'Reflections of a one pound tax bill'
Mid August - 2010 – Barry – Vale of Glamorgan
It’s mid morning on a fabulously sunny day. Having recently retired I am enjoying the abundance of spare time I now have and settle in the garden with a good book. Suddenly, Bill, my black Labrador, who rarely leaves my side, gives an alert upward tilt of his head when we hear the tell tale recoil of the letter box. Staring at me until I say commandingly, ‘Postie’, Bill runs into the house and returns moments clenching a letter in his mouth. After praising him I open the letter to discover a long defunct Building Society Account has accumulated 24 pence in interest from which the Inland Revenue has a deducted 5p in tax.
As Bill flops contentedly down I pick up my book but as I think about the absurdity that the letter costs more in postage than the taxman has deducted, I reflect about an even more diabolical tax bill I once paid, which amounted to exactly one pound. Abandoning the book I lean back on the sun lounger and close my eyes. I have excellent visual recall and the screen of my minds eye effortlessly hauls me back in time to a July day more than three decades earlier where I hear the four roaring engines of an RAF C130 Hercules transport aircraft and then see myself sitting on red webbing seating surrounded by sixty of my mates whom, like me, wear shorts, tee shirts and trainers plus a main and reserve parachute. Three at a time we are about to parachute into the sea.
Fermains Bay - Off the coast of Guernsey
Mid July 1976
With each circuit around the bay three more men jump and the numbers laboriously whittle down until there are three of us left. I will be the last man to jump.
My stomach churns unmercifully when an RAF Flight Sergeant grins and signals us to stand up and hook up. Following my two mates down the entire length of the now empty aircraft we halt at the half open starboard door.
The objective of the jump is to train us how not to become entangled in the canopy and rigging lines beneath the surface using a drill the RAF terms a 'Manual harness release for landing in water'. It's extremely hairy, takes place hundreds of feet in the air with positively no margin for error, provides no second chances. As additional RAF aircrew vigorously check and double check every tiny detail of our equipment, the best training in the best army in the world has taught us, conditioned us to rigidly switch on to what's coming. Suddenly, the Flight Sergeant pushes the starboard door wide open by sliding it up into the roof thereby allowing the roaring slipstream to pervade the aircraft and stampede my hovering butterflies. With seconds to glimpse outside I see the vast blue ocean twelve hundred feet below stretching to the unbroken infinity of an equally blue sky.
Tiny dots breaking the singularity of the sea are cross channel ferries and other commercial shipping. Three of them will be our pickup boats.
The Flight Sergeant nods to number one, my best mate Brian, and edges him fully into the door. Number two, Mac, who has a the baby face in contrast to the fact he's utterly fearless, moves closer to the howling aperture followed immediately by myself. During those interminable seconds which always seem to last several minutes, I watch the Flight Sergeant stare up at a glowing red light immediately above him until almost lazily, a green beside it comes to life to instantaneously unleash shouts of....‘GAW...!' 'GAW....!' 'GAW.....!' With no hint of hesitation Brian instantly disappears into the void, so does Mac and then me. In split seconds, like proverbial leaves in a gale, the slipstream snatches us away from the aircraft to where our standard military parachutes are pulled open automatically by a static line. Floating toward the sea, well spread out and in no danger of mid air entanglements, we will be in the air for approximately thirty seconds. So begins the harness release drill.
Unhooking my reserve parachute I immediately throw it forward where a twenty feet nylon rope unravels to retain it. Next, I haul myself up in the harness allowing me to push the thick webbing around my groin to the centre underside of my thighs to create a kind of Bosons chair. By now at roughly six to eight hundred feet I turn the circular box at my midriff, which unlocks it, and bang it sharply with the heel of my fist. Normally only opened after landing on terra firma, when the couplings into the box all come free it instantly slackens the entire harness bringing the un-nerving sensation I will surely fall, yet am retained by the webbing under my thighs and my iron grip on the lift webs or risers at my shoulders. Using one hand at a time to draw the harness webbing free of my thighs I am suddenly sitting on a swaying mid air trapeze with the sea looming up to meet me.
Noting a pickup boat shadowing my approach to the water, at what I estimate to be fifteen feet from the surface, with my knees and feet together and my elbows tucked into my sides I eject myself free of the parachute, which then drifts away.
