The Junkman – 1953/54

Saturday morning, a glorious Saturday morning. In the gloomy, dappled light of the boatshed the business of “clean ship” goes on apace. As on every Saturday morning the tedium hours of scrubbing and polishing become more than the soul of a senior cadet can bear; all work, no play. The junior cadets on the other hand though more heavily afflicted by the rigours of the day, find a modicum of reassurance in the prospect of uninterrupted drudgery. Diversions tend generally to be detrimental to a “chum’s” well being, especially when this part of ship is manned by amongst others, Senior cadet Duigan and Senior cadet Foulis, two notorious “chumbashers”.

Already fertile minds are turning away from such mundane matters as the scrubbing of bottom boards, and these two young worthies rest upon their scrubbers, sharing the last millimetres of a dog end, eyeing the boatshed “chums” speculatively and discussing their grievous shortcomings. Sensing impending inquisition, the subjects of these discussions apply themselves with a frenetic energy to their tasks, endeavouring the meanwhile to render themselves as nearly as invisible as possible.

“Chum Cain. Is it true you can’t swim?” Foulis leans over the quay and prods with the handles of his scrubber the figure endeavouring to conceal itself under the bulwarks of the motor launch. A large lad with freckles and conspicuous red hair, Cain applies his polishing rag to a stanchion as though determined to dissolve it by friction and considers the alternative forms of response. Either path, he decides, carries the same unhealthy potential for danger. He smiles a sickly, freckled smile. “That’s Right,” he quavers. The casual note he is at pains to convey somehow fails. Dan Cain’s confession echoes across the boatshed like an admission of irredeemable sin.

The atmosphere becomes suddenly charged. As prior to all true spectator sports since the days of ancient Rome, there is a sense of impending drama. The broad and knowing grins of “chums” and “old salts” alike are the self same as those who watched and waited with awful relish, jostling each other on Tyburn Heath or listening for the rattle of the Revolutionary tumbrel.

Outside the sunlight sparkles yet joyfully on the waters of Gordon’s Bay harbour, while at the gangway, Captain G.V. Legassick R.N.V.R. D.S.C. steps forward to greet his guests as they alight from their car.

Dan Cain’s heart knows only the chill of the dread as he kicks off his tackies and sheds his paint besmattered overalls. Meanwhile the other “chums” under Duigan’s direction prepare one of the small radial davits mounted at the quay edge. His talent for staging productions of this sort verges on genius. A handy-billy is rigged from the davit head and Cain, now naked as the day he was born, is given a mouldy cork lifejacket to wear. The handy-billy is then hooked into the back of the lifejacket and at Duigan’s orders to “heave away handsomely’ the unfortunate Cain is levitated to hang suspended like some gross marionette. His worst moment comes when the guys are manned joyfully and he swings out over the ominous dark water. At the ecstatic cry of “let go the fall” the tackle runs out and he hurtles downward like a pink meteor to disappear with a satisfactorily explosive splash.

By now all attempts at “clean ship” have been abandoned. Cadets from the motorcruiser, the motor cutter and the neighbouring boat pen, even the senior cadet who is supposed to be keeping “sponsies” have gathered to enjoy the fun. Nobody is aware of the small party of adults engaged in civil conversation as they make their way down the jetty towards the boatshed.

Dan had completed several sallies thrashing his way spectacularly across the boatshed only to be yanked back again by the handy-billy. He has developed something which might pass for a stroke, succeeding in soaking most of the spectators in the process and is actually beginning to enter into the spirit of the thing. Preparations are made for his recovery. “O.K. chum, you’ve earned a week’s buck and two drags of my burn.” sobs Foulis, the tears of laughter running down his cheeks as Cain ascends before him a grotesque Venus rising from the waters. Three shadows fall across the doorway of the boatshed: the dapper figure of the Captain Superintendent accompanied by the parents of a prospective entrant cadet.

“The boatshed” announces Gus as he crossed the threshold “is used for the exercises in practical sea …” The pronouncement dies in a choking gasp.

In the shadowy interior of the boatshed a little tableau is momentarily frozen like a hold on one frame of an old movie. For that split second which is an age the gears driving the lives of all those young people clustered within slip a tooth. Every face is a mask of horror and disbelief. A little cameo; one to treasure for the rest of one’s days, one of those little peccadilloes which make life, especially life on the “Bothy” worth living and enable us to chuckle through it until ultimately we come to meet the swinging scythe. Only Dan hanging, dripping in his lifejacket lie a huge pink frog, is momentarily unaware of the cataclysmic turn of events.

He rotates slowly, gurgling the immortal words from My Fair Lady “Hey I think I’ve got it. -Oh ….!” The petrified “chums” let go the fall allowing the offensive sight to vanish once more beneath the water.

The minutes of the meeting of the Board of Control of the College for the following month contains the record of punishments (It was nearly the end of the year, 1953, the annual dance was in the offing):

J.C.C.s Partridge and Dominy: For failing to order S.C.s Foulis and Duigan to desist from bullying J.C. Cain – Disrated 1 week.
S.C.s Foulis and Duigan : For intimidating J.C. Cain – Not to come to the Dance until 21h00.
J.C. Cain: For allowing S.C.s Foulis and Duigan to teach him by force to swim in working hours, being indecently clad and utterly devoid of manners. – 3 cuts.

Now there’s justice for you ! And the phraseology ! -“For Allowing – To teach by force” and “in working hours” nogal. “Indecently clad” the lad didn’t have a stitch on. “Utterly devoid of manners” Ag shame Dan ! Is it possible, one may ask oneself, bearing in mind the warnings of modern educationalists, that young Daniel came through this whole experience emotionally unscathed. Dan and I sailed together on the old “Chanda” (B.I.S.-.N.Co) not long after and, on reflection he admitted to a deep feeling of resentment towards his tormentors, especially Foulis, for, not only had the week’s buck been forgotten in the aftermath but even the two promised drags on his burn had not been forthcoming. Such things can leave one with a terrible sense of deprivation.

We pondered also, the two of us, one day, while happily employed in clearing a blocked bilge strum; did those parents ever send their precious son to the Bothy?

Probably not. I think I would have though. In fact I did.