My career in the RAF began on September 21st, 1975. That was the time that I finally made a decision on whether I would do something with my life, or continue to be a punk with no mission. For approximately 6-8 months before that, I had been kicked out of my parents (father and wicked step-mother) house, and moved around from park bench to friend’s house trying to stay warm at night and get some decent sleep. I remember one night that my friend Jock said that I could sleep out in his father’s pigeon coup. There I was, trying to sleep amongst the shit and the noise, when all of a sudden, the door opened, and there was Jocks father. I don’t know who got the biggest scare, him or I. I do remember that I did start crying (don’t laugh, I was only 15 years old) and said to him; “don’t hit me; I’m a friend of your son! He didn’t hit me; in fact, he took me inside, made me a cup of tea and a sandwich, played bollocks with Jock for letting me sleep outside, and then gave me a nice warm bed for the night.
I was on probation when I was about to join. After going through all of the testing process, and being told that I was accepted for the RAF, I finally told them about my situation. The recruiter was very helpful in that he gave me a letter to take to my probation officer saying that I had been accepted, and was there anything he could do to allow me to enter. The probation officer immediately terminated what was left of my probation, with the understanding that if I didn’t enter the RAF immediately, I would be in a world full of you know what! There was no way that I was going to change my mind about joining. As young and as stupid as I was, I was smart enough to know that if I didn’t go in, I would end up in jail. Also, my brother had joined one year earlier into the MT section, and he told me how much of a great life it was. That’s all I needed! My brother went on to complete a respectable 22 year career, most of which was spent in Germany. After retiring he went on to become a bobby, and is currently an inspector with the South Wales Constabulary. To this day, he’s still my hero!
I remember boarding the train in Swansea enroute to Swinderby for boot camp. Met a couple of folks that were also going there. One of them was William Duffield. Even though I only did 41/2 years, I spent my whole career with Will. I had a lot of thoughts go through my head during that train ride; most of them were questions about what I had gotten myself in to. One thought was that I was going to stop being such a punk and start being someone sensible and respectful. Not the case! I think I got in trouble 5 or six times in Swinderby, and spent several weeks on jankers. I had three charges all in one while we were on our Sherwood Forest stint. Me and another “not so smart” lad, woke up before everybody else, and decided to go out rabbiting. Well, needless to say we didn’t catch any rabbits, but when we got back, we were late for parade, had dirty boots, and hadn’t shaven. Another charge was because, back then we were not allowed off camp on the first or first and second weekend, but when the first weekend that we were allowed off camp came, I was on jankers. Well, after having the morning inspection, I saw all of the other lads getting ready to go to town, and , not wanting to miss out on anything, I went with them and missed jankers. It was at that point, I was pulled into an office and told that one more ‘fuck up” and I was out of the RAF. There were several more “fuck ups” during my time at Swinderby, but fortunately, I didn’t get caught. I’m pretty sure I would have been out of the RAF had they known. Anyway, there was this young lady that worked in the mess. She was not a very pretty young lady, in fact, she was bloody ugly. Nevertheless, she had a tasty appetite for sex, just as I did. So one day, I convinced her that I could manage to sneak into her room, and then back out without getting caught. She seemed a little hesitant at first, but then agreed to let me do it. Well, as luck would have it, I manage to sneak out of the barracks at about midnight, slide into her window, give her a stiff talking to, and then get back to the barracks without arousing any suspicion. I started falling asleep quite proud of what had just transpired, until suddenly, I couldn’t get rid of the image of just how ugly she really was, and then I just started to feel absolutely disgusted with what I had just done!