Entering the water, which is positively freezing, the downward momentum plummet’s me ever deeper until, feeling my lungs pleading for ai, I instinctively claw my way upward. Breaking the surface and greedily gulping down clean fresh air the first thing I see is a hand reaching for me. Behind the hand is a brawny suntanned forearm bearing a heart shaped tattoo with the word ‘MAM’ engraved inside it. I will never forget the moment, or that tattoo. As additional willing hands appear and haul me into the boat, my parachutes, floating nearby, are also retrieved. Far in the distance I see Brian and Mac have been salvaged and have each donned their red berets. I reach for mine, bone dry in a plastic bag inside my bathers and put it on. The trio of pickup boats, manned by volunteer local seamen, now ferry us to two waiting RAF launches, the ‘Sea Otter’ and the ‘Sea Osprey’. Thanking our rescuers and clambering on board, as the bulk of our mates welcome us and powerful diesel engines roar into life and take us to Saint Peter Port, the capital of Guernsey, a most pleasant surprise awaits us. Walking ashore, bronzed, lean and as fit as any athlete, we find ourselves greeted by hundreds of applauding, cheering holidaymakers and Islanders who have watched the descents from the quayside.
In that exact moment the totally unforgettable happens when our C130, its wings continually lifting and dropping, flies directly over the center of the harbour appearing as though at any moment it will surely scrape the bobbling mainmasts of nearby yachts. The pilots and aircrew are saluting us. Staring up as they roar passed, amid the most monstrously satisfying grin of all time, I feel a bit like James Bond.
As we all head toward a waiting truck to change into jeans and tee shirts etc, our Colonel, who commands our immense affection and respect, and typically the first man to jump, tells us to have a good night on the town, but advises, somewhat tongue in cheek, that we are not to damage the Island or any of its inhabitants in any way. That evening, in the bars and clubs, we are made exceptionally welcome and are without doubt the toast of Guernsey.
Two days later, directly in front of the entrance to Guernsey International Airport, and again under the gaze of the general public, we put on parachutes and board our nearby C130 for our return home where we will drop into our own back yard at Hankly Common near Aldershot. Leaving a duty free Island every man has purchased bottles of spirits which, protected inside Army socks followed by thick woolen army pullovers, are carefully placed inside our jump containers. The big unknown is, will they survive the forthcoming landing at Hankly?
Conditions are perfect as sixty of us pile out from both side doors of our Hercules into the late afternoon sunshine and the familiar yellow flowered gorse of the common. With no injuries whatsoever, my enduring memory of that homecoming descent is seeing every single man landing and then hoisting his container skyward to check if it leaks Whiskey or Bacardi or whatever. Remarkably, to my certain knowledge not one single bottle comes to grief. Elated to be home, and more so to be able to enter in our logbooks a water jump using the infamous a manual harness release rather than quick, easy to release Capewells, our euphoric bubble slowly bursts when we're ordered to line up in front of a guy who wears a shirt and tie, a peaked cap and shows ID confirming he’s from HM Customs and Excise and who then promptly relieves each man fifty pence per bottle in additional duty. As we all pay an average of one pound each, one of our Sergeants, a veteran of Suez, tersely states.
"Life has two absolute guarantees! One is death! The other is the taxman! Welcome home lad’s...!”
Feeling more than a little pissed off by this crass official pettiness we finally head for our trucks. The next day is Sunday. A day to relax before our normal lives resume and we return to work as truck drivers, architects, factory workers or whatever. The folks who cheered us on that quayside and watched us kit up at the airport would probably never imagine we are reservists, hand picked volunteers who have survived grueling selection and state of the art training to travel the world clocking up mileage and experiences that occasionally defy belief. Much of the general public are unaware we even exist.
* * *
Back in the present I feel the warm sun on my face and smile at my reminiscences.
More than thirty years down the line Britain has changed out of all proportion to what it was during the ferocious heat wave of 1976 when water was rationed with standpipes in the streets when climatologists hinted at something called 'global warming'. At that time you could hear the distant rumblings of what would later become the winter of discontent. Before I delve further Bill scatters my thoughts and bring me back to the present with one of his a long audible yawns. Grinning, I settle back in my sun lounger and pick up my book but then become distracted by a rather large spider emerges from the garden and then roams curiously across the wooden decking of the patio. It immediately it sparks another reflection that happened many years earlier in the United Arab Emirates when four of us, a Welshman and three tough as teak Jocks, were asleep in our blacked out Bivouac and were awoken in the silent small hours by the ominous scrapings and scratching of ‘things’ crawling all around us. Aware due to several close calls we're camped in a Scorpion infested area, there followed the sack race from hell as we all frantically hopped outside the tent in our sleeping bags.
As I watch the spider scurry away into some nearby foliage I feel tempted to revisit the story in more detail but decide I've done enough reflecting for now. It’s a good yarn, of which I seem to have an endless supply, but for now I’ll read my book and bring it back to life some other time…
United Arab Emirates – 1972
Barrie David - Author