Mr Bicknell made a great impact on my life, giving me fatherly advice of the best kind when there was no one else to give it to me. I loved his company as I could learn so many interesting things from him. I suppose he took to me because I was more interested in learning from him than his own sons were. He seemed to know the answer to any question I asked. Because he saw how keen I was on sport, he said,
“Why don’t you join the army, Joe?” Being an ex-soldier himself, he kept encouraging me to join up as a junior leader. He said I would not only be able to further my education and pursue all my favourite sports, but I would also have a career with prospects and get the chance to travel while being paid at the same time. After a lot of thought, I decided to do just that.
Mr Bicknell took a day off work to come with me to the recruiting office in Acton. We took the underground together. At the office there were already quite a few others, but they were for national service or the regular army. I was the only boy soldier there wanting to join junior leaders regiment. I was directed into a room on my own while Mr Bicknell waited in reception. Three officers sat behind the desk. They stood up, shook my hand and invited me to take a seat. A barrage of questions followed and I answered all of them truthfully except one:
“How old are you?”
“18 next birthday,” I said. I felt uneasy that it was a lie, but I knew that they would have to reject me if I had said my real age which was only 15.
“What regiment would you like to go into?”
“I’d like to be a cook in the catering corps.”
“You’ll have to come back and do a test on a day when you’re free”, he said finally
“Would it be possible for me to do it here now?” I asked.
“Yes indeed if that’s what you want to do,”
They put me in a separate room where two older people were doing other exams. A paper was put in front of me and I had two and a half hours to do it. There were varied questions testing maths, English and decision making skills. I had no trouble answering any of them because of the first-aid-in-English lessons I had done at Fransiscan Junior School. I checked over and over the answers until the time was up and they collected the paper. They told me to come back for the result after lunch.
After a sandwich and a cup of tea with Mr Bicknell, we returned and went in to see the officers. This time, a new colonel joined them.
“Do you know how well you’ve done?” he asked me.
“Yes, because I got all the questions right,” I said. They looked at each other.
“Well, you’ve done very well indeed, in fact, so well that you’re too good for the army catering corps. We thought you might like to join the Boys’ Squadron Royal Armoured Corps in Dorset. It’s the training school for boys of your age to get into the cavalry, which is all about tanks and wireless and you’ll have the opportunity to learn many different trades which your result shows you have the ability to do.”
“What was the exact mark I got for the exam, then, sir?” I asked.
“It was 98%,” he said,
“But if I got all the questions right, why is it 98%? It should be a hundred.” I politely protested.
“Well you did make a couple of slight errors,” he replied.
“Please can you tell me what the mistakes were?” I got no answer to my question, but they stood up.
“Congratulations! You’ll be hearing from us in due course with full details of how to get to Dorset. We just need your next of kin to sign the form.”
I had a problem since I had no next of kin, parent or guardian present at the interview.
“Can I take away the form and get my guardian to sign it?” I asked. They said I could.
On the way home, I told Mr Bicknell that I was going to forge the signature of Pat Munroe as my guardian,
“None of the Munroes are available in the country to sign for me, and even if they were, they’ll probably refuse to agree to me going in the army.” I explained.
“I don’t blame you, Joe,” said Mr Bicknell, “but you’ll be in big trouble when the army find out, as they undoubtedly will.”
I had to return to Acton on my own for a final interview before leaving for Wool. The colonel told me they had checked through my documents, seen my school reference, and wanted to know why I lied about my age. I told them the truth about my circumstances and why I was desperate to join. They understood and told me that all my documents had been prepared with my true age on them but they needed my birth certificate. I didn’t know where it was, so had to contact mum Munroe to ask her for it. I eventually received it in the post along with my British Guiana passport. I was officially accepted at Boys’ Squadron Royal Armoured Corps and was told it was the best. I would like all the sport that I would do there and as long as I worked hard, I would do well.
The Bicknells were very pleased for me. Within two weeks, I received a travel warrant which I exchanged at the railway station for a ticket to Wool in Dorset. In my letter, I was told to bring nothing except the clothes I was wearing and my washing kit. I was very excited and couldn’t wait for the day to come. Everyone had told me that Dorset was very beautiful and by the sea.
During the summer while waiting for my day of departure to Dorset and a new career in the army, Mick Bicknell and some of my Post Office friends decided to go to Butlins at Clacton for a week’s holiday. Wearing our drainpipe trousers, Slim Jim ties, cut away collars, blue suede shoes and Davy Crocket hats, we burst in on the Clacton scene. We took over the talent shows, I took on the role of compere in return for some discount on meals and drinks. We dominated the sports competitions, the dances and the funfair. Mary Mudd, the female singer of the resident band The Mudlarks, asked me to go for a walk with her, which pleased me, even though the boys all laughed and teased me.
We all had a good carefree time. At the end of it all, we returned to our working lives, but mine was to take me in a new and exciting direction. The day came and I travelled down alone to Wool station, where an army truck full of boys from all over the country was waiting for me.
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