Twelve months later I found myself working away in a filthy, oily inspection pit beneath a stricken and equally filthy Land Rover. My mind wasn’t really on the job. The nature of my work had changed dramatically since my posting to Bielefeld and so had my mindset. That morning almost the very first thing I’d done after beginning work was to skin my knuckles badly on a rust pitted chassis member after a stubborn bolt had sheared off while I’d struggled to free it. It had opened up older scabs and livid grazes, already sore from previous maltreatment. My ruined hands, riddled with dermatitis caused by prolonged contact with stinking diesel fuel, were a constant and irritating confirmation of my current feelings about the dead end trade I had chosen to pursue. Vehicle mechanic. What had I been thinking.
I wore my beret as I worked which helped protect my scalp and hair but invariably my face would become blackened by rust impregnated grease from the frequent wiping away of sweat. Likewise my neck was pitted and embedded with unsightly black dots as the filth worked its way right into my skin where it stubbornly remained, immune to even the most vigorous daily scrubbing. I was convinced that I would have been less filthy if I’d chosen to work in a coal pit.
Each day panned out the same. I’d begin early by putting myself through a brief workout or maybe a short run. Then a shower followed by a hearty breakfast in the canteen before reporting to the workshops to begin work. I’d start cheerfully enough, enjoying a bit of banter with the lads but as the hours passed and the work assigned to me proved to be yet more of the same drudgery my enthusiasm would wane. All I thought about was knocking off time and the prospect of a few beers in the NAAFI later or perhaps an evening in the company of my girlfriend. Of course there were better days but this wasn’t shaping up to be one of them and I was feeling more depressed than usual.
I no longer got to take part in the manoeuvres and exercises that I’d enjoyed during my time with the infantry. There had been little opportunity to go and train in more satisfying, physically demanding or exciting activities even though I had made an effort to go on climbing and skiing trips during my brief periods of leave. But I hadn’t so much as fired a rifle on the ranges or spent a night under the stars since my arrival in Bielefeld. There was no boxing club or opportunity to pursue my passion for canoeing or any of the other physical activities I had once enjoyed taking part in. The types of activities that had played a part in attracting me into the army as a youngster. Refusing to go under, I still made an effort to keep myself fit and strong but the life of an army vehicle mechanic in that particular workshop was a joyless one with little satisfaction or reward and I couldn’t wait to be given my freedom.
My current situation was fostering a deep disaffection which was eroding my very soul, nibbling away at my personality until I became frustrated and disillusioned about everything. It was as if the stuffing had been knocked out of me and with it my enthusiasm and ambition. Even my long awaited promotion to Lance Corporal hadn’t materialised. I felt as if I’d been swept into a dirty, oily corner by the army and forgotten about.
One night, after taking a long hard look at myself assisted by a skinfull of strong beer, I had taken a decision. The following morning, first thing before I’d had time to change my mind I’d marched into the COs office and informed him that I wished to apply for a discharge from the army by purchase. I would buy myself my freedom. My reasoning was that at twenty three years old I was still young enough to start again, to retrain at something more in keeping with my personal interests and ambitions. There was a whole world waiting out there for me to explore and find what I was looking for.
However, since my application I was yet to receive a response. It had been several months and the frustration of not knowing one way or another was getting to me. The way it worked was that a board comprising of senior officers sat twice a year and considered all of the applications that had been made since the previous sitting, allowing a predetermined percentage of the applicants to leave depending on their circumstances and service record. My record and reputation had been without blemish over more recent times so the decision of whether to let me go or not might have been in the balance. However my lack of promotion suggested to me that I wasn’t particularly well thought of and the one major black mark I had against my name, the AWOL incident in Holland and its aftermath, made me quietly confident that my application had a good chance of success. But they had certainly been taking their time about letting me know.
The job I was tackling involved dropping the Land Rover’s gearbox and replacing a burnt out clutch, but as usual I was concentrating more on conversing with my mate Peter Kirby in the pit next to mine.
Peter was a German civilian who lived locally, employed by the British army as a vehicle mechanic. Including myself there were four people in the workshop named Peter, although my nickname of ‘Will’ had followed me from Werl. To help differentiate between us while at work, Peter Kirby was known to all as ‘Peter the Kraut’. He was a big, well built lad and with his long hair and manicured beard he was often the object a bit of jealous ribbing from us. We soldiers all had to remain clean shaven and keep our hair cut short, right down to the wood despite it being the mid seventies. It appeared that everyone else of our generation was a long haired, kaftan wearing veteran of Woodstock or The Isle of Wight festivals. Peter the Kraut was a little older than me, dark complexioned and I suppose would have been considered ruggedly handsome if you liked that sort of thing. He was an OK guy although he didn’t have a lot to do with the Brits in general.
Like a lot of the locals Peter the Kraut tended to remain aloof, some might say a little arrogant but for some reason he had taken a shine to me and we had become pretty good friends, often socialising outside of work. He drove an Opel Rekord Sprint, a bright red powerful coupé which was the envy of all of his military colleagues who were lucky if they could afford the likes of an Austin Maxi. Personally I’d never owned my own car, preferring to use taxi cabs or public transport. Peter was fanatical about his Opel though, in fact fanatical about all things German to the point where he considered if it wasn’t Gerry built then it didn’t deserve even thinking about. However despite his attitude verging on the jingoistic, I still quite liked him.
