On my first day at Ashburton Secondary Modern school I was a little apprehensive to say the least. As I entered the school grounds there were literally hundreds of pupils of all shapes and sizes who went around in big gangs. They all seemed to know one another and chattered away like huge flocks of sparrows. I was used to a dozen or so and the sheer numbers were daunting. Also, and most intriguingly, roughly half of them were girls!
The arrangements for me attending this school must have be rushed as at that point I did not possess the school uniform of navy blue blazer with the school badge on the breast pocket and grey trousers. I had to turn up in my previous uniform which consisted of a plain grey worsted suit. Another culture shock came at registration when I was asked to stand up and was introduced to the class and subsequently vilified by the teacher for not wearing the correct uniform.
"You must wear school uniform." he said "Just because you have come from a private school you can't come here dressed like Little Lord Fauntleroy."
That set everybody in the class giggling, which resulted in my face burning red hot. Despite my embarrassment he did me a favour really. I immediately became noticed by half the class as something out of the ordinary and over the next three years I enjoyed more than my fair share of attention from all those wonderful girls - especially as I didn't talk with a Devonshire accent.
The other half saw me as a threat, I suppose due to testosterone, because soon I had to prove myself and was involved in many a fracas. However, it was not long before I ended up on top of the heap, helped by previous experiences of controlling pain, not showing fear and refusing to back down. Like life in general, you make friends with some people and with others you don't like you either avoid or try to dominate in the one-upmanship stakes.
My first and probably my worst chat up line: In those days before the abundance of the Biro we all used fountain pens and each desk was equipped with an ink well. The best looking girl in the whole year, Katrina Stafford, was sitting at the desk a couple of rows behind me so I got up, walked back to her desk and asked if I could fill up my pen in her well as mine was dry - yes I know, a peach isn’t it. She, smiling, said yes and whilst filling my pen I asked her if we could go out together. In all fairness to her she put me down lightly and said that she preferred to go out with older boys with more experience. Major embarrassment but at least my pen was full and not too many of the class had heard the exchange. In my defense I was only twelve years old at the time and I did improve after that.
What also helped was my introduction, during our sports periods, to rugby football. The sports master must have seen something in me as soon, I was in the school team, as a prop forward believe it or not. Even back in those days props were big beefy chaps with little or no neck. Not by any stretch of the imagination was I like that. I think they must have been short of somebody to play that position. I enjoyed playing in the front row of the scrum as I was relatively strong for my age and size and it was encouraged then to do everything in your power to disrupt the opposition. To me it was like legalized violence and I soon got a reputation for being somewhat aggressive. As a result I became a little feared by the boys and sought after by the girls.
At the time, one of the most significant changes was what I was called. In my previous school the practice of referring to pupils by their surname was normal. If there were two of the same name, as my brother and I, then major and minor were used to differentiate. Obviously, I was Smith minor and my brother was Smith major. Not a bad system but somewhat impersonal. It gets a little complicated as at one time in Milton Lodge we had four Kaufmanns. Lance, Percival, Oliver and Nicholas. I believe they were referred to as Kaufmann maximus, major, minor and minimus. It was all a little silly really and there was no way that system would have been used in a secondary modern school in Devon. I cannot remember what the teachers called me, just Smith I guess, I didn't take a great deal of notice of them anyway, but to most of my classmates I was just Smiffy whether they liked me or not.
Another significant change was the new found freedom and educationally this was to be my downfall. To have lived as a ‘border’ and be educated by fear in very small single sex classes achieved a certain amount of concentration and learning albeit a little Dickensian. Then to be suddenly thrown into a thirty plus classroom, half of whom are of the opposite sex, at a time in your life when sap is starting to rise, was just too much for me. I think, at that point, I was out of control. But boy did I have a great time. This was not to say that I ever managed to have my wicked way with any of those gorgeous creatures but I was nothing if not tenacious and mostly I was prepared for the big event. This took the form of always carrying a condom in my wallet. For years I carried that same ‘frenchie’, as they were then referred to in Devon, and never got to use it. When I finally threw it away, it had to be way past it’s use by date, there was a circular imprint of it in my wallet - unused and unloved. I finally had to throw the wallet away, much later, as it earned mistrust of any potential girl friend and also it provoked a few ribald comments when paying for a round of drinks in a pub.
