It’s Tommy this and Tommy that
And kick him out, the brute
The vehicle’s new, in fact not quite finished, and you’re yet to see what it can do. You think the road ahead is clear. But it’s a high performer, it’s temperamental and you’re not quite au fait with the gears.
So it is with youth on its way to maturity. And leaving home to join the Air Force as I did at seventeen, there was no parent in the passenger seat advising me to slow down, no back-seat older siblings pointing the way.
Fresh out of training, I was posted to RAF Marham in Norfolk to help maintain radar equipment fitted to the Vickers Valiants stationed there at the time. Flight Sergeant George Tomkin, known as Tommy to his subordinates though not to his face, was my boss.
I’d enjoyed basic training. Having read my Kipling and Kersh, the days on the parade square, the spit and polish, none of it had come as a surprise, and as I’d expected to be screamed at from six inches away, the drill sergeant’s saliva spraying into my eyes – ‘STOPBLINKINGYOUORRIBLELITTLEMAN!’- neither was I intimidated by the NCO’s.
So, to me, Tommy’s bad temper was acceptable: he was a Flight Sergeant – it was his job to be angry. Why he was universally disliked by everyone else was a mystery. Anyway, once I’d learned he’d been taken prisoner in Singapore, had spent three years on the Burma Railway, I would have forgiven him anything. I was a young seventeen and, still retaining my schoolboy, eager-to-please attitude to those I respected, would defend his name against insult, find any excuse for his boorishness.
I was employed in a large electronics bay as half of a two-man team servicing radar scanners. Actually, it was a one-man-one-woman team because my partner was a corporal WRAF who allowed me, when Tommy was out of ear-shot, to call her Judy. All these years later, in my mind’s eye, I see her as a beautiful, raven-haired young woman of about twenty-three-or-four. At the time, she was an unassailable older woman, the goddess I worshipped unashamedly. She knew it, the whole squadron knew it. And so did Tommy. I remember the straining button-holes on her blue RAF shirt and the playful cuffing I’d get each time she caught me ogling. She must have recognised my juvenile lust, though I suspect she rather enjoyed it.
But we made a good team: she with her fitters-course training and experience, me with my youthful strength and dexterity. And my Grammar School education of course. Any paperwork: incident reporting, requisition letters, all of it came my way. So the quality of the work we turned out was always of the highest standard, a fact that Tommy was aware of as much as anybody.
However, in my self-appointed role as squadron jester, I suppose I must have been a bit of an irritant, always first with the ‘witty’ retort; anything for a laugh. But my fellow airmen enjoyed it, Judy too, though a finger would fly to her lips should I sail too close to the wind, should I take my eye off the road for a second too long.
I’d passed my Senior Aircraftsman exams and was promoted – bliss, Judy kissed me – so it was time for my fitters course. But before that came the lead-in: ten weeks of mathematics, physics and English at Number Two Radio School, Yatesbury. With my education, it was a ten week holiday. High on the Wiltshire Downs, I enjoyed the summer of 1960.
Back to Marham again, and Judy’s undisguised pleasure at finding me waiting for her that first morning pleased me more than I can say. Having done well on the course, gaining a pass with distinction, I was also looking forward to what Tommy had to say. When it came, it wasn’t what I’d hoped for.
Those early roads we travel may seem straight at the time, but they’re narrow and walled on both sides. At that age, you’re accident-prone. It might be the distraction of a pretty girl, your own face in the driving mirror or something as innocent as an unexpected sneeze. But at the speed at which you’re driving, scrape those walls and there’ll be bits left behind for sure. Those walls are old, established.
‘So you’re back, are you. Have you grown up while you’ve been away or are you still a little boy?
All those years ago yet I can still hear those last three words. Surrounded by my peers, with Judy at my side, never, before or since, have I felt so humiliated, so hurt. So this was how loyalty was repaid!
But he was right. I was still a boy; tears certainly pricked at my eyes, and the smile I’d had waiting for this man I’d liked and admired froze to a grimace on my lips. Nobody moved; only Judy spoke.‘Welcome back, Davy,’ she said, squeezing my shoulder, ‘come and tell me about the course.’
But I didn’t feel like talking so after a few questions she left me to my thoughts. Tommy, however, pleased with the pain he’d inflicted, wanted more. Loud and clear from his glass-panelled office, he observed several times that morning that the little boy was still sulking.
Superficial damage to a new car – it could be no more than a chip in the paintwork – is lamented far more keenly than it would be on an older model.
I suppose, although I didn’t realise it at the time, that what hurt me most was his exposure of a fact I’d thought only I was aware of: I was still a boy. But at what age does manhood arrive? We all mature at different rates. And in our culture, there are no rites of passage.
You may swerve back on line and continue along the road apparently undamaged. But the chassis may have been twisted, affecting the way it drives.
In fact, Tommy’s remark became my watershed; it changed me. Virtually overnight. No longer Jack-the-Lad, I stepped back from the lime-light, allowed others to entertain. I was never as care-free again.
It had positive effects too. In an attempt to prove to myself (and to Judy) that I really was a man, I started cross-country running. It takes a man to run in ankle-deep mud up a ploughed hill in February. Before that year was out, I was representing Bomber Command.
Did I seek vengeance? Yes, and it was sweet.
It’s a couple of weeks later, just before I go on my fitters course. A pal and I are on a cross-country training run along the banks of the River Nar and a couple of miles out we come across Tommy fishing. Away where all anglers go while watching their little red floats, he doesn’t see us. Upstream, finding a stack of grubbed-up blackthorn awaiting collection by the farmer, we tip it into the fast-flowing current then watch as Tommy tries, unsuccessfully, to save his rods and keep-nets from being dragged downstream. Still elated, we find his bike in the lane. We hurl it high and deep into the biggest briar and bramble patch you’ve ever seen.
Tommy had been right: I did have a lot of growing up to do.