The Junkman – 1953/54

The Junkman first graced our newsletter pages a few years ago with an account of a swimming lesson in Gordon’s Bay. After many hints we were pleased to receive this four part account of life at Gordon’s Bay and I have tacked on The Swimming Lesson as part five as this gem deserves to be recorded more permanently than simply in a newsletter.

We tumble from the tailgate of the trooper onto the concrete surface of the quarterdeck, gazing around us in awe and apprehension, an ill-assorted gaggle of adolescents, covered in acne and confusion. As we lug our suitcases up the starboard roadway, our self confidence, already in tatters, is further shredded under the blasting instruction of an unbelievably aggressive being, a Cadet Captain, barely older than ourselves. Up the steps and through the narrow South doorway, images of the outside world fading behind us. We file in silence past huge, teak memorial boards and step, for the first time into the space which, for the next twelve months, we will look upon as home – the Main Hall.

A stone frigate is a ship ashore. Though the training ships afloat in the 19th century have mostly vanished, the spirit, the discipline, the routine and the atmosphere are carefully preserved. In other, sister establishments, elsewhere in the world, cadets are housed and trained in buildings such as these, unintended and often less than ideal for the purpose. Yet, in a service accustomed to doing its best with whatever is provided, there is no option to success. Future ships officers of high calibre are continuously turned out from material every bit as unpromising as our own forlorn, little group.

A plain, lofty barn of a building, the main hall is nonetheless a happy compromise. Transformed by whitewash, by paint and by untold hours of scrubbing and polishing, it now surrounds us with an atmosphere of efficiency, brass-bound tradition and pride. Seventy five junior cadets are housed, their bunks lining the two long walls in pairs, precisely spaced. The double row of indestructible, grey, steel lockers, running down the centre, hold their worldly necessities. A wooden box structure, suspended beneath the roof at the South end, houses the library and the Padre’s office (Cloud Nine). Below, and hidden by the memorial boards, a couple of hand basins, two mirrors and a urinal serve the last-minute, ablutionary needs of these cadets during the crescending chaos which precedes each morning divisions.

An ancient loudspeaker, suspended above the library forewarns each bugle call with a premonitory crackle. At the North end, Lord Horatio Nelson gazes sardonically down towards the double doors which remain forever open onto the starboard roadway. A canvas curtain screens out the worst of the gales in Winter and lends to the morning race to the showers an element of adventure. Like the water jump in steeplechase course, the real hazard lies hidden beyond. His Lordship, one imagines, would approve the arrangement.

At the first, early morning crackle of the speaker, feet are already fumbling in the dark for slippers, arms thrusting into gown sleeves in the forlorn hope that the old salts have left a little hot water. As one gathers speed, soap and towel in one blur of frenetic agility, the lights flare blindingly overhead and Reveille shrills its frantic command: Charlie, Charlie wake up and get up. The stampede is on. It has some of the ingredients of the Charge of the Light Brigade: Like those heroes who charged the guns, we hurl ourselves at the canvas shroud and, it seems that, all the world wonders. What lies beyond ? Darkness ? Yes, darkness for sure, and an immediate turn, hard-a-port. But is it raining ? What obstacles lie in our path ? Has some fun-loving old salt, perhaps placed a strategic bucket or two in the shadows ?

A cadet captain, already immaculate following his early morning call, encourages the rush, like a cowhand posted at the corral gate, a hard-heeled slipper swiping at any flying, pyjama-clad rump within reach. FLY – WHOP – “Ouddaheerchums. Iwanttaseethe – WHOP – laastwunnouddaheer !” We burst through into watery darkness. Hell ! Its raining and there are bodies sprawled round about. The pre-dawn air is purple with expletive . Somebody has swabbed the cement lintel with soft soap. Original ! Tumbling over a crawling figure one skins bare knees on wet tarmac. The towel is now soaked and muddied, the soap encrusted with grit. No matter, we are on our feet and the dim light of the shower room is visible a hundred yards up ahead.

As we canter onward, the last cobwebs of sleep falling away, we consider fleetingly, our collective sanity: The dog back home has it better than this. What am I doing here ? Those beds ! Built of cast iron to a design based on the Forth Bridge, they can, we soon discover, be dismantled. To spirit away the components of a cadet captains bunk by night and reassemble it in the middle of the quarterdeck – an exquisite adventure, undiluted by the prospect of its enforced repetition while others snigger and slumber. Pick up thy bed and walk junior cadet – to the end of the breakwater.

The counterpanes, bright blue and white with the Bothie crest worked into the centres, must be arranged just so. Towels neatly folded over each footrail, dressing gowns hung tidily on either side at the head and slippers placed with precision beneath the foot. And those mattresses ! – stuffed with coir, the fibrous husks of coconuts gathered on some long-forgotten, tropic shore, yield not at all. They seem obstinately to conform to the shape of their previous occupants. But the sheets came with you from home, last laundered by your Mom. This bed is to become a haven, a piece of personal space, this and your locker. When one is in one’s bunk one is relatively safe from the attention of old salts and hence from chastisement. Provided one neither falls foul of some zealous cadet captain nor succumbs to the temptation of taunting the elderly but irascible night watchman, one can sleep the deep, innocent sleep of youth from Rounds and Pipe down to Reveille.

After a while the lumpy coir will relent and begin to mould itself to ones personal contours so that, at the end of each toilsome day this bunk will welcome you like an old friend. Top bunks are nice, they offer a better view of ones surroundings and are easier to make but they have the serious disadvantage of making their occupants far too visible and hence vulnerable. Even though it be a bottom bunk, one can glimpse from here the outside world, the ridge of the Hottentots Holland Range is just visible through the windows set high in the Eastern wall opposite. At the close of a Summers day one can watch the last, pastel tones fade from the upper slopes to the hallowed strains of Last Post. The evocative, pedestrian phrases echo through the whole ship, those pauses reflective, compelling in their extraordinary timing. Nothing ragged, no faults, no fluffs, steady, measured and confident. Powerful muti ! For we have buglers; Snake Wrede, Torie, Pretorious, Parpenpoos, Bester and others.

Peace, rest, another day in the life of a chum passes serenely astern. Whisper who dares. The call fades on its final, solitary and unanswered note. Aching bones and tired muscle withal a sense of belonging comes with closing consciousness: You are becoming a part of something ever to be a part of you . You know now why you are here.