Peter the Kraut’s English was far from good, and despite my association with many of the locals my German was equally rudimentary. We would therefore spend quite a bit of time as we worked in close proximity, attempting to teach each other our respective languages. Progress for us both was slow but I had noticed with satisfaction that Peter was developing quite a pronounced North Hertfordshire drawl which, coupled with his typical German accent was quite endearing. I was curious though, when he produced extra words and phrases. Not the fact that I hadn’t taught him, he could easily have picked things up from elsewhere. But it was the fact that he pronounced them with a distinct Irish brogue.
There was a good reason for Peter the Kraut wishing to improve his English. He had been born about five years after the second world war ended, the son of an American soldier and a German mother. His mother had been ostracised by her friends and family after she had announced her intention to marry an American GI. Despite the bad feelings it provoked, she’d stuck to her guns and chosen the comfortable life that her Yank had promised, cutting herself off from them all. Peter’s father had been happy to settle in Germany, finding employment in the fast growing car manufacturing industry but the couple’s partnership had been cut short when he’d died suddenly from heart failure in the early fifties.
As a result Peter had been brought up as an only child by his mother until her equally untimely death in the mid sixties. Soon afterwards Peter, by then in his late teens and with nobody to support him, had found employment working for the British army as a civilian motor mechanic. There he’d remained until now, carving out a reasonable life for himself. Out of the blue, just recently, Peter had received a solicitor’s letter informing him that his only known relative, an uncle who he barely kept in touch with, had passed away too. He’d died suddenly of a heart attack at the relatively young age of sixty three. There was no last will and testament but having been tracked down and found to be the next of kin, Peter had been deemed the sole heir to his uncle’s estate which consisted of a petrol station, workshop, café and some sort of accommodation facility.
I didn’t fully take note of the details when Peter came in that particular morning to tell anyone who would listen about his good fortune, jubilantly waving around a thick wad of paperwork. My assumption was though, that he wanted to take on the business and make a go of it and why not? After all, his employment with the British army wasn’t exactly the dream career for a young German man.
The problem for Peter was that the uncle concerned was his father’s brother who had lived his entire life in America. The business he’d left was situated about five thousand miles away in Washington State beside a lonely highway which traversed the south eastern slopes of the Northern Cascade Mountains. Peter didn’t feel confident that he would be able to cope with running a business in America, partly because his language skills weren’t up to scratch but also because he had no idea about managing any sort of business at all. It was an opportunity that he really wanted to take on though and the thought of a new life in America had great appeal. Therefore on the one hand he had been desperately trying to improve his English with my assistance and on the other, knowing that my departure from the British army was imminent, had been trying to convince me to go out there with him as a partner.
Flattered that he thought me capable of helping him to run a business, even though I was only twenty three years old and with no experience whatsoever, I had heard him out. I might have still been quite naive at that age but considered myself to be reasonably sharp, quick to learn and very adaptable. I had an ambition to do something interesting with the next phase of my life and to travel and see more of the world was part of it. Up to that point I’d only ever been to Europe and that was only because I was in the army. Travel to another continent was a bit of a pipe dream for a lower working class ‘oik’ like me but I didn’t plan to let that stop me. However I was reluctant to commit myself to his proposition, despite him banging on about it constantly for the past six weeks or so trying to convince me that it was a dream come true. I turned him down but I probably wasn’t emphatic enough with my rejection as he just wouldn’t let it rest. Peter had shown me a sheaf of full colour photographs of the business and its locality which had been included with a plethora of other documentation.
From what I could see it was a stunningly attractive area. The snaps showed mountains, forests, lakes and rivers, all photographed under an impressive deep blue sky. Never having been to America hadn’t stopped me from reading all about it both as a wide eyed school boy and later on as a nature and wildlife enthusiast. Coupled with the impression given on the big screen in epic Westerns and road movies, America had been sold to me as an incredibly exciting country, possibly an ideal choice to quench my thirst for a more adventurous existence. My limited knowledge of the Cascade Mountain area gleaned from wildlife magazines and natural history books was of a massive wilderness teeming with eagles, wolves, bears, mountain lion and elk. The photographs certainly did nothing to disprove my assumptions and so without ever committing myself I continued to show a half hearted interest, more out of curiosity than anything else. Picking up on my mild attentiveness and hoping that there was a chance of me changing my mind Peter never stopped bombarding me with more information and temptation.
The reason for my scepticism was that the photographs of the actual property showed it to be much less of an attractive proposition. In fact the place looked well and truly run down. There was the petrol station itself with an adjoining workshop sporting a large painted sign, barely legible because of the flaking paint which read ‘Kirby Services’ in big red letters. The sign was fixed to a white stucco wall above sliding hangar doors and summed up the condition of the place which had obviously once looked smart and professional but now looked poorly maintained and unloved.
