Life began for Billy in the light industrial town of Luton, Bedfordshire, England in 1928 when Luton was known for Vauxhall cars and a third division football club. The boy was born to an Irish mother from Cork and an English father who grew up in a small village in Bedfordshire.
Billy saw little of his father through his teens, because his father was in the army fighting WW11. His father was an extremely honorable hard working man who climbed his way through the ranks to the position of Regimental Sergeant Major in the RASC. Billy had the utmost respect for both of his parents.
The school leaving age in those days was 14 and Billy’s father arranged for him to stay on another year hoping to improve his knowledge. Although he tried as hard as everyone else, the information just went in one ear and out the other as though there was nothing in between to absorb it. He was never a good student and the crowded school conditions caused by the evacuees from London during the war exacerbated the situation. However the truth of the matter was that Billy just didn’t have what it takes, which they now say is the result of unfair genomes distribution (Biological makeup). So what he’s trying to say, is being a dum-dum wasn’t his fault and he’s not guilty your honour.
The un-achiever’s problem was mainly a lack of recall and his spelling, which was atrocious and although he improved it considerably over the years, it is still atrocious. These shortcomings affected many other things and most importantly discouraged him from pursuing further education. An example of the difficulty caused by these problems, was the boy’s failure to pass the Morse code and Semaphore tests in the Sea Cadets. If he could remember the codes, he couldn’t spell the words and if he could spell the words, he couldn’t remember the codes.
He was never keen on history and considered it to be dull chronological events of the past, which had no importance in his life. Billy was unaware that if he didn’t learn from the past he was doomed to repeat some of the bad parts - Now practiced with regular monotony by heads of state that normally know the history, but just ignore it.
Unsupervised during the war Billy enjoyed the company of numerous kids from the neighbourhood and had many friends, however his closest companion was always trouble, which just followed him around all the time. Climbing over fences, he was always the one to tear his pants and cuts and bruises were a way of life. He was a menace with fireworks and enjoyed all the other questionable boyhood activities.
Being a rather small boy was a disadvantage at the hands of bullies and not appreciating their attention he devised ways to thwart them. One such ingenious idea was to run away, which was not very successful, because they could always run faster than him. Realising that the aforementioned scenario could be turned into an advantage, Billy modified the exercise by stopping in full flight and rolling himself up into a ball.
The result was that the pursuer, running at full speed, couldn’t stop and would run right into the back of him and emulate a glider for a few feet before dropping to the ground with an agonizing thud. (Don’t try this at home!) From then on these bullies passed him on the other side of the street as if they didn’t recognize him. Billy will always have fond memories of the first flyer whose name was Reggie Peat, but he doubts if Reggie shares his sentiment.
Billy’s father told him that bullies are cowards and insisted that he punch them straight in the nose whenever they attacked him in the future and the advice turned out to be as good as the source. It goes without saying that the bullies were the biggest boys in the school and were considered the best fighters. Armed with the experience gained from combating the bullies on the street, some instruction and encouragement from his father, young Billy was well prepared when he started school. One at a time he put the antagonists in their place with his speed and agility, combined with an undaunted determination, which was lacking in his adversaries. It became apparent they didn’t have the stomach for this activity when it wasn’t going in their favour and to assure that it never would, he was motivated to continue improving his skills. The unexpected outcome of all this physical stuff, which was basically all self-defence up until this point, was that other boys who he had no quarrel with also challenged him to fight. Never one to back down, he always convinced them of the error of their ways and was eventually considered the schools ‘Best Fighter.’ The major benefit of this exalted position, which carried a lot of respect from the other boys, was that he was seldom picked on and no longer required to defend himself.
As some of us find out when we are complacent, things have a way of changing and the evacuees from London during the war altered the routine at school for a long time. First the evacuees would use the school in the mornings and the natives in the afternoons, and then it was changed to alternate days, which remained. The large influx of evacuee children included many with pugilistic aspirations and contenders for the ‘Best Fighter’ title began to surface. It was not unlike the Wild West movies where ambitious gentleman in spurs challenged each other to gunfights to satisfy their egos. Groups of evacuees would lay in wait for the titleholder and the hopeful contender would offer up customary insults in the best Marquis of Queensbury tradition, until there was an exchange of bare knuckles. Again Billy exceeded expectations and maintained his title until moving on to secondary school. There his reputation preceded him and the Wild West nonsense started all over again. After a number of altercations the folk hero worshippers bestowed the questionable title of ‘Best Fighter’ on him again, where it remained.
Later Billy enjoyed the sport of boxing where he developed an excellent defence as a result of his natural instincts and fast reflexes, which saved his bacon on a number of occasions outside of the ring when particularly large individuals became physical. For reasons, which he never understood and could only assume that it was the embarrassment in front of people, these large antagonists would cease and desist, when they were unable to connect with his swift moving frame after a certain period of time.