The rest of my time at Swinderby went by pretty uneventful. We passed out, said our good-byes to all the other recruits, and off to Catterick I went. I wasn’t quite as apprehensive about going to Catterick as I was going to Swinderby due to the fact that Will Duffield was going there with me, so that in itself give me a little bit of an increased comfort zone. While there though, I still didn’t manage to keep completely out of trouble, this time though, it didn’t involve jankers. While out on the town one night with a couple of the lads, I met up with a local girl. She was a few years older than me, and very attractive. We had a few drinks and got talking, and eventually, one thing led to another, and we ended up doing it in her car. After we were done, she told me she was married to an army lad that was away in Northern Ireland. Great news. Here I was doing it with a married woman, whose husband was away serving his country, brand new in the military myself, and still only 16 years old. I’m not sure what my biggest fear was, but one of them was him coming home and finding out while I was still at Catterick. I was so concerned about it, that I mentioned it to one or two of my fellow recruits. Initially, they were sympathetic towards my predicament, but that quickly turned to them thinking it was hilarious. So much so, that they went and told two rock ape corporals that were friendly towards the firemen. Consequently, the next day I get called into an office, and there sit the two corporals, straight faced, and very official looking. They proceeded to tell me that they had just received a call from an active duty soldier that was serving in Northern Ireland saying that someone at RAF Catterick had been intimate with his wife the previous night and that he was on his way home to sort me out. They played this on for quite a few minutes asking me what the hell had I gotten myself into, and why would I fool around with a married woman. It was non stop banter from both of them. Well, at this point, I was trying to answer their questions, but I was so nervous, I couldn’t hardly speak properly, and I think I was about to piss my pants and break down crying. Finally, I think they realized they had taken this far enough and started laughing uncontrollably, telling me that this was all a joke. Believe me; it took quite some time for me to see the funny side of it. I remember that I was never comfortable again; wondering whether or not her husband was going to show up until I left Catterick for my first posting.
I remember when they finally gave us our postings and I found out I was going to RAF St. Athan. It made me real happy as I was going to be near home. Looking back now though, I don’t know why it made me happy as I had joined the RAF to get away from home! However, it seems to me that most people put in for a camp near their home, at least that was the case in my class. I also found out that William Duffield had gotten RAF St. Athan even though I don’t think that would have been his first choice as he was from Bristol. I was real happy to hear it though as I was real fond of Will. He was a young, jovial guy that didn’t seem to get upset about anything. Quite the opposite of me! Also, I realized that it would take some of the pressure off me of being the newest LAC to the fire section.
We arrived at St. Athan to a pretty mundane reception. Most of the crew didn’t know they were getting some fresh blood, so were quite surprised when we arrived. They did treat us quite well and made us feel very welcome. Most, if not all of them seemed so much older than us, and quite a few of them were close to the end of their time, so all they ever talked about was demob. The flight sergeant was a Jim Burns, and we had a sergeant by the name of Ken Lacy. All I remember about Ken is that he was quite a heavy smoker, and one hell of a darts player. He never seemed to lose a game until we had a new corporal posted in by the name of Dave Gore. Dave was probably the best darts player I’ve seen in my life. Funny thing was, he had an accident many years back which left him with a deformed right humorous bone, and it just so happened that he threw with his right hand. It was kind of odd to see his stance prior to throwing, but boy, could he throw a dart. Last I heard was that Dave had passed away several years ago from a heart attack. Don’t remember the exact age difference, but he couldn’t have been more than 60 when he passed. Not long after we arrived there, we started to get some more new blood in.
Most of them came straight from RAF Catterick, but some came in on postings. One of those postings into St. Athan was George Edwards .
Didn’t have too much action at RAF St. Athan as far as fighting fires went. In fact, it was kind of boring at times. They only flew bulldogs and chipmunks there on a regular basis. However, as an aircraft maintenance station, we did get Vulcan’s, Canberra’s, phantoms, buccaneers, and an array of other aircraft at times. We also got Jet Provosts pretty regularly. In fact, I got to fly in one for a test flight. That happened as we had a pretty good relationship with ATC and the test pilots that hung out there. One day, one of the test pilots asked if anybody wanted to go for a flight in a JP. Of course I was first to volunteer, and immediately asked my sergeant if he would permit it. He said yes immediately, and as I found out after I returned, he said it because he thought I would not go through with it. Well I did, not only to his surprise, but to my own surprise. I remember them dressing me up in a flight suit and all the other stuff before giving me a brief. The only thing I remembered from the brief was the pilot telling me; “If we get in trouble, I will say eject, eject, eject. Just understand, that by the time I say it for the third time, I will already be out of the aircraft” That’s when I started to wonder if I should really be doing this. And, by the time we had gotten into the seat and where getting strapped in, that’s when I new for sure that I shouldn’t be doing this. Well, too late now, I’m off for a ride. We lined up on the runway, got clearance from ATC to launch, and as soon as he got about 100 off the ground, he banked it over to the left pretty hard. The g-force I felt at that time was probably the funkiest sensation I’ve ever experienced. We flew for probably and hour before coming back in for a smooth landing. That was probably one of the most exhilarating experiences I’ve had in my entire life.