Alongside the workshop was another smaller building with large windows to the front but in an equally sorry state, pertaining to be some sort of café. The somewhat smaller sign over its threshold read ‘Kirby Coffee House and Diner’. All sorts of abandoned bits of rotting machinery and old tyres could be seen littering the neglected frontage. Behind the property as far as I could make out were about half a dozen wooden chalet type buildings that had certainly seen better days. A steep, thickly forested slope provided an attractive backdrop but the buildings appeared to be verging on derelict. Some of the photographs were interior views showing wrecked rooms full of all sorts of debris and unidentifiable crap.
It was a big plot but in poor condition and situated in the middle of nowhere. Did I really want to continue as a motor mechanic? I knew the answer to that. I could just imagine being stranded out there, long harsh winters dragging on and on while the road out front was closed for extended periods due to heavy snow fall. Business sporadic at the best of times but drying up entirely in bad weather, huddled around a wood fire with only a grumpy German bloke for company. Enduring long cold nights of boredom, desperately awaiting springtime to return. No, I didn’t think it would be for me.
“Es ist ein großes loch in meinem auspuff.” shouted Peter the Kraut.
“Es ist ein großes loch in meinem auspuff.” I mimicked, doing my best to impersonate the German kommandant from the Colditz film I’d recently watched at the camp cinema.
“There is a big hole in my exhaust pipe!” I yelled back at Peter.
“Zar ist a big ’ole in my exauspuff!” he replied, sounding like a character from a Benny Hill sketch.
“Oi! Williams! ‘Q’ Smith wants a word with you in his office.” came a third, unidentified voice from above.
‘Q’ Smith was the boss, a warrant officer who ran the LAD workshop. A miserable, uncharismatic man and not someone who ever liked to be kept waiting. Straightening my beret, wiping my hands on an oily rag and wondering what I might have done wrong now to deserve this summons, I climbed out of the inspection pit and made my way to the back of the workshop where the offices were situated in order to find out.
The offices were really just a sectioned off area of the main workshop floor space consisting of a short corridor in the centre with wood panelling and frosted glass partitioning to either side. Each half was divided into two so there were four offices in total. One for ‘Q’ Smith, one for the CO and one for the LAD clerks. Lastly there was one which was used as a meeting room and doubled as the Sergeants rest room whereas we humble lackeys took our tea breaks perched uncomfortably on our toolboxes on the shop floor or outside.
All the offices were illuminated by a single strip light and each had an old fashioned, cobweb encrusted steel radiator bolted to one of its battleship grey walls which clanked and sputtered throughout winter in an attempt to keep the occupants from freezing to their chairs. In summer the lack of adequate ventilation transformed the offices into stuffy, stale air filled boxes. Hardly an environment to inspire any sort of pride in one’s job or any sort of pleasant demeanour.
Standing outside the boss’s office I checked my appearance was as tidy as it could be considering the nature of my work, took a deep breath, knocked on the door and walked in. ‘Q’ Smith didn’t look up but just continued to read the crisp white papers in front of him, freshly extracted from an official looking manilla envelope on the desk. I stood before him nervously, doing my best to read the letter upside down but failing. There followed an uncomfortable silence, dragging on just a shade too long to be a natural pause after which he spoke quietly.
“The response to your application for a discharge has come through Williams.”
My heart leapt into my mouth. This was an unexpected surprise. It seemed so long since I had stood in the COs office with Q Smith in attendance and explained to them what I wanted to do and the reasons why. He hadn’t been very sympathetic on that day, seeming to take it as a personal insult and as more and more time had elapsed I’d begun to wonder whether he’d put the mockers on my application altogether. At last he turned his little piggy eyes towards me and from his expression which was set somewhere between disdain and loathing, I immediately knew the result. I was on my way back to civvy street!
“We’ll be sorry to lose you Williams,” he said.
‘No you bloody won’t, you’re just sorry to have to fill out the paperwork and find yourself another mug to do my job.’ I thought to myself but kept silent.
Ten minutes later, after an unfriendly and unhelpful interview I emerged from ‘Q’ Smith’s office back into the narrow corridor. I was finding it hard to stop grinning and my mind was racing. I closed the door a little harder than was necessary and turned, blundering straight into another vehicle mechanic in the form of Corporal ‘Loopy’ Woolf who was simultaneously leaving the clerk’s office opposite. I nearly knocked him over.
“Hey up lad! Watch where you’re bloody going.” said Loopy.
That was the thing, I still didn’t really know where I was going but it was about time I started to give the matter some serious consideration. In a few weeks time I would be returning to England. Back to Arborfield garrison in Berkshire, the place it had all begun. Once there I’d be debriefed and discharged from the army for good.
“Sorry Loopy.” I replied and hurried on my way.
“Oi!” came a voice from behind me.
When I looked back Loopy jabbed an index finger towards me and continued, “Don’t call me fucking Loopy!”
“OK mate, keep your hair on,” I answered and then, grinning like a Cheshire cat I made my way back to the filthy inspection pit.