THE SOLDIER AND THE SERGEANT
The first week after arriving at the new camp south east of Selby in the rural Drax area of Yorkshire in 1947, Billy the young British soldier was in trouble again and placed on 3 days CB (Confined to Barracks). As part of the punishment, he had to perform menial tasks each morning at a cookhouse in a camp further down the road, under the direction of a tall thin efficacious sergeant. To add to his problems he also had a minor altercation with the sergeant, which was not a good beginning at his new abode.
During the Saturday afternoon, Billy became aware that the camp was deserted, so he decided to ignore his CB and take a walk to the nearest hamlet, where he understood there was a dance every Saturday evening at the church hall.
The hamlet was a cluster of about 10 buildings consisting of a church with a recreational hall attached, a café, a pub and a few other structures. Having nothing in particular to do before the dance started, he took advantage of the beautiful weather and the peaceful outdoors by biding his time in the nearby park. As evening drew near he observed with interest a number of young girls in party dresses arriving at the church along a footpath between the benches in the park and concluded that he was privileged to preview the evenings dance partners.
The girl, who caught his eye, was different from the rest, didn’t use makeup, didn’t need it and dressed in typical country clothes, which consisted of a tweed suit and low heal shoes. She was not glamorous by any standards, but was an outstanding beauty in every respect. Mesmerized - his eyes followed her through the park, across the road and into the church. If love at first sight was for real, this was it and he began to contemplate the possibility of meeting her at the dance.
Negative thoughts entered his mind as he considered his bumps, lumps and blemishes and began to wonder what a stunning girl like this would want with a short young lad with little hair and definitely not the leading man type. However the negative thoughts passed and a positive attitude took over, as he began to plan his strategy for meeting this exceptional young lady at the dance.
Drawing from his experience in such matters he decided that the best plan was to enter the dance hall early before the competition was aware of her existence and dazzle her with footwork. The hall filled up very fast and couples linked to whirl around the floor to the sound of the music, as Billy searched the room for the target of his affections. The second dance started and he considered the possibility that she may not be attending, particularly by the way she was dressed, so not wishing to waste his Saturday night, selected a lesser mortal to trip the light fantastic. After circling the floor a couple of times and engaging in small talk, he was fairly confident of companionship for the evening, but there was no chemistry, so he didn’t linger.
Another dance came and went and still no sign of the girl in the tweed suit. By this time the romantic young man was somewhat dejected and decided that if he couldn’t have the girl of his choice, he would rather be alone. Disregarding all the other girls, he positioned himself with a clear view of the door where they were entering and contemplated the best strategy if and when she appeared. It was not unlike a scene from a Woody Allen movie, with the anxious soldier considering the best approach - Should he rush across the floor to beat out the competition, or a less obvious saunter with the casual air of the bon vivant and risk losing her?
To his delight he noticed the natural beauty in the next room through a small window and knew that she was about to enter the hall. Without even thinking he was face to face with her within seconds and she accepted his invitation to dance. The next few minutes went by so fast that he was much too occupied to think about his good fortune, because as they made their way around the floor he noticed the tall sergeant from the cookhouse, who knew he was on CB and could easily identify him by his practically baldhead.
Instinctively Billy started to crouch as he continued dancing and explained the dilemma to his partner, who was slightly taller than him, but even more attractive close up. “Would you like to leave?” the girl asked as they danced towards to exit door. He was out of the door like a flash and to his amazement, followed by the girl. They then joined hands and skipped down the narrow country road, laughing with gay abandon, as though they had known each other all their lives. It was an exhilarating feeling, which can only be described as a magic moment!
On the way down the winding road to the girl’s house they talked incessantly and he became aware that she was not only exceptionally beautiful, but also had a wonderful personality and disposition. A number of times during the evening, he felt like pinching himself to confirm that he wasn’t dreaming. Not only did he find it difficult to believe that the outstanding girl decided to leave with him, but also that they had established such a rapport, considering that they had only met a few minutes before leaving the dance and they didn’t even know each other’s names. It was all very overwhelming!
