Sunday, 12 May 2013

Pulling the Plug

Last Friday, I found Ann Pennyfeather.

I try not to collect people. It seems to me that we have a past for a reason: many and much needs to stay there... . It's an effort for me to accept this , as it means allowing some - even very dear - people, who need to, to leave my stage. But there it is.

It was a struggle sometimes to watch each of my three beautiful, amazing daughters, in turn, gently untie the apron strings and step confidently forward into her own future, but when I visit them in their own homes, and see for myself the lives they are building, I am perfectly content.

Eight weeks before I got married, I went on Teaching Practice to a top-secret US Army facility near Harrogate in Yorkshire. The intelligence gathering station at Menwith Hill. Diane and I weren't told what it was, of course: we kind of guessed it from the acres of radio masts in the vicinity. We were there to work in the US Army School that operated on the base. Ann Pennyfeather was my ' Master Teacher', a highly qualified and experienced 4/5 th Grade teacher who had volunteered to take me under her wing and let me loose on her class.

I have thought of Ann often in the years since we parted. She was a good teacher, and a great mentor, and she helped to shape the teacher I was to become. I have, occasionally, searched for her before, and tried again, without much hope of success. To to my delight, her name popped up, and I contacted her. So Ann and I have been reunited, if briefly, and I was able to tell her, what I have just told you.

I was getting married, so the many eligible single young US intelligence personnel on the base were of no interest to me. This was not the case for Diane, who now, I guess, resides in Maryland. Still, I hope, happily married to the guy she met back in '71.

It was her love-life that landed me in hot water, and ruined my reputation on the base. Let me explain.

We were given the status of 'Bachelor Officers' and billeted in a large and comfortable apartment in Bachelor Officer Quarters, where, naturally enough, we occasionally bumped into other Bachelor Officers. Not as often as you might think though, for the ghostly operations on the base meant that the men worked three shifts, and were not generally around when we were.

We met Chuck in the laundry. It was evident from the first that Di and he had hit it off, and within a day or so, Di had arranged to go on a date. Wary of a tete a tete, she asked me to make up a foursome with Chuck's friend Tom. Both men owned two-seater sports cars. Tom's was a Ford Mustang, I remember. The foursome therefore travelled as two twosomes, which is where the trouble started. Di and her beau left the pub where we ate supper, first, and by the time I returned to our apartment, Di had locked me out.

The only other person I knew on the base was Tom (Ann lived in Harrowgate) so I threw myself on his mercy.

Tom was the perfect gentleman. He made me a bed on his sofa, where I slept like a baby. The next morning, he offered to take me to the Commissary for breakfast. I was grateful for his generosity, a gratitude that was quickly dispelled when Diane later told me that Tom had slept with every woman on the base who would have him, and he displayed his conquests by ... Taking them to breakfast. He was sent home, so rumour has it, for attempting to seduce the Commander's wife.

I ought to explain that I was at Menwith Hill because I 'did' American Studies at College. Part of the course was the hands-on experience of the USA that its Air Force bases could provide. I volunteered for Menwith Hill, most of my fellow-students headed for the huge bases in Suffolk. Menwith Hill was unique - technically an army base, it's operatives were civilians and it was 'policed' not by soldiers, but by the Yorkshire Constabulary. This is no longer the case. These are harsher times.

Strict instructions were given by our tutors that we were not to ask the personnel ' What do you do?' Diane, to my horror, took no notice.

Chuck beckoned us closer, looking around to make sure he couldn't be overheard:

" You hear the cars drive by your windows at all hours?"

" Yes, " Eagerly, eyes like saucers.

"Well, " Continues Chuck, conspiratorially, " We drive deep, deep underground... "

Our breath comes faster... . We are hooked.

"Our destination is a huge cave a mile under the moor. A mile.."

Our tongues are hanging out.

"In the cave there is a huge lake. Biggest lake you ever did see...."

Diane and I exchange glances, enrapt.

"Five hundred of us sit all round the lake, in shifts. guarding it.' Chuck lowers his voice to the softest whisper.

"Guarding it, BECAUSE.. " ( a little louder) " in the middle of the lake is a giant plug, and if anyone pulled it out, England would sink below the waves!"

It took a good fifteen seconds before it dawned on us that we'd been had. But it's a good story, which is why I'm telling it to you now - and guess what? For all I know, it might even be true.

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