As an athlete, amateur boxing became one of his favourites and he derived satisfaction, both as a spectator and a participant from the pure skill of the sport. He never liked hurting people, never struck anyone first outside of the ring and always disengaged at the first opportunity. He retired from the ring after a swelling on one of his ears and being advised that if it happened again, it would have to be lanced resulting in a wrinkled configuration known as a cauliflower ear. Not wishing to be known as the greengrocer, he quickly found other interests.
His first commercial venture was in the newspaper business as a private contractor, which he felt was an honourable profession and his propensity for hard work and natural business acumen was a good formula for success. He chose this enterprise because he owned the necessary transportation and the merchandise was available at no charge. Unfortunately it was a seasonal business, which was not exactly what he wanted, but he made the best of it while it lasted. It was actually a two-part operation starting in the beginning of November and finished abruptly on the 5th. The first part was to position his soapbox cart with a stuffed effigy at a busy intersection and suggest passers by contribute a penny for the Guy and you know who the guy was! The other side of the business which was equally as lucrative was to collect newspapers door to door for the bonfire on the 5th and sell them to the fish and chip shops for 1 penny a pound. He wasn’t concerned that the newspapers were not being used for the implied purpose, because he felt that there was something immoral about burning items which could be put to better use such as keeping fish and chips warm for the populace and providing sweets for small boys. It was also felt that no one would really mind except Guy Fawkes, who probably enjoyed fish and chips in his day also.
He was an industrious boy, which was the only trait in common with his father, but most of what he learned was obtained the hard way. The following story is a good example: A neighbour gave Billy a metal fireplace surround, telling him to sell it to the scrap yard and keep the money, which he did and received 2 shillings. Seizing on the opportunity to get rich, Billy organized a number of friends with soapbox carts to scour the countryside for old metal parts. At the end of the day they converged on the scrap yard with their carts piled high with metal, where the man placed it all on a large scale and handed them 4 pennies. "How can that be?" Billy questioned "You paid me 2 shillings yesterday for only one piece of metal." The man patiently explained that the fire surround was made of brass, which has a much higher value than the other stuff, which was iron and steel. Billy then realized why the metal was dumped in the fields in the first place. Now being able to relate to the subject, he had no difficulty learning about the characteristics and value of metals and alloys. One thing about learning the hard way is that you rarely forget it!
While Billy was growing up his father was away in the army. When his father returned, Billy was busy chasing the girls, drinking and gambling. His father, a man of few words, gave him little advice, but what he did convey turned out to be pearls of wisdom. On reflection, Billy couldn’t have been all that stupid, because chasing the girls, drinking and gambling has remained some of the most popular pursuits for the masculine persuasion.
What compares with beautiful females and their stimulating effects? What compares with the pleasure of drinking with good company and the excitement of winning money? Few would turn away from fast horses, friendly women and a little libation!
The boy the army conscripted the same month he turned 18 in 1946 was a 5 feet 5 inch healthy lad with a premature receding hairline. He was almost completely uneducated, having forgotten much of what he learned in school, but he was somewhat wise in the ways of the street after wasting his youth in places like billiard halls and gambling with unsavoury characters. The boy’s only accomplishment was learning the art of fisticuffs, which gave him a needed confidence and although he respected everyone, he feared no one - A mindset, which has disadvantages, but probably an asset on balance.
Another shortcoming causing Billy a lot of difficulty later in life was his reluctance to accept nonsense from people. He could only hold his feelings in for a certain period of time and eventually would have to blurt out something regrettable. He resented insincerity, politics and politicians - people of little substance, manipulators, Philadelphia, small dogs and the army. Not necessarily in that order. He empathized with the less fortunate, always believing - ‘ There but for the grace of God go I.’---- Unknown.
"You will die in the electric chair," were the words of encouragement predicted by Sister Pat, his first schoolteacher - A tough Irish nun with a knock out punch in both hands, who missed her calling as a prize-fighter. Comforting thoughts when he eventually immigrated to America!
Billy’s upbringing left a marked impression. His Irish mother ensured that he didn’t place his elbows on the dining table, reached for food or ate with the wrong knife and fork, which had to be positioned correctly on the empty plate. He was disciplined to tip his cap in the presence of ladies, doctors, solicitors, priests, insurance agents and any one else his mother held in high esteem. His mother was intimidated by the class system in England at the time and it was many years before Billy realized that everyone was not his superior. Consequently he developed a mild abiding contempt for authority and the Oxford accent.
Continually in trouble as a boy and recalling some of his exploits in latter years he asked his father how bad he really was when he was young. "You were never malicious," replied his dad, which was an exceptionally welcome compliment.
The stories in this blog relate the true accounts of the ridiculous situations Billy experienced in the British Army 1946-1949, which now appear incredulous and funnier in retrospect. Army life would have been so much more acceptable had the humorous events been fully appreciated at the time. On second thoughts they probably would have certified him for being a laughing idiot! - So swing the lamp and come with him on a journey into another place and another time. Enjoy reading his memoirs as he did recalling and writing them.