Monday, 15 October 2007

The Mast

Been there. Seen it. Almost done it. Click for larger image

At the age of 15, in 1964, I managed to get special dispensation to leave the Grammar School I attended having been lucky enough to pass my 11+ and went off to sea in the Royal Navy. We still had one then. Led then by officers who had fought in the War. My first Skipper, was Captain Godfrey Place V.C. of Tirpitz fame and a fine man he was.

I soon found out, that I had not run off to sea, but rather, straight back to another type of school. H.M.S. Ganges, outside of Ipswich. It would be another year before I sailed of to the delights of Singapore and the Far East. Mythical places to an untraveled valley boy and two and half years before I would return home after a real cruise around half the world loaded down with presents and memories.

Why I chose to pass up on the chance to go onto higher educations, was all down to comics. I had read a story in The Wizard or it might have The Rover and it told of the work that the Radio Operators carried out in the R.N. I was hooked and nothing would stop me. Besides my father had also gone off to sea as a young boy before joining the army in time for the war to start, so how could he refuse me?

So where is this post going? I would like to say that it ends in the triumph of the spirit over human cowardice but sadly it does not. It is one of failure and a boy learning that in life, sometimes you cannot succeed no matter how brave your heart. Sometimes failing makes you stronger.

My time at Ganges was one of the best times in my life, shooting, sailing, boxing. We had to do it all. No health and safety for us. We were allowed to live.

In school as well as continuing our education we also learned the skills of seamanship. Rules of the road, navigation and in the case of the "sparkers", typing, morse code, etc, etc.

Well Sundays after Church Parade, the day was our own within the confines of the camp. And that is when it happened. I looked at The Mast that dominated the skyline and realised I must climb to the top. I did not want to but i somehow knew at the age of 15 I must climb the mast and stand atop it and salute.

Like all newcomers to Ganges, one of the first things you were compelled to do whether you wanted to or not, was climb up to the Devils Elbow half way up and then back down. That was fearful enough for me the first time. But after awhile it held no fears and I would take a Tarzan book out onto one of the yardarms and pass the afternoon away from the thousand other boys in the camp, reading of how Tarzan learnt to read the black ants that crawled over the pages of books.

The very next Sunday I made my attempt. Telling none of my friends. I went early and started the climb. Past the Devils Elbow and up. Higher than I had ever been. Finally I was up by the Top Yardarms and the view was breath taking. I could do this. I was frightened but I could do it.

Looking Down at the Devils Elbow

I took a breather and looked up and the sky seemed to spin around the button that was atop the mast. I felt dizzy and sick and clung to the mast. It narrowed to the extent that I could now just about wrap my arms around.

I started then to shin up the last 15 or 20 feet to the top. I was petrified and then a small respite . Six feet or so from the top was a bar that extended just a few feet either side of the mast and was used during manning the mast when one boy would stand either side. I sat there. I sat there a long time and looked up and then down. Like a cat, I had become too frightened to go up or down. What was to be done. I was convinced I would fall and the net below would not save me.

But what drives a boy on? Fear of dying or fear of being laughed at? Way below and on the other side of the parade ground, a small group had gathered to see what fool was attempting The Mast this time.

I had to go on. And so I reached the top. Clutching hold of the Lightening Conductor that protruded about 3 feet from the centre of the "Button" which was about 18" in diameter. I sat atop the Mast. I had made it.

But I knew in my heart, I had achieved nothing. I must stand. Stand and grip the metal rod between my knees whilst holding the top of the rod with my hands. Then release the rod and stand erect and then salute. Only then would I have climbed The Mast.

I could not do it. I got to the half raised position and my whole body started trembling and I was forced to sit and clutch the rod for dear life. How many times I tried, I cannot say. But at every attempt my body would tremble out of my control and make it impossible for me to stand.

My hands by now were numb from cold and yet sweat was pumping from me.

I had failed. Slowly I made my way down the mast and walked back to my mess. The small crowd had vanished. No one likes to see a boy holding back tears. It's not done you see.


Sir HM said...

So you were Ganges - enlisted at 15.

I was Halton - enlisted at 15 (google Trenchard Brats). My uncle, a 37 yr man (Warrant Officer), introduced me to the idea; used to tell me I'd love it ... when I wasn't around he used to tell my dad that if I could stick it as a Halton Brat I could stick anything.

I know of one other blogger who was Ganges - enlisted at 15.

Wonder if there's a mindset that develops when you enlist at such a young age? One that says 'I will NOT be pushed around another inch'.

Sir HM said...

Just an afterthought ...

Yeah, but you went back at a later time and did it, eh?

The Green Arrow said...

An Halton man hey? Excellent. You stood by your beds and we stood by our bunks.

At HMS Ganges we were referred to as TROGS - Trained Ratings of Ganges.

HMS Ganges also stood for:

Her Majesty Says Girls Are Not Getting Enough S***s

Strangely enough I did attempt it one more time. Again I failed because my body through my mind let me down once more. I wish I could have told you different.

Good Luck and Salute

Perhaps one day when we rebuild our forces we can reopen the schools for the Brats and Trogs of this world. They went on to be the backbone of the services.