During the next year, Jimmy joined the Army and was soon stationed in Germany. I was so proud, I couldn’t wait to let everyone know. School provided a captive audience. Given the opportunity, news of my cousin could be insinuated into any conversation. The subject in question was immaterial. For example:
‘Right, class, today we are going to start a new topic in Geography. I’ll give you a clue. If I said ‘maple leaf’ and ‘Mountie’, what country am I thinking of?’
A host of waving hands shot into the air.
‘Beryl?….. Yes, that’s right. Canada. Well done….So what exactly is a Mountie? Yes, Geoffrey?’
‘They’re like the police. But they’re on horses, and they chase robbers on them.’
‘Miss, they wear hats like a Scout and have red coats on. And, Miss, I’ve got an Airfix model of a Mountie at home, Miss. Shall I bring it in, Miss?’
‘Ooh, yes please, Colin….Yes, class, they’re like a mounted police force….Keith, you still have your hand up.’
‘Miss, my cousin’s in the army, Miss. And that’s like the Mounties, Miss. He chases Russians.’
‘Well, yes, that’s true I suppose.’
‘He’s in West Germany and that’s got mountains in it, Miss.’
‘There certainly are, but let’s just think about Canada for today, shall we?’
Or later, standing next to the playground tuck-shop (an old desk with a cardboard box on top which contained Wagon Wheels and 1d packets of broken crisps).
‘My Uncle Baz has just crashed his car. The steering wheel came off in his hand. He went into a ditch. My dad sez the car’s a write-off.’
‘They don’t have steering wheels in tanks. They have a lever. I know ‘cos my cousin Jimmy’s in the army and he drives a tank.’
I even found myself listening for news of my cousin on ‘Forces Family Favourites’ which always provided a background accompaniment to the roast at Sunday lunchtimes (or dinners, as we called them). Not that I ever heard him mentioned, but at least I finally understood what B.F.P.O. stood for.
When my dad informed me that Jimmy had been thrown out of the army, I was stunned. At first, I couldn’t bring myself to believe it. As far as I was concerned, he was still leading the front line in countless Commie bashing skirmishes on the East German border. Gradually, however, I was able to accommodate such a bombshell by persuading myself that Jimmy had clearly been a victim of military injustice, a conspiracy so monstrous that in all likelihood it had been perpetrated by the Yanks, or more specifically, the C.I.A. It had got to be an inside job. Whatever the case, he had not been to blame.
Once a hero, always a hero.
Jimmy was the first of my holy trinity. The second was Captain Joshua Slocum. Never heard of him? Well, let me tell you that he was the first man to circumnavigate the globe single-handed. We listened to his story on the Schools’ Broadcast in Miss Bush’s class and, by the end of the six-part serial, I had committed to memory every single fact that had been revealed about this intrepid mariner. ‘Born in Nova Scotia in 1844 to a farming family, Joshua spent his boyhood holidays in and out of small boats, but, like many other sailors, he never learned to swim…... (Two hours later). …In 1895, at the age of fifty one, he set off from Boston in the 35-foot ‘Spray’, a sloop he had found derelict in a field and had completely rebuilt, returning three years later, becoming the first man to sail alone around the world…..(Aware of the stifled yawns and one or two snores from the back row)….He continued sailing in the tiny craft for many years, until in 1909 he set out on another hazardous trip, aiming to reach the mouth of the Orinoco River in South America; the ‘Spray’ was never seen again’…..(A smattering of applause and huge sighs of relief). Trust me, this man is a real hero. You can read his own account of his historic voyage in ‘Sailing Alone Around The World’ which was first published in 1900.
Finally, the Holy Ghost of my trinity was Jim Hines of the U.S.A., the Olympic 100m Champion at the Mexico City Games in 1968. I saw the race on the television. Asked why he wore sunglasses while he was sprinting, he replied:
‘These ain’t sunglasses, these are re-entry shields.’
Perhaps the coolest answer in the history of sport.
As for Jimmy, he suddenly turned up, out of the blue, in Boston, two years after his expulsion from the army. It was a Wednesday lunchtime and I had just turned the corner into Kings Way when the sight of a lorry outside our front gate caused me to slow my bike down to a crawl. Intrigued, I free-wheeled into the drive, quietly leaned my bike against the garage and raced across to the kitchen window. Peering through into the back room, I could see my mum and dad in the middle of ripping the cellophane off some brand-new dining room chairs. (They looked too modern for our house. The legs angled back like a flamingo’s and were stained orange-brown while the back rests and seats were covered in matt-black plastic). My mum looked up and beckoned me in. As I entered the kitchen, I could smell rollie smoke and hear my dad’s laughter and an unfamiliar, southern voice. My mum greeted me with a broad grin and tugged me into the back room.
‘Now who do you think has paid us a visit, Keith? It’s your cousin, Jimmy. Isn’t it a lovely surprise?’
I looked over at Jimmy and smiled. Dressed in a white t-shirt and black jeans, he was leaning with both elbows on the dining table, a thin rollie in one hand and a cup of tea clasped in the other. He was using the saucer as an ash-tray.
‘Awight, Keef? Or shad it be ‘Teef’?’
My mum and dad laughed as if they had just heard the world’s funniest joke. I tried to join in but all I could muster was a series of unconvincing pants. I was conscious of my grammar school blazer and felt out of place. I loosened my tie in an effort to look casual.
Jimmy was with us for half an hour. It was only after he had left that I discovered the chairs were a present and had, quite literally, fallen off the back of his lorry.
‘Do you mean to say that……?’
My mum was quick to cut me off.
‘Well, put it this way, Keith, we didn’t have to pay for them. Now you just keep quiet about this.’
‘So you’ve just received…..’
My dad cut in this time.
‘Jimmy sez they won’t be missed. He sez they’re a surplus batch. They’re not on the records.’
I could see that he was trying to convince himself and that I wasn’t helping him in his moral quandary.
I decided not to labour the point. This was certainly a turn up for the books. My parents involved in dodgy dealings? Who would have thought it? Uppermost in my mind, however, was my cousin’s role in the subterfuge. He was like Robin Hood – yes, that was it – cocking a snook at his employers while redistributing the nation’s wealth into the bargain. He was a champion of the working class. No wonder they had thrown him out of the army. I could imagine widowed, old ladies all over the land happily polishing brand-new dining room furniture which Jimmy had left for them, neatly stacked outside their back doors. There would have been a note, of course, something suitably Zoro-like and mysterious.
‘Dinner is served. J.’