GOING TO CARDINGTON
In 1956 I joined the Royal Air Force. It was a strange mixture of choice and compulsion. In those days, all men of my age had to do compulsory National Service. No choice. The Royal Air Force was a choice between the three services, chosen principally because my father had been in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. So a multi-shaded, multi-faceted choice. Aptitude tests had been taken. An embarrassing medical in a draughty church hall with lots of other young men. A hearing test that I failed until my ears were syringed out. An eye test, with and without spectacles. Not air crew, then. Culminating in the first week of September, with papers ordering arrival at Royal Air Force Cardington by 6 p.m. on the appointed date. An official travel warrant, the first of many.
Although my family and I had been expecting something of the sort for weeks, there was a sudden flurry of activity. Personal items to be purchased anew: new toothbrush, new shaving equipment, a letter writing kit so mother could be assured of my comfort and safety when away from her apron strings. I was, had been, a mummy’s boy, much to my father’s disappointment. A visit to my local railway station, now a well known second hand book shop. For the man in the ticket office, my errand was clearly a matter of routine. He knew where Cardington was although there was no railway station there. His instructions for train times, places to change, even how I would be picked up were clear and succinct. There was no open window of opportunity to get lost.
The great day came. We walked the mile or so to the railway station: mother, father and little brother. For once, my brother was very quiet. The local train, a familiar feature of going to the big city for the soccer match, steamed gently, filling the platform with the tang of rail travel and the expectation of grit in the eye.
‘Now look your father in the eye. He’s expecting it.’
It was a feature of my life at that stage, that I found looking my father - and anyone in authority - in the eye, difficult. Steeling myself at the train window, I looked father in the eye and found someone new, someone different. No longer the tyrant scornful of a namby pamby son, but someone who appreciated that I was soon to go through the routines and rituals he had experienced, the same traumas, although strictly speaking, I was not going to war, leaving wife and son, as he had.