The only lessons in which I paid any attention were sport. I took an interest in rugby, obviously, gymnastics and athletics but try as I might I could never master the finesse required for football (soccer). My idea of tackling for the ball was to run into the opposite player and knock him down. That did not go down too well. I think I must have been last in the queue for nifty footwork.
Another activity I really enjoyed was Murderball. This game was usually played at the end of a PE lesson whereby two teams of about twenty boys on opposite sides of the gym were required to get a heavy medicine ball from one end to the other. The other team had to stop you. No rules! This could be brutal but I took to it like a duck to water.
With regard to any of the academic instruction I received I am having trouble remembering anything that I learnt during that period. I cannot remember doing any homework although I suppose I must have. I can remember standing up to a particularly strict English teacher when he kept picking on me, probably justifiably as I must have been an irritating arse. This, of course, enhanced my reputation with both sexes of my classmates but for different reasons. What I did learn in that small South Devonshire school and town was a comprehensive repertoire of Anglo Saxon expletives which held me in good stead in later years in my military career. Certainly much more useful than Latin!
I am probably giving the impression that I was some kind lecherous sex maniac for the three years I spent at that school. That may well be true but I also enjoyed my freedom in other ways. There was a gang of us lads always up to something but I had one close friend, ‘Titch’ Porter, and we were inseparable. His father had been in the Parachute Regiment at Arnhem during the war where he was wounded in the head. The scar of where a metal plate had been put in to repair the damage was always visible as he was bald. He was a nice enough man and seemed well adjusted and happy with his life. Titch was very much like him and in many ways and we spent a lot of time together.
Back in those days youngsters were allowed to buy fireworks over the counter, which were generally on sale every year around Guy Fawkes Night on 5th November. Often Titch and I used to go out into the countryside and ‘hang out’ just doing stuff, riding our bikes around muddy fields and practicing skidding, climbing trees, going in the river Ash and tickle for trout and all that sort of boy stuff. One day, as we were by a stream, we decided to build a dam out of sticks and mud. Very successful it was too. Then for a bit of excitement we decided to buy a few boxes of bangers and other fireworks to blow it all up. We even doctored a few of the fireworks to create a better explosion. Why did we get so much satisfaction from watching that dam disintegrate and throw clay and debris high into the air followed by the flood of water heading back down the dried up stream? I don’t know but we did. It was like our own version of the Dam Busters.
We also used to go regularly to the local authority tip where we would hunt around for old bicycle parts or prams’ wheels. The bits of bicycle were used to create whole ones that were usable and on one occasion we found the frame of an old shop or butcher’s bicycle, you know the ones with a big metal carrier in the front. Well, we put some wheels on it and a chain and got it all working. To spice things up a bit we also put saddles on each side of the metal basket. Then with me pedaling and Titch and another mate balancing on the front seats we would set off on our travels, seeing how fast we dared go down hills with absolutely no chance of stopping if, per chance, we met a car coming the other way. Those guys in the front had a lot more guts than me. I am sure if we had hit anything they would have protected me from any impact. The pram wheels were used as the basis for a cart which we used to race down the steepest hills that we could find also regardless of traffic.
As I said previously, I was out of control which I think was natural considering where I had come from. As I look back on that period I think; yes, I was having the time of my life, but I could not wait to leave school. I had no idea what I wanted to do but I had had enough and wanted more, as well as to get on with my life. I was being encouraged to stay on at school and study for what were GCEs then but I was having none of it. I subsequently left as soon as I could at the age of fifteen, academically uneducated, naïve, obnoxious, aggressive, fit and strong. What else could I do – I joined the army as a boy soldier.