The remainder of my time at RAF St. Athan was pretty much routine other than a few memorable instances. One was the fact that I met and married the mother of my first born. We then had a son in March 1979 whom we named Lee. Without doubt the most memorable day in my life. The other memorable event was in November 1977. That’s when the fireman’s strike was. Talk about running around like a headless chicken, I don’t think anybody was really ready for that event. Plans were being made, equipment was being readied, and people were running all over the place. Additionally, assignments were being given out. All we knew for sure at the beginning, was that we were going out to a location as a crew on a MK8, and the rest of the “brigade” was going to be made up of Army personnel staffing Green Goddesses. As the final hours were coming down to the actual strike, they were giving all the soldiers a several day crash course in firefighting, and bringing all of the old Green Goddesses out of mothballs.
Well, word finally came that the strike was now a reality, and that we were shipping out to our destinations. Our group was told to say goodbye to the families, pack, and be ready to leave the next morning for Northern Ireland with an unknown return date. This we did without question. Some were happy about our assignment, some not so happy. I was very excited about what was about to happen as we were actually going out to be domestic firemen in big cities. However, when we reported to the station the next morning, we were told that we were now going to work in Cardiff and not in Northern Ireland. I was OK with that as I new Cardiff pretty well, we were still going to be doing some real firefighting, and I was still close to home. So, off we set in the MK 8 to our new home at Maindy Barracks. Once there, we settled into our new home, followed by a brief of how it was all going to work, and who was responsible for what. It turned out that the fire officers were not on strike and would, in fact, respond to calls with us and direct the operations. The other important part was that the Army would respond to everything in the Green Goddesses and we would only respond if it was a structure fire, or if life was involved. Working under those conditions, I still recall us going on a lot of calls. I remember one call in particular as it was my first introduction into trauma and death. We were dispatched to a car crash at the on ramp of the motorway and we were needed to extricate a female from the car. This was just a couple of days before Christmas and she had been Christmas shopping for her child. She herself was in her early twenties as I recall. She was driving a VW bug down the ramp and somehow ran into the rear of a stationary lorry. On impact, the hood was pushed off its hinges, came through the windscreen, and decapitated her. Such a sad scene. I’m just glad I wasn’t the unfortunate person that had to go and tell her family what had happened. Well, if I recall correctly, that strike went on for about 3 months before the firemen returned to work and we went back to our way of life. It had been a very exciting time with some good and not so good memories.
