17th September

A memorable date, for me at least, over all the last fifty-seven years. On that day at the end of the 1950s I started the morning as Jonnie Tolson, aka Chip, with breakfast at my parent’s house before my father took me to Bridgwater station. I caught the train to Bristol, changed for Shrewsbury, and then for Oswestry. While I saw no young men of my own age on the first train, there were some on the train to Shrewsbury and a multitude on the train to Oswestry.

We were met on the platform by smartly dressed Army Sergeants with the greeting ‘Good Day, Gentlemen, please make your way to the busses’. The atmosphere changed as the buses turned in through the gates of 17 Training Regiment, Royal Artillery. ‘Get your bloody backsides off those seats and get fell in in three ranks.’

I was no longer Jonnie Tolson, I was 23..17.., Gunner Tolson, J. I have not given my number in full, the eight digit number is fixed in my mind, but used today in various combinations on ubiquitous shopping passwords. It was the start of two years of National Service.

Many young men were hit hard by it, some had never been away from their homes, some were married, a few had their own children, many worked for a living. These were the days of catch up when many who had been exempt were being rounded up, our ages ranged from 19 to even a few, professionally qualified, of 25.

I was fortunate having been to boarding schools, in the Cadet Corps, a student in London, I was happy with my lot. My only salaried employment had been a summer student job on the building of Hinkley Point (A) nuclear power station. Others were suffering chronic homesickness. We all muddled along as much as we could, helping each other with the mindless tasks of cutting off GS buttons from greatcoats to replace them with RA buttons and the competitive task of ‘bulling’ boots. The Army was not unaware of the chronic suffering of a few, a very small few. They were sent home in the first two weeks with an exemption.

My beautiful picture

So began two years during which I came of age and learnt much, most of it spent in West Germany waiting for Soviet tanks to roll over the border.

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