight and narrow.
I wasn’t without my share of sympathisers and, I couldn’t see them for what they really were. They were the soul of discretion when it came to listening to problems, but they were only really interested in getting a few free drinks. I had become dependent on a constant state of drunkenness in the evenings to remove the realities of the day. I didn’t recognise one type of person from another.
Mick Malone, a fellow Glaswegian and, heavy drinker had been in the army eight years. He’d only managed to get one stripe on his arm and, resolved to enjoy his time, so promotion wasn’t a big deal. Mick would drink a lot and, smoke a lot. He intended to leave the military on completion of his nine-year contract. As a lance corporal, he was sometimes given responsibility, but it was never much.
He enjoyed the military way of life because it put steady money in his pocket, so he was never short of a drink, a packet of ciggies, and the taxi fares downtown and, back. Not for him was this to be a career. He had no dream of becoming a corporal, sergeant, or God forbid anything higher. Mick wanted to do his bit and, leave it all behind.
It was in his nature to be friendly, which meant he was like an ornament in the Squadron bar. If the place were open, he’d be in there. When people went down for a drink and, to socialise, it was a man like Mick who always attracted company.
He was one of the regular drinkers back in Shoeburyness and, an original occupant of a bed-space in ‘The Swamp’.
Mick was a character and, people liked to be around him. There were evenings he might be on his own for five minutes, but it wasn’t often. If he ever needed solitude, he didn’t tell anybody. Strangely, we’d been regular companions back in the UK, but since I got my Dear John, I didn’t want to pour my heart out to a guy who always had a smile.
I recalled a brief chat with Mick one day in the compound.
“Hey Jimmy,” Mick had said. “Where the fuck, were you goin’ with that six-pack last night?”
“Back to my room,” I’d said. “Alan’s gone home to commence wedding plans, which means we’re going to lose him out of the block soon.”
“What about Geordie?”
“He was on duty, so I decided to stay in my room and get pissed.”
“Ah’ went through a phase like that when Ah’ was your age.” Mick had said and, laughed. “The days ran into one another.” He nodded at the memory. “You take it easy Jimmy. Okay?”
“Aye, thanks, Mick,” I’d replied and, it was peculiar how he’d mentioned the days running into each other.
I thought about what he’d said, but only for a few minutes.
Sunday 16th July 2017
My most recent publications:
Apart from this website, monthly updates, projects, and new titles appear on the News page
of my author website,
and on the
Work in Progress pages
of my writing blog.
All of my titles now have
Amazon-universal links, and preview / buy buttons.
You can buy directly or preview the book, and then if you choose to buy you are taken to
your local Amazon.
Links to my other sites
To get in touch or leave a comment, please feel free to use the Guestbook
Your message and details
are only seen by me.