Time went on at St. Athan, and then in March 1979, my son was born. At the time of this writing, Lee is now 30 years old. Wow! The following March is when my RAF service came to an end and I was demobbed. I had wanted to serve for at least 22 years, but my wife had made it clear that she didn’t want to leave her parents, so that made the decision for me. When I first got out, I went looking for a job everywhere. I even drove up to Heathrow Airport and applied for a job as firemen there. Because I was from so far away, they gave me the entrance exam right then and there. I passed the exam, went immediately to the personnel division for an interview, and got hired on the spot. Ecstatic at what had just happened, I went home and told my wife expecting her to be as happy as I was, but no, her response was that she would not move to London. The following phone call to the fire section at Heathrow to tell them thanks, but no thanks was not an easy thing to do. Eventually, I ended up delivering groceries and loading milk carts in Bridgend for a living. Not happy with that, I continually looked for something better. One day while reading the newspaper, I saw a job advertisement for firemen in Saudi Arabia. Curious about what that could be, I contacted them and they asked if I could come up to London for an interview. I spoke with my wife about it and said that this may be an opportunity to spend some time out there and make some money until something better came along back home. She seemed to be OK with that, so I went to London for an interview. Everything they told me looked interesting, and my RAF experience was perfect as they were looking for Airport firemen. Anyway, January of 1981 I met up with a group of firemen at Heathrow airport, and off we flew to Saudi Arabia. Didn’t really know what to expect as I’d never been outside of the UK at that point and hadn’t heard too much about Saudi other than there was a lot of money to be made out there. Wasn’t even sure as to why they suddenly wanted all of these firemen over there in one foul swoop. Turns out there had been a major incident with a Saudi Airlines L1011. The plane had taken off from Riyadh airport with a full compliment of passengers and full of fuel, and shortly after take-off, they had a report of smoke in the cabin. A distress call was put out by the aircraft, and they returned to Riyadh, however, reports had it that once on the ground; the fire crews were unable to gain entry into the aircraft for a considerable amount of time causing everybody on board to perish. It was that incident that created the decision by the insurance companies to mandate that either they brought in expatriate crews to provide fire coverage and train the locals in aircraft crash firefighting, or they would shut down the country’s airlines.
About a year or two after I first arrived in country, I actually went on that aircraft. You see, as rumor has it, a lot of Saudi’s actually do just dump broken down vehicles in the desert and leave them to rot. Well, a similar thing happened with that aircraft. After they removed what was left of the passengers, they actually just towed the aircraft to the side of the airfield and left it there as a kind of unofficial burial ground. When I entered the aircraft, there were still shoes and other items strewn throughout the aircraft that had not been disturbed after the incident. It was a strange sensation being on that plane; you couldn’t help but feel sorry for all those that lost their lives. Another strange observation about it was that the aircraft was pretty intact other than the inside, and the top of the fuselage that had burnt through. Unfortunately, that’s not the only affiliation I had with a major air disaster.
On arrival in country, I was sent to a place called Abha. It was in southern Saudi, just north of the Yemen border. Not a lively place. We were housed in a two story villa, with two to a room, a bed, a locker, and not much else. Time off was boring with not much to do other than sunbath and drink the home made wine that all of us became experts at making. I eventually met up with an American fireman that worked on the military base at Khamis Mushayt. What a difference it was for them and us with regard to living conditions. They had anything and everything they wanted, including an alcohol allowance, amphitheatre, sports fields, their own accommodation, and a lot more money than us. Of course, whenever possible I would be at their compound enjoying myself.
My first trip home was after six months, and I was really looking forward to going home, and at the same time, not really sure that I wanted to go back. Well, the decision to go back was made for me within hours of arriving back in Bridgend. My wife was nice enough to notify me right away that she had been unfaithful, was still seeing the person, and had spent all of the money I had been sending home for the past six months. My reaction to all of that, and what happened doesn’t really need to be discussed, but believe me, it wasn’t pretty. Nothing violent of course, just an ugly scene for several years after that. When I did go back after two weeks off, I had a very difficult time dealing with it. I did have plenty of empathy though as several of the other crew members had the same happen to them while they were there. I ended up doing several years in Saudi Arabia working for two different companies and had stints at Abha, Riyadh, and Jeddah airports.
After a short stint of being unemployed back in the UK, I had another job offer to go work in the Sinai Peninsula. Due to money running out, and not many prospects back home, I jumped all over it. I ended up working for an organization called the Multinational Forces and Observers, (MFO) down in Sharm-El-Shiek. There were two camps, one in the north, and the one I was at down in the south right on the gulf of aqaba. It still wasn’t Butlins, but it was a hundred times better than any place in Saudi Arabia. About once a month, we’d go for a weekend in either, Cairo, Egypt, or Eilat, Israel. Topless beaches and nightclubs in the latter location which made for a great getaway! I know Sharm-El-Shiek is now a huge metropolis, but when I was there, it was absolutely desolate. The MFO was, as its name implies, made up of thirteen different nations, however, down in the south camp, it was made of mainly of US Servicemen and women. While at this location, I was unfortunately indirectly affiliated with my second major air disaster. This happened when the 101st airborne division of the US Army were about to rotate out after finishing their six month stint at this assignment. I had actually been at the bar with about 40 of them the night before bidding farewell and a Merry Christmas. Unfortunately, these were 40 of the 248 that perished the next day on the final leg of their flight home from Newfoundland to the US when the plane crashed on takeoff. They say that it was ice build-up on the wings that caused the incident, even though there are many other theories. Either way, it was very tough for us to deal with once we had heard the devastating news.
