As I may have mentioned before in this column, I left school to join the world of work at 4pm on Friday 18th July 1969.
I did not, however, commence the search for paid employment immediately because I had just gone through the gruelling process of GCE “O” Level Examinations and, frankly, I needed a break!
Besides that I didn’t know what sort of job to look for until the results came out and that wasn’t until sometime in August.
The particular break that I took began the very day that school ended when, at about 7pm, I joined my friends from the 3rd Ipswich Boys Brigade Company on a coach taking us to a campsite at Haytor on Dartmoor.
This was quite a trek from Ipswich (given the limited number of motorways or even dual carriageway roads compared to the present) and while there must have been a number of “pitstops” along the way I can only recall one – a “greasy spoon” type Transport Cafe (pronounced “caff”) just outside Basingstoke! I had been napping on the bus, was feeling a bit groggy and not inclined to eat anything much at that time of night (somewhere after 10pm). I think most of my companions felt the same so we just availed ourselves of the toilet facilities and waited around while those few who DID want to eat queued up, placed their orders and received a cloakroom ticket with the order number on it.
While they were queuing I observed a middle-aged waitress carrying a plate and yelling the ticket number to try to identify the owner. She passed by me on her journey around the tables and I saw that the contents of the plate were the two triangular halves of a disgusting looking sandwich with curled up corners – the sort of thing that comedians of old used to mention regularly in skits about British Rail Cafeterias!
It became apparent that whoever HAD ordered it had also seen it on its travels and had decided, probably wisely, to cut their losses and keep quiet! I think this was dawning on the waitress too as her cries were becoming increasingly loud and angry.
Whenever I hear anyone shouting things out in that kind of establishment now the temptation to yell out “Number 99, Bacon Sandwich!” in imitation of her becomes almost irresistible!
But I digress.
The most memorable thing about the holiday itself was experiencing the Apollo 11 moon landing and the Astronauts’ subsequent excursions on a transistor radio with fading batteries – TV had not reached the wilds of Dartmoor by then! I have, however, told you about all that in a previous post (https://littlealfie.wordpress.com/2009/07/20) and it was a more personal “first” that I am supposed to be telling you about here.
The campsite we were using was reserved for youth organisations such as ours and was situated in a clearing in some woods just outside the village of Haytor Vale. The only permanent building was a large cabin constructed from logs and stone. It had electric lighting and a large cooking stove and so combined the roles of kitchen and dining room for us – but that was the full extent of permanent “facilities”.
The toilets consisted of wood-framed canvas covered “tents” and the “toilet boxes” within them were positioned over a slit trench (about 18inches wide and 3 foot deep) that the site owners had cut out with a JCB at the start of the holiday season. Every other day it was necessary for members of that day’s Orderly Squad to move the frames and boxes about 8 feet further along the trench and to fill in the “used” portion from the piles of earth left by the trench cutting machine. This had to be the most unpleasant, smelly task of the whole holiday and in an effort to make things better for those whose turn it was our Captain, Bernie Walker, would hand out cigarettes to the over 16s in the hope that the smoke would keep the other smell out of our noses!
It worked too!
It also, unfortunately, got me hooked on cigarettes and the holiday money that my parents probably thought I was spending on sweets and fizzy pop actually went on packs of Players No.6 cigarettes and beer (the village pub was the only place around that sold the fags and it would have been rude not to have a quick pint while I was there, wouldn’t it?). Yes, I know I was only 16 but after those bloody exams I LOOKED older! OK? So while Armstrong and Aldrin were ahoppin’ and aboppin’ round the Sea of Tranquillity I was getting a Nicotine habit!
Those cigarettes were not, it has to be said, the first things I had ever smoked – that distinction goes to a pack of miniature cigars that my friend and classmate Hank and I purchased for consumption on our weekly sociable strolls around Rushmere Heath (or “Cross Country practice” as our PE teacher incorrectly thought they were called!) – if you wish you can read more about THAT aspect of my schooldays here: https://littlealfie.wordpress.com/2009/04/20
Anyway, once started on the evil weed it proved somewhat difficult to stop smoking it again and it was to be 24½ YEARS before I succeeded.
I eventually succumbed to financial pressure and the emotional blackmail of my two daughters and agreed to have a go at a permanent cessation! Fortunately a colleague at work found out that she was allergic to Nicotine patches and bequeathed me a four week supply of the highest strength ones. Not having to pay for the first lot up front meant that I could put aside the money I would have been spending on smokes to buy the next lot of patches and so on. The only other thing necessary was to slightly change my walk to work so that I never passed the spot where I habitually lit up the first one of the day!
And so, finally, we get to the point!
Today, 24th January 2012, marks the 18th anniversary of my first day without smoking since that trip to Dartmoor!
And what’s really depressing is the thought that the babies born on the day I gave up are now eligible to vote – perhaps I should go out and crash some 18th Birthday parties (but only if they’re non-smoking ones of course)!