To cut a long story short, at the end of the evening Billy returned to the road heading to the camp in semi darkness. A cyclist approached and he attempted to hitch a ride. The man on the bike was none other than the tall sergeant, who stopped and beckoned him towards the luggage rack over the rear wheel. It was a very large bike, suitable to the size of the sergeant, who peddled away without difficulty. Arriving at the camp the sergeant bid Billy good night as he scampered away undetected. “Thanks for the ride,” shouted Billy as he disappeared in the darkness. Could it be that the sergeant didn’t recognise him with his hat on at night, or was he really a nice guy and gave him a break? Billy would like to believe the latter!
The following week Billy was posted out of the area and never saw the girl who made his heart throb again. Later he borrowed an army vehicle one Sunday afternoon and drove from Halifax to track her down, but he was unable to find her or anyone else who knew her and was forced to give up. He considered additional visits in army vehicles, but decided against it when he encountered civilian police roadblocks looking for black marketeers of petrol, which was still rationed at the time.
In those days with telephones a rarity, computers unheard of and public transportation in the country leaving much to be desired, communication was difficult, to say the least.
In 1947 the Drax area was all country with farmland, hamlets and villages. The army Return Stores Depot, RSD was a huge complex of sheds storing army surplus goods and equipment shipped in from all over the country by train to a dedicated rail line going directly into the RSD. Soldiers from the Pioneer Corp camp just up the road and some civilians from the surrounding area worked in the stores and Billy’s small RASC attachment provided the trucks to shunt the material from the trains to the sheds.
Billy was only stationed there a couple of weeks, which was not long enough to confirm the rumors that sheets were being burned and valuable equipment was being destroyed at the RSD. Word had it that the civilian population had protested the burning of the sheets, which they and the Ku Klux Klan would have appreciated. Had Billy known of the protest he would have also joined in, not having seen white textiles since he was called up.
Convinced that valuable stuff was being destroyed, he decided to find a better use for it. Acting on another rumour that a farmer close to their camp paid good money for such items, he drove out the RSD gate one day with a bunch of large heavy spanners.
Presenting his booty to the farmer and expecting to negotiate a fair price, he was ushered into a barn where he was shown a particularly large container full of similar items. “I would like to sell you some,” said the farmer to the confused soldier.
Explaining that he had been buying the spanners from the soldiers for years and had no idea what to do with them. Deciding that there was no way he could overcome that objection, he inquired about petrol, only to be shown another shed with the largest tank he had ever seen, and advised that the tank was full and there was no where else to store it.
Billy knew a losing situation when he saw one and excusing himself from the friendly farmer, retreated with his tail between his legs carrying the heavy spanners. They were now a liability vs. an asset, because he didn’t know what else to do with them, so he decided to dump them in the farmers duck pond. He was tempted to take a few duck eggs for his trouble, but there was nowhere to cook them.
Secretly hoping to find the lady in the tweed suit, he returned to the Drax area in 1992 to bathe in nostalgia and possibly find out what the farmer did with the spanners – the ones in the shed - not the ones in the duck pond! Billy started out from Selby on a road to the hamlet, which he had taken many times before back in 1947 and was astounded to find that the road came to a complete end in the middle of nowhere.
All he could see in front of him were hedges and mountains. Questioning a nearby resident who was comparatively new to the area, he was told that the mountains in front of the road were really not mountains and just large piles of slag covered with green paint.
The resident went on to explain that a monstrous generating station now occupies practically the whole of the Drax area and it’s the largest coal-fired power station in Western Europe, with at least a dozen humongous chimneys and a similar amount of green painted mountains.
Not wishing to leave with out seeing something he could reminisce about, Billy drove several miles south hoping to find evidence of the railway line, which used to enter the RSD. This time he was lucky and observed the rail line entering a field and going directly towards a mountain. It was as though the slag was deposited directly on top of the rail line and Billy wondered if they had done the same thing to the RSD, because removing all those tools and equipment would present a monumental task and it was all used material. The fact that the RASC detachment with the trucks moved out in 1947, lends credence to the theory that nothing was moved from then on.
Billy was unable to find anyone who remembered the hamlet or the RSD, because like the young lady in the Tourist Information Office in nearby Selby, everyone he talked to was too young to remember the areas history. Driving towards Chapeltown Billy couldn’t help thinking that the farmer no longer had to be concerned about what to do with the spanners, because they were probably all under a mountain of slag.
THE POLISH CAMP
Copyright © Bill Hawksford.
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