It was my affiliation with the US soldiers that made me want to live in America. I had never been to the U.S but was eager to see if it was as glamorous as the TV made it out to be. I ended up coming over straight from the Sinai in December of 1985 and have lived here ever since. Some of the places in the US are very glamorous, but believe me, there’s a lot of places that are not so glamorous. In fact, quite the contrary. I live in the Tampa Bay area, and have since moving here. The life can be pretty fast paced, and it’s great if you like boating or fishing (both of which I’m addicted to). I’m still involved in the Fire Service, and am currently a Captain with Tampa Fire Rescue. Initially, I started out with other departments, the first of which was a volunteer department called Kenneth City FD.
The reason for that was, before you can get hired by a Fire Department in Florida, you had to be a Florida State certified firefighter and Emergency Medical Technician, both of which are taken at your own expense. And, to get accepted into the Fire Academy, you have to be “sponsored” by a Fire Department. It was Kenneth City FD that sponsored me, even though it’s in name only. Shortly after finishing my training, I was hired by a County Fire Department and spent about 5 ½ years there before finally getting hired by Tampa Fire Rescue. I say “finally” because it’s very competitive trying to get hired as there are a lot more certified firefighters than there are jobs. I remember that 13 people got hired in my group at Tampa and we had been selected (after the testing process) out of approximately 1300 people. We were also the first group of firefighters that Tampa had hired in exactly 3 years. During my service at Pasco County, I had also gone through Paramedic School, and was enrolled in Nursing School. I finally graduated Nursing School shortly after my arrival at Tampa and went to work first in Emergency Rooms. Due to our shift work which is 24 hours on duty, followed by 48 hours off duty, most firefighters work off duty jobs. Soon after that I went on to work as a Trauma Nurse at Tampa General Hospital, and then on to be a part of the crew on the Trauma Helicopter for the next six years before I finally decided that I was getting to old for two and three jobs.
As much as I hated nursing school, the one highlight of it was meeting my current wife, Jill, who started off in the same prerequisite classes as I did. To me, she was the most beautiful thing that I had ever laid eyes on. Our first introduction was me making a comment directed at her about the subject the teacher was discussing, which was the reproduction system! We’ve been together ever since, almost 20 years. I remember when we first started getting to know each other, she told me her maiden name was Bongiovi and that her first cousin was Jon Bon Jovi. My first reaction was that she was full of you know what. Well, turns out it’s true, and over the years, we’ve been at many family functions where Jon is really just one of us.
I’ve got almost 16 years at Tampa now, but unfortunately, my time there is going to come to a premature end. I had a heart attack back in November of 2008 so now I’m not allowed to maintain the duties of an active firefighter. I’m currently on light duty, and I will be completely finished with TFR no later than August of 2010. As hard as it is for me to swallow, I’m slowly getting used to it. I’m currently training the department on the new fire boat that we just took delivery of. It’s 69’ long, cost about $3.8 million, and does about 43 miles an hour. I was involved on the build committee for several years, and was one of the crew that brought the boat down from Canada to Tampa on her delivery. That trip took us almost 3 weeks and is one of the most memorable things I have ever done.
I’m not too sure just yet what it is I’ll do once I leave the Fire Service. I still have my nursing license, and I still have my boat captain’s license. I do know though, that after more than 30 years service as a fireman, walking away from the station for the very last time is